Adam Wainwright

Springtime Storylines: Will the St. Louis Cardinals survive the loss of three legends?

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: The New-Look Redbirds.

The Big Question: Will St. Louis be able to defend its World Series title this year in the absence of Pujols, La Russa and Duncan?

For the Cardinals, the 2011 season was a whirlwind. They were 10 1/2 games out of a playoff spot in late August, they had to get through the Phillies in the first round, they were supposed to be out-slugged by the National League Central champion Brewers in the second round, and they were down to their last strike twice in a wild World Series with the Rangers.

But the craziness didn’t stop when Allen Craig caught the final out in Game 7. A day after the Cardinals paraded the World Series trophy through the streets of downtown St. Louis, Tony La Russa announced that he was ending his 33-year managerial career. A month later, longtime first baseman and franchise icon Albert Pujols agreed to terms on a 10-year, $250 million free agent contract with the Angels. And just before the start of spring training, pitching coach and likely Hall of Famer Dave Duncan informed the Cardinals’ decision-makers that he was stepping away from the game for at least a year to be with his ailing wife.

Three giants of the industry, gone in one short winter. And yet the Redbirds seem unlikely to skip a beat.

The return of ace right-hander Adam Wainwright, who missed the entire 2011 season following Tommy John surgery, should help ease some of the pain brought on by Pujols’ departure. Wainwright was worth a whopping 6.1 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) in 2010 according to FanGraphs. Pujols was worth 5.1 fWAR in 2011.

The arrival of Carlos Beltran will also be big. He’s a full two years removed from microfracture knee surgery and has been improving offensively the further away he gets from that procedure. In the second half last season, the 34-year-old outfielder batted .325/.398/.562 with nine home runs and 26 RBI in 53 games.

The Cards were dealt a tough hand this winter, but they were able to come up with — or happen into — high quality solutions. And they should be right near the top of the National League Central standings as usual.

What Else Is Going On?

  • Replacing La Russa will be Mike Matheny, a former catcher for the Brewers, Blue Jays, Cardinals and Giants. There’s no way to know how he’ll operate as an in-game strategist because he enters the job with zero managerial experience. But his opened-mindedness to new ideas is, in a word, refreshing. “I know Bill James,” Matheny told reporters at December’s Winter Meetings. “I’ve done my share of research and realize that there is an advantage to it. … I’m willing to do anything if it gives us a better chance to win. I’ll take whatever information I get. That’s really the long and short of it; it’s really no more complex than that. If something becomes available to me that gives us a competitive edge, I’ll be all over it.”
  • The Cardinals signed catcher Yadier Molina to a five-year, $75 million contract extension this spring. It might seem like an extreme overpay for a guy with a .274/.331/.377 career batting line. But Molina is the best defensive catcher in baseball and his ability to prevent runs — both by controlling the running game with lightning-quick throws and by blocking pitches with unteachable instincts — makes him more valuable than most publicly available metrics would suggest. The 29-year-old Puerto Rican is also coming around offensively, having batted .305 with an .814 OPS, 14 home runs and 65 RBI in 139 games last year.
  • Under former general manager Walt Jocketty, the St. Louis farm system was used mostly to fund trades and rarely produced elite-level prospects. But that has all changed with the arrival of John Mozeliak, who has introduced a better-streamlined organizational philosophy and put more emphasis on the amateur draft and international free agent market. The Cardinals are suddenly stacked in the minors, with top prospects like right-handers Shelby Miller and Carlos Martinez, second baseman Kolten Wong, outfielder Oscar Taveras and first baseman Matt Adams inching closer and closer to the major leagues. There’s nothing better than cost-controlled talent, and St. Louis should soon have it in abundance.

How Are They Gonna Do?

If Rafael Furcal, David Freese, Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman can stay relatively healthy, the offense could be as good as any in the National League. And if left-hander Jaime Garcia continues to develop, right-hander Kyle Lohse remains a steady mid-rotation presence and veteran sinkerballer Jake Westbrook bounces back from an ugly 2011, the Cardinals should be able to breeze through two months sans Chris Carpenter. St. Louis will finish first in the National League Central, just inching out the Reds and Brewers.

