Five Things: The Offseason

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.

Offensively, I see three guys whose 2018 will dictate just how far the offense goes. Those guys are Ozuna, Tommy Pham, and Paul DeJong.

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.

News: Jack Flaherty leads September callups

What happened. The St. Louis Cardinals purchased the contract of RHP Jack Flaherty, RHP Sandy Alcantara, and C Alberto Rosario as well as called up OF Harrison Bader and IF Alex Mejia. To make room on the 40 man roster, LHP Sean Gilmartin was outrighted.

The story. The Cardinals made their first wave of September callups today. We already knew about Flaherty, as he had already been announced as today’s starting pitcher against the Giants, however, the rest were unknown but not unexpected additions.

The numbers. Jack Flaherty, 21, is a former first round pick of the Cardinals from the 2014 MLB Draft. Through the minors, he has been dominant, holding a 2.77 ERA over 400 innings in four seasons and five different levels of the minors. This season, he started the year posting a 1.42 ERA in 10 starts for Double-A Springfield before a promotion to Triple-A Memphis where he posted a 2.74 ERA in 15 starts.

He has thrown 149 innings so far this season and is likely going to be pushed as far or a little further than the club would like to, but it is a heavier workload for a minor league starting pitcher than I can remember in recent years. For comparison, the most Carlos Martinez ever threw in a season in the minors was 104 innings. For Alex Reyes it was 109.

Sandy Alcantara, 22 next week, was an international signing by the Cardinals. He had a 4.31 ERA in 22 starts and 3 relief appearances for Double-A Springfield. Alcantara boasted a 11.2 K/9 in two stops last season, but it has tumbled to 7.6 K/9 this season. The Cardinals are hoping he can be 2017’s Alex Reyes and turn that electric fastball into a quality bullpen arm.

Alberto Rosario, 30, has hit .247/.291/.279 in 50 games in Triple-A Memphis. He joined the club as a minor league free agent in December 2014. He spent time on the club’s 40 man roster last season, hitting .184 in 20 games with the big league club.

Alex Mejia, 26, will be the fourth member of the Cardinals’ 2012 draft class on their roster this September. The shortstop is up for his second stint with the big league club, having spent a couple weeks with the team hitting .214 in 10 games with the club including almost single-handed winning a game by himself. He has hit .291/.341/413 with 7 home runs in 118 games between Springfield and Memphis this season.

Harrison Bader, 23, was a third round pick of the Cardinals from the 2015 draft. He spent a week with the big league club earlier this season and hit .286/.348/.381 including scoring the walk off game winning run in his MLB debut. He hit .283/.347/.469 with 20 home runs in 123 games for Triple-A Memphis this season.

The impact. 8/10. Normally I wouldn’t consider September callups to be all that important to the club, but this is a unique place for the Cardinals to be.

They traded away Mike Leake to create an opportunity for Flaherty in the rotation. He is penciled into the 2018 rotation at this point and a good showing will go a long way towards helping the Cardinals made a run at this wild card.

Additionally, Alcantara could be an intriguing boost to the bullpen. He has the electric fastball, but also struggles with command. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. If, like Trevor Rosenthal and Alex Reyes before him, he can harness it and put in some quality innings, that can be a big impact for a bullpen that has struggled in important innings most of the season.

The addition of Bader could be intriguing for an offensive mix that really only has Tommy Pham as a consistent contributor. Dexter Fowler has a nagging injury, Randal Grichuk is streaky, and Stephen Piscotty has had a rough season. But he will have to hit the ground running in his early starts to elbow his way into additional playing time.

I don’t foresee Mejia or Rosario in a position to give the club much impact, but those three, if the club makes an unlikely run at the Cubs or a Wild Card spot, the three guys I mentioned probably played a big role.

Piscotty activated from the DL

The Cardinals activated outfielder Stephen Piscotty from the disabled list today and optioned outfielder Harrison Bader to Memphis.

Piscotty returns to the team after exiting the first game back after the All Star Break with a right groin strain. He went 3-for-15 with two doubles in five rehab games with Single-A Peoria.

The former top-100 prospect has struggled to find his footing this season, his second full season with the club. He is hitting just .236/.348/.371 with 6 home runs this season. His 95 wRC+ is 20 points lower than the 115 wRC+ he put up last season in his first full season in the big leagues.

