Column: Carlos Martinez is not an ace… yet

There’s been a lot of discussion this year about Carlos Martinez and whether he is the Cardinals’ “ace.” And it’s a difficult question because ace means different things to different people. The basics of the criteria are pretty similar though. They are looked at as the guy to “right the ship” every five days. They should consistently give their team a chance to win. And, in my opinion, this is not a year-to-year position. This is sustained success over a few years before you can truly take the mantle of “ace.”

Going into this season, I spoke often about how in 2016 Martinez showed us everything we would want to see to be able to call him a future ace. There were games where he blew it past hitters and there were games he made his opponent look silly with his offspeed stuff and he seemed to get a sick satisfaction from doing it.

The Cardinals agreed with that assessment and gave him a 5 year, $51 million contract during spring training that could end up being a 7 year, $85 million contract if they use both option years.

And so far in 2017 there has been more time spent discussing Martinez’s hair than his performance on the mound because for whatever reason, Martinez’s season seems to be flying under the radar. So in case you’ve missed it, here are some highlights of his season.

He has thrown nine innings with no runs allowed 3 times. Three times this season Martinez has taken the mound and thrown 9 innings and allowed no runs, which is tied for the most in baseball alongside Ervin Santana and Corey Kluber. No other pitchers in baseball have done it more than once.

And here’s a fun fact, the other two guys who have done it are 3-0 in those three starts. Martinez is just 2-0 because the offense couldn’t score in one of his and the team actually lost in extras.

Martinez has 20 quality starts. A quality start is going at least six innings while allowed three earned runs of less. That is tied for third in Major League Baseball. Chris Sale leads the Majors at 22 with Gio Gonzalez in second place with 21. The other guys Martinez is tied with? You know them. Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Corey Kluber, and Gerrit Cole.

Martinez has thrown 194.1 innings. His first 200 inning season seems like a slam dunk at this point. He is third in baseball here too. Only Chris Sale and Jeff Samardzija have thrown more innings. Only three pitchers in the top-10 of innings pitched have a better ERA (Sale, Ervin Santana, and Zack Greinke). He also leads the league in games started.

So, for all the talk about how Martinez isn’t consistent enough, here are three numbers that are essentially the gold standard for consistency. He’s taking the ball every fifth day, he’s throwing more innings than almost anyone else, and he’s turning in a quality start at the end of the day as often as anyone else.

But let’s look at that consistency a little more.

Martinez has a 128 ERA+ since becoming a full time starter in 2015. That 128 ERA+ is good for 11th in baseball among starters who have thrown 500 innings since the start of 2015. The names ahead of Martinez on this list are pretty much all recognizable, but it’s not just about the names. Martinez is the youngest name on this list. Yes, at age 25, he is the youngest pitcher in baseball to have thrown 500 innings since 2015.

Let’s see how those ten guys ahead of Martinez on the list fared during their age 25 season.

And Martinez still has two to three starts remaining this season depending on how desperate the team is at the very end.

Looking at that list you have four guys who clearly outperformed Martinez at age 25 in Kershaw, Greinke, Sale, and Bumgarner. But those guys are special. And three of those four are also left handed. But the other six guys? Martinez is as good or clearly ahead of them at age 25.

This just drives home the point of “yet” to me. He is not an ace yet, but don’t let that distract you from the fact that he is still very, very good right now.

Will he be an ace some day? I think the odds are good. He’s shown you everything you need to see to reasonable believe he will be. But is he completely there yet? No. And that’s okay.

At 25, Adam Wainwright had a 3.70 ERA in his first full season in the rotation. At 25, Chris Carpenter had a 6.26 ERA and led the league in earned runs allowed in just 175 innings. At 25, Bob Gibson had a 3.24 ERA and led baseball in walks, but he turned out alright.

I have confidence that Martinez will get there.

Looking at the names I’ve mentioned in this article and knowing that Martinez is in the same breath as them is outstanding. I firmly believe that this is one of those situations where the quote, “the grass is always greener on the other side” comes into play.

In reality, the primary difference between Martinez and the rest of the pitchers in this article is that he’s the youngest and the others have had the benefit of time to grow into elite pitchers. We quickly forget that a guy like Max Scherzer wasn’t even an ace level talent until his age 28 season. The Diamondbacks gave up on him at age 24 for Ian Kennedy and Edwin Jackson.

As Cardinals fans we should know better. We said many of the same things about Dan Haren back in 2004. He wasn’t good enough. Not consistent enough. And then he went on to throw 215+ innings in each of the next seven seasons at a 3.49 ERA.

