Spring is here, and though the baseball season is fast approaching, we’ve been inundated with various versions of the “_______________ is in the best shape of his life” stories. You’ve seen them:
“Tommy Pham has been working out all offseason and has dropped his body fat to -3%”
“Adam Wainwright looks like he’s 10 years younger and just hit 90 on the radar!”
“Dexter Fowler’s is ready to be the best defensive right fielder in baseball! Jason Heyward, he’s coming for you.”
Even the dreaded Cubbies have gotten in on the act with their “Kyle Schwarber has dropped 100 pounds and is headed for a 50 SB season.” “He’ll probably be a Gold Glove left fielder!” As an aside, the way in which Cubs’ fans talk about Schwarber makes you wonder how many Schwarber family members actually live in Wrigleyville. Here’s a video showing Cubs’ fans’ reaction to his injury in 2016.
Well, Mike Matheny is also in the best shape of his life. This post is meant to play “Devil’s Advocate” to all the “Matheny should be fired” tweets that have filled the Twittersphere this offseason. (God knows, I’ll tweet something similar to that probably 50 times between now and when the team’s season ends so we may as well start the season with a positive attitude.)
Matheny has never been better equipped to have a good season than he is right now. Over the offseason, the front office made several changes specifically designed to help Matheny be a better manager. Matheny has been criticized by Cardinals’ fans and the St. Louis media for several things throughout his tenure — and rightly so. His handling of the bullpen has been questionable, at best, and he has too often left starters in far too long which has led to the starter losing the game before the pen can even be summoned. He has become over-reliant on specific relievers that he trusts (ahem…Matt Bowman) while he becomes unwilling to risk going to others he’s less certain of. He has been over-reliant on “proven veterans” while leaving younger, often better players (like Tommy Pham) sitting on the bench or playing in Memphis. At times, John Mozeliak had to send younger guys like Pham, Randall Grichuk, and Kolten Wong to the minors just to get them some playing time because Mike Matheny refused to play them.
The front office didn’t exactly buy Matheny a copy of “Managing for Dummies” and quiz him on it over the offseason (or maybe they did; I don’t really know) but they did give him a front office version of Spark Notes to help him get better at the stuff that he needs to improve on. Step 1 was replacing his pitching coach (Derek Lilliquist) with a new one — pitching guru Mike Maddux. The important quote from Mozeliak in the article discussing the fact that Lilliquist wouldn’t return to the Cardinals is this one: “Mozeliak said that they want to rethink the strategy of pitching use and have a pitching coach that is open to the data available and some modern views of how pitchers should be deployed.” That tells me the front office wants to modernize the team’s use of data on their pitchers, their pitch selection, and how their pitchers are deployed. The article from Jenifer Langosch about the hiring of Maddux had the following to say in explaining the change:
Before he started interviewing candidates for the open position, Mozeliak stressed that he was seeking a pitching coach willing to utilize advanced metrics, as well as the ability to “understand modern strategy, modern analytics and how we can leverage that to optimize our staff.”
The intent was to bring in someone who could have a louder voice alongside Matheny, who will be returning for his seventh season as manager. Maddux’s experience and coaching resume offers that sort of instant credibility.
“A louder voice alongside Matheny”…to me, this means that Maddux will have more of a say in pitching changes — when they should occur and which pitchers should be used — than Lilliquist did. Matheny has to recognize that the hiring of such a well-respected pitching coach wrests some control from Matheny.
Two other additions to the coaching staff should help give Matheny the tools he needs to be as successful as he can be. GM John Mozeliak specifically went to Florida to encourage fan and player favorite Jose Oquendo to return to the staff as 3rd base coach. Most everyone recognizes that the team was better fundamentally and defensively when Oquendo was manning the 3rd base coaching box and, since he’s often been mentioned as a potential manager, Matheny has to feel a little pressure from the front office to get things right.
While the change that brought Oquendo back to the team also brought in Willie McGee to the coaching staff, the other truly noteworthy change to the staff was moving Mike Shildt to the bench coach’s role. Shildt is basically the team’s data guy who’ll help Matheny with defensive shifting and in making other baseball decisions during the game. He was management’s addition to the coaching staff a couple of years ago and is being moved into this position by the front office to insure that Matheny hears the voice of the front office during the game.
