As it turned out, the world did not end when this happened.
The earth did not crash into the sun. The ground did not split beneath us and send us all careening into our planet's magma core. The skies did not part for the Four Horsemen of death to carry us away. The Chicago Cubs won the World Series, and life … continued. (At least for a few more days, anyway.) The Cubs aren't the sad sack losers anymore: They're the top franchise in the sport, and look like they might be for the foreseeable future.
This is the new reality for my fellow fans of the St. Louis Cardinals, the team that has won more games than any other team this decade and generally considers itself the top franchise in the sport. Now the Cards have not only been passed, it has been by their hated rivals. And there is no end in sight.
How do Cardinals fans respond to this terrifying set of circumstances? How does the team respond? I tried to sketch out a guide for Cards fans attempting to navigate this terrifying new world in the days after the title, but now it's even more real. The 2017 season begins on Sunday, and the Cubs' first game is at Busch Stadium on Sunday night. They'll be donning those gold-lettered jerseys all defending champions in their first home game. The Cubs are the champions. It cannot be denied.
Last year, I did a full Cardinals roster audit heading into the season. It's time to do so again. I predicted the Cardinals to finish second in the National League Central and win one of the NL Wild Card spots. But I'd like to do a deep dive on the team, a bit of a 2017 Cardinals Encyclopedia. Warning to non-Cardinals fans:
Everything that will come after this paragraph will irritate you, and with absolute good reason. Cards fans only from now on. Trust me: You're gonna get mad. If you continue on past this paragraph, non-Cardinals fans, it is only because you are purposely trying to make yourself angry. Don't do this to yourself. Life is too short.
So it's time to get to work. Let's do this. And then, like you, I'll be wearing my Cards hat and screaming at my television at 8:30 p.m. ET Sunday. Let's get this started.
John Gant. He came over in the Jaime Garcia trade, and for all the good things Garcia did for the Cardinals over the past decade, I think I might rather have Gant right now? He's got that goofy motion, but if he can throw strikes like he has this spring, it wouldn't surprise me to see him as the first starting option up from Memphis in case of a minor injury. Unless, of course, the minor injury is his.
Lance Lynn. We're probably not worried enough about Lynn. He almost came back late last year, so we all assumed he was going to be fine, and he was solid at the beginning of spring, and he's in a contract year, so yeah, he'll be good ol' Lance Lynn: 200 innings, mid-3.00 ERA, the occasional pouting. But then he got pulled from a spring start with a "pinch" in his back, and started having trouble reaching 90 consistently on his fastball (which is a bit of a problem when you only throw fastballs) and suddenly, uh-oh. If Lynn is hurt, it's a disaster for both him (he's eager to test free agency) and the Cardinals (who are counting on squeezing those 200 innings out of him). Lynn is supposed to pitch against the Memphis Redbirds on Thursday. This might be the most important game the Memphis Redbirds will play all year. If he's fine, he'll be back to boring, underrated Lance Lynn again, which would look beautiful right now.
Carlos Martinez. We've seen the ascendance, and now he's in his rightful place: starting on Opening Day and serving as the exciting young face of the franchise. Martinez's exuberance is something the team has desperately needed: If Martinez were, say, an Oakland A, or a Met, everyone in baseball would realize he's one of the most fun players in the game to watch and cheer for. (Because he's a Cardinal, they instead just snigger and make more dumb BFIB jokes.) Martinez still has never thrown more than 200 innings, which means now's the time. If he can reach that number at the production he provided last year (or even better), he'll be one of the 10 best pitchers in baseball, if he isn't already. He has his pretty new contract, the unquestioned adoration of the franchise and even Oscar's old number. He's still only 25 years old. There has been a lot of discussion about how the Cardinals have needed a superstar on their roster since Albert Pujols left. But they have one, right here, and he's still only 25 years old.
Mike Leake. If anyone's looking at the Kolten Wong "platoon" drama with a wary eye, it's this guy. Leake had the same season last year that he has had every year of his career up to this point. In fact, his FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) was the best of his career. But the circus that was the Cardinals infield defense cost Leake over and over again last year, leading to the worst ERA of his career. He still hardly walks anyone and gives up an impressively low number of homers, but if you don't have a good infield defense, there's not much reason to have a Mike Leake. If Wong can hold onto that second-base slot and Aledmys Diaz continues his defensive improvement, Leake could have a bounceback. But he looks behind him and sees Jhonny Peralta and Jedd Gyorko back there … gulp. Also: Didn't Leake used to be a good hitter? He hasn't hit over .190 since 2012.
