2018 St. Louis Cardinals: The Cardinal Way up?

Tito Francona

Tito Francona, father of Indians manager Terry Francona, played for nine teams in a 15-year career. Francona was best known for his time with the Indians, the team his son now manages and for whom he played six years — twice as long as any other team. He began with the Orioles in 1956 and ended with the Milwaukee Brewers, who didn’t exist when Francona started his career, in 1970. In between he was traded four times — twice for Larry Doby in 16 months — and sold four times. He never played in the postseason, joining the Cardinals in 1965, the year after they won a World Series, and leaving the White Sox in 1958, the year before they lost one. He was an All-Star in 1961, tied for second in 1956 for the Al Rookie of the Year (Luis Aparicio got 22 of the 24 votes, Francona and Rocky Colavito one each) and fifth in the MVP vote in 1959 when Francona batted .363 (White Sox Nellie Fox, Aparacio and Early Wynn were 1-2-3, Indians Colavito and Francona were 4-5). Francona didn’t win a batting title because he was 34 plate appearances short of qualifying (Harvey Kuenn, who batted .353, did) and his .980 OPS would have led the league (Al Kaline’s .940 did). Francona struggled to play regularly played for three teams in his first three seasons, but his .363 convinced the Indians. The next year he hit only .292, but led the AL with 36 doubles, hit 17 homers, walked 67 times and had an .832 OPS, ninth in the AL. In 1961 he hit .301 with 16 homers and 85 RBIs, and he was a starter until slumping to .228 in 1963. The Indians sold him to the Cardinals after the ’64 season, thus beginning a vagabond part of his career. In 1969, his next-to-last season, he batted .318 and slugged .457 in 173 at-bats for the Braves and Athletics, including a 5-for-5 game with three doubles for the A’s against the White Sox in September. The A’s traded him in midseason of 1970 with Al Downing, who gave up Hank Aaron’s 714th home run four years hence, to the Brewers for Steve Hovley, the anti-establishment outfielder of Ball Four who read Nietzsche in the clubhouse. Francona was released by the Brewers after the season and returned to his native western Pennsylvania to raise a major-league outfielder/manager and a daughter. He died last month at 84. Career numbers: .272 average, .343 on-base, .403 slugging, .746 OPS, 1,395 hits, 125 homers, 656 RBIs, 544 walks, 224 doubles, 107 OPS+, 14.0 WAR (4.8 in 1959).

Next man up: Yadier Molina has played 14 seasons and caught 1,715 games, which ranks 18th heading into 2018. Another 104, which shouldn’t take longer than August, and he’ll rank 12th. That’s impressive longevity at a short-term position, but even Molina, who has outlasted brothers Bengie and Jose and manager Tony La Russa, won’t be playing too much longer. The possible successors include Carson Kelly, who’s played 44 major-league games the last two seasons, and Andrew Knizner, who’s batted .308 and slugged . 478 over two seasons. Knizner skipped High Class A last year, jumping from Low A to AA, where he hit .324 over 182 at-bats. He also threw out a Molina-like 45% of opposing base stealers.

What he said: Adam Wainwright on staying off the Internet during spring training: “There is so much I have to do in the clubhouse as it is, I don’t have to be walking with my head down in my phone all the time. There is work to be done and there are distractions out there. I don’t need to know what everybody thinks. I just have to know what I need to do to get better.” What he meant: “Twitter is angrier than Rougned Odor after a Jose Bautista takeout slide.”

Three reasons it will be a good year: 1. The Cardinals were 13th in runs scored last year, but 18th in home runs and 17th in slugging percentage. Marcell Ozuna, who hit 37 home runs last year and has hit 20 or more in three of the last four, should help. He’ll be better than both Stephen Piscotty, who hit just nine homers last year, and Randall Grichuk, who hit 22 but batted just .238 and had 133 strikeouts to 26 walks. The Cardinals couldn’t lure Giancarlo Stanton, but Ozuna was a nice consolation from what’s been best described as the Marlins’ liquidation sale. 2. Dexter Fowler is out of center field. The Cardinals signed Fowler for $82 million after the Cubs won a World Series with him for $8 million, and got a good offensive year out of him. He hit 18 homers, walked 63 times and had an .851 OPS that was the second-best of his career. But his defense detratced from the deal — Fowler’s defensive WAR was -1.6 last year, the second-worst of his career and the sixth time in the last seven years he’s been a minus. He’ll be better in right, and so will the Cardinals. 3. If someone goes Mike Leake on this year’s Cardinals, they probably won’t stay in the rotation as Leake did last year. Leake allowed 25 runs in 25.1 innings in six August starts, and his ERA, from the end of June through the end of August,  rose 1.24. Leake lost six of seven decisions and the Cardinals lost seven of his 10 starts, yet the Cardinals kept starting him every fifth day. Leake was so bad the Cardinals will spend $15 million over the next three seasons for him to pitch for someone else. There shouldn’t be a repeat this year. The Cards get top propsect Alex Reyes back from Tommy John surgery, 2014 No. 1 pick Jack Flaherty has fanned 20 in 13 spring innings and 2016 No. 1 pick Dakota Hudson reached AAA last year and has a 2.82 career minor-league ERA. The 2018 Cardinals will have options the 2017 Cardinals didn’t.

Three reasons it won’t: 1. Luke Gregerson as closer isn’t a good idea. The 2016 Astros tried it and it might have cost them a playoff berth — Gregerson blew six saves and lost two games in the final eight days, despite a closer-like .589 OPS against. In his career Gregerson is 66-112 in save opportunities and he’s coming off a season in which his .790 OPS against was his career-worst. 2. Molina doesn’t throw out opposing base stealers like he used to. He’s still pretty good  — he threw out 36% last year, up from his career-worst 21% of 2016 — but it’s still worse than his career 41% and worse than the 40% or better in four straight seasons from 2012-16. Molina won nine straight Gold Gloves from 2008-15, but he hasn’t won either of the last two. 3. The Cardinals weren’t that good last year. They  won only 83 games, which ranked seventh in the NL last year, meaning they finished behind most of the teams that were actually trying to win. The Cardinal Way the last couple of years has meant bad baserunning, poor fielding, frustrating losses and fans calling for manager Mike Matheny to be fired. If the Cardinals stumble this year, Matheny’s detractors may get their wish.

Team song: Lonnie Johnson: St. Louis Cyclone Blues

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