On deck: The Cardinals let Albert Pujols go to the Angels after 2011 and the outcry was minimal, in part because the Cardinals won the World Series, and in part because they got two No. 1 picks in his stead. Winning soothes even the most savage fan. The first, at No. 19, became Michael Wacha; the second, at No. 36, became outfielder Stephen Piscotty. The latter has nowhere near the star potential of Oscar Taveras, who died last fall in a car crash in the Dominican Republic, but Piscotty is the kind of player whose value the Cardinals maximize. He has good plate discipline (98 career minor league walks and 23 hit by pitches versus 132 strikeouts), doubles power (32 last year) and a dash of speed (11 steals last year) — sort of John Jay as right-hander and corner outfielder.
Trivia: What was the last season the Cardinals didn’t have a winning record? Answer below?
What he said: Cardinals manager Mike Matheny: “During my years as a player for the Cardinals I sat here and watched Tony (La Russa) get blasted, and this guy just went into the Baseball Hall of Fame and is one of the greatest managers ever. And every decision he ever made was examined. So why should I be any different?” What he meant: “OK, so I should have brought somebody other than (Michael) Wacha into Game 5 of the NLCS. Can we move on?”
Outlook: The St. Louis Cardinals won 90 games and the NL Central in 2014, made the playoffs for a fourth straight season and 11th time in 15 and won a round in the playoffs. It’s tempting to ask how.
The 2014 Cardinals weren’t anywhere near as good as most of the previous 14, maybe even a couple that didn’t make the playoffs. Yet, they still won. Maybe there is something to the Cardinal Way.
It’s assuredly not the team’s way, or history, to rank 24th in runs scored in MLB, but the 2014 Cardinals did, and it wasn’t bad luck. They were 29th in home runs and 28th in stolen bases; they were neither powerful nor speedy. They scored 619 runs, 10 less than the Mets; they hit 105 home runs, four less than the Padres; they stole 57 bases, six less than the Red Sox, and at just a 64% success rate — 27th in MLB.
And yet somehow they won 90 games with a pitching staff that ranked 11th in MLB and a run differential of +16 that tied for 12th-best. Maybe Mike Matheny is a better manager than we thought (the Cardinals outperformed baseball-reference.com’s Pythagorean formula by seven games).
The Cardinals maintained their status last season even as their offense malfunctioned. The 2014 Cardinals scored 177 runs fewer than the 2013 Cardinals, hit 47 fewer doubles, 20 fewer homers and lost 44 points of OPS.
Can the Cardinals get it back? It might depend on what you make of Jason Heyward. The Cardinals have a long history of high-potential players whose careers had either stagnated or were stifled — Orlando Cepeda, Lou Brock, Scott Rolen, Willie McGee, Jim Edmonds — and then thrived in St. Louis.
Heyward could be the latest, but there’s a risk in his acquisition. He’s in the last year of his contract, and can get a new one that is as long as it is wealthy based on his defense, youth and ability to reach base. Rarely do free agents command dollars because of their potential, but Heyward, who was a major leaguer at age 20, can.
But Heyward has never hit as much as he did when he was a rookie (.277 in 2010) or slugged as much as he did in 2012 (27 homers, 30 doubles, .479 slugging percentage). Come 2015, that’s five and three years ago, and 44% of his 2014 value (6.3 WAR) was from his Gold Glove defense.
There’s plenty of value in Heyward — even if the Braves didn’t appreciate it, and even if he doesn’t hit 30 homers. But Heyward was horrible against lefties last year — a .169 average, .477 OPS and four extra-base hits in 142 at-bats. That was .324 points worse than his OPS vs. lefties in 2013, and 173 points worse than his career OPS vs. lefties. Even the Cardinals don’t want to pay someone $25 million per and then have to platoon them.
The Cardinals have been perhaps the best team of the new century so far, in large part because of their decision-making. They’re 299 games over .500 in the last 15 seasons, almost 20 games a season. They’ve won two World Series and lost two more, won 100 games twice and 90 games nine times, let their best player depart because they had the top farm system, as ranked by ESPN’s Keith Law, as recently as two years ago. Given their drafting position for most of the last 15 years, that’s hitting safely with an 0-2 count.
Last year the Cardinals won 90 games when they shouldn’t have, as if they were fouling off a tough pitch. But nobody hits too well or too long when the count is against them.
Trivia answer: The last time the Cardinals failed to post a winning record was in 2007, the year after winning the 2006 Series. The 2007 Cardinals were 78-84 and finishing third in the NL Central (it might have something to do with Kip Wells being 7-17 with a 5.70 ERA and Anthony Reyes, who won the opening game of the 2006 Series, being 2-14 with a 6.04 ERA). It’s the Cardinals’ only losing season this century; before that, their last losing season was 1999, when they were 75-86.
Team song: Randy Newman: I’m Different