2016 St. Louis Cardinals: Why they haven’t lost their way


Ron Taylor

Ron Taylor was a reliever for two World Series champions, but after his career was over he went by a name other than closer. Taylor went back to medical school after retiring and became a doctor. According to his bio at sabr.org, Taylor was told by the University of Toronto medical school dean, “We very rarely accept people over 30. We don’t want people changing careers.” Taylor’s retort: “My career died a natural death. My arm went dead.” Taylor eventually was admitted, graduated and became the team doctor for the Blue Jays. A native Canadian, Taylor was ranked 28th on a list of 100 most influential Canadians in baseball by the Toronto Sun’s Bob Elliott in 2014. Taylor was a pretty fair relief pitcher for five teams over 11 years, winning World Series for the 1964 Cardinals and ’69 Mets. Taylor became a Cardinal after the ’62 season, and was 9-7 with 11 saves and a 2.84 ERA in 133.1 innings as the Cardinals finished second in  ’63. The next year the Cardinals were better even if Taylor (8-4, 4.62 ERA, 8 saves) wasn’t, but Taylor was very good in Game 4 of the World Series. He entered after Ken Boyer’s grand slam gave the Cards a 4-3 lead, and he retired the first eight batters he faced, walked Mickey Mantle with two out in the eighth and then retired the final four batters. His four shutout innings saved the win for Roger Craig and evened the series. The Cards won in 7. Taylor struggled over the next two seasons, was traded with Mike Cuellar to Houston, which sold him to the Mets. There Taylor revamped his career. He had a 2.34 ERA, 8 saves and just one home run allowed in 73 innings in ’67, a 2.70 ERA and 14 saves in ’68 and a 9-4 record, 2.72 ERA and 13 saves in ’69 for the Miracle Mets. Taylor was a big part, if often overlooked, of the postseason. He pitched two scoreless inning to finish the Mets’ 9-5 Game 1 NLCS win and then won Game 2, 11-6, with 1.1 scoreless innings in back of struggling starter Jerry Koosman. In the World Series, Taylor saved Koosman’s 2-1 Game 2 win, getting Brooks Robinson for the final out with two on. Taylor pitched 5.2 scoreless innings in the ’69 postseason for the Mets, and 10.1 scoreless postseason innings (three hits, two walks, nine strikeouts) for the ’64 Cards and ’69 Mets combined. Taylor pitched two more seasons for the Mets (3.93, 3.65) and five innings for the Padres before heading to medical school. At 75, Taylor had two toes amputated in 2014. According to the Sun’s Elliott, Taylor said it was his because of arthritis caused by his pitching delivery. Career numbers: 45-43, 3.93 ERA, 74 saves, 491 games (17 starts), 800 innings, 794 hits, 209 walks, 464 Ks, 91 ERA+, 3.46 FIP, 5.2 WAR, 0.00 postseason ERA.

 

On deck:  Alex Reyes will have a longer wait than his 2015 season indicated. He fanned 151 in 101.1 innings and had a 2.49 ERA in Class A-AA, but was hit with a 50-game suspension for a positive drug test. It’s Reyes’ second in three seasons, which makes you wonder if his strongest major-league comp is Jenry Mejia, the Mets reliever banned for life. Reyes said the positive test was for marijuana, although he didn’t say that a 95 mph fastball and a couple of tokes were the Cardinal Way. The organization that once moved Keith Hernandez, perhaps in part because of cocaine rumors, won’t be so quick to unload Reyes. While Reyes serves, Luke Weaver will pitch on. He’s 22 and a 2014 first-rounder who had a 1.62 ERA and allowed just two home runs in 105.1 innings in the Florida State League last season.

2015 Stat:  Conservation, apparently, begins with left-handed relievers. Randy Choate appeared in 71 games last year, but averaged barely more than a third of an inning per appearance. He totaled 27.1 innings and faced only 117 batters. Fifty-one times he faced only one batter (in those times he got that batter out 33 times, gave up 15 hits, two walks and a hit batter). For almost a month, from May 20-June 18, Choate made 13 one-batter appearances. His longest stint all season was seven batters in 1.2 innings vs. Cleveland, in which he threw 28 pitches and was no doubt removed because he was tiring. For the season he made only seven appearance of four batters or more. Choate’s entire season was 396 pitches (5.8 per appearance), or less than four John Lackey starts. He probably threw more pitches than that warming up in the bullpen.

