Another Cardinal season has concluded without a spot in the post-season. The 2018 edition, like the 2016 and 2017 teams, went to the final week with a chance to make the playoffs…with a mathematical possibility that they could get themselves a playoff spot lasting until the second-to-last day of the season. As it was, the Cardinals finished in third place in the N.L. Central, seven games behind the Brewers and Cubs, who both won 95 games. The Cards won 88. The question for the off-season will be…how do THEY get to 95 wins, rather than the 88 they had in 2018?
There are easy reasons for the Cardinals’ standing, and some of them are out of their control. But we’ll give five ways the Cards can help themselves win seven more games in 2019 than they did in 2018.
- Keep their veteran pitchers healthy. Carlos Martinez was their number one starter to begin the season and found himself on the disabled list three times, and Michael Wacha was having an All-Star quality year when he suffered a season-ending oblique injury. The other starters at the beginning of the season were Jack Flaherty, who subbed in for Adam Wainwright and was terrific…Luke Weaver, who made just two starts after August 15…and the amazing Miles Mikolas, who finished with eighteen wins and was one of the best pitchers in the National League. In 2017, Martinez started 32 games and Wacha 30. In 2018, they COMBINED for 33 starts. If those two return to their 2017 form next year, it’ll go a long way toward making up the seven games.
- Keep Paul DeJong and Kolten Wong on the field. Pretty much every defensive metric rates Wong as the best defensive second baseman in the league, and DeJong as the best or second best shortstop. Those two each missed 54 games this season. When Yairo Munoz, who did a commendable job overall, filled in at shortstop, he made eight errors in 34 starts. When he played second base, he made five errors in 23 starts. With DeJong, Wong, Harrison Bader in center field and Yadier Molina behind the plate, the Cardinals are one of the best defensive teams up the middle in the N.L. They regress mightily when one of them is out.
- Speaking of defense, it must be cleaned up significantly. We talked about it last year and how it would be better with Jose Oquendo returning. The Cardinals led baseball with an astounding 133 errors, ten more than second place Philadelphia and 41 more than the league average. The playoff team with the most errors was the Dodgers with 100. The Brewers had 99. Houston led baseball with just 63 errors, and Colorado had the fewest in the N.L with 73. Every error causes pitchers to throw more pitches and record more outs. It puts more pressure on the defense. The Cardinals can’t expect to improve if they don’t fix their defense. And that will start with better defensive depth. But it also needs to be a point of emphasis for manager Mike Shildt in his first spring training. Fundamentals can be taught and learned. And they need to be with the Cardinals.
- Have a bullpen that’s good from the beginning of the season. President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak and Michael Girsch put together a veteran group at the beginning of last season that didn’t present a lot of flexibility. They signed veterans Luke Gregerson, Bud Norris and Greg Holland, and added them to holdovers Sam Tuivailala and Brett Cecil. Dominic Leone and Tyler Lyons were also veterans without options…so if everyone was healthy (which they rarely were), there wasn’t much room for their desired Memphis shuttle. Jordan Hicks, Matt Bowman and Mike Mayers were up on opening day, and John Brebbia was shuttled to AAA. It took a long time for the Holland and Gregerson seasons to officially end in St. Louis. Cecil was a disaster. Once the bullpen was rebuilt on July 27 (Holland and Lyons DFA’d, Cecil put on the D.L. and Tuivailala traded to Seattle…Luke Weaver, Daniel Poncedeleon, Dakota Hudson and Tyler Webb added to the roster) …they improved. The Cardinals gave away lots of games early in the season, and the inconsistency of the bullpen was a major reason. The young kids faded down the stretch, too, but now understand what September in the Majors is all about. At the very least, the Cards need a dominant lefty in the bullpen, and a veteran who understands the rigors of a six-month season.
- I saved the biggest for last. Get a star that can hit in the middle of the lineup. Cardinal third place hitters were 24th in OBP, 29th in SLG, and 28th in OPS. They were 26th in batting average and 24th in homers. Jose Martinez is a good hitter, but not good enough to hit third 82 times for a 95-win team. They rightfully gave up on Matt Carpenter after seventeen games hitting third, and finished up with DeJong hitting third for 35 games. Whether it’s Manny Machado or Bryce Harper or a magical trade, the Cards need a player that other teams fear in the number three spot in the order. He can be plugged in at shortstop (with DeJong moving to third base) or right field. Even though they finished fifth in the N.L. in runs scored…ahead of the Cubs and Brewers…the inconsistency of the offense was a killer. They played forty games…a quarter of their season…scoring less than three runs, and were 3-37 in those games. They were 85-37 when scoring three or more. If you want to win seven more games, get a hitter to help you score three or more runs seven more times.
There’s your blueprint. Health, depth, defense, bullpen and a hitter. If the Cardinals do that, THEY can be a 95-win team in 2019.