Alex Reyes. Rest up, Alex. We'll be here whenever you're ready. It's a bummer, but all told, I'd rather you miss 2017 than 2019 or 2020.
Michael Wacha. The Cardinals had an unnecessarily contentious arbitration battle with Wacha in the offseason, arguing that he shouldn't make as much in large part because he wasn't even going to be in the rotation. Then Alex Reyes went down, and suddenly the Cards were counting on him. Wacha has looked nice this spring, but it's spring. He was a mess last year -- though the infield defense didn't do him any favors -- and the 2013 postseason brilliance seems a long time ago now. He's one of the most important Cardinals now with Reyes out, and we're not sure his arm is even gonna hold up. If he can spot his fastball, the changeup can continue to work wonders. But he hasn't been the same since late 2014. The Cardinals are probably putting too much on his shoulders, but what choice do they have?
Adam Wainwright. Last year was the worst year of Wainwright's career -- he actually gave up the most hits and earned runs in the NL in 2016 -- and he clearly took it hard: Have you seen him this season? Waino is jacked. It's a little bizarre to see Wainwright so muscled up, like that kid you've known since middle school suddenly showing up after one summer busting out of his shirt. He has looked OK this spring other than one nightmare start against the Mets, and for all the bicep work, the key thing for Waino is the grip on that curveball that abandonded him for stretches last year. He's signed through next year, and it would be wonderful to at least have him be useful for those two years, even if he won't quite earn the $39 million. (Though he sure has earned his salary up to this point.) Wainwright is such a beloved, important Cardinal -- 13th all-time in franchise WAR -- that you want to see him go out in a positive way. He is maybe the most purely likeable Cardinal of my lifetime (I really think we would be friends if we knew each other), and we'd all be rooting for him even if he put up another 4.62 ERA. But please don't.
Luke Weaver. He certainly looks like a starting pitcher for the Cardinals, even if the results weren't always there last season. He's got a new pitch, and it should help him build on a solid strikeout rate. But control was a problem last year. If he can solve it this year, he might have himself a spot in the rotation next year … or even the end of this year.
Matt Bowman. A Rule 5 pickup from the Mets, one couldn't help but wonder how long the Cardinals would keep Bowman on the active roster. "All year," as it turned out, and by the end of the season, he was essentially the only reliever Mike Matheny trusted other than Seung-Hwan Oh. For most of the year, he was the pitcher Seth Maness used to be. By September, he was the eighth-inning guy. The Cardinals would probably rather not rely on him so much this year, hoping to have more depth, but as Super Seth Maness? He's aces.
Jonathan Broxton. I didn't understand why John Mozeliak gave Broxton a two-year deal last season, so I'm hardly excited to see him still hanging around. Broxton should be a sixth-inning guy at best, but just because he used to close, Matheny sees him as a "trusted" late-inning arm. I still see him as the guy most likely to give up a 10th-inning homer -- or to walk two guys requiring Bowman to come in and bail him out -- that ruins what has otherwise been a pleasant evening. He has still earned every penny for this picture:
Brett Cecil. I've been wanting the Cardinals to get a pitcher with goggles for a while now, so I'm excited they have one. John Mozeliak would probably rather not have wanted to pay for a lefty specialist this offseason; he thought he had one, after all, in Zach Duke. But Duke is missing the 2017 season (and his Cardinals career is surely over now), so Mo spared no expense in bringing in Cecil, who was fantastic from 2013-15 and was merely very good last year. He can also get out right-handers, but St. Louis would rather not push him there. Get lefties out, and he'll earn every bit of that contract.
Seung-Hwan Oh. I don't remember a Cardinals closer that the fanbase has trusted more than Oh. Bruce Sutter, maybe? Jason Motte, for a couple of months? Wainwright? Cardinals fans are famously gun-shy about closers -- with good reason -- but Oh is just lockdown start to finish. Mo signed him to a ridiculous deal out of South Korea, but it expires after this season, which means he's about to get expensive. He's not the first priority for Cardinals extensions at this particular moment, but maybe he should be. Oh, and his nickname is The Final Boss, not The Stone Buddha. Obviously.
Trevor Rosenthal. You know, if this works out, Mo's going to look like a genius. Rosenthal has been wanting (oddly) to be a starter for a while, so the Cardinals stretched him out enough to humor him. But the real goal is to turn him into a right-handed Andrew Miller. Could that work? Rosenthal will never have Miller's control, but man, can he strike people out. As a versatile weapon in the 'pen, he could be deadly. (He looked more like himself at the end of last year, too.) This might not work out, but the upside if it does is tremendous.