Even Lance Lynn. At age 25 in his first full season in the rotation he was too inconsistent and an emotional head case who spun out of control when something went the wrong way. We all know what a “Lynning” is. But over his last three seasons from age 27 to 30, Lynn has a 2.92 ERA.

Let’s not make the same mistake by counting all the ways Martinez hasn’t lived up to the expectations we’ve projected in on him. Instead, let’s look at all the ways he is a very good pitcher with all the tools to grow into one of the best pitchers in baseball right in front of our eyes.

Five things about the Rockies Series

The Cardinals completed their first sweep of since June 9-11 when they swept the Philadelphia Phillies at home. They won the past two nights in small part due to the young guys they’ve brought up providing a nice spark of energy. The Cardinals now find themselves 3.5 games behind the Cubs and now back in third place. They have not been this close to first since play wrapped up on July 3rd.

Bader’s Mad Dash

For his first Major League hit on Tuesday night, Harrison Bader ripped a double to left field and raced around the bases. He was bunted over to third by Greg Garcia and then chipped home by Jedd Gyorko. Bader’s dash home was clocked at nearly 30 feet per second according to FOX Sports Midwest last night and that’s Billy Hamilton territory according to Statcast’ Sprint Speeds leaderboard. I see now why the Cardinals think he can play center field.

But that wasn’t the only dash he had to make. On Wednesday he legged out two infield hits. Overall he went 3-for-4 with a double, a walk and a strikeout and put together a more complete game than I’ve seen from a Cardinals prospect in quite some time. For example, it took Paul DeJong 50 plate appearances to take his first walk.

The cavalry showed up

Wednesday night’s 10-5 victory marked the sixth time this season that Carlos Martinez has allowed 4 or more earned runs, but the first time that the Cardinals managed to win the game. When he allows 3 or fewer, the Cardinals are 9-6.

It’s the young guys that are driving this team right now. Paul DeJong hits a home run in the first inning to tie the game back up after the Rockies got to Martinez in the top of the first.  Tommy Pham goes 2-for-2 with an RBI and a pair of runs scored. Randal Grichuk goes 4-for-5. Harrison Bader goes 3-for-4. Kolten Wong goes 0-for-3, but walked twice, scored twice and drove in a run.

There are so many glimmers of what this team could be. They are a very different team with a very different energy with the group of guys they had last night. You almost don’t want Dexter Fowler or Stephen Piscotty to come off the disabled list for fear of messing it up.

Youth movement

One thing I’ve mentioned a lot is the energy this Cardinals’ team is playing with right now and much of that carried on by the younger players. Guys like Paul DeJong, Randal Grichuk, and Tommy Pham who are all tied for the team lead with 14 home runs despite none of them having spent the entire season with the big league club. Pham and Grichuk have both missed a month and DeJong has been up about two months at this point. Those three combined to hit four home runs in the series.

I consider the “young” guys to include those short on MLB experience and perhaps guys who just aren’t established players yet. Guys like DeJong, Pham, Grichuk, Bader, and Wong. In that Colorado series, those five guys hit .436 with 3 doubles, 4 home runs, 11 RBI, and 12 runs scored. Of the 24 runs that the Cardinals scored, 19 of them were scored or driven in by one of those five players.

Molina still bats fifth

I pointed this out on Twitter the other day, that Yadier Molina had the worst OPS of any player in that day’s Cardinals’ lineup. But wait, it gets worse. After being pushed to dig for more advanced stats I discovered that Molina has been the Cardinals’ worst hitter this season by wRC+ and wOBA of all their position players. Only Carson Kelly has been worse, and he has just 6 plate appearances this season and has been up a week.

Oh, yeah

Seung-hwan Oh made an appearance last night, throwing a perfect 9th with two strikeouts. That makes his second perfect appearance in a row as he looks to get back on track. He’s probably not ready to be thrown back into the fire yet, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Five things about the Pirates Series

The Pittsburgh Pirates quickly strangled any hope of coming out of the break with some momentum as they managed not one, but two come-from-behind, walk-off victories against the Cardinals this weekend at PNC Park to win the series. As much as I want to say it was a surprise, since most expected the Cardinals to come to Pittsburgh and handle their business, it really wasn’t. Since the Pirates became relevant again, they have consistently given the Cardinals fits in Pittsburgh.

The Cardinals now find themselves 6.5 games back in the division and in third place. They head to New York for a four game set against the Mets.

“Closing time, one last call for alcohol…”

Or so the lyrics to the song go, but its hard for Mike Matheny to figure out who should take him home when everyone seems to be crashing. Seung-hwan Oh started the season as the closer before about three weeks ago Matheny said he was making a change and going with Trevor Rosenthal. Then he went back to Oh on Friday, who blew the save. Then on Sunday afternoon he pulled out Brett Cecil in the 9th to close up the game.

