Yes, the Cardinals Had Enough Talent To Make the Playoffs in 2017

Did the 2017 Cardinals have enough talent to get into the playoffs?


Was this a great team? Of course not. There was the slip-sliding 3-9 start to the season, early bullpen toxicity, and a lineup that required revamping.

Injuries that kept second baseman Kolten Wong and outfielder Dexter Fowler in the dugout too often. Third baseman Jedd Gyorko was having a very nice season offensively and defensively when a strained hamstring put him on the DL on Aug. 28. First baseman Matt Carpenter played the final two months (at least) with a painful shoulder.

But all teams are hit with injuries, right? It’s something you must deal with. And the Cardinals’ depth was better than anticipated. Because of injuries, or ineffective performances, players such as outfielder Tommy Pham, shortstop Paul DeJong and outfielder/1B Jose Martinez were given extended opportunities and thrived.

So if anyone out there wants to spin the Cards’ second consecutive failure to make the postseason by citing injuries, youth and inexperience … well, that that would be nonsense. The reinforcements delivered substantially positive impact.

The Cardinals would have lost considerably more than 79 games without the combined 1,280 plate appearances taken by Pham, DeJong and Martinez. And even though he ended the season with a couple of roughed-up starts, rookie Luke Weaver was a balm for the rotation.

So why do I believe the Cardinals had the horses to make a successful run into the postseason?

Here you go:

— The Cardinals rotation was tied for 6th in the majors with 79 quality starts. They had more QS than six teams that qualified for the postseason: Cubs, Yankees, Dodgers, Rockies, Astros and Twins.

— The rotation’s fielding independent rotation earned-run average (aka FIP) was 4.20 which ranked 8th in the majors and 4th in the NL. Cards starters also turned in the sixth-highest innings count in the majors, had the No. 5 best homers-allowed rate, were 9th in opponents’ OPS, and finished 11th in strikeout-walk ratio. Despite the late-season trouble, this was a good rotation.  That rotation FIP was better than two playoff teams (Cubs, Rockies) plus the Brewers who finished three games ahead of the third-place Cards in the NL Central.

— The Cardinals’ bullpen, which has taken a disproportionate amount of blame, wasn’t as awful as portrayed. The relievers ranked 2nd in the NL and 8th in the majors with a FIP of 3.94. The bullpen allowed too many inherited runners to score, and that certainly was an issue. (It also that tends to be a random statistic.)And the bullpen improved (overall) after a turbulent early-season launch. The bullpen’s Win Probability Added ranked 17th overall, and was better than that of two playoff teams (Twins and Astros.)

— The bottom line on the St. Louis pitching: the team finished tied for 10th in the majors in run prevention. There are 30 teams. So when you’re preventing runs at a stingier rate than 20 other teams, I think you have enough pitching to make it to the postseason. The Cards’ run prevention was virtually even to that of playoff entrants Cubs and Astros and superior to the postseason-bound Rockies and Twins.

— While the Cardinals’ offense finished 7th in the NL and 13th overall with an average of 4.7 runs per game, I believe that’s a little misleading. Here’s why: on June 15, DeJong was promoted to the big club to stay and take on an every-day starting role. There were 98 games remaining in the season. Plenty of time. And over the final 98 games the Cardinals were ranked 2nd in the NL and tied for fifth overall, with an average of 5.07 runs per game. In the NL, only the Cubs put up more runs than the Cardinals from June 15 on. With DeJong as a regular, and Pham in place as a fixture, and Martinez getting more at bats, the Cardinals were 10th overall and 5th in the NL in slugging over the final 98 games. Over that time they were also 6th overall and 4th in the  in the league in OPS over the final 98 games.

— Cardinals hitters (non pitchers) accrued 24.2 Wins Above Replacement for the season, which ranked 8th in the majors and 5th in the league. The four NL teams with more position-player WAR than St. Louis were the Dodgers, Marlins, Cubs and Nationals. The Cards’ position players had more WAR than the playoff-bound Diamondbacks and Rockies. And keep in mind that WAR encompasses offense, defense and base running.

— Cardinals hitters (non pitchers) were 5th in the NL with 106 park-adjusted runs created, performing six percent above the league average offensively. That 106 wRC+ was higher than the wRC+ turned in by the Diamondbacks and Rockies. After the All-Star break, the Cards were second in the NL at nine percent above the league average offensively; only the Cubs (16 percent) were better.