Kevin Siegrist. We're probably never gonna see that 95-mph throwing, Super Ken Dayley we saw a few years ago, but you could do a lot worse for your second left-handed reliever. He's only 27, and he's still cheap. He was a 41st round Draft pick and has been a key component of the Cardinals bullpen for four years now. That's a solid return on an investment.
Miguel Socolovich. The most underappreciated Cardinals bullpen guy, Socolovich just simply gets people out. His strikeout rates are pedestrian, but he has somehow been a shutdown guy at every Minor League level (and briefly the Majors) for four years now. He made the Opening Day roster, and even though he's 30 years old and doesn't have a logical spot right now other than "long man," I bet he stays on the roster all year. If he's your bottom guy in the bullpen, you're in good shape.
Sam Tuivailala. He can throw a fastball through a wall, but at this point, he's more likely to miss the wall entirely. He's had two years to show he can be the next great young (and cheap) Cardinals closer. He's almost out of time now.
Eric Fryer. The Cardinals were smart to bring him in last year when Brayan Pena was hurt, but because they rushed Pena back -- and had no options on Fryer -- they had to let Fryer go. (He subsequently went to Pittsburgh and beat the Cardinals, like, a week later.) Pena wasn't ready to return and went back on the DL, but at that point, the Cardinals had lost Fryer. They won't make that mistake again. He's the backup all year, even if Yadier Molina gets hurt.
Carson Kelly. It's not his time yet, and he still didn't hit much this spring, but he's probably the top catching prospect in the Minors. The question is whether or not he's in the right organization. We may literally find out in the next few days.
Yadier Molina. A certain narrative has emerged around the Cardinals that Yadier Molina needs to "be realistic" about his next contract with the team.
message discipline baby pic.twitter.com/kwZjO6Ekgy- Double Birds (@2xBirds) March 27, 2017
This is ludicrous. Molina has been the single most important Cardinal of the past 12 years and, by the way, hit as well as he has in years the second half of last season. His arm isn't what it once was, but the Cardinals pitchers not only swear by him, the whole team looks adrift and befuddled when he's not playing or hurt. His contract is up after this year, and there has been some tough talk, and he says he won't negotiate once the season begins, so … this is a big week! Jon Heyman reported Monday night that the two sides are "getting close," with a three-year deal (starting next year, the "option" year) looking like the middle ground. Molina is aging, and playing way more than any other catcher, but if the Cardinals aren't willing to pay him for three more years, they don't deserve him.
Matt Adams. I'm sorry, but Adams just looks weird skinny. It's disorienting, isn't it? It was weird when Lynn lost all that weight and shaved his beard, but nothing like Adams. It looks like John Doe used him as the Sloth guy and tied him to a bedpost for a year. Anyway, Adams is a better hitter than he's given credit for but not good enough (or consistent enough) to be playing every day, so here he is, in this middle ground. If he hits well enough for his trade value to go up, the Cardinals won't want to let go of him, and if he doesn't hit at all, it's tough to see him having much of a career left. I still feel like the Rockies could use him as a first baseman, but who knows how much of the power went away with the flab. And please: Ixnay on the left-field stuff. He's skinnier, but jeez, he's still Matt Adams.
Matt Carpenter. It's pretty amazing how Carpenter has in fact evolved into a middle-of-the-order, first-base slugger type. His at-bats are works of art, mental battles of patience and discipline and then aggression. Carpenter has always been a little fragile, and it was smart to step back this spring, lest the oblique issue rise again. But Carpenter is a star, and one who now plays a power position, leaving him free to concentrate on that hitting. (It's still amazing he played second base, out of nowhere, just because the Cardinals asked him to.) This is the Cards' best hitter since Pujols. Also: Never shave the beard.
Aledmys Diaz. Is Diaz actually the most important Cardinals position player? They have backups essentially everywhere else, but if Diaz goes down, Jhonny Peralta has to go back to short and everything breaks down. Diaz has gone from waiver bait to indispensable. The defense got better as the year went along, and all the Cardinals need him to be is average there. The bat plays: His aggression serves him well, and he's clearly smart and able to make adjustments. A year ago, the Cardinals were bringing in Ruben Tejada to play short: Now they have a shortstop to build around for the next half-decade. (Or until Delvin Perez is ready, anyway.) That Cardinals Devil Magic stuff is just a crutch for people who dislike the Cardinals but have no curiosity about how the Cards have been so successful over the years. But Diaz? Diaz might actually be Cardinals Devil Magic.
