Spring training is moving fast, so let’s do a quick dive into the Cardinals.
Here are the five STL pitchers with the most to prove in 2018:
1. Adam Wainwright. Cardinals fans (and truth be told, the media) are rooting for a Wainwright comeback season at age 36 as the longtime leader of the pitching staff enters the final season of his five-year contract. The issues confronting Wainwright are well known. Advancing age, two consecutive troubling seasons and questions concerning his elbow and velocity. In 2016 Wainwright’s 2.9 fWAR was his lowest in a season since 2008. Last season his fWAR was a career-low 1.5. Are we nuts to assume Waino can rebound and have a solid season? Probably. But he was victimized by terrible batted-ball luck in each of the last two seasons… and a potential change in luck offers some hope. But more than anything, pitching health is the key here. If Wainwright is physically sound after being tormented by elbow pain in 2017, he’ll automatically be better. We saw glimpses of that in his first exhibition start. His delivery was nice and easy. He lowered his arm slot to get a better angle. He reached 90+ mph on six pitches. Good signs. We’ll see how he goes from here.
2. Miles Mikolas: I don’t blame the Cardinals for signing the RH starter to a two-year meeting after his three superb seasons in Japan. I will never knock any baseball front office for making a value buy. Sure, I would have preferred Yu Darvish, the No. 1 starter on the market. But it didn’t happen. He’s a Cub. But the Cardinals can still have a good rotation. But that’s unlikely if Mikolas is a flop, and Wainwright can’t ride the way-back machine.
3. Brett Cecil: The lefty reliever had an uneasy entrance to St. Louis after signing a four-year contract for $30.5 million. Cecil had an odd first season with the Cardinals. I think it’s fair and accurate to describe him as “tormented” at times. The snap judgement: Cecil had a lousy season. And that would also be more about perception that truth. Cecil’s strikeout rate dropped by five percent from his final season in Toronto. That was a concern. But Cecil had a fine 4.13 strikeout-walk rate, didn’t get rocked for as many homers as believed (0.94 per 9 IP) and was tied for 6th in the NL with 73 relief appearances. Cecil’s fielding independent ERA (3.26) was more telling than his 3.88 baseball-card ERA. And Cecil’s 1.1 fWAR ranked 13th among NL relievers. No shame, there.
Two other things caught my attention about Cecil’s season. The first was his extreme reverse platoon split. Cecil dominated RH batters with a 29 percent strikeout rate, running up a fantastic 9.4 strikeout-walk ratio, and limiting them to a .551 OPS. But when Cecil confronted LH batters — presumably a favorable matchup — he got rocked for a .936 OPS and had an abnormally low 16.4 strikeout rate. And he walked too many LH hitters (9.5%). The left-side hitters pounded Cecil’s sinker and curve for big numbers, but bad batted-ball luck was a factor, with Cecil allowing a .500 average on balls in play on those curves and sinkers. Cecil had rotten luck after the All-Star break with a .352 BIP average and 67% strand rate. The more meaningful stat was Cecil’s 6.4 strikeout-walk rate after the All-Star break. That’s why Cecil’s fielding independent ERA (2.85) was more representative than his 4.50 baseball-card ERA.
I think he’s a good candidate to exceed expectations. But because of the contract, Cecil will always have a lot to prove. That’s baseball. And business.
4. Luke Gregerson: The Cardinals’ front office was quick to sign the veteran RH to a two-year deal for $11 million on Dec. 10. And Gregerson has been tabbed as the likely closer, at least to open the season. But don’t get too caught up in titles; the Cardinals have several relievers with closing experience. With Gregerson, it’s all about the quality of his performance. He’ll be 34 in May. He had a 4.57 ERA and 4.62 FIP for the Astros in 2017. He experienced a slight decrease in velocity, but that’s been overstated. And Gregerson’s K-BB ratio last season, 3.50, wasn’t that far off from his career 3.57 standard, Gregerson’s only alarming problem in 2017 was a rocket-blast homer rate. When batters hit a fly ball off Gregerson last season, it flew over the wall for a home run 23.6 percent of the time. That was the second-highest HR/FLY rate against a big-reliever in 2017.
And at home, Gregerson HR/FLY rate was a whopper: 26.5 percent. That’s crazy. And it helps us get to the crux of the matter. Minute Maid Park was a hazardous home-run trap for Gregerson. Before coming to Houston in 2015, Gregerson had only one inflated HR/FLY percentage in his career. But at Minute Maid that HR/FLY was 19 percent both in ’15 and /16. Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak told me that when studying Gregerson’s work for the Astros, the Cardinals discovered a high number of homers that landed in the Crawford Boxes at Minute Maid. You know, cheap homers. Easy homers. Fly balls that wouldn’t clear the wall for a home run at Busch Stadium.
Gregerson can help himself by sharpening his sinker to get his ground-ball rate back up. It went down by 10 percent last season.
5. Sam Tuivailala: The RH reliever has been busy on the St. Louis-Memphis shuttle since first appearing for the Cardinals in a big-league game in 2014. Last season Tuivailala made a career-high 37 appearances (covering 42.1 innings) for the Cards, and posted a 2.55 ERA. Mozeliak and GM Michael Girsch were pleased. They’re confident Tuivailala can handle a more substantial role. They view him as a closer candidate. That would require a warmer level of enthusiasm from manager Mike Matheny. Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina is on record predicting a dominant season for Tuivailala. Here’s the bottom line: Tuivailala is 25. He’s out of minor-league options. He’s here in 2018. He must make the most of it. And he will have to miss more bats. For someone who throws so hard, Tuivailala has a surprisingly low MLB strikeout rate of 21 percent.
Thanks for reading …