Report: Cubs, Yankees agree on Aroldis Chapman trade

NEW YORK, NY - JULY 17:  Aroldis Chapman #54 of the New York Yankees delivers a pitch in the ninth inning against the Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium on July 17, 2016 in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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The deal between the Cubs and Yankees involving closer Aroldis Chapman, first reported on Sunday, is complete according to Jon Heyman of Today’s Knuckleball. The Cubs will get Chapman while the Yankees will receive infield prospect Gleyber Torres, outfield prospect Billy McKinney, pitcher Adam Warren, and one more as yet unnamed player. Despite what yesterday’s report indicated, there is no contract extension for Chapman, so he can become a free agent after the season.

Torres, 19, is rated the Cubs’ #1 prospect and #24 overall in baseball by MLB Pipeline. The shortstop has spent the season with Single-A Myrtle Beach, batting .275/.359/.433 with nine home runs, 47 RBI, 62 runs scored, and 19 stolen bases in 409 plate appearances. The Cubs, however, already have Addison Russell at shortstop and have middle infield prospect Ian Happ.

McKinney, 21, is the Cubs’ #5 prospect and #75 overall in baseball. This season, with Double-A Tennessee, he has put up a .252/.355/.322 triple-slash line with 16 extra-base hits, 31 RBI and 37 runs scored in 349 PA. He suffered a hairline fracture in his right knee last year, which might explain why he’s been a bit lackluster with the bat this season.

Warren, 28, is a former Yankee as the club sent him to the Cubs in the Starlin Castro trade over the winter. He’s been unremarkable in one start and 28 relief appearances for the Cubs, posting a 5.91 ERA with a 27/19 K/BB ratio in 35 innings. Warren, earning $1.7 million this season, has two more years of arbitration eligibility remaining.

Since returning to the Yankees, Chapman has recorded 20 saves in 21 chances with a 2.01 ERA and a 44/8 K/BB ratio in 31 1/3 innings. Andrew Miller will likely move into the closer’s role with Dellin Betances setting up the eighth inning for the Yankees.

[Content note: The following will contain descriptions of an incident during which Chapman allegedly assaulted his girlfriend.]

Chapman, 28, served a 30-game suspension beginning at the start of the regular season due to an offseason incident during which he allegedly choked his girlfriend and fired off eight gunshots in his garage. The police didn’t file official charges.

Settling the Scores: Sunday’s results

ST. LOUIS, MO - JULY 24: Starter Mike Mayers #59 of the St. Louis Cardinals pitches against the Los Angeles Dodgers during the first inning at Busch Stadium on July 24, 2016 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Scott Kane/Getty Images)
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Craig’s off through Wednesday, so it looks like it’s just you and me again.

Mike Mayers made his major league debut, starting for the Cardinals during Sunday night’s nationally broadcast game against the Dodgers. The 24-year-old must have felt like he was in a horror film, as the Dodgers tore him down limb-by-limb. Chase Utley led off the top of the first inning with a single. Corey Seager followed up with a single of his own and Justin Turner drew a walk. Adrian Gonzalez promptly unloaded the bases with a grand slam on a 2-2 slider, putting the Dodgers up 4-0 before Mayers was able to record the first out. Opposing starter Scott Kazmir would tack on two more runs with a single before Mayers could escape the inning.

Mayers got Seager out to start the top of the second inning, but back-to-back singles by Turner and Gonzalez followed by a three-run home run to Howie Kendrick would end the rookie’s night earlier than anticipated. He left trailing 9-1, recording only four outs. In his 1 1/3 innings, Mayers was on the hook for nine earned runs on eight hits and a pair of walks with one strikeout. It’s a rough way to start a career, but probably not indicative of his skill level. Mayers posted a combined 2.62 ERA in 18 starts split evenly between Double-A Springfield and Triple-A Memphis.

The Cardinals would make a game out of it, scoring twice in the bottom of the second to make it 9-3, then tacked on three more in the seventh before ultimately losing 9-6.

Box scores.

Blue Jays 2, Mariners 0
Diamondbacks 9, Reds 8
Orioles 5, Indians 3
Mets 3, Marlins 0
Red Sox 8, Twins 7
Padres 10, Nationals 6
White Sox 4, Tigers 3 (Game 1)
White Sox 5, Tigers 4 (Game 2)
Pirates 5, Phillies 4
Astros 13, Angels 3
Cubs 6, Brewers 5
Rangers 2, Royals 1
Rockies 7, Braves 2
Athletics 3, Rays 2
Yankees 5, Giants 2
Dodgers 9, Cardinals 6