On their march to the 2013 Bundesliga title, Bayern Munich triggered an out clause in Mario Götze’s contract, effectively poaching rival Borussia Dortmund’s best playmaking midfielder. Less than a year later, Munich again raided Dortmund’s cupboard, this time leaving with BVB’s top striker, Robert Lewandowski. Götze and Lewandowski are two of the top players in the world, but despite their talent, the moves were motivated less by Munich’s need to augment its already star-studded team than by the club’s pragmatic desire to cripple its only challenger to the Bundesliga crown.
This offseason, the St. Louis Cardinals learned what it feels like to be Bayern’d.
It isn’t just that the Cardinals were unable to re-sign Jason Heyward, a 26-year-old outfielder with 27 career WARP to his name. Or that they also had to bid farewell to John Lackey, a reliable innings-cruncher who was arguably St. Louis’s top starter a year ago. It’s that both signed with the arch-rival Cubs, moves that effectively shipped nearly seven projected WARP directly northeast to Chicago, enhancing the team that many already believed to be the best and deepest in baseball.
On paper, the Cardinals appear to have their worst team since 2010. Fresh off of 100 wins and a division title, St. Louis is third in the NL Central in PECOTA’s projected standings, 13 games behind the Cubs. Worse, the playoff sweepstakes look like an eight-team dance this year, and if PECOTA is right, the Redbirds won’t have a seat when the music stops.
The key offseason departures, along with PECOTA’s sour outlook, suggest that 2016 might represent a transitional season for the Cards. Nobody is suggesting that this will be a bad team, or that the Cardinals need a rebuild. PECOTA’s projected 81-81 record looks awful conservative, and no team with Matt Carpenter, Yadier Molina, Kolten Wong, Stephen Piscotty, Michael Wacha, Adam Wainright, Carlos Martinez, and Trevor Rosenthal is going to finish in the cellar. Moreover, St. Louis’s farm system is strong, and the club’s crop of U25 talent ranks among the best in the league.
But the current roster has plenty of question marks and, worryingly, many of them are up the middle. Chief among them is Molina. The Cardinals backstop turns 34 this July, and he posted his worst offensive numbers in 2015. He managed to play in 136 games, but hit an empty .270/.310/.350 with just four homers. He’s caught more innings in the last three years (and four years, five years, six years, etc.) than anyone else in baseball, and with over 12,000 frames on his ledger, his haunches have plenty of wear and tear on them. He’s still an excellent defender and his strike zone judgment remained strong last year but a bounceback season at the plate doesn’t seem likely.
Shortstop is another trouble spot. Despite a stocky frame and relatively slow foot speed for the position, Jhonny Peralta has held off father time at short. With a strong arm, excellent instincts, and a quick first step, he has held a regular job for a decade, and among shortstops 32 and older, only Peralta contributed anything with the bat last year. But 2015 was his worst year since 2012, and at 33, he’s also entering the decline phase of his career. He was a worry for St. Louis even before he tore a ligament in his left thumb two weeks ago.
With Peralta expected out until June, John Mozeliak had to scramble to the waiver wire. He acquired Ruben Tejada — fresh off of a rather serious injury himself — to plug the gap. Your perception of Tejada’s defense probably depends on which websites you use frequently, but even if you like his glove, he’s a downgrade with the bat, and he’ll have to prove that the broken leg hasn’t robbed him of his prowess in the field. Behind him sits second-basemen-by-trade Jedd Gyorko and the unproven Alemedys Diaz. Anything above replacement level at short would be welcome.
St. Louis is also expected to rely heavily upon Randal Grichuk. Brought up as a corner outfielder, Grichuk pitched in at center last year. With Jon Jay and Peter Bourjos gone, the Cardinals will experiment with Grichuk up the middle full time. To some extent, the club is gambling on his defense, which is somewhat concerning even before factoring in some measure of regression at the plate. While he hit well last season, bashing 17 homers and posting a .316 TAv in 350 PA’s, his 31 percent strikeout rate is worrisome. It’s certainly possible to succeed while striking out frequently — Kris Bryant and Chris Davis were also over 30 percent in 2015 — but both have more power and each has a better eye at the plate. Grichuk’s career walk rate is under 6 percent and he never took too many free passes in the minors, either. Everything could work here, but it also wouldn’t be a huge surprise if his numbers decline and he proves ill-suited for center.
There are concerns elsewhere as well. Matt Holliday is returning from his least productive season since he had hair. In Brandon Moss and Matt Adams, the Cardinals have two left-handed power-hitting first basemen, though neither is a great bet to anchor the middle of the lineup. The pitching staff should be more reliable, but Lance Lynn will miss the season recovering from Tommy John surgery, and history suggests that Mike Matheny shouldn’t count on Jaime Garcia for another 20 starts. A healthy rotation could propel an October run, but a significant injury or two could likewise knock them out of the race early.
Stated simply, the Cardinals need a few balls to bounce their way this season to stay ahead of their formidable division mates. It could certainly happen: Few things in baseball are certain—if the 2015 Nationals could implode, the Cubs shouldn’t be printing playoff tickets—and lately the Cardinals have had a knack for getting the most out of attendant prospects and spare parts.
More likely though, 2016 is the year Chicago passes its rivals and claims the division for the first time since 2008. With a great young core and a ton of money, the Cubs are well positioned to be the best team in the central for the next few seasons too. If you really want to put your Cubby lenses on, you can wonder how much of the Matheny-Molina-Wainwright-Carpenter core will still be around the next time St. Louis wins the division. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. The Cardinals have an adept front office, a great farm system, and money of their own. They should be right in the thick of the playoff races throughout the decade. Just perhaps not in 2016.