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2017 Preview: St. Louis Cardinals

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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 2017 season. Next up: St. Louis Cardinals.

The Cardinals were finally unseated in the NL Central after three consecutive first-place finishes including a 100-win season in 2015. The upstart Cubs flew past the Cardinals – and everybody else – en route to winning its first World Series since 1908. The Cardinals did not have a busy offseason and as such, return in 2017 with a very familiar roster.

Center fielder Dexter Fowler does represent the club’s big offseason acquisition. Fowler waited until spring training had already started last year before inking a one-year deal with the Cubs, but a strong showing this past season gave him the leverage to pull a five-year, $82.5 million contract with the Cardinals. With the Cubs last year, Fowler hit .276/.393/.447 with 13 home runs, 48 RBI, 84 runs scored, and 13 stolen bases in 551 plate appearances. Soon 31 years old, Fowler still plays good defense and is able to run the bases well while swinging a plus-bat, so the Cardinals’ biggest concern with him is staying healthy.

Randal Grichuk handled center last season for the Cardinals but will now be in left field following Fowler’s arrival. Grichuk, 25, hit .240/.289/.480 with 24 home runs and 68 RBI in 478 PA last year. Given his low average and on-base percentage, the Cardinals are likely to keep him lower in the batting order. Defense, however, won’t be a problem for Grichuk as he was an above-average center fielder.

Stephen Piscotty will once again handle right field. He finished his first full season last year hitting .273/.343/.457 with 22 home runs and 85 RBI in 649 PA. Piscotty, 26, was a consensus top-100 prospect entering the 2014-15 seasons and has lived up to the hype thus far. Between Piscotty, Fowler, and Grichuk, the Cardinals have one of the better outfields in the game and all three are potential All-Stars in 2017.

Veteran Yadier Molina will handle things behind the plate for manager Mike Matheny’s pitching staff. Molina, 34, has not been quite as potent with the bat since turning 30, but he’s still among the best at his position. Last year, he hit .307/.360/.427 with eight home runs and 58 RBI in 581 PA. The eight-time Gold Glove Award-winner has also lost a bit defensively but he’s heading towards league average down from elite, so he still has a ways to go before he’s a detriment at the position.

Matt Carpenter, 31, has made yet another position change. He was the Cardinals’ regular second baseman in 2013, then their third baseman in 2014-15. He played third base, first base, and second base in nearly even amounts last year, and will now be the team’s regular first baseman in 2017. When Carpenter was healthy and in the lineup last year, he hit .271/.380/.505 with 21 home runs and 68 RBI in 566 PA, earning his third All-Star nomination. The average first baseman, however, hits a little bit better than the average third baseman and much better than the average second baseman, which might cut into Carpenter’s value.

26-year-old Aledmys Diaz will reprise his role at shortstop. Diaz was not expected to be the Cardinals’ starting shortstop last year, but Jhonny Peralta got injured and wasn’t ready to start the season, so they threw Diaz into the fire. In his rookie season, Diaz hit .300/.369/.510 with 17 home runs and 65 RBI over 460 PA and made the NL All-Star team. He missed some time with a fractured left thumb, which is why he only finished fifth in NL Rookie of the Year balloting. Diaz set a high bar for himself, but the Cardinals are counting on him for a repeat performance.

Peralta will return to third base. He was a full-time shortstop for most of his 14-year major league career, but he did have experience starting at third base in 2009-10 with the Indians. Last season, in 313 PA, Peralta hit .260/.307/.408 with eight home runs and 29 RBI. Considering teammate Jedd Gyorko had a great showing last year, Matheny will likely use both at third base. When Peralta gets the start against a left-handed starting pitcher, Gyorko could also start at second base in place of Kolten Wong. Gyorko last year hit .243/.306/.495 with 30 home runs and 59 RBI in 438 PA. Wong, 26, hit a meager .240/.327/.335 in 361 PA but did play above-average defense.