It’s a bad look when none of the three highest paid relievers in your bullpen can’t be trusted to close out a game and I don’t think we can add #4, Kevin Siegrist, in there either.

In my opinion it’s time to mix Sam Tuivailala into late innings situations. Tuivailala has a 2.25 ERA over 20 innings of work this season and carries a 1.20 WHIP. In Memphis he carries a 1.65 ERA over 16 innings of work. And yet he continues to be relegated to mop up duty in Matheny’s bullpen, having thrown the least out of all the relievers over the last 14 and 28 days. Over those last 28 days he’s thrown 6 scoreless innings in five appearances.

In fact, Tuivailala, John Brebbia, and Matthew Bowman have combined to allow just a single earned run over the last 28 days. No other reliever on the roster has less than two. They’ve earned a right to get an opportunity in higher leverage situations, especially when the guys who are there aren’t getting the job done.

Some of Tony La Russa’s greatest successes came by acknowledging the way he was using his bullpen wasn’t working and switching things up. It’s time for Matheny to follow that lead and mix things up.

Sierra returns triumphant

With injuries to both Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty, Magneuris Sierra gets another cup of coffee with the big league club and comes throguh, going 4-for-4 in his return. Now through 9 games of his MLB career, he’s got at least one hit in all of them and multiple hits in five of them. He is the 154th player in MLB history to go 4-for-4 inside his first 10 career games.

Of course, the cries for Sierra to be an everyday player from here on out were there. We seem to be at peak Sierra, similar to where we were in May when everyone was complaining about how the Cardinals let Allen Cordoba go in the Rule 5 draft when he was hitting .300 in San Diego. Since June 1st, Cordoba has hit .131 and those complaints have gone quiet. Eventually Sierra will reach that point too and when he does, it won’t be pretty.

Sierra has sixteen hits in his first 9 MLB games. All singles. His speed making up for a lack of punch.

As The Intrepid STL’s Zach Gifford tweeted last night, Sierra still has much to develop on the offensive side of the ball. His contact rate and chase rates are worse than Grichuk. His .571 BABIP makes him look good. He’s projected to have a 61 wRC+ to finish out the season according to Fangraphs. That’s 49% worse than an average player.

Wong returns from DL

Kolten Wong returned almost a month to the date of his headed to the disabled list for a second time and went 0-for-4. After his customary night off on the second night, Wong returned on Sunday afternoon and went 2-for-4. With Paul DeJong and Magneuris Sierra in the lineup, Wong batted sixth, which is the highest he’s been in the lineup all season. Which is borderline laughable considering he led the team in batting average and on base percentage a month ago.

Pham returns from the break hitting

It seems like Tommy Pham just has no desire to give up playing time in the outfield, even while that continues to be a talking point. Pham went 5-for-12 in the series with a pair of doubles in the Pirates series. Over the Cardinals’ last 20 games, he has hit .347/.427/.514. He has been the Cardinals’ best outfielder and their third best hitter overall by wRC+ (behind Paul DeJong and Luke Voit) in that span.

Another wasted Martinez start

The Cardinals lost on Sunday with Carlos Martinez going 7 innings and allowing just two runs for his 13th quality start on the season. That tied him with Mike Leake for the team lead in quality starts. It was the team’s fifth loss when Martinez turns in a quality start and third straight.

It was their third loss this season when Martinez turned in a QS+ or “Gibby” (defined by Derrick Goold as going at least 7 IP and allowing 3 ER or less).

Five things about the Orioles Series

The Orioles were 10-20 entering this past series at Camden Yards and with a series against the Phillies coming up next, the Cardinals seemed poised to put some wins on the board. But that would not be the case in this series. After blowing out the O’s by 9 runs on Friday night, the Cardinals were outscored by 11 runs over the remaining two games of the series. The result was another lost series and a missed opportunity.

The Cardinals now find thesmelves 31-37 and 5.5 games back in the NL Central. They get a day off before heading to Philadelphia for a three game set this week. Since they won a series against the Cubs on May 14th, the Cardinals have won just one series, the one last weekend against the Phillies.

If not leadoff, then…

When the Cardinals signed Dexter Fowler to a 5 year, $82.5 million deal this winter, it was to have him bat leadoff and move Matt Carpenter to the third spot. But after 56 games, the Cardinals pulled the plug on that experiment and moved Carpenter back to lead off. Since then though, Fowler’s bat has come alive as well.

In 11 games since being moved to the second spot in the lineup, Fowler his batting .395/.465/.842 with 5 home runs and 14 RBI. He has hit a home run now in four straight games to bring his season total to 13, which is what he hit all of last season for the Chicago Cubs. He is on pace for 31 home runs, which nearly doubles his previous career high of 17.