Greg Garcia. Quick, who does Fangraphs project to have the highest OBP on the Cardinals? OK, Matt Carpenter. But who's second? OK, Dexter Fowler. But third is Garcia, basically the world's perfect utility infielder, Daniel Descalso with a jetpack. Garcia is pretty much exactly the guy you want when you're down by one run late and you've got the pitcher leading off: The guy works an at-bat and is a total pain to pitch to and every once in a while will pop one. There are plenty of teams for whom Garcia would be starting right now, but he's ours. This year's gonna end, and you're gonna look up and Garcia is going to put up one of the 10 best 2017 seasons for a Cardinal, you watch. After all: He did last year.
Jedd Gyorko. It's not often your top home run hitter ends up being your utility infielder the next season, but if you're there, that's not the worst place to be. Gyorko is the next Major Leaguer who has essentially changed his swing launch angle to sell out for power, and it worked wonders for him last year. The Cardinals aren't relying on him to do it again, but as a guy who can fill in at third, second or first (and even popped up occasionally to play an iffy shortstop), he's extremely handy to have around.
Jhonny Peralta. Peralta's contract was always constructed to be either tradeable or withstandable by the fourth season: Years 1 and 2 were much more expensive than Year 4. That's good, because the Cardinals shouldn't count on Peralta too much this year. If he plays a passable third base and hits for a little power, the Cardinals will be happy. If he craps out, Gyorko has to play third all season, and the team loses the versatility that should serve it well. Either way, Peralta has been worth the contract already. Also, he has at least one big hit against the Cubs on his resume.
Kolten Wong. Well, here we go. Wong's unfortunate interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, in which he seemed to intimate that he'd rather be traded than platooned, got a few St. Louis folks unnecessarily fired up before he clarified his remarks. Either way: It's certainly understandable why he'd be frustrated. The Cardinals basically built their entire offseason around him, talking up how important infield defense was, how vital Wong (a fantastic second baseman) was to their defensive reconstruction, but then once the guy has a spring slump, here comes the Bench Wong talk from Michael Scott in the dugout over there.
Episode 2: "The Slump" pic.twitter.com/gAf1CuEIGM- Double Birds (@2xBirds) March 22, 2017
Wong is Exhibit A in the evidence-wealthy Mike Matheny Doesn't Trust Young Players case, and it's clear that the mixed messages have gotten in his head. Wong is likely never going to be the consistent player the Cardinals (and especially Matheny) want him to be, but defense never slumps: Even if he is still streaky as a hitter -- and it's undeniable that there's still tons of potential for him to start knocking the ball around -- just having his glove in the lineup all the time makes him a plus player, particularly with the way the rotation is constructed. Jerking him around like this makes him, and the team, worse. Put him at second base every day. Let Gyorko fill in every once in a while against lefties. Quit whispering things in his ear. Leave him alone. Why does this have to be so hard?
(Seriously, though, Kolten, this would be a lot easier if you'd start hitting.)
Dexter Fowler. Yes, please. Fowler is such a perfect fit for this Cardinals team that I honestly can't imagine them without him … and he hasn't even played a game yet. The Cardinals needed:
- A leadoff man.
- A center fielder.
- A reliable on-base guy.
- A joyous clubhouse presence who can occasionally pull the stick out of the manager's arse.
- An actual smart person, as opposed to a baseball version of a smart person.
- A beloved member of that Cubs team that just won the World Series.
- An African-American star in a fractured city that could desperately use one.
- Someone who, unlike Mike Piazza, knows that St. Louis has really good food.
I'm excited to try the local eats in STL. I'm a huge local restaurant person. Love what it does for families and the community.- Dexter Fowler (@DexterFowler) March 10, 2017
He might already be one of my 50 favorite Cardinals of all time, and, again, he hasn't played a game yet. Would it be weird if I asked him to adopt me?
Randal Grichuk. Another potential Matheny-screwing-with-him case, Grichuk is always going to be a streaky hitter. But when those streaks are going in the right direction, he can hit the ball 450 feet. His natural power and freaky athleticism should be enough to keep him in the lineup every day, particularly when the position change turns him from a fine-but-a-little-shaky-sometimes center fielder into a plus-plus left fielder. But we've already seen how little patience his manager has for slumps from young players. He should be plugged into the lineup and left alone. Let's see if it turns out that way.