— Back to pitching: The Cardinals’ 18.1 total WAR was 10th overall, sixth in the NL … one spot ahead of the Cubs.

— The Cardinals’ starting pitchers posted 12.4 WAR, which ranked 9th in the majors and 5th in the NL … above two playoff teams,Cubs and Rockies.

— The Cards’ bullpen WAR (4.4) was 11th in the majors and No. 5 in the NL, above two playoff teams Cubs and Nationals.

If you look at the scope of where the Cardinals fit in — with performances that exceeded multiple postseason teams in several significant categories — it’s my opinion that they had the horses to make it to the tournament.

Of course, you have to use the right horses.

You have to get them into the gate.

The Cardinals waited too long demote drowning shortstop Aledmys Diaz and go with DeJong. When Diaz started at shortstop this season, the Cardinals had a 29-37 record. With DeJong as the starter at short, the record was 47-38. But DeJong didn’t take over at shortstop until June 21.

Pham could have been called up earlier. Jose Martinez could have been a factor sooner. Too many plate appearances were invested in struggling hitters such as Stephen Piscotty. Rather than cling to past performances, manager Mike Matheny could have been more proactive and quick about plugging in more deserving players. And Matheny’s handling of the pitching staff surely cost the Cardinals some wins.

And the front office should have added bullpen help before the trade deadline.

I’m not absolving management; I just mentioned how the Diaz-DeJong switch should have gone down sooner. But this assembled roster — based on metrics — should have won five more games this season.

That said, I’m also being too easy on this organization. The goal shouldn’t be to win 87 or 88 games and sneak into the playoffs. The Cardinals should have more ambitious aspirations. The mission should be to build a roster that can win 90+ games and pursue the Cubs.

Cardinals’ management must adjust and turn up the aggressiveness this offseason. The Cubs are a different beast. They have the Cardinals a chance this season, and the Cards couldn’t exploit the Cubs’ post-championship lethargy. I don’t know how many chances the Cubs will give the Cardinals over the next couple of years.

I don’t think 87 wins will cut it.

Once again, the front office has to get busier.

Smart organizations adjust and adapt.

The Tortoise and the Hare thing ain’t going to work against the Cubs.

But to answer this specific question: Yes. There was enough of talent in the house this season to give 2017 a happier ending. We could be getting ready to watch the Cardinals play at Arizona in the NL wild card game on Wednesday night.

And while that’s hardly the ultimate prize, it beats sitting out of the postseason for a second straight year.

Thanks as always for reading …


More: Miklasz – The Cardinals’ First Offseason Challenge? Get Smarter.

  • David B

    If the FO doesn’t make a change at the manager level and continues to make decisions to soothe veterans (keeping Wainwright in the rotation, letting Fowler play center field), it will send a message. To the fan base and to players who might sign with or agree to a trade to join the Cardinals, it will say there is not yet a sense of urgency about changing the trajectory the team has been on. If you’re a Cardinals fan, you have to hope the FO understands how consequential the next few months are going to be for maintaining fan support, among other things.

    • JohnS

      If you are a Cardinals fan, you may as well check out for the next three years or however long Moe/theny are running/ruining the team….

  • Tarzan

    The front office is on the clock. Do they have a viable plan to substantially improve the team. And, more importantly – Will they execute it? Cardinal Nation is watching, waiting!

  • Neal Weber

    Thanks Bernie another well put together article based on facts and stats. As you stated injuries can not be the excuse both the Dodgers and Cubs had several key people on the DL this season and both managed to win their respective divisions. I do think that management has not made the necessary adjustments during the midseason/trade deadline the other contenders do. At the AS break the Cardinals were right there and the FO decided to stand pat, even the Cubs had thoughts about being sellers before their big acquisition from the White Sox which seemed to energize them for the second half.

    • Big T

      As I recall most people wanted the Cards to be sellers at the break.

      I think the price of players that would put an organization over the top was very pricy this yaer as we head into a weak FA class. Look at all the pitching trades, they involved several players and at least two top organizational picks from the buying team.

      I believe the Cards would have made a trade had the value been there. It wasn’t and they were not close enough to take a reasonable chance. Smart management despite not making the fans happy.

      Look at the hall the White Sox have made over the last two seasons trading/tanking their franchise. Not as simple as it appears on the surface.