One has to wonder if Fowler, who has talked about how Barry Bonds has indicated that he could be a #3 hitter, might actually be the middle of the lineup threat the Cardinals have wanted. He has the tools and apparently has the power.

DeJong comes back strong

After slumping to the tune of a .154 batting average over his final seven games with the Cardinals before being sent back to Memphis, Paul DeJong turned the corner when he returned. Speaking of being a bit overwhelmed by his first trip to the Majors, the two days back in the minors before being recalled after Kolten Wong hit the disabled list again provided him an opportunity to take a breath.

In his second game back and first game of the series, DeJong went 3-for-4, with three runs scored, a home run, and 3 RBI. He backed it up going 1-for-3 with another two run homer on Saturday along with his first career MLB walk. Over the three game series he went 4-for-11 with 2 home runs and 5 RBI along with 4 runs scored.

Cecil changes his numbers

After spending eight seasons in the American League East with the Toronto Blue Jays, one could say that Brett Cecil is comfortable at Orioles Park at Camden Yards. He also might have been a little more comfortable after slipping into his new #27 jersey, making the change after the number recently became available following the release of Jhonny Peralta.

Cecil would post back-to-back perfect outings of 1 inning on Friday and Sunday, just the second time this season he’s posted back-to-back perfect outings of at least 1 inning pitched.

He was also one of two Cardinal pitchers to pitch in the series and not allow a run. The other was Trevor Rosenthal.

In the last month, Cecil has a 3.09 ERA and 0.77 WHIP over 12 appearances and 11.2 innings pitched. His ERA is backed by four earned runs, all of which came in a disastrous June 7th appearance against the Reds. After a horrendous April and an even more horrendous start to May, he seems to be turning the corner.

Wainwright’s problems continue

Adam Wainwright posted a 6.37 ERA through his first seven starts this season and then put together a four start stretch that saw him allow just a single earned run over 26 innings of work for a 0.34 ERA. He seemed to be on the verge of putting it together and the timing coincided with a strong run he put together last season through the summer, but those seem to just be pipe dreams.

Wainwright allowed 9 earned runs without making it out of the second inning on Saturday, the second time in three starts he has been tagged for nine earned runs. Over his last three starts, opponents are batting .408/.500/.796 against him. Yes, that’s right, they’re getting on base 50% of the time.

Martinez is having a good year

Carlos Martinez went 6 innings and allowed just 1 run while striking out 8 during the Cardinals win on Friday. That puts him at a 2.86 ERA through 94.1 innings of work this season. He also has a 149 ERA+ and 2.8 Wins Above Replacement.

His 149 ERA+ is the 14 in baseball right now among starting pitchers who have started at least 10 games, and his 2.8 WAR is good for 10th. He has the 5th most strikeouts and faced the 11th fewest batters per inning.

He is on pace for 33 starts, 222 innings, and 252 strikeouts.

Those 252 strikeouts would be the most for a Cardinals pitcher since Adam Wainwright struck out 219 back in 2013. You have to go back to Bob Gibson in 1970 for the last time a Cardinals pitcher had more than 252 strikeouts in a season.

Five things about the Phillies Series

The changes worked! Or maybe not. Hard to tell that even though the St. Louis Cardinals swept the Philadelphia Phillies this weekend after a number of changes on the coaching staff by John Mozeliak. Mainly because it’s worth remembering that the Phillies have the worst record in baseball.

The Cardinals will now head for a real test, they will host the division leading Milwaukee Brewers who have a 2.5 game lead in the NL Central.

Wong hits the ground running

As I pointed out on Friday, Wong came off the DL having hit .311/.408/.462 with 9 doubles, 2 triples and a home run since the Cardinals returned from that sweep in the Bronx on April 16th.

He would go 5-for-10 in the Phillies series with a walk, a hit by pitch, and a pair of doubles. His season batting line is up to .294/.393/.434. Since April 16th, his line is up to .328/.423/.483. It’s almost to the point you don’t need to make the distinction.

He, along with Tommy Pham, continue to be some of the Cardinals best hitters over the last month. Since we have so many troubles up top in the lineup, perhaps it’s time to let Wong out of the 8th spot on a more regular basis?

Carpenter continues lead off success

Matt Carpenter went 4-for-12 with a pair of doubles in the Phillies series as he continued to lead off for the Cardinals. Since moving back to the lead off spot he has hit in all five games and is batting .350/.381/.750.

I am not a member of the “Carpenter can only hit when leading off” club, but the numbers are hard to dispute. Unfortunately, that just makes the Cardinals’ lineup far more top heavy.

