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2017 NL Central Preview: St. Louis Cardinals

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With the Cubs on top, the Cardinals have a big hill to climb to make it back to the playoffs. Do they have what it takes to get back to the top?

MLB: Spring Training-New York Mets at St. Louis Cardinals Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

By Cardinals standards, 2016 was a disappointing season. They missed the playoffs after appearing in five straight and went from a 100-win team to an 86-win team. Age caught up with several long-term Cardinals, while growing pains affected some of the younger players. With the Cubs now expected to start a dynasty (at least from what many of the previews say), the Cardinals will have to contend with them if they want to make it back to the playoffs. Can they put together a new run in 2017?

Outfield

The biggest changes for the Cardinals this offseason came in the outfield. Matt Holiday left in free agency, and while he had a down season by his standards at 36 years old, he still had a strong impact on the Cardinals in 2016. However, the Cardinals went big here and brought in a big name to replace Holiday. Dexter Fowler signed a five-year deal with the Cardinals, turning his one great year with the Cubs into a massive contract. Fowler is expected to patrol center field this season, moving Randal Grichuk over to left field. Over in right field, Stephen Piscotty will take the starter job in his fourth year in the majors. Between Fowler, Grichuk, and Piscotty, the Cardinals should have a group that can put up some power numbers at the plate and some strong defense in the outfield.

Infield

While the outfield appears to be set, the infield is a bit weaker. The Cardinals are returning all of their starters, with Matt Carpenter, Kolten Wong, Aledmys Diaz, and Jhonny Peralta expected to start in 2017. They also do have some impressive depth, with Jedd Gyorko and Matt Adams expected to come off the bench. Gyorko led the team in home runs in 2016 with 30, and Adams had 16 home runs. However, Wong had a rough year with a .240/.327/.355 batting line, and Aledmys Diaz collapsed in September, posting a .216 batting average. Meanwhile, Carpenter has missed time this spring with a back injury and was on the DL last year with an oblique injury. Jhonny Peralta also missed a good chunk of time in 2016 with thumb injuries. This is an infield that has some good depth, but also some concerns. Health could be the key to a good 2016 for them.

Meanwhile, behind the plate, Yadier Molina will be back there again. This is an important year for Molina, as he turns 34 and enters the last year of his contract. Molina showed some regression in 2016 as he missed the All-Star game for the first time in eight years, but did finish the year with a .307/.360/.427 batting line. The Cardinals do hold an option for 2018, and whether that is picked up or not will depend on how he does in 2017. It’s hard to imagine Molina catching for another team, but that could be Yadi’s fate if he can’t prove his worth to the Cardinals 2017.

Starting Rotation

The Cardinals finished putting together their rotation over the weekend as they confirmed that Michael Wacha will start the reason in the Cardinals rotation. The five starters expected to begin the season in the rotation are Adam Wainwright, Carlos Martinez, Mike Leake, Lance Lynn, and Wacha. The Cardinals starting rotation struggled in 2016, as Wainwright, Leake, and Wacha each put together ERAs over 4.00. In addition, Lance Lynn was lost for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, and will be attempting to return from that in 2017. Carlos Martinez was the strongest pitcher in their rotation in 2016, recording a 3.04 ERA and leading the team with 174 strikeouts. The Cardinals rotation already took a big hit this preseason when they lost Alex Reyes to Tommy John surgery. They also traded away their one left-handed starter, Jaime Garcia, who went to the Braves. Meanwhile, though Adam Wainwright has been a workhorse for the Cardinals, he turns 35 this season and is coming off of a career worst single-season 4.62 ERA. The Cardinals will need a bounce-back season from their rotation if they hope to compete in 2017. Their success could depend on it.

Bullpen

While the starting rotation is an area of concern for the Cardinals, the bullpen figures to be strong entering the 2017 season. Reliever Seung-hwan Oh is expected to remain as the team’s closer to start the 2017 season after taking the role away from Trevor Rosenthal during the 2016 season. Rosenthal figures to remain in the mix in the bullpen, along with Kevin Siegrist, Jonathan Broxton, and Matthew Bowman. The Cardinals did strengthen their bullpen as well with the addition of Brett Cecil, who has been a stud for the Blue Jays in recent years, recording a 10+ K/9 in each of the last four seasons. The Cardinals have already taken a hit in the bullpen as well, with Zach Duke expected to miss the entire 2017 season following Tommy John surgery, and Tyler Lyons starting the season on the DL following knee surgery. Despite that, this could end up being one of the strongest bullpens in the division.

Prospects

Which Cardinals top prospects could make an impact in 2017? It’s not looking as promising as it had been at the start of camp. Top prospect (according to MLB Pipeline) Alex Reyes will miss the 2017 season with Tommy John surgery, pushing his potential impact back a year (and taking up a year of major league service time). Luke Weaver made a bid for a starting rotation spot, but injuries prevented that as well. Weaver could still appear for the Cardinals in 2017, though he likely won’t debut the season with the major league team.

The Cardinals do have a couple of strong performers in camp with outfielder Harrison Bader (.310/.370/.524) and RHP Jack Flaherty (2.57 ERA in seven innings), though neither is expected to start with the major-league team. Meanwhile, catching prospect Carson Kelly is expected to start the season as Yadier Molina’s backup, after getting a taste of the majors as a September call-up last season. In spring training, he’s put together a .179/.294/.179 batting line, but as Molina’s backup, likely won’t see much action at all unless Molina is injured.

Prediction

It’s hard to bet against the Cardinals in any season, as they are always built to compete, even when they are rebuilding part of their team. While it may be foolish to bet against them, it’s also foolish to consider them a favorite to make the playoffs. The Cubs are the overwhelming favorite to win the Central, meaning the most likely path to the playoffs is through the Wild Card. That race figures to be tight as well, with the Dodgers, Nationals, Giants, and Mets all potential factors. I can’t see myself betting on them in 2017, but I wouldn’t bet against them either. I think they’ll be right around 85 wins, on the verge of making the playoffs but a game or two short of it.

Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Reference. Prospect rankings from MLB Pipeline.