Baseball’s Winter Meetings begin December 10 in Orlando, and as the Cardinals try to form the foundation of a team that returns to the playoffs and hopefully the World Series in 2018, there are substantial differences in the game from when they last won that they need to be ready for.
Tim Kurkjian said it best on 101 ESPN during the post-season; this is now a game of home runs and strikeouts. Yes, you need to play good defense, run the bases well, and be able to close out games. The reason those are called fundamentals is that they are fundamental to a team’s success. Recent teams have won with offenses that didn’t hit a ton of home runs (the 2015 Royals, who were 24th in MLB with 139) or that didn’t have a pitching staff that accumulated high strikeout totals (those same Royals, who were 22nd in strikeouts, or the 2014 Giants, who were 21st in the majors).
But the game has changed in a hurry. The proliferation of relievers used in the post-season has changed the way managers manage.
The Cardinals need to work this off-season to enhance the depth of their bullpen, preferably with someone capable of getting the 27th out in wins every night. Additionally, this year’s World Series combatants, Houston and the Dodgers, were second and eleventh in home runs in MLB (Houston second in the AL with 238, the Dodgers fifth in the NL with 221), and second and fifth in strikeouts (Houston was second in the AL, L.A. was first in the NL). In 2016, the NL Champion Cubs were fifth in home runs and second in strikeouts, and the AL Champion Indians were first in strikeouts, which allowed them to overcome their number ten ranking in home runs.
With that being the backdrop of what winning teams look like, the Cardinals appear to be following that lead. After leading the National League with 225 homers in 2016, they fell off by 29 this year and were eighth in the circuit. After Carlos Martinez’ 217 K’s, which was fourth in the league, the next most by a Cardinal was Michael Wacha’s 158, and that was 20th. Then there was a major drop-off to Lance Lynn, the deposed Mike Leake and Adam Wainwright, resulting in St. Louis being sixth in strikeouts in the NL.
Among potential 2018 starters that haven’t pitched a full Major League season, Luke Weaver struck out 72 in sixty and a third innings with the Cards last season (he was nearly a strikeout an inning guy in the minors) and the pre-injury Alex Reyes struck out 52 in 46 innings after coming up in 2016. In his minor league career, Reyes struck out 449 in 334.1 innings. Late season callup Jack Flaherty was nearly a strikeout an inning guy in the minors, too. As the Redbirds watched Leake and see Lynn depart, those pitchers will be replaced by young, power, strikeout arms.
The Cardinals appear to have figured out the pitching side of winning in this generation. They need their young pitchers…not only here but in the system…to ascend to the level of dependable major league power pitchers.
The offensive power issue isn’t as easy. While the Cardinals have had balance in the home run department the last two years, they haven’t had that feared guy. When they led the league in home runs a couple of seasons ago, Jedd Gyorko topped the team with 30. Brandon Moss had 28, Randal Grichuk 24, Stephen Piscotty 22, Matt Carpenter 21 and Matt Holliday 20. With all due respect, none of those guys strike fear into the hearts of opposing pitchers.
This year, Paul DeJong led the team with 25, Carpenter and Tommy Pham had 23, Grichuk 22 and Gyorko 20.
When you look at the World Champion Astros with George Springer, Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa…those are guys that pitchers don’t want anything to do with. Along with their home run power, they can slug. The Dodgers have Cody Bellinger, Yasiel Pug, Corey Seager and Justin Turner…all hitters that provide an element that pitchers want to avoid.
The team the Cards are chasing in the NL Central, the Cubs, have Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, along with home run hitters like Willson Contreras, rookie Ian Happ and Addison Russell. If you look at most winning teams, they have at least TWO impact hitters, if not more. Remember the Cardinals’ MV3 in the mid 2000’s?
Carpenter has proven himself to be a terrific leadoff hitter. Pham served the team exceptionally well in the two slot, but the Redbirds missed that feared element in the third and fourth spots in 2017. To get to the level of the elite teams in baseball, they need find themselves some sluggers.
Trading for an MVP bat like Giancarlo Stanton would go a long way toward getting the Cardinals to that status, but even if they can pull that off, they need to make sure they mirror the best teams in baseball. Heck, they might be better off making a move for free agents like Eric Hosmer or Mike Moustakas, keeping an eye on the availability of the Marlins’ Christian Yelich or Marcel Ozuna, and not giving up on Toronto’s Josh Donaldson.
If indeed Kurkjian is right, and baseball has become a sport of pitchers that strike guys out and hitters that hit home runs, the Cardinals can compete with their young power arms. But to be a championship contender, they’re going to have to come out of this off-season…hopefully the Winter Meetings in two weeks…with another reliever and not just one hitter, but two.