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 …