What he said: Cardinals manager Mike Matheny on his playing days: “I would always have guys tell me, ‘If you would just have a little more fun, you’d be a better player.’ ” What he meant: “If I could have hit more than .239, I would have had more fun.”

Outlook: In the last 12 months, the Cardinal have lost their best pitcher (injury), their farm director (felony), a divisional series, their top prospect (drug test) and their right fielder and most durable pitcher to the team that beat them in the playoffs.

They’ve lost on the field, in the courts and in the labs.

And their offers to top free agents were a lot like Brandon Moss fly balls to the warning track: solid enough to garner attention, but in the end a little short. Except for Mike Leake, who got $80 million to ingest innings.

It’s easy to forget the Cardinals won 100 games last season, more than any team in baseball, and made the playoffs for their fifth straight season, also more than any team in baseball.

But it has to gnaw at the Cardinals that last year’s divisional series exit was their earliest this decade and the forecast for the rest of it isn’t so red.

The Cardinals are still an elite team and a good bet to win 90 or more games for the fourth straight season and the sixth time in the last eight. But the the NL Central is the new AL East and the Cardinals get to play the role of the Yankees. Or in current political terms, the Cardinals are Donald Trump, and the Cubs and Pirates Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.

The Cardinals don’t get enough credit for their ability to adapt, though. From the 2011 Cardinals team which won the World Series, only three prominent players remain, and all  with increasingly more frequent and severe ailments: catcher Yadier Molina, outfielder Matt Holliday and pitcher Jaime Garcia.

In just five years, everyone else has moved on. Albert Pujols left via free agency, and wisely so — the Cardinals drafted pitcher Michael Wacha and outfielder Stephen Piscotty, both 2016 mainstays, with the compensation picks. Lance Berkman (31 homers) and ace Chris Carpenter retired, their bodies spent. Pitcher Kyle Lohse left via free agency after 2012, and the Cardinals drafted pitcher Rob Kaminsky, who was dealt last summer for Brandon Moss when Matt Adams was injured.

The Cardinals are better at every infield position, except first, than they were five years ago (the 2011 world champions started Nick Punto at second, late-season pickup Rafael Furcal, after Ryan Theriot, at short and David Freese at third), and throughout their bullpen (Fernando Salas closed).

Compare the 2011 Cardinals to the 2015 and it’s hard to believe the former won and the latter didn’t.

The 2016 Cardinals are younger and better, with Kolten Wong (.262, 11 homers, 15 steals) at second, Piscotty (.305/.359/.494 in his first 233 at-bats) in right and Randal Grichuk (.510 slugging in his first 533 big-league at-bats) in center. All three are 25 or younger, as are starters Wacha and Carlos Martinez and closer Trevor Rosenthal– the Cubs aren’t the only NL Central team with a good, young nucleus. And lefty Kevin Siegrist (7-1, 2.17, 90 Ks in 74.2 innings, .605 OPS against) is a ripe old 26, the age at which the wisdom to pitch around Anthony Rizzo should come.

(Grichuk came via trade from the Angels for Freese and Salas. The Angels might be better and younger if they were smarter).

Add the young Cardinals to third baseman Matt Carpenter (28 homers, 81 walks), shortstop Jhonny Peralta (.275, 17 homers) and a healed Holliday and Adams, and the race is on.

The Cubs are the chic pick for 2016, and deservedly so. They may just win more games than the Cardinals — they have’t done that since 2008, when the Cubs last won the NL Central.

But unlike the Cubs, the Cardinals didn’t endure five straight last-place finishes and three straight 90-loss seasons to do it. They didn’t build it that way — score that one for St. Louis.

Team Song: Freddie Keppard’s Jazz Cardinals: Salty Dog

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