The front office elected not to replace batting coach and Matheny buddy John Mabry but the other changes in the coaching staff have to send a message to both Matheny and Mabry that the offense needs to improve in 2018. For one thing, Matheny surely knows by now that Pham needs to be in the lineup every day and in center field. Mozeliak went to Las Vegas over the winter to meet with Dexter Fowler to talk to him about playing right field rather than center. There’s another decision taken out of Matheny’s hands.
With the addition of Marcell Ozuna, the emergence of Pham, and the movement of Fowler to right, the outfield is a lot more settled than it was at this time last season. Wong showed last season that he was a solid, league-average second baseman and one who can be in the lineup against lefties, if necessary. Shildt is on staff to help Matheny figure out when and how to deploy Matt Carpenter so that Jose Martinez gets maximum PA’s and Maddux is on staff to help Matheny with the pitching changes. Oquendo is there to help the team with defense and fundamentals and McGee is around to help improve the team’s base running. So Matheny has never had as many good tools at his disposal to help him make good decisions during the course of the season. Now it’s incumbent on him to utilize those tools to help get all those Cardinals’ fans off his back.
But who am I trying to fool? I’m going to go nuts the first time he insists on leaving Michael Wacha in to face the top of the Cubs’ order for the 3rd time in a tie game.
Thanks for reading.
This is going to be a short commentary on today’s trade with the Blue Jays. The Cards traded Randall Grichuk today for Jays’ reliever Dominc Leone and minor league pitcher Conner Greene. This obviously fills a need in the bullpen and also clears out some of the excess from the team’s outfield.
Leone had an outstanding year last year and Greene has some potential as a hard-throwing reliever. The Cards were able to get some quality in exchange for Grichuk because Grichuk himself has value. He’s projected as a 2 win outfielder who can play CF and potentially hit 30 bombs.
Meanwhile, the Jays are in a bit of a pickle regarding Donaldson. He’s a free agent at the end of the season and stands to be the recipient of a huge contract next off-season. He’s unlikely to re-sign with the Jays, who are caught in a sort of purgatory as a team that projects to be not quite good enough to contend and not quite bad enough to rebuild. As such, the Cards have been interested in trading for Donaldson, though the Jays have resisted all advances.
The Jays basically have 2 options this offseason if they’re not able to extend Donaldson — either trade him and rebuild or go all-in to try to win this season which might have the side benefit of convincing Donaldson that they can be a winner in the future. Going all-in means repairing all the holes they have, particularly in their starting lineup. Considering the fact that the Jays outfield AS A WHOLE accumulated just 2.8 WAR in 2017 and only Kevin Pillar projects to be worth more than 1.3 WAR in 2018, the team needs massive help in the outfield. Prior to the trade, the Jays projected to be an 83 win team so Grichuk puts them around 85. They can’t be done yet but it’s pretty clear that if they add a guy like Lorenzo Cain or trade for Christian Yelich then now they’re projected for 87 or 88 wins and are squarely in the playoff hunt. The trade for Grichuk gets them closer to that goal.
Needless to say, the Jays won’t be trading Donaldson if they’re in the playoff chase. Only if they fall out of the race by July will they even make him available as the trade deadline approaches so the Cardinals’ chances of trading for Donaldson went from slim to extremely unlikely.
Don’t get me wrong…I’m not saying this was a bad trade. The Jays were probably not going to be trading Donaldson anyway and tomes have been written on the interwebs just over the last week or so about how desperate the Cardinals’ reliever situation was. The Cardinals needed Leone almost as badly as the Jays needed Grichuk and the team is better off having made the trade. But it’s clear that the Cards’ management had become convinced that Donaldson would not be traded until July at the earliest and, as a result, decided to add an excellent reliever even if it meant helping the Jays get a little bit closer to being an AL playoff team.
Thanks for reading.
Since the season ended, there’s been a ton of hand-wringing about the problems the Cardinals’ offense encountered during the 2015 season. A few examples:
- The team was 11th in the NL in home runs and runs scored
- The Cardinals were 8th in the NL in wOBA
- The Cards’ position players were tied for 10th in baseball in wOBA
- The team’s offensive runs above average was 7th in the NL.
These, of course, aren’t indicators of a below-average offense but, when we’re playing in a division against 2 of the best teams in baseball, a mediocre offense going forward just isn’t going to cut it. Add to that the fact that players like Matt Holliday, Jhonny Peralta, and Yadi are already past their offensive primes and aren’t going to get any younger.