  • Chris Moeller

    Somehow Lilliquist goes, and Mabry doesn’t? What a quick downfall for the PC only two years removed from the most accomplished pitching season in 40 years. Mabry survives the axe again, a year after they can Derrick May, whose pinch-hitters also broke a few records. Can there be any more yes-men left in the organization to promote?

    • Daniel G. Fink

      Chris, I had the same impression at first. I did a bit of research and learned that in this era of analytics, as of July ’15 Lilliquist still carried around hand written notes on opposing hitters, in an old locked trunk… …Maybe the other coaches are already on board or agree to be heading into ’18. I believe the original analytical approach by DeWitt was meant for off season bargain hunting ala “Billy Ball”, but they now have ramped up the on field implications.

      • Patrick

        Good catch there. I can’t help but feel Mo would move on Matheny but Dewitt won’t let him. But he’s moving a lot of pieces around him.

  • rightthinker4

    With Matheny back in 2018, the team will again finish out of the Central Division and playoff race. Conservatively, Matheny cost the Cardinals 10 wins in 2017, and add to those losses, the number of wins management cost the team, and it looks bleak for 2018.

    • maryville

      rightthinker4 posted: “Conservatively, Matheny cost the Cardinals 10 wins in 2017.” Do you realize that with 10 additional wins the Cards would have had a 93-69 record? That’s one game better than the Cubs at 92-70. Do you really think the Cards have a better team than the Cubs? Really . . . .

      • JohnS

        He didn’t say the Cards were better than the Cubs, he said Matheny cost the team conservatively ten wins. Sometimes the best team doesn’t win, you know….

        • maryville

          So you are saying that if the Cards would have won 10 more games giving them a better record than the Cubs, the Cubs would still have a better team. That implies that Maddon is a bad/inept manager, doesn’t it? But isn’t he, Maddon, the most worshiped manager, the manager than can do no wrong?

          • Big T

            If you think about how he “over evaluated” Schwarber batting him leadoff (210 Hitter), how he misused Chapman in the WS and how he started the riff between he and his former catcher by not playing him or backing him…yeah he done lot of things wrong.

            You see know one notices as long as you win. But if you read the Chicago blogs up until late August they were all asking for Mad Joe to get fired as well.

          • maryville

            So Maddon went from ‘the best’ manager to the ‘despised’ manager in one year. Wow! I suspect player performance didn’t have anything to do with that . . . .

  • JohnS

    Amusing to read this article on how well the Cards pitching did this year and then realize the Cards just fired their pitching coach…..

  • LawrenceKScardsfan

    Another great article Bernie. The sum of the parts of this team was always greater than the whole exhibited in games.

    Critically impacting the season:

    1) A failure to recognize the real talent in ST. Peralta over Gyorko. Diaz over Dejong.

    2) What gives with Oh as closer for so long? Why wasn’t the need for a closer recognized earlier. Even with the “upgrade” to Rosie in the mid-season, the Cards stuck with Oh for too long.

    3) Failure to bolster the starting rotation during the off-season. Waino was coming off a weak year. Wacha had well-known shoulder problems. Theoretically Leake needed a great defense to perform to expectation.

    4) Failure at fundamentals – defense, base-running, advancing the runner – Yikes!

    5) Coaching that defied common sense – especially in managing the bullpen and knowing when to yank starters.

    Again – most of this boils down to poor management from the top down. None of these things were beyond fixing. But complacency ruled the day. And no no no – Fowler was not enough to create parity with the Cubs. Too think so was laughable – but that’s what the Cards tried to sell the St. Louis fanbase.

  • Will Grapperhaus

    Makes it pretty clear – as we all know and are dumbfounded by – the primary weakness was our heralded “leader of men”, and his coaching staff.

    • Mark Lee Arbogast

      That’s “Beloved Leader of Men”.

  • Mark Lee Arbogast

    Uh, no, they didn’t

  • Based on the statistics the Cardinals were good enough to make it, POSSIBLY, as a wild card. And that’s it. There are ten teams in the post-season. And when your team ranks 8th or 10th or 11th consistently, where does that put them? A wild card at best. A better comparison would have been the ten post-season teams vs. the Cardinals in every category. The X-factor, of course, is the manager, who may be worth 5-6 games a season. In which case it is certainly possible if not probable that the Cardinals manager cost his team enough games to leave them finishing out of the money, since they finished four games behind the Rockies.

