The Winter Meetings are winding down in San Diego and the Cardinals have barely participated so the focus here is going to be elsewhere. Mainly, the 2019 season. All things considered it was a successful year. The Cardinals both won the NL Central and returned to the postseason for the first time since 2015, and they made a return trip to the NLCS for the first time since 2014 - the tenth time since 2000 they've been one of the last four standing. This really is the golden age for the franchise.
Consternation among the fanbase remains, however, because as of right now the lineup is likely worse heading into 2020 with the presumed departure of Marcell Ozuna and the failure (so far, at least) to acquire a signature bat as a means to compensate. That the Cardinals didn't even feign interest in the several marquee free agents who were available this past week hasn't helped either. For all we know 2019 will be an outlier, the last hurrah for Molina, Wainwright, and company, and that's particularly frustrating given that the Cubs and Brewers seem content to kick the can down the road for the time being. The NL Central is possibly teed up for another 2009-2015-type run and the suits don't seem as excited about that prospect as the fans.
In light of that uncertainty, let's ignore 2020 for now because we're running out of time in which that will even be possible. So back to 2019 we go. Last January I noted that I wanted to see three questionably important things from the Cardinals in 2019:
1) A player finish with 38 or 40 home runs (no Cardinal has ever done this);
2) A player swipe at least 30 bases (no Cardinal has done this since 2003); and
3) A pitcher strikeout at least 220 batters (nada since 1970).
So how'd they do?
Regarding #1, they'll have to try again in 2020. Paul Goldschmidt led the team with 34 home runs, and no one else hit more than 30. The 38 and 40 white whale swims on. The Dodgers and the Marlins are the only other teams in the National League without a player with a 38-home run season in their history. The Brewers, Diamondbacks, Marlins, and Nationals are the only other NL teams who can say the same about a 40-home run season. You never want to be on two or more different lists with the Marlins so it would serve Goldschmidt well to hit just a few more dingers next year.
With regard to stolen bases, Kolten Wong swiped 24 bags (in 28 attempts), and after that no one else came close (Tommy Edman finished second on the team with 15 stolen bases in 16 attempts). Aesthetically speaking, that's a shame, I suppose, but only eight players in all of baseball stole at least 30 bases and the league leader topped out at 46 (say hello to Mallex Smith), so this is probably not the biggest of deals, unlike, say, that 38 or 40 home runs thing. And the Cardinals as most know were a good base running team in 2019, and were quite effective at stealing bases. No NL team stole more bases than they did, and they did it at an 80 percent clip so we'll let this one slide.
Lastly, the striking out at least 220 batters thing. Even pre and post-Dave Duncan the Cardinals seem to operate with a lot of Dave Duncan-y types. Guys who pitch to contact, who throw a lot of sinkers and don't strike a lot of guys out. Dakota Hudson notwithstanding, that pitching style isn't quite as in vogue as it used to be, and heavy fastball/slider guys who induce whiffs now rule the day. Jack Flaherty is a pretty good avatar for this prototype.
And on the strength of a dominant second half - 0.91 ERA, 34 percent K-rate, in case you forgot - Flaherty did it, he struck out 231 batters in 2019. That was only sixth best in the NL, but the most by any Cardinals pitcher not named Bob Gibson since the Cardinals joined the league in 1892. (Gibson had seven seasons of 220+ strikeouts.). Not surprising given the era, Flaherty also had the highest K% (29.9%) ever for a Cardinals pitcher who threw at least 150 innings. He just edged out 2018 Jack Flaherty. Given he's only entering his age-24 season, we should all be excited for 2020 Jack Flaherty.
And that's possibly why the biggest news concerning the Cardinals this week at the Winter Meetings had to do with a couple of non-Cardinals. Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg secured huge, albeit deserving, contracts from the Yankees and Nationals, respectively, and we can probably assume that Flaherty, who is first eligible for arbitration in 2021, is going to command a very big payday in the near future. The Cardinals didn't do Flaherty any favors before last season with regard to his salary, but he's going to eventually get paid one way or another. We're all aware that the lifespan of a pitcher can be a fickle thing and that the Cardinals are proud of their recent success with developing pitchers, but considering Flaherty's age, opening the wallet in an attempt to buy out his arbitration years and lock up his prime would be a good idea. Although given that Cole is set to make about $35 million a year over the course of the next decade, I would not blame Flaherty if he prefers to wait for free agency.
Whatever the case, Flaherty came though in 2019 and I will have to think of something else to add to the meaningless wish list for 2020. Look for that soon.