The Cardinals’ starting rotation figures to be an enormous strength even though Alex Reyes will miss the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery last month. Veteran Adam Wainwright will lead the rotation. He made 33 starts after making only four in 2015, but he wasn’t nearly as effective as he used to be, putting up a 4.62 ERA with a 161/59 K/BB ratio in 198 2/3 innings. It’s tough to say at this point if the 35-year-old can be much better going forward after blowing out his Achilles in 2015.

Carlos Martinez, 25, represents the tremendous upside in the Cardinals’ rotation. The right-hander finished last year with a 3.04 ERA and a 174/70 K/BB ratio in 195 1/3 innings. Armed with a mid-90’s fastball, Martinez is already an All-Star-caliber pitcher and might sneak his way into NL Cy Young Award conversation in the near future.

Mike Leake, 29, slots into the middle of the rotation. In his first year with the Cardinals last season, he posted a 4.69 ERA with a 125/30 K/BB ratio in 176 2/3 innings. Unlike Martinez, Leake relies on inducing weak contact rather than missing bats. He didn’t do a great job of that last year, but he did put up a combined 3.59 ERA between 2013-15 with the Reds and Giants.

Lance Lynn returns to the rotation after missing the entire 2016 season due to Tommy John surgery. The 29-year-old was an excellent starter in 2014-15, putting up a 2.74 and 3.03 ERA, respectively. The Cardinals may go through the rotation once following the start of the regular season before inserting Lynn, just as a small way to be extra cautious. Given his age and the increasing success rate of Tommy John surgery patients, it isn’t too much to expect him to return to normal in 2017.

Michael Wacha appears to be the current favorite to win the No. 5 spot in the Cardinals’ rotation, ahead of prospect Luke Weaver. Durability has been an issue for Wacha and the team still isn’t sure they can rely on him for 100 pitches for 30-plus starts. Last year, the 25-year-old right-hander compiled a meager 5.09 ERA with a 114/45 K/BB ratio in 138 innings. Weaver, 23, made eight starts and one relief appearance to the tune of an ugly 5.70 ERA, but with a 45/12 K/BB ratio in 36 1/3 innings. Trevor Rosenthal is also worth mentioning as he was transitioning from relief to starting, but suffered a lat strain. While he’s unlikely to earn the No. 5 spot, he could be used as a spot starter during the season.

The bullpen will be led by closer Seung-hwan Oh, who saved 19 games with a 1.92 ERA and a 103/18 K/BB ratio in 79 2/3 innings in his first season in Major League Baseball last year. Among 135 qualified relievers, Oh’s 5.72 strikeouts per walk ranked 11th best. The 34-year-old was quite an accomplished pitcher in 11 seasons in the Korean Baseball Organization before joining the Cardinals. Given his track record, it’s easy to expect more of the same from him in 2017.

Lefty Kevin Siegrist will set up for Oh again after turning in a 2.77 ERA with a 66/26 K/BB ratio in 61 2/3 innings last year. Fellow lefty Brett Cecil will handle the seventh inning and some eighth innings. Cecil has an aggregate 2.90 ERA since the start of the 2013 season. Their other bullpen mates will include Jonathan Broxton, Rosenthal, and Matt Bowman.

The projections aren’t very high on the Cardinals. FanGraphs is projecting 83 wins while PECOTA puts them at 78. I’m a little more optimistic.

Prediction: 88-74 record, 2nd place in division

Report: Tigers to hire Ron Gardenhire as new manager

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The Tigers are expected to hire Ron Gardenhire as the team’s new manager upon completion of a contract, per Ken Rosenthal and Katie Strang of The Athletic. Gardenhire, 59, spent the 2017 season serving as the bench coach for the Diamondbacks.

Gardenhire managed the Twins for 13 seasons between 2002-14, amassing a 1,068-1,039 (.507) record in the regular season and reaching the playoffs six times.

According to Strang and Rosenthal, Gardenhire was one of 10 candidates to interview with the Tigers. Others included Alex Cora, Mike Redmond, Fredi Gonzalez, Joe McEwing, Hensley Meulens, Dave Clark, and Omar Vizquel. Apparently, GM Al Avila wanted a manager with previous major league managing experience.

The Tigers parted ways with previous manager Brad Ausmus at the end of the 2017 regular season, his fourth year at the helm.