He had a relatively successful June, hitting .258/.377/.452, and it seemed like he might be turning the corner. However, in the 10 games before he hit the DL, he slashed a paltry .171/.216/.200.

In the corresponding move, Harrison Bader will return to Memphis where he is putting together a solid season. In six games for the big league club, Bader hit .286/.348/.381 with a 95 wRC+ and scored the game winning, walk off run in his debut.

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.

Cardinals call up Harrison Bader

The St. Louis Cardinals placed outfielder Dexter Fowler on the 10 day disabled list with a left forearm strain and purchased the contract of outfielder Harrison Bader from the Memphis Redbirds.

Fowler takes his second stint on the disabled list this season, the previous coming for a right heel spur issue. In the three weeks he’s been back with the big league club he hit .224/.321/.306 with just two extra base hits in 14 games. Before his previous DL stint he appeared to be hitting his stride, having hit .286/.390/.600 with 6 home runs in 21 games in June before his injury.

Bader, 23, is a former third round pick of the Cardinals and is rated as their #6 prospect by MLB.com. This season in Memphis he has hit .297/.354/.517 with 19 home runs in 97 games. He will wear #48 with the Cardinals and is in tonight’s lineup, playing center field and batting seventh.

He is one of the leading players on the Memphis team that is crushing the Pacific Coast League this season, despite losing Tommy Pham, Paul DeJong, Luke Voit, and more recently Carson Kelly to the big league club.

In Memphis, Bader has a 23.6% strikeout rate and 6.0% walk rate to go along with a 10.0% extra base hit rate. That compares favorably to DeJong who had a 24.2% strikeout rate, 4.7% walk rate, and 11.5% extra base hit rate.

The Cardinals wouldn’t have brought Bader to the big leagues to start his clock unless they were sure that he would get an extended opportunity to play. We have seen them use Magneuris Sierra in shorter stints this season. So it’s possible that they expect Fowler and Stephen Piscotty to miss more time than the minimum 10 days with their injuries.

Cardinals land four players on midseason Baseball America’s Top-100 Prospects

Baseball America published their midseason update to their Top-100 prospects list and it featured four Cardinals prospects. Here’s who we’ve got.

#2 – RHP Alex Reyes

Alex Reyes was ranked #7 by Baseball America before the season began, and his numbers aren’t quite what most likely expected. Though the prospect list makers still like him, Reyes has a 4.35 ERA and 1.35 WHIP over 9 starts for Triple-A Memphis since returning from his 50 game suspension for marijuana in May. While he struggled through June, he had his best start of the season on Monday, allowing just 1 run and striking out 9 over 6 2/3 innings of work.

#75 – RHP Luke Weaver

Luke Weaver was unranked before the season began and, after a late start to the season following a broken wrist, has come out and excelled in Double-A Springfield. The 22 year old Weaver, who was the 27th pick of the 2014 draft by the Cardinals, has a 0.83 ERA and 1.02 WHIP over 7 starts for Springfield. His walk rate and strikeout rate have both improved over last season. Weaver was the Cardinals’ Minor League Pitcher of the Month for June.

#88 – RHP Jack Flaherty

Another 2014 first rounder (34th pick) by the Cardinals is 20 year old Jack Flaherty. Flaherty was ranked #80 before the season began so he has fallen a few spots. In his second full professional season, Flaherty has a 3.82 ERA and 1.34 WHIP over 14 starts for High-A Palm Beach. Over his last five starts though, Flaherty has a 1.70 ERA and 1.08 WHIP.

#89 – OF Harrison Bader

A third round pick from the 2015 draft, Harrison Bader quickly established his bat last season, hitting 11 home runs in 61 games between Low-A State College and Mid-A Peoria. He got a promotion to Springfield this season and got off to a hot start, hitting .379 with 7 home runs in his first 30 games this season and was named the organization’s Minor League Player of the Month in April. He has struggled since, but his overall slash line still sits at a respectable .283/.346/.485 with 13 HR and 12 doubles in 75 games. He was promoted this week to Triple-A Memphis and is 2-for-10 in two games.