Not that anyone needs to be reminded, but the 2016 Cardinals won only 86 games and failed to extend the franchise streak of making the playoffs for five consecutive seasons. The 2017 Cardinals are facing a season of atonement. In our baseball-obsessed village, it’s unacceptable to be an also-ran. To climb back onto the October stage, this team must spruce up several areas. But some individuals on a 25-man roster have more influence than others.
Here’s my rundown of 10 Cardinals that must come through in 2017:
1. Second baseman Kolten Wong: Critics point to Kolten’s unimpressive career MLB batting line of .248 / .309 / .370 and wonder why his supporters believe he’s anything more than average at best.
Wong’s fans portray him as a victim, unappreciated by impatient manager Mike Matheny. They see above-average defense, speed to burn, a quick bat that produces power volleys.
Here’s the deal: BOTH sides have a point. GM John Mozeliak is all but twisting Matheny’s arm to get Wong into the daily lineup. If Wong becomes a full-time player again, this season will likely define his value, once and for all.
2. Third baseman Jhonny Peralta: He turns 35 on May 28. He’s coming off a poor 2015 season truncated by a broken thumb in spring training. He was a defensive liability at third base in ’16.
The downward trend is obvious.
In his first season and a half as a Cardinal, Peralta thundered a .454 slugging percentage and .797 OPS. In his last season as a half, Peralta has slugged a faint .370 with a .677 OPS. He’s entering the final season of a four-year contract. The Cards need Peralta to restore his power and provide solid defense. Can Jhonny be good again?
3. Center fielder Dexter Fowler: The former Cubs’ leadoff man, a key part of last season’s historic World Series championship, signed a five-year deal worth $82.5 million to switch sides in the Cardinals-Cubs rivalry. And much is expected from Fowler: a high onbase percentage from the No. 1 spot, speed that can give the lineup an added dimension, athleticism that will add a range to the outfield defense, and the ability to bust up clubhouse cliques and uptight environment with his effervescent personality. It’s a lot to ask of one man.
4. Starting pitcher Michael Wacha: There’s a lot of happy talk about Wacha in camp Jupiter. He built muscle to strengthen the shoulder area around his fragile scapula. He’s throwing free and easy and snapping pitches. He’s poised for a strong comeback after being pulled down by the rare shoulder-stress condition that has befuddled sports-injury experts. The Cardinals’ rotation fell apart late in the 2016 season, and that can’t happen again. If he’s physically sound, Wacha can make a significant difference. But: in his first 35 games as a Cardinal, Wacha had a 2.76 ERA and delivered a quality start in 72 percent of his assignments. Since the scapula problem surfaced, Wacha has a 4.31 ERA in 63 games and supplied a quality start only 54 percent of the time.
5. Starting pitcher Lance Lynn: He missed all of 2016 after undergoing elbow surgery. Because of the timing of the injury, Lynn has had extra time to rehab and sharpen. A rotation that cracked in ’16 — with a 5.10 ERA over the final 66 games — obviously could use a robust return from one of the majors’ most underrated starters between 2012 and 2015.
6. Starting pitcher Adam Wainwright: Though respectable, Waino’s performance declined in 2016. Was it age? Was it the lingering effect of missing most of 2015 (only four starts) with a torn Achilles? Was it a combo of bad luck, bad defense? (Ask Mike Leake about that.) Waino, 35, will celebrate his 36th birthday on Aug. 30. Question: will we be celebrating his ace-caliber pitching? Or will 2017 look a lot like 2016?
Imagine the benefits of having Wainwright come through with a flashback season reminiscent of his glory-days peak.
7. Shortstop Aledmys Diaz: I don’t think his rookie season was a fluke. But it was very impressive, and an unexpected delight, with Diaz using the first 460 plate appearances of his big-league career to bat .300 with a .369 OBP and a .510 slug with 48 extra-base hits including 17 homers. The only negative was shaky defense over the first two or three months, but Diaz made gradual improvement. He was one of the top rookies in the majors until getting drilled on the hand by a runaway pitch on July 31. The fractured right thumb put him on the DL for nearly six weeks.
The excitement over Diaz’ potent offensive performance puts him in an interesting situation: he’s viewed as a catalyst, a fixture, a key component in the lineup. But Diaz has only 111 MLB games to his name, and the 2017 projections have him receding offensively. Can Diaz come close to replicating his rookie-year .797 OPS? Will his defense become more confident and consistent?
8. Catcher Yadier Molina: He’ll be 35 in July. After this season, either Molina or Cardinals’ management can opt out of a mutual option for 2018. This can’t be the end, right? It’s incomprehensible to think of Molina wearing another team’s laundry in 2018 and beyond. So this is a very big year for him, and the team, in many ways. Molina had a wonderful revival with the bat last season, batting .307 with a .360 OBP and .427 slug. From July 1 through the end of the season, he turned back the clock with a .392 OBP and .515 slug. After all of the talk about Molina being on the downside offensively, he put up a loud counterpoint. But can he sustain the alive-again offense in 2017? Defensively, Molina had the poorest caught-stealing rate (20.2%) of his career. He was charged with eight passed balls, which equaled his previous career high in 2005. For the first time since 2007 the NL Gold Glove award was handed to another catcher, Buster Posey, as Molina lost his eight-season grip on the honor. Like you, I’m curious to see how Molina handles all of this in ’17. He very much remains an essential part of this team.
9. Left fielder Randal Grichuk: After cranking a .548 slugging percentage in 2015, Grichuk’s slugging dipped to .480 in a 2016 season that ups and downs — namely, two demotions to Triple A Memphis after Matheny benchings. But from July 5 through the end of the season, Grichuk slugged .554 and had 19 doubles and 16 homers in 242 at-bats. This team, at least right now, doesn’t have much outfield depth. Grichuk’s has to advance from the trial-and-error phase of his career. I’m a believer in the “Let Grichuk be Grichuk” philosophy — abundant power, and lots of swings and misses and strikeouts. But it would be great to see this talented player settle into a more consistent groove in 2017. With Matt Holliday and Brandon Moss long gone, Grichuk’s presence takes on added importance.
10. Pitcher Trevor Rosenthal: I could have gone in some other directions here… maybe reliever Brett Cecil, or first baseman Matt Carpenter, or starting pitcher Carlos Martinez. But I’m going with Rosenthal for two reasons: one way or another, he needs to return to form after an erratic, injury-related 2016. Should one of the Cardinals’ starting pitchers suffer an injury this spring, Rosenthal could claim a rotation spot. But with the young power arm Alex Reyes stricken from the 2017 season following elbow surgery, Rosenthal could easily be placed in the key eighth-inning relief role, which usually comes with plenty of high-leverage situations. Before his injury, Reyes was probably going to open the season in the Cardinals’ bullpen — poised to overwhelm hitters with his fastball-changeup combination. Unless Rosenthal is called on to start, the Cardinals will need him to be that eighth-inning enforcer … the replacement muscle for Reyes … and that’s a huge role.
Thanks for reading … have a great weekend.