  • Tim

    So Bernie, just to be devil’s advocate, I will disagree with you. What is the goal and how is it achievable. Cards can definitely and should have made the playoffs. Some obvious mistakes such as Fowler in center and being late on some player transitions, ( bringing up Pham and not releasing Peralatta earlier ) would have definitely got us 4-5 extra wins.

    That said we are far from elite and way behind Cubs. The team has forget the band-aid strategy and go with a plan. Fowler, Leake are all stop gap arrangement. FA is way overpriced and dangerous. We do not want to be Phillies and follow the path of mediocrity. Here are some of my suggestions ( with the caveat that I am no scout and just a fan)

    1. Get rid of older non leadership type personalities – That includes Fowler, Leake, Lynn, Oh Ceceil.
    2. Convert the breadth into depth . Easier said than done. Cards have a lot of depth but no young offensive superstar. Need Ozuna or Yelich.

    3. Use your depth to your advantage and we have to some extent. Use extra minor league starters to rest some regulars over the year, Use the minor league batters to rest Carp, Molina, Fowler , Wong and DeJong to rest these folks before they get hurt. Many of our injuries are stress injuries ( See Molina, Carp and Fowler)

    • silencedogoodreturns

      I thought you were getting rid of Fowler. No need to rest someone who isn’t there!

    • Gene

      Well, re your point #1, 3 of the 5 players you list are either departing free agents or were traded during the season, so why even mention them? And Brett Cecil isn’t a leader? I didn’t realize that a) he was supposed to be one and b) that you have any way of knowing what kind of leader he is in the first place.

      Secondly, everyone who knows or has played with Dexter Fowler says he’s a great clubhouse guy and a team leader. Do you think the many, many sportswriters who have written positively about him were kidding? Again, for some reason you seem to believe you have insight into any player’s leadership abilities and unless you’re a team employee, you can’t.

  • Jim Parisi

    Good points but I guess Mo doesn’t read your column. Amazed that Mozeliak thought Lilliquist was the issue with this team.

    I look forward to a comprehensive article citing how much Mo has regressed and the damage he has done to this organization.

  • Greg Gibson

    I think Matt Carpenter needs to be traded or play third base as a result of acquired players. He is slow afoot, defensively, just okay. Hey Bernie, I know he is a player you like but he is not Ty Cobb, okay?

  • Greg Gibson

    Not related to baseball but Bernie continues to rail against St. Louis because voters rejected the MLS stadium deal. Nashville is moving forward. Here’s how…from Nashville Mayor Megan Barry, “John Ingram and his fellow investors in S2Nashville are committing hundreds of millions of dollars, their own dollars to secure a franchise, building the stadium and making sure they’re safeguarding taxpayers in the process.” Bingo,

  • Big T

    Cardinals season has many reason one could look to in a hindsight manner.

    First/Biggest single reason was their inability to win within the NLC. Look at our record against Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, and finally Chicago where we lost 7 one run games. Yet we competed and actually had a better record than the Cubs against Dodgers, Nationals, DBacks and Rockies collectively. I use these as I believe three of the best teams are amongst them and they are the playoff teams.

    Second reason is the same need as last year!! A legitimate threat in our #3 and #4 batting order.

    Third to say injuries are an excuse is ok but it depends on the severity and position. Day one we lose the #1 pitching prospect in all of baseball for the year!! Significant and changed direction starting rotation and BP. Do you remember how effective Reyes was against anyone last year? Bullpen closer was lost when we are three out in mid August for the year? This injury capsized the entire bullpen as everyone roll was put back in flux. Great teams build their bullpen from the ninth inning backwards. Not just your random miss a couple of weeks type of injuries.

    Saying the Cardinals waited too long to bring up DeJong is hindsight. He never played SS before this year. At any level. He was at less than 50 games at the position in the minors before his promotion. No one, not even he knew if he could make that transition.

    I believe these three are ALL the most legitimate reasons why we are not playing tonight. Good luck to Lilly and his side kick I hope they find a spot in baseball.

  • John W

    I don’t care what stats you throw out there Bernie, There is no way you can convince me that a Bullpen which was directly responsible for losing 30 games ” wasn’t as awful as portrayed” as you say !!