Fowler likes hitting second?

With Carpenter leading off, Dexter Fowler has been slid back to the second spot in the lineup and went 4-for-10 with a pair of doubles, a home run, and a pair of walks. In the 10 games before moving him back to second, Fowler was hitting .219, so perhaps the move has worked out well for him as well.

Wacha bounces back

Michael Wacha had struggled in his previous three starts, seeing his season ERA jump from 2.74 to 4.67 in the process. He returned to his streak of throwing at least 6 innings as he went six innings and allowed just two runs on five hits and two walks. It’s a good bounce back for a pitcher whose next start will come against the Brewers.

Martinez dazzles

Carlos Martinez dropped his ERA to 2.95 while allowing just 4 hits and a walk over 9 shutout innings on Saturday against the Phillies. His 89 game score ranks this start as the best start of his career, topping the 87 he posted in an extra inning loss to the Giants back in May. The offense backed him up this time to the tune of 7 runs.

Five things about the Giants Series

The St. Louis Cardinals took the finale of a three game set against the San Francisco Giants over the weekend. They remain second place in the NL Central at 22-19, 1.5 games behind the division leading Milwaukee Brewers and half a game ahead of the defending division champion Chicago Cubs.

The Cardinals now head to Los Angeles for a three game series as they head west for the week. The Dodgers (26-19) are 6-4 over their last ten and coming off a series against the Marlins that saw them win three of four.

A lack of production from the top

It doesn’t seem to matter who the Cardinals plug into the top-3 spots in the lineup this season, they struggle to get consistent production from them. In the Giants series the top-3 spots in the lineup went a combined 6-for-38 (.158) and it’s not unique to this series.

The top-3 spots in the Cardinals lineup are hitting .210 on the season. The only team worse has been Oakland, whose first three hitters are batting .194.

And why I say it doesn’t seem to matter who hits in that top-3? Let’s look at the three guys who have spent the most time in the #2 spot of the lineup. Aledmys Diaz is batting .194 in the #2 spot, .371 elsewhere. Tommy Pham is batting .105 in the #2 spot, .406 elsewhere. Randal Grichuk is batting .105 in the #2 spot, .258 elsewhere. Kolten Wong hit .188 in the leadoff spot while Fowler was out, has hit .315 elsewhere.

A bigger problem for the Cardinals is that this seems to have become a consistent thing. In 2016, the top three in the Cardinals’ lineup hit a combined .258 which ranked 25th. In fact, the Cardinals top-3 hitters haven’t ranked in the top half of the league in batting average since 2013, where they hit .298 and were ranked second. They went to the World Series that year.

The plus so far is that the back two-thirds of the lineup are carrying the team. The Cardinals four through nine hitters are batting a combined .288 on the season, best in baseball.

Martinez dominates

On Saturday, Carlos Martinez allowed just two hits and a walk over 9 innings of work and came away with a no-decision as the game remained tied at 0-0 when he exited the game. Martinez’s game score of 87 was the fourth best scored game this season and the best scored game where the starting pitcher took a loss.

You have to go back to June of 2015 where Chris Sale struck out 14 batters over 8 innings for a score of 92 in a 2-1 loss to find the last time a pitcher with a score of 86 or higher lost a game.

If I’m counting right, teams whose starting pitcher turned in a game score of 86 or higher had won their last 85 games.

And so did the rest of the starters

In addition to Martinez’s nine shutout innings, the Cardinals’ rotation was on it this weekend.

Michael Wacha was returning to the rotation after being skipped the last time through the rotation to give him added rest in the hopes it would help him avoid a recurrence of his stress injury later this season. He showed that he did not miss a beat, throwing 6 shutout innings on 4 hits and 3 walks.

For Adam Wainwright, it was important for him to come out and back up the 7 shutout innings he threw against the Cubs and turn in another quality start. And he did that, allowing 1 earned run over 6.1 innings of work.

Peralta returns

Jhonny Peralta returned to the starting lineup on Sunday night for the first time since rejoining the club on Friday. And since then, he has reached base five times in six plate appearances. Already a large improvement over his first two weeks of the season where he reached base five times in 27 plate appearances. He had pinch hits on Friday and Saturday before going 2-for-3 with a walk on Sunday.

Gonzales putting himself back on the map

Not a big league thing, but Marco Gonzales made his third start returning from Tommy John surgery over the weekend. He threw 6.1 scoreless innings of work for Memphis, lowering his ERA to 0.68. He has been dominant, allowing just 7 hits and 2 walks over his 13.1 innings of work in two Triple-A starts for a 0.68 WHIP as well.