We know that several players just didn’t perform to expectations this year but the real problem is the number of times these underperformers were forced or allowed to come to the plate this season. Every team has underperformers. But it creates real problems for a team when those players get too many plate appearances.
Below are the numbers in 2015 for the team’s biggest underperformers.
141 batters qualified for the batting title in major league baseball in 2015. Only 5 of them had a wRC+ less than 70. These 6 Cardinals combined for an offensive performance 30% worse than league average and the team gave them 1350 PAs. Just for reference, 23% of the team’s plate appearances went to players who hit worse than Padres’ pitcher Tyson Ross. That’s 1 out of every 4 plate appearances — not counting the 353 PAs we gave to our pitchers. So 3 times out of every time through the order we either let a pitcher bat or someone who hit worse than Tyson Ross. Jay and Bourjos, who were horrible in 2015, got 120 more plate appearances than Randall Grichuk did. No wonder we had trouble scoring runs!
So, the good news…First, there’s no way Jay can hit this badly in 2016. He’s had wRC+’s of 116, 115, 115, 103, and 115 in his first 5 seasons with the team and had an injured wrist all season. He’ll be better and, if by some chance he isn’t, Grichuk or Tommy Pham or Jason Heyward will be able to step in take some of those PA’s away. There’s no way he’ll be allowed to come to the plate 245 times if he’s hitting as horrendously as he did in 2015.
Adams started slow and dealt with a hamstring injury for most of the season. He may have a bad stretch where he hits as badly as he did in 2015, but he’s unlikely to repeat this performance over 350-400 PAs. Reynolds didn’t really underperform so much as that he had to take on too many PAs due to Adams’s injury. Regardless, I wouldn’t bet money on Reynolds returning in 2016.
Similarly, it’s unlikely that Bourjos will return. I suspect that the emergence of Pham has made Bourjos expendable. He’ll be tendered a contract and traded.
Cruz and Kozma are tough. The only reason they were on the roster is that we need a backup catcher and someone who could play shortstop in the event of an injury to Peralta. The team, therefore, may be forced to sacrifice some offense in order to get this sort of defensive protection. But the team has to do better than what these 2 can bring to the table. We’ll discuss this in more detail another time but, suffice to say, we can’t afford to give 260+ PAs to players who hit worse than many pitchers.
A lot of Cards’ fans are looking for a better #3 hitter or more homers than Heyward provided (13) from our cleanup hitter. Our starters, for the most part, performed pretty well offensively so probably what we need most, is more depth. We need our reserves to perform better when there are injuries to Holliday, Peralta, or Molina or when our aging starters need days off. If we get more from our 9th through 13th position players, we can afford to give our starters more rest and we’ll score more runs doing it.
Like other Cards’ fans, I’ve spent a good chunk of the last couple of days thinking about what might have been with this season. In so many ways it was such a great season — 100 wins, 1st place in the toughest division in baseball — and, yet, I’ve found myself wondering how the season would have played out if things had finished a little bit differently. As Cards’ fans, we’re tremendously spoiled. This is the first year in the last 5, for example, that the Cardinals haven’t made it to the NLCS. We’re in it every year. Not many teams can say that. If I was a fan of the Astros, Rangers or even Yankees, I could imagine that I would be able to look back on this season and realize how much my team accomplished. For all of these fans, their teams ended up pretty close to their best case scenarios. It’s disappointing for the season to end, to be sure — especially with the Astros’ collapse in game 4 of their series and the 7th inning meltdown by the Rangers’ defense in game 5 of theirs — but almost everyone has to acknowledge how great those teams’ seasons were. And the Cardinals won 100 games and it just doesn’t feel like a great season. Some of that is because we’re spoiled. And some is because it seems as though we could have accomplished much more. For example:
- What if Wainwright hadn’t gotten injured? Would the NLDS against the Cubs have turned out differently if Wainwright could’ve started game 1? We could’ve pushed Lackey to game 2 against Hendricks and then Garcia starts game 3 when he’s probably rested and not nursing a stomach virus. It’s a whole different series.
- What if Matt Holliday was healthy? He just wasn’t himself down the stretch or in the postseason. Our #3 hitter really couldn’t hit, at least not like a #3 hitter, and we were playing shorthanded as a result.
- What if Carlos Martinez hadn’t gotten hurt? Put him and Wainwright in the rotation and it’s deadly. Now, Martinez pitches game 3 and Garcia goes in 4. There’s a good argument to be made that we just didn’t have our 2 best starting pitchers in the postseason.