Jose Martinez. I love a good Spring Training story as much as anyone, and Martinez is a good one, finally getting on an Opening Day roster just a couple months before his 29th birthday. He hit a ton of homers this spring, and Matheny hates Tommy Pham, and we're all suckers for the next Jeremy Hazelbaker (who's actually a useful player for the Diamondbacks), so here he is. But Martinez isn't really a power hitter -- he hit eight homers in more than 300 at bats for Memphis last year -- and he can't play defense and he is probably the fourth, or maybe fifth, best first baseman on the team. If being able to play first -- ostensibly what gave him the edge for the final roster spot -- was such a big deal, shoot, I guarantee you Pham could play it if you asked him nicely enough. There isn't one thing Martinez is better at than Pham. I'd be shocked to see Martinez still on the roster in June. But this is still no reason not to give him a huge hand on Opening Night. Journeymen finally getting their Opening Day moment is always nice, even if it doesn't actually make your team better.
Tommy Pham. Well, I think we may have lost this battle. Stat nerd Cardinals fans like myself have been screaming for years to Let Pham Play, but Matheny clearly doesn't trust him (remember that time last year when he hit two homers and then didn't play for two weeks?) and now he has been sent to the Minors for this year's Hazelbaker. Statcast™ says Pham hits the ball harder than any other Cardinal, and he's fast, and he plays terrific defense, and you can even get away with putting him in center. Sure, he strikes out too much. So does everybody. But the die appears to be cast with Pham: He's 29 years old and starting the season in Memphis. The combination of injuries and his manager may have doomed him. We'll always have that NL Division Series homer against the Cubs, which made me scream like a teenage Beatlemaniac.
Stephen Piscotty. So deep is the instant respect that the Cardinals (and their fans) have for Piscotty that his nightmarish spring -- he's hitting .143 -- has barely even caused a ripple while the Wong, Lynn and Molina dramas have engulfed camp. It's worth noting that his slash stats were down last year from 2015, thanks largely to a lousy second half (he hit just .243 after the All-Star Break). Piscotty faded down the stretch, hasn't been able to do anything all month and never hit better than .300, or more than 15 homers, in the Minors. And still, no one's really worried about him. Maybe we should start?
Mike Matheny. I wrote a whole essay for the Baseball Prospectus annual about Matheny, and you should buy that, so I'll spare you too much further Matheny beratement here. I will, however, quote you a paragraph from it:
That Matheny has shown these same shortcomings year after year, along with an inability, or unwillingness, to address them, is perhaps not surprising: Humans are impressively resistant to change, baseball manager or otherwise. But what's most concerning about the Cardinals commitment to Matheny is that they are falling into the same trap: If it has worked so far -- and it's a matter of debate as to how much it has "worked" -- just keep doing it. But the landscape of baseball, and specifically, the National League Central, has changed dramatically since 2012, when Matheny was hired. Shifts have taken over. Bullpen management seems to revolutionize every postseason. Five years in baseball thinking is like dog years. The Cardinals front office hasn't stayed put in that time -- for better and for worse, as Chris Correa can attest -- but Matheny has. And by staying put, he has put the Cardinals behind.
Matheny has been able to get away with his lack of progress as a tactician and motivator because, for most of his tenure, the Cardinals have had stacked rosters and played in a division in which they were the clear favorites. That is no longer the case. The learning curve was supposed to be over by now. Perhaps Matheny has a surprise or two in him; perhaps he'll pull a Clint Hurdle and suddenly show a flexibility and open-mindedness that had previously eluded him. But he has been the same guy for five years now. The flaws are more out in the open now. He is making it harder for the Cardinals to win, not easier. And the margin for error is thinner than it has ever been since he took over.
Here's what I wrote about Matheny before last year's season:
This is the most pivotal season in Matheny's managerial career, and perhaps the most pivotal in recent Cardinals history. There are a ton of pieces. It's up to Matheny to put them together. We'll find out once and for all if he can.
So: How did that work out?
Mike Matheny always brings out my inner Ricky Roma (NSFW warning: language -- it's "Glengarry Glen Ross," after all).
What you're hired for is to help us. Does that seem clear to you? To HELP us! ... To help men who are going out there to try to earn a living. You company man.
The Cardinals have a lot of questions this year. The biggest one, as it has been for several years, remains in the dugout.