For a team whose Major League bullpen is a complete mess, having Gonzales and Tyler Lyons on the horizon could be helpful.

Bonus: Pham story

If you haven’t already, go check out Derrick Goold’s story on Tommy Pham and how he’s dealing with keratoconus. I’ve often seen Pham giving himself his vision test and wondering why he did it and whether it was connected to his eye condition. It’s a good read of some of the struggles he’s had to work through, which makes the talent he’s shown all the more impressive.

Cardinals ink Martinez to a record 5 year extension

Just when you were thinking John Mozeliak was really planning to take Carlos Martinez to an arbitration hearing, he once again proves himself a liar. Near the end of the Winter Meetings he says he doesn’t expect anything to happen for awhile, and then Dexter Fowler agrees to terms later that night. He says they’re taking Carlos Martinez to arbitration to prove a point, and only a week until the hearing locks him into an extension.

I’m joking about Mo being a liar, but really! Taking Martinez to arbitration was a bad idea and it seemed like everyone knew it. Except Mozeliak.

Martinez, 25, appears to be a pitcher on the verge of becoming a staff ace. He threw 195 innings, won 16 games and posted a 3.04 ERA as he carried the starting rotation last season. He was the only Cardinals’ pitcher to post a positive ERA+ and start more than 5 games.

Potential contract extension numbers for Martinez has been a hot topic this winter, and I had suggested that I saw Martinez going for a 4 year, $50 million deal. So the Cardinals getting him locked up for $51 million over 5 years and then having two option years on the end of that is a great deal for the club. That same deal is the largest contract ever for a first-time arbitration-eligible pitcher.

I’ve said it plenty of times before, but I have high hopes for Martinez. There were times last season where I felt like he just chose not to use his best stuff and still dominated the opponent anyway. The only thing standing between Martinez and being considered a true ace and sliding himself into the conversation as one of the best pitchers in the league is establishing consistency. It’s time for him to make that happen and I’m excited that I get to watch it.

Column: Cardinals will need better pitching to win in 2017

It’s not shock statement. If the St. Louis Cardinals are going to make a run at the Cubs in 2016, they will need to get better pitching. Just a season removed from having the best pitching staff in baseball, the Cardinals stumbled to 12th in 2016 with an ERA over one run worse. That difference was a key factor in the Cardinals going from a 100 win division champion to an 86 win team that missed out on the playoffs for the first time in six years.

And it isn’t like 2015’s MLB best pitching staff had everything go their way either. The team’s ace Adam Wainwright made just four starts before an Achilles injury in April cost him most of the season. But John Lackey managed to have a career year, Jaime Garcia showed why he was worth keeping around, and everyone learned who Tim Cooney was.

The 2016 pitching staff ran into trouble before the offseason even got into gear with Lance Lynn out for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Once the season started, Wainwright still wasn’t right, Garcia ran into a wall, and Michael Wacha’s stress fracture recurred.

And if that wasn’t enough, the defense struggled to consistently make outs. The Cardinals were 25th in defensive efficiency last season, a measure of how often players reach base when a ball is put into play. For reference, the Cubs were #1.

For some pitchers, like Mike Leake, that struggling defense cost him what was otherwise one of the finest seasons of his career. For others, it was just fuel on the fire of their struggles.

Improving that defense was one of John Mozeliak’s goals this winter and, for the most part, that has been accomplished.

Randal Grichuk, newcomer Dexter Fowler, and Stephen Piscotty should be a better outfield than what the Cardinals had this past season. Kolten Wong should improve the defense up the middle if he can prove himself worth playing everyday and Aledmys Diaz, who played much better once he settled in, should continue to improve. Justin Turner could have made it even better, but I digress.

The defense isn’t perfect though, the Cardinals will have either Jhonny Peralta or Jedd Gyorko at third base. Neither present a tried and true plus defender and I’m on record that I’d rather see Matt Carpenter at third everyday and Matt Adams at first base.

While the defense should shape up to be better, the pitching staff will now need to do their part in 2017 if the team intends to make a run at the playoffs, much less a World Series. There are questions in the rotation and, much like the offense last season, plenty of clutter that sets the stage for some difficult decisions. But here’s why I think positively about the rotation.

The fifth starter. The Cardinals have very much played coy with who the fifth starter will be in 2017. By all accounts it seems like it will be a three way competition for the spot, though it seems obvious who should get the opportunity.

Michael Wacha represents the path of least resistance. He struggled last year with a 5.09 ERA over 24 starts and 3 relief appearances. He would miss a month late in the season after his stress fracture returned. The organization seems uncertain what to do with Wacha as they were rumored to have included him in a trade offer early in the winter. Mozeliak indicated that they may need to reset the expectations of him being a 200 inning starter and has also hinted that they could use him in a role similar to how the Indians used Andrew Miller in the postseason. So at least the appearance of an opportunity for someone else is there.

