So to riff off a popular joke from this week, I’d like to confirm that I am not taking a job writing for The Athletic like the rest of the baseball world. Because of that, you can continue to receive the same mediocre Cardinals coverage free of charge here at Redbird Dugout for the foreseeable future.
With that said, pitchers and catchers have all officially reported. It appears that Matthew Bowman was the final pitcher and/or catcher to arrive to spring training, as he did yesterday afternoon. This morning holds the first official workouts. Before long, pitchers will be firing several pitchers wide in the bullpens at Roger Dean Stadium.
With that, I figured with the first “Five Things” column of the season, I would review the offseason and set up the early season storylines.
Ozuna addition steadies a potentially potent lineup
For all the complaints about the Cardinals’ offense last season, their 100 team wRC+ was 9th in the Majors last season and the 3rd in the National League behind the Dodgers (104 wRC+) and the Cubs (101 wRC+). Unfortunately when it came to converting that production into actual runs scored, the team struggled placing 13th in runs scored in all of baseball and 7th in the National League. That would seem to point more towards a lineup that wasn’t optimized than one that lacked talent.
The addition of Marcell Ozuna from the Marlins will bring some much needed depth to a middle of the lineup that lacked a true middle of the order hitter. I still think the lineup needs one more, but it seems like we’re going to try the ‘Matt Carpenter as a middle of the order hitter’ experiment again to begin the 2018 season as Mike Matheny has suggested he prefers Carpenter in the three spot. If it works, that might be the answer the team has needed.
Pham’s 148 wRC+ was tied for 8th in baseball while Ozuna’s 142 wRC+ ranked 13th among qualified hitters last season. Projection systems universally don’t like either of them to reproduce those kind of numbers. ZiPS for example puts the two at 115 wRC+ for Pham and 116 wRC+ for Ozuna. I agree that they won’t duplicate those kind of offensive numbers, but I think they are both capable of coming in above 120 wRC+ this season, which still makes them top-50 talents offensively.
Combine that with Ozuna’s Gold Glove defense in left field and Pham’s peeks at being Gold Glove caliber, and they should be well rounded players who contribute on both sides of the ball and be solid cornerstones for the lineup.
That brings us to Paul DeJong in his effort to not follow the path of the man he replaced, Aledmys Diaz. Diaz broke onto the scene in 2016 and appeared to be a lineup cornerstone before a sophomore slump allowed DeJong to take his job and ended up with a demotion. Diaz is now with the Blue Jays as the team takes its shot with DeJong.
DeJong hit 25 home runs behind his 122 wRC+ last season. Most projection systems see regression ahead of him with ZiPS projecting a 97 wRC+. I tend to agree that a league average number is most likely for DeJong going forward. His early defensive numbers at shortstop were good last year, but regressed as the season went on to put him just a touch negative. It’s still well ahead of Diaz defensively, but at shortstop, DeJong’s defense will be the most important part of his game.
The bullpen approach is throw everything at the wall and see what sticks
Entering this winter the front office once again spoke a big game, talking about their coming pursuit of a big name free agent since they had nobody in-house prepared to assume the closer’s role after they parted ways with Trevor Rosenthal following his surgery. Instead their approach has seemed to been more “Quantity over quality.”
To an extent, I get it. The bullpen is a volatile place for pitchers. You can look at new acquisition Dominic Leone to understand this. He was great in his rookie year and part of a dominant bullpen last year, but in the two years in between he struggled to stay in the Majors as he had control issues. Another is last winter’s $30 million man Brett Cecil who had great numbers out of the bullpen in Toronto, but struggled in St. Louis last season.
Leone joins free agent signees Luke Gregerson and Bud Norris as part of the group the Cardinals brought in instead of an elite closer. None are confidence inspiring on their own, but the Cardinals are placing their confidence in new pitching coach Mike Maddux and the amount of pitchers they have who could step into the bullpen.
Those four will join Matthew Bowman, John Brebbia, Tyler Lyons, and Sam Tuivailala who all had big years for the Cardinals last season. Those are the eight relievers you’re looking at on the Opening Day roster.
