ST. LOUIS -- The Cardinals may enter spring training without the usual competition-driven drama, but Jupiter will still have its compelling storylines.
Much of the focus will be on defining roles rather than winning jobs, and the biggest questions will center around the roster’s production rather than the names that populate it. Rounding out our NL Central preview, we turn our gaze to the home front.
St. Louis Cardinals
Last year: 100-62 (Won NL Central, lost in NLDS)
The thing to watch: Can they score?
The Cardinals scored 647 runs last season, good for 24th in baseball. They were 25th in home runs (137), 23rd in total bases (2163) and 23rd in slugging. The team won 100 games because of an MLB-best 2.94 ERA and 15 team shutouts.
St. Louis’ offense scored three runs or less in 79 games, and won 32 of them. The team scored two runs or less 46 times, improbably winning 11 times with such soft support. That’s a labor-intensive approach.
By contrast, the 38 times the team scored at least six runs, they didn’t lose. This team needs more firepower at the plate if they hope to contend with the two-headed Pittsburgh/Chicago monster in the NL Central.
The front office did an admirable job filling Lance Lynn’s spot with a dependable arm in Mike Leake, and Adam Wainwright’s return will erase the sting of losing John Lackey. The bullpen is largely unchanged and gained a Korean reliever with a prolific career and Fonzie-like nickname in Seung Hwan Oh.
It’s not that the pitching can’t match last season’s accomplishments, it’s that asking them to- or worse, depending on it- is not a viable strategy.
The Cardinals played 55 one-run games last season, tied for the most in the National League. They spent nearly the entire year scraping, scrambling and sweating their way to the top of the division. When they reached October they were essentially running on adrenaline. 100 wins was a remarkable accomplishment, but getting there took a toll.
There is a lot of belief in the front office that the team has adequate internal muscle to make 2016 ulcer-free. Randal Grichuk has enough power in his swing to light a village and Stephen Piscotty has retooled his swing and started propelling balls into the stands.
Much of the Winter Warm-Up discussions focused on Brandon Moss, with both he and his teammates saying they believe he’s fully re-centered and back to being a major threat in the lineup. There’s also Matt Adams’ hulking frame lurking in the shadows. Big City is seemingly the forgotten man on the roster, with most speculators pegging him as a platoon or bench player. After hitting 17 homers in 296 at-bats in 2013, he got a full season of work the next year. He only hit 15 long balls, but had 34 doubles, five triples, 68 RBI and batted .288 while learning to beat a heavy shift. He lost 100 games in 2015 to injury, and while he wasn’t exactly blowing the doors off when he tore his quad, he never got a chance to work out of the doldrums.
Through the first 60 games, Adams was hitting .240 with five homers and nine doubles. Jason Heyward, during his first 60 games, was sitting at .254, with five homers and 12 doubles.
Heyward’s season was met with praise when the dust settled, and one wonders if Adams could have righted the ship given a season free of injury.
But all those pieces have their question marks. Grichuk’s is injury, Piscotty’s is experience. Adams and Moss prompt concerns about consistency. If the stars align, the Cardinals have a formidable lineup. But baseball rarely affords teams such a luxury, leaving many to wonder if a largely unchanged pool of players can repeat last year’s success.
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