Trevor Rosenthal has also been said to be coming to spring training preparing to start. The former closer lost his job last season due to ineffectiveness, but it was long assumed that guaranteeing him the closer’s job was part of convincing him to accept a move to the bullpen. Now removed from the role, it looks as if the organization is going to give him an opportunity to start.

Regardless of where Rosenthal pitches, his problem the last few seasons has been consistently throwing strikes. Now four seasons removed from his last start, I believe that taking him out of the bullpen, where his body has become conditioned to relief, will exponentially increase his injury risk. That transition from long-time reliever to start is what I believe effective resulted in the end of Kyle McClellan’s career.

As a result of coming from the bullpen, Rosenthal will likely need to be put on an innings limit in the rotation. And in my opinion, if you’re going to consider a pitcher with an innings limit on him, it’s clear that the guy should be Alex Reyes.

I’ve been critical of Reyes in the past as I don’t see him as great a prospect as many others do mainly because of his control issues and lack of dominance in the minors. However, he got the call last season and proved me wrong. He’s still walking batters, but has managed to be effective enough. In 5 starts for the Cardinals down the stretch when the team needed him the most, Reyes was 2–0 with a 2.20 ERA.

If Reyes does end up being the pitcher that I expect he’ll be, the Cardinals should go ahead and squeeze every ounce of effectiveness out of him now before the batters figure him out.

Lance Lynn. Lance Lynn is returning after missing last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. He was reportedly ready to begin a rehab assignment in September if the option had been available to him, but the organization opted to shut him down and let him have a regular offseason to prepare for 2017. That is a positive sign for the team who will be relying on him to play a critical role in their rotation.

He has before, posting a 2.87 ERA over 379 innings of work in the two seasons prior to his surgery. Lynn will be almost 18 months removed from his surgery, which bodes well for hopes in Lynn’s performance next season. The only question will be whether he can push through a full season of work.

The guy that first comes to mind is Adam Wainwright, who had the surgery in February 2011 and returned a year later to the rotation. It took Wainwright into May and maybe even June before he looked to have a good, consistent feel for his pitches again and wasn’t a reliable starting option until the second half of the season, posting a 3.13 ERA over his final 12 starts. However, Lynn will be further removed from his surgery than Wainwright was and hopefully further along in his recovery.

Mike Leake. As I wrote last September, Mike Leake had an undercover career year last year. He posted near career bests in walks per nine, strikeouts per nine, home runs allowed per nine, line drive rates, and ground ball rates. All the fielding independent metrics represented a guy who was having one of the best seasons of his career. Instead, he had the worst.

He was probably the greatest victim of the shoddy defense behind him last season. Opponents had a .321 batting average on balls in play last season compared to a .263 just a season before and up from a .292 career average entering the year.

But because of those issues, he also stands to gain the greatest benefit from a better defense. That’s the key to Leake’s success. He’s not the kind of pitcher who will go out and dominate you, though he did a few times last season. He’s Dave Duncan’s kind of guy. A pitch to contact and let the defense make plays kind of guy. And if that defense is making the plays, Leake will have a good year.

Adam Wainwright. Adam Wainwright is perhaps the biggest enigma in the Cardinals rotation entering 2017. He will turn 36 in August and has two years remaining on his current contract. He is coming off the worst season of his career, posting a 4.62 ERA over 199 innings and an 89 ERA+. However, I think there is much to be said about the fact he missed most of the 2015 season while recovering from an Achilles injury.

Wainwright’s worst two seasons have both come the year after missing the most, if not all, of the previous season with injury. Those coming in 2012 after Tommy John and then this year. He spoke in May about discovering a large difference in his leg strength as a result of the injury and set about correcting it. After he mentioned that, he had a 2.84 ERA over his next 14 starts.

From 2013 to 2015, Wainwright posted a 2.61 ERA over almost 500 innings of work. His 142 ERA+ over that span was the fourth best in baseball among starting pitchers who threw at least 450 innings. The three pitchers ahead of him on the list are Jake Arrieta, Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. That’s good company.

Even if you add 2016 to the sample, he still stays in the top-25. Lynn is 28th on that list. The next guy I’m about to talk about is 26th. Three of the top-30 pitchers in baseball? I like that.

Carlos Martinez. The only bright spot for the Cardinals’ rotation last season was Carlos Martinez. He was also the only pitcher who started more than 5 games for the big league club and provide above average results. His 3.04 ERA, 135 OPS+ and 5.4 WAR made him one of the top pitchers in baseball and the heir apparent to Wainwright for the title of “ace.”

