I write the Cardinals season preview every year for the baseball blog Banished to the Pen. It's the one thing I look most forward to because it's an opportunity to bring myself up to speed on the team I'll be watching every night for the next six months. Also, it means baseball is back, and almost everyone feels good about their team in March. And those who don't are still happy to have this sport and their pre-ordained losing team back for at least some sort of daily distraction.
Here's the thing about season previews though: They become stale pretty quickly. Players get hurt. False narratives quickly get exposed. What made sense in March might not even be applicable in May. By June most previews are nonsense.
After yesterday's 6-3 loss to the Cincinnati Reds, the 2018 Cardinals have now played 63 games. That's not even 40 percent of the season, but it's a more than a large enough sample to identify unfortunate moments from a season preview. So with that, and with the benefit of hindsight, here are the dumbest things I wrote in my 2018 Cardinals season preview.
But is it reasonably expected for this team to be more fundamentally sound? Can they be expected to run into fewer outs on the bases? (To wit: The Cardinals were second worst in this category in the National League in 2017.) Can they be expected to not blow so many damn late leads? (To wit: The Cardinals would have been 12 games over .500 last season had games ended after the 8th inning. They were five games under .500 in one-run games, too.) Can it be expected that a spliced video of all of the team’s miscues to the tune of a one-hit wonder from the ’90s will not be one of the highlights of their season? (To wit: This.) Can they be expected to win enough to make the Wild Card game? Well, sure. (Emphasis added.)
Oh, for sure, man.
Why I or anyone thought this team would be better at running the bases is beyond me. The roster isn't that different from 2017, and Mike Matheny - the person who has never done anything but condone an aggressive approach on the bases, lineup construction be damned - is still at the helm. According to Joe Sheehan's newsletter, the Cardinals have made the sixth most outs on the bases as of last Thursday. Their 59 percent stolen base success rate is the worst for any team silly enough to try it at least 30 times.
As for the bullpen, I think we all know it has been bad, and they have blown their share of late leads. If games this season ended after the 6th inning, the Cardinals would be nine games over .500. Not a huge difference from their actual seven games over .500, but so far the pen has the third worst ERA in the National League, and the second worst FIP and wins above replacement. We're probably lucky the damage hasn't been worse. (The Cardinals do have a 10-8 record in one-run games so there is that.)
Paragraph 10 [on the lineup]
Of the top three [Carpenter, Pham, Fowler], Dexter Fowler’s .363 OBP in 2017 was the worst of the bunch so if Ozuna is penciled into that cleanup spot like a lot of us assume, expect him to get plenty of 1st inning at-bats.
Here's how the Cardinals first three spots in the lineup have done by OBP:
Not terrible, but not as good as expected. And Marcell Ozuna only has a 97 wRC+ batting cleanup this season. Meanwhile, Dexter Fowler has been one of the worst position players so far this season and may have a hard time finding his way back into the top of the lineup.
Paragraph 12 [on Carlos Martínez's durability]
Martínez isn’t Clayton Kershaw, but he’s durable – he’s thrown the seventh most innings in the NL since 2015 – and has....
Let's just stop right there. Never, ever, EVER call a pitcher durable - especially your ace - even if he has been sort of durable up to that point. Pitchers get hurt all the time. Everyone knows this. Why would I write that? I dunno.
Of course, Martínez was cruising through the first month of the season before hitting the DL in mid-May with a lat issue, and since his return he hasn't looked great. Twelve walks in less than eight innings pitched. Seven earned runs, too.
Paragraph 13 [on the starting rotation]
The fluidity of two through five in the rotation is hard to ignore. I don’t really know who #2 is, I don’t know who #3 is. If Miles Mikolas ends up the fourth best pitcher on this staff then what does that say of Adam Wainwright. And if it’s Wainwright, then what does that say of Mikolas?
I don't even know what this means. The idea, I guess, was that if Mikolas was worse than Wainwright then that meant the Cardinals took a gamble on a pitcher banished to Japan while proven free agent pitchers were available. If Wainwright was worse than Mikolas then that meant that Wainwright was probably done. And you know what, Wainwright is probably done.
But I badly underestimated Mikolas. I think most of us did. At the very least, few expected him to be one of the best pitchers in the NL where he ranks in the top ten in ERA, FIP, and WAR for starters, aided by the lowest walk rate in the league and it's not really close. There's a reason why he was coveted by more than just the Cardinals this offseason.
Paragraph 14 [on the Cardinals not chasing big free agent pitchers]
And how did the Cardinals get here when they’re flush with cash, while proven pitchers Jake Arrieta, Lance Lynn, and Alex Cobb remain unsigned, and after Yu Darvish signed with the Cubs without a hint of protest from the division-mate best suited to challenge them?
Jake Arrieta signed for a decent amount of money ($115 million, including $40 million worth of team options in 2021 and 2022), and so far he's been good. The other signings range from "undetermined but not off to the best start" (Yu Darvish), to not good at all (Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb), although I should note that Lynn has thrown four straight quality starts. Make of that stat what you will.
Paragraph 16 [on the bullpen]
Bullpens should never get too much ink in March, but the club did the responsible thing and didn’t splurge on a Wade Davis or Greg Holland.
Oh my God.
Paragraph 18 [on the return of coach José Oquendo]
The good news, however, is that Jose Oquendo has returned to the club after a two-year absence. Normally, there’s no reason to fuss over a third base coach and doing so now might be a bit much. But if you listen to Bernie Miklasz and Will Leitch’s excellent new podcast Seeing Red, there’s a meme pushed by Miklasz that Oquendo’s old-school approach – and not the “please don’t flip your bat” variety, but rather the “we’re going to practice until we get things right” kind – will be good for this club. That’s not to say the stupid errors and mental lapses alluded to above won’t happen, but that there will be a respected coach in their ear demanding to help when it does. I don’t think that’s trivial.
Here's what we should all know by now: This is a players' game. Good players will win the World Series, a good coach or manager might help but mostly you just hope they don't get in the way. Ozzie Smith was never going to turn Aledmys Díaz into a great shortstop, and Oquendo won't turn this cast of characters into a bunch of Gold Glovers. Does that mean we shouldn't care that Oquendo is back? Of course not. I still believe that Oquendo is valuable and frankly him in a Cardinals uniform in perpetuity just feels right, but I should never expect any of these guys to perform miracles.
But I mean it when I say I couldn't be happier to have the Secret Weapon back even if I did yell at my television yesterday when he tried to score Carlos Martínez from first. What on earth.
Paragraph 20 [on predicting the season]
Some luck will return. Things will be easier.
I'll never learn.