Behind those eight guys you have Alex Reyes due back in May from Tommy John surgery. They’ve also got Jack Flaherty, John Gant, Mike Mayers and Josh Lucas who appeared out there for the Cardinals last year.
They’ve got non-roster guys like former closer Edward Mujica and Preston Guilmet to go along with big name prospects like Jordan Hicks, Ryan Helsley, Dakota Hudson, and Connor Greene who could all get looks this summer if it comes to that.
The plan seems to be to throw it all at the wall and hope something sticks with someone stepping up and stepping into those important roles in the bullpen.
Low floor, high ceiling as Cardinals gamble
I think that the most frustrating thing about this winter is that the Cardinals could have come in and left no doubt about who was the king of the NL Central. They have the money, they have the prospects, and they have the needs. The specifically singled out a middle of the order hitter and an elite closer as their needs and came up with only one of them, bowing out of the other over costs.
I’ve talked before this winter where the Cardinals stand payroll-wise and currently they will be spending less on their Opening Day 25 this year than they did last year. They could have added whoever they wanted from free agency without batting an eye financially, but they’ve specifically chosen to gamble in a division they finished third in last year and where the teams ahead of them have done at least as much to address their needs.
But the potential is there and the potential is legit. It’s both a good thing and bad thing because if you came back from the future and told me the Cardinals won 75 games this year, I wouldn’t be surprised. Likewise, if you came back and told me they won 95 games, I wouldn’t be surprised either. If their bets pay off, this is the best team in the Central, however it’s a free fall if they don’t.
Slow free agency opens the door to late additions
While the Cardinals might officially consider themselves done, they did so earlier this winter and still signed Bud Norris to a one year deal as the front office said that they will be “opportunistic” with the free agent market that’s developing. There’s always the possibility that it could create some interesting opportunities for the Cardinals to step in and pick someone up on a shorter term deal.
There are still players out there who could help this team. Jake Arrieta and Lance Lynn would bring some stability to a rotation that has a big innings question. Logan Morrison is a player the Cardinals expressed some interest in early in the winter, and reportedly offered a contract to. But he is still on the market as well.
An acquisition like Morrison would almost certainly require the Cardinals to rethink their other bench spots as well. A role for Jose Martinez would be in question or the club would have to go with seven relievers instead of Matheny’s preferred eight. And with the strategy for working out the bullpen, I fully expect them to go with eight relievers. However, it is still something to watch as the spring progresses.
And even if a player were to get injured, could you see a move for a free agent in spring training? That’s something to watch too as we’re in a bit of uncharted territory.
Bench mix might be most interesting battle of the spring
The makeup of the Cardinals’ bench might be the most interesting battle to watch in Spring Training this year. There are certain guys already locked in. Carson Kelly will be the backup catcher. Jose Martinez will be the backup first baseman and reserve outfielder. Greg Garcia is probably going to be the infield utility guy. And then you have one spot remaining.
That spot likely goes to an outfielder, which makes the battle most likely to be Harrison Bader versus Tyler O’Neill. But having options and flexibility could open the door for a guy like Breyvic Valera, who can play anywhere.
Projection systems seem to like O’Neill better than Bader. According to ZiPS, O’Neill is projected for a 104 wRC+ while Bader is just an 84 wRC+. Part of that can be that Bader had more exposure last year and struggled to finish up the season while O’Neill only struggled, but still managed to mash, to finish up the AAA season in Memphis.
But an outfielder isn’t a requirement. In past years you’d need an outfielder who could play center field on the bench, but this year all three starting outfielders have been starting center fielders in the Majors at some point in their career. If we’re talking about spot starts in center, Ozuna and Fowler are both capable of doing the job.
That opens the door for a guy like Valera who has played 800 games in the minors for the Cardinals before making his debut last year. He is a classical switch hitting utility player who can play anywhere on the field. In many ways, I’ve heard him compared to Jose Oquendo for many of those same reasons.
I expect the club will take four bench players and eight relievers, as that’s Matheny’s preference and because of how they intend to approach their bullpen I think they’ll opt for more arms there. Especially with a position player roster that has some actual positional flexibility, rather than just the ability to be equally horrible defensively at multiple positions.