By ERA+, Martinez was the 15th best pitcher in baseball last season. Over the previous two seasons, he’s 8th on that list, tied with David Price. And Martinez is six years younger.

Martinez may never have the outright dominance of a guy like Kershaw, but Martinez took big steps this past season to mature into the kind of pitcher you want on top of your rotation. He can beat you in multiple ways, even if he doesn’t have his best stuff. In fact, I felt there were games last season where he seemed to get some sort of sick satisfaction at intentionally not using his best stuff and still beating you. That’s a pitcher.

To me, the ace of your staff is more than just the guy who is pitching the best at any given moment or any given year. He’s the guy who is pitching well and has the track record of it too. In that fashion, the only thing standing between Martinez and being that ace — and perhaps even throwing his name into the conversation of the best pitchers in the game — is doing it again.

Cardinals non-tender Seth Maness; bring back Adams and others

Today was Major League Baseball’s non-tender deadline. In case you’re not sure what that means, basically there are two classes of players under team control. There are players in their first three years of service who have their salaries set by the team, usually around the league minimum. Then there are players in their next three years of service who have their salaries set by arbitration. Now, there are more nuances than that, but that’s the basics. For those arbitration eligible players, today was the deadline to offer them their one-year contract for next season or to “non-tender” them and make them a free agent.

There were six Cardinals eligible for salary arbitration for 2017, first baseman Matt Adams and pitchers Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, Trevor Rosenthal, Kevin Siegrist, and Seth Maness.

The Cardinals have confirmed that they have tendered contracts to Adams, Martinez, Wacha, Rosenthal, and Siegrist. So those five players are now under contract with the Cardinals for 2017. Those players and the team have until the arbitration hearing in February to agree on the player’s salary for 2017. If they can’t come to an agreement before the hearing, both sides submit a figure to the arbiter of what they believe the player should be paid and the arbiter decides who is right. The Cardinals haven’t had a case go to arbitration since the 1990s.

But there is one player that wasn’t tendered a contract, that was Seth Maness.

Maness, 28, has a career 3.19 ERA over 4 seasons with the Cardinals. He struggled this past season, but managed to put together a strong stretch through the summer, even while pitching injured. His season came to an end in August with what was said to have been Tommy John surgery. But he ended up only needing a UCL reconstruction, which gave the hope that he’d be back on the mound in 6–8 months instead of the 12–18 month recovery for Tommy John.

If you followed me on Twitter this afternoon, you know how surprised I was that Maness was let go. I figured Adams was on the fence, but argued that Maness was likely safe.

I argued that the quicker recovery time plus his relatively low salary, and him still having multiple seasons of team control ahead of him — even if he didn’t pitching 2017 — worked in his favor that they would hold onto him. I guess I was wrong.

In fact, I’m even more surprised that they let Maness go and did not perform a hard core culling of the roster that included Trevor Rosenthal. Rosenthal is projected to make $6.3 million — four times more than Maness — and was arguably the worst pitcher in the Majors last year. His 1.91 WHIP was just 0.002 from being the worst in the Majors among relievers who threw at least 40 innings, only former Cardinal Michael Blazek saving him from that honor. But Blazek would not have pitched the same high leverage situations that Rosenthal did.

For the guys who were kept, the roles of Siegrist and Martinez are pretty set and while the roles for Rosenthal and Wacha aren’t public, the team has discussed that they are bouncing around some ideas for what their roles would be. The question that today brings up is what the future holds for Matt Adams.

Adams, 28, hit .249/.309/.371 with 16 home runs last season for the Cardinals. Long considered a platoon candidate, Adams had his best season ever against left handed pitching, batting .283 with 3 home runs against them. There was even a point in May where Adams was the team’s leading offensive threat.

But the Cardinals recently committed to Matt Carpenter as their everyday first baseman for 2017, which means that Adams doesn’t have a pathway to a starting role for the team next year, something he’s always been given in St. Louis.

Some have suggested that he could be used off of the bench, and it does make sense as he’s hit .330 with 7 home runs as a pinch hitter in his career. However, he’s only ever played first base. Carpenter has played 154+ games three times in the past four years, so that leaves, at most, 10 starts for Adams. Even if he made 60 pinch hit appearances, that’s not even 100 plate appearances.

Adams’ best value to this team should be by trade. Either in a package to acquire something the team needs or prospects. But unlike with Jaime Garcia, where he wanted to unload a $12.5 million hot potato, I don’t think Mozeliak has a problem being left with Adams in the spring because carrying an extra first baseman is a lot easier than an extra starting pitcher.