I hate to kick the season off with such a somber tone, so hopefully all this will be for naught...but I'm a little worried.
There’s a lot of optimism in Cardinals’ camp and among the Cards’ faithful – when isn’t there? – and maybe it’s with good reason. The team just traded for and signed elite 1B Paul Goldschmidt to an extension. The team returns 2 guys who finished toward the top of the Rookie of the Year race. Miles Mikolas turned into an outstanding starting pitcher and then signed an extension to remain with the team. It’s the team’s first camp with Mike Shildt at the helm. There are a lot of good vibes surrounding the team in Jupiter.
But everything’s not roses and candy with the team. There are some dangerous warning signs around the team. For one thing, last October I would have bet that Marcell Ozuna was going to have a big year in 2019. He was injured throughout 2018, didn’t play to the level he did the year before, was going to have surgery to fix his shoulder issues, and would be heading into a contract year. Why wouldn’t he have a big year?
Well, it turns out that his shoulder was still barking when he got to spring training and only returned to left field a few days ago. He has slugged .486 in 37 spring training AB’s so maybe everything’s going to be ok but if those shoulder issues persist, he could spend considerable time ineffective, on the injured list, or both.
It bothers me that the team’s 2 best arms – 2 guys who have always been starters – are ticketed for the bullpen and even that is not assured until Carlos Martinez is able to pitch again. CMart battled injuries last season but he’s still the team’s best pitcher and, in an ideal world, should be starting on Opening Day. After dealing with some shoulder pain, he’s only now beginning to throw. They’re hoping for a return sometime in May which means probably at least 6 weeks before the team gets its best pitcher. Now, there’s no doubt in my mind that Reyes and Martinez can be dominant relief pieces, but it also means that they’re going to provide the team about 150 fewer innings in this role.
Meanwhile, taking Reyes’s and Martinez’s spots in the rotation are…wait for it…Adam Wainwright and Dakota Hudson. Wainwright is 37 years old and hasn’t even been an average major league pitcher since 2016. He threw all of 40.1 innings in 2018. Hudson may turn out to be a good young pitcher but while he’s notable for his extreme ability to get ground balls, his problem last year was the fact that he walked almost as many as he struck out. I’m old enough to remember when Tony LaRussa thought he could turn Braden Looper into an average major league starter. Looper was a guy with a similar profile to Hudson.
Maybe there’s something to the idea that it’s ok to have weaker pitchers in the rotation and stronger pitchers in the bullpen if you can more strategically employ those relievers. The Brewers nearly made the World Series last season with a mediocre (at best) rotation and a dominant bullpen. Maybe the Cardinals are trying to borrow a page from that script but, if it doesn’t work, people will rightly wonder why Wainwright and Hudson got so many innings and Reyes and Martinez got so few.
Harrison Bader had a great rookie season but there are a lot of red flags about his ability to hit at the major league level. He did have a solid .327 wOBA in 2018 but his xwOBA was just .283. That means that his results last year should have been more like Greg Garcia’s than they were. He’s got a lot of swing-and-miss in his game that he’s going to have to improve upon going forward. He’s not going to be able to get by with a 29% K rate. If he goes through a sophomore slump, or if his 2019 results look a lot more like his 2018 expected results, and if his defense is only good instead of the unbelievable it was last year, he becomes a 1-1.5 WAR player instead of the 3.5 WAR player he was last season.
Matt Carpenter was spectacular at the plate for most of 2018 and is undoubtedly one of the most underrated Cardinals ever. There are so many people out there who still fail to recognize how good he has become. Still, the guy is 33 and isn’t going to be a 4-win player forever. Nick Gerli over at Pitcher List recently expressed concern about Carpenter going forward by arguing that pitchers are giving Carpenter too many fastballs to hit. His point was that Carpenter is fantastic on fastballs and not very good on off-speed pitches and that most hitters of Carpenter’s caliber get a lot fewer fastballs than he does. If pitchers start to figure this out and start throwing him more curves and sliders, his decline could begin sooner rather than later.
The Cards’ decision to stay away from the Bryce Harper negotiations indicated that they’re putting a lot of stock in the idea of a Dexter Fowler rebound. Like Carpenter, though, Fowler’s not getting any younger. In fact, as much as we talk about the Cards’ young players, they’re expecting a lot of production from guys on the wrong side of 30 (Fowler, Goldschmidt, Molina, Mikolas, Carpenter, Wainwright). I don’t put a lot of stock in spring training stats and I, too, am hopeful of a Fowler rebound but he does just have a .571 OPS this spring. If Fowler does struggle, how long will it be before Shildt pulls the plug on the experiment?
If Fowler does struggle, right field then will become the domain of either/both Tyler O’Neill or Jose Martinez. O’Neill hits bombs, of course, but has otherwise had a lot of trouble making contact at the major league level. Last year he had a 40% K rate and just a 5% BB rate. That’s…bad. New hitting coach Jeff Albert was brought in specifically to improve the team’s strikeout and walk rates and it’s been assumed that O’Neill is one of his primary pupils but we’ll have to wait and see how that works. Martinez, on the other hand, can hit but is just abominable defensively. If he has to make 100+ starts in the outfield, things could get ugly.
As mentioned above, the team is expecting a lot of production from guys on the wrong side of 30. What happens when Molina finally breaks down for good? Miles Mikolas has 1 good year in the majors and isn’t known for his ability to throw the ball past hitters. What if a lot more of those ground balls find holes this season? Michael Wacha had a 3.20 ERA last year but his FIP was about a run higher and even then he only threw 84 innings. In fact, Wacha has only twice thrown enough innings to qualify for the ERA title. Even with all his potential and all the optimism toward him over the years, he’s only ever had 1 3 fWAR season. What if Andrew Miller’s injuries aren’t behind him?
The 2 biggest reasons why teams that emerge from spring training with a lot of optimism don’t reach their goals during the regular season are injuries and regression. The Cards also won’t be helped by one of the toughest schedules in the big leagues as a result of being in the majors’ toughest division. There just are no lightweights in the NL Central for the team to beat up on. If the older guys finally start showing signs of age and the young guys either don’t take that next step forward or, in Bader’s case, take a step backward, this team could be in trouble.
The good news is that I would think that a team that is built more along the stars-and-scrubs mold is more likely to collapse completely than one like the Cardinals that seems to have a lot of average to slightly-above-average players. I would think that the Cardinals’ floor is a lot higher than a lot of teams so I can’t really foresee a scenario where this team loses 100. But I could see a scenario where the team finishes below .500. I don’t think it’s likely – I see the Cardinals as an 86-88 win team right now – but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility to see them winning 76-78 if everything goes to crap.
I love opening day and the beginning of the season and am glad that the regular season is finally here but it’s silly to think there aren’t some major question marks for the Cardinals going into the 2019 season.
Thanks to you all for reading and thanks to the fabulous @cardinalsgifs for the great cover pic.