- What if Matt Adams was healthy? I’m not the biggest Adams fan in the world but he can certainly mash against righties and he wasn’t healthy enough to even beat out Brandon Moss or Jon Jay for the postseason roster. (Maybe it could’ve prevented Mozeliak from shipping Rob Kaminsky to Cleveland in exchange for Moss.)
- What if Randall Grichuk hadn’t kept getting hurt? Not only would he have been in contention for the Rookie of the Year, but he would have been a deadly hitter in the middle of the lineup in October. For a team that struggled to score so often this season — and again in the postseason — how much would we have been helped with a healthy Holliday, Adams, and Grichuk avaialble?
- What if Jordan Walden had been healthy? Matheny wore out Siegrist, and maybe Maness and Rosenthal, and part of the reason was that we were counting on Walden to pitch the 8th inning and get the game to Rosenthal. We certainly could have used him rather than Broxton and Cishek down the stretch and could have saved some wear-and-tear on Siegrist.
That’s a lot of what-ifs. This was a very good team that could have been an historically outstanding team and it fell short in October — when it counted most — largely due to injuries. It just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
Instead, however, I want to look at a different set of what-ifs. Most teams, if they had to deal with all those setbacks, would not have won 100 games or finished above the Pirates and Cubs. How in the heck did that happen?
- What if Randall Grichuk, for all his injuries, hadn’t emerged as a tremendous power hitter who could play center field? Grichuk was in the Rookie of the Year race until his second injury (remember, he missed the beginning of the season with an injury as well). Grichuk had a higher ISO this year than Josh Donaldson, Nelson Cruz and Paul Goldschmidt and hit the ball as hard as Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber. Did I mention that he can play center field? I don’t really know if he can stay healthy for 600+ plate appearances but, if he can, he might be a star.
- What if Stephen Piscotty hadn’t emerged as a no-doubt offensive impact player for the Cardinals? This is a guy who was always thought of as a pretty good prospect, but prospect analysts were always waiting on his power to emerge. Prior to this season, he never hit more than 9 HR in the minor leagues. He hit 11 in his first 87 games at Memphis this year but we’re still talking about the Pacific Coast League. He was a good AAA hitter, but not a great one. And then he was called up and very soon thereafter became a star. He hit 7 HR and 15 doubles in just 63 games. Granted, it was just half a season, but his wRC+ was 133. So was Carlos Correa’s. Manny Machado, who hit 35 HR this year, had a 134 wRC+. He performed better offensively in his 256 PA than Curtis Granderson and Schwarber did this year. And he showed he could play both outfield corners and first base. One of our biggest concerns going in to last season is what to do about 1B when facing a lefty, considering Matt Adams’s profound issues facing lefties (one HR vs. Kershaw notwithstanding). Those concerns have vanished.
- What if Carlos Martinez hadn’t emerged as an outstanding starter? There were many who were concerned that he’d never be anything more than a reliever.Those concerns aren’t there any more.
- What if Jaime Garcia’s career had been ended by injuries? I didn’t expect anything from Garcia this season or, honestly, ever. Pitchers just rarely come back from multiple shoulder injuries. And yet Garcia did, and emerged as one of the team’s best starters this year. He’s gone from a guy who almost certainly would not have had his option for 2016 picked up, to a guy whose option will definitely be picked up.
- What if Kevin Siegrist hadn’t re-emerged as a shutdown reliever? Granted, his season didn’t end too well but he inarguably had a tremendous season. He was injured most of 2014 and the team had to be unsure of whether or how much they could count on Siegrist for 2015 and he ended up becoming Matheny’s go-to guy out of the pen.
- What if Tommy Pham hadn’t emerged as a legitimate contributor? This is a guy the team always thought a lot of but he just couldn’t stay healthy. When Grichuk got hurt, they called him up just to see what would happen and he showed himself to be fearless, to be a guy who can play center field, and to be a guy who can hit the ball hard. His average exit velocity was basically the same as Goldschmidt’s.
The bottom line is that, though this season ended disappointingly, there’s a lot to look forward to next year and down the road. What do all those guys in that last segment have in common? Pham is the oldest, and he’s just 27 years old. Is there any wonder why, after the game 4 loss to the Cubs, Adam Wainwright had this to say?
The season was an unquestioned success, though we would have all liked to have finished stronger. And all signs point to the probability that next year will be even better.