2015 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 2015 season. Next up: The St. Louis Cardinals.

The Big Question: What will the Cardinals get from Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha?

Adam Wainwright posted a career-best 2.38 ERA in 227 innings last season, guiding the Cardinals to their second straight division crown and a fourth straight appearance in the NLCS. But he acknowledged to fans and reporters at the club’s annual Winter Warm-Up in January that he didn’t have the strength to open a can of soda by the end of the 2014 postseason.

Since returning from Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery in April 2012, the 33-year-old Wainwright has logged more innings (playoffs included) than any other pitcher in baseball. His right elbow needed a cleanup procedure back in late October and Wainwright had to be whisked away from Cardinals camp this spring shortly after arriving because he strained an abdominal muscle while trying to return a 45 lb. weight to a rack.

The guy is a workhorse — with the ribbons and medals and flowered saddles of a top-flight racehorse — but there are flashing neon signs that point to a full-on breakdown. Beyond the health stuff, look at his tumbling strikeout rate: Waino finished with a 7.1 K/9 in 2014 after posting an 8.2 K/9 in 2013 and an 8.3 K/9 in 2012.

And then there’s Michael Wacha, who appeared to be emerging as a co-ace to Wainwright in 2013 when he registered a 2.78 ERA and 1.098 WHIP over his first 64 2/3 major league innings before becoming the second-youngest player to be awarded NLCS MVP. Wacha had a 2.79 ERA through his first 15 starts last year until a stress reaction in his throwing shoulder put him on the shelf in mid-June. The 23-year-old right-hander returned in early September, but he did not look like the same dude and he eventually served up the meatball that ended the Cardinals’ 2014 postseason run. (Cardinals fans might not want to click on that link).

Wainwright and Wacha are both expected to be healthy, contributing members of the Cardinals’ rotation when the 2015 regular season begins and Wainwright will probably even get the nod on Opening Night against the Cubs, but you’d have to be wearing Cardinal-red-colored glasses to project 200 innings out of each of them.

What else is going on?

  • For all the doom and gloom presented in the paragraphs above, St. Louis is equipped with the kind of rotation depth to navigate around the loss of a front-line starter (though losing two would be a dagger for any team). Carlos Martinez, Jaime Garcia, and Marco Gonzales are battling for one spot this spring and they all carry some level of promise. Martinez doesn’t have sparkling numbers in the major leagues, but he’s a hard-throwing 23-year-old righty with a nasty array of breaking pitches. Garcia is claiming that he finally feels healthy after being limited to a total of 16 starts between 2013-2014 due to chronic shoulder discomfort. The left-hander boasts a 3.50 ERA in 594 2/3 career innings and he has a 2.91 career ERA at pitcher-friendly Busch Stadium. Gonzales, the 19th overall pick in the 2013 MLB Amateur Draft, owns a 2.48 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, and 8.7 K/9 in 145 1/3 minor league innings and has been the sharpest of the three in the 2015 Grapefruit League. One will slide into the rotation, one will probably head to the bullpen, and the Cardinals will likely stick the other guy at Triple-A Memphis as their “next man up.”
  • Lance Lynn and John Lackey are pretty good bets for 200-inning seasons with sub-3.75 ERAs. We could see a St. Louis rotation of Lynn, Lackey, Martinez, Garcia, and Gonzales at some point in 2015. That isn’t horrible, but it’s probably not a championship-level group either. The Cardinals have advanced to the NLCS in nine of the last 15 seasons — 2000, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014.
  • Oscar Taveras was supposed to take over as the Cardinals’ starting right fielder in 2015, but he killed himself and his girlfriend Edilia Arvelo when he wrapped his car around a tree while driving drunk in the Dominican Republic last October 26. Cardinals GM John Mozeliak moved quickly to bring in a replacement, acquiring outfielder Jason Heyward and setup man Jordan Walden from the Braves on November 17 for right-handers Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins. Heyward is expected to bat second for the Cardinals, behind Matt Carpenter and in front of Matt Holliday. It’s a great fit for the 25-year-old Heyward, who is due to become a free agent next winter. He registered an .849 OPS (131 OPS+) as a rookie in 2010 and he slugged 27 home runs as a 22-year-old in 2012. St. Louis will be hoping that Heyward — a terrific defender — can finally put it all together offensively, even if this only turns out to be a one-year rental.
  • St. Louis finished 23rd in the majors last season in runs scored. Teams like the Mets, Astros, and Marlins had more productive offenses. But that’s what happens when you don’t get a breakout year from any of your hitters and your luck with runners in scoring position dries out. On paper, the Cardinals’ lineup for 2015 looks as lethal as any lineup in baseball. Matt Carpenter takes great at-bats at the top. Jason Heyward can do it all. Matt Holliday still has some pop left in his 35-year-old bat. Matt Adams should be ready for a step forward in his age-26 season. Jhonny Peralta tallied 21 homers and 75 RBI last summer and led the team in WAR. Yadier Molina, an all-time-great defensive catcher, has slashed .307/.357/.460 over the past three years. Jon Jay put up a .372 on-base percentage in 2014. And second baseman Kolten Wong carries 20-homer, 20-steal potential into what will essentially be his sophomore campaign.

Prediction: If the Cards keep Wainwright and Wacha away from the disabled list, they’ll run away with the National League Central and march to their first 100-win season since 2005. If they lose one or both of those arms, the Redbirds will have some stiff competition in a division that doesn’t really have a bad team. I’ll guess Wainwright and Wacha combine for around 280 innings — just enough for first place in the NL Central.

Marlins clinch 1st playoff berth since 2003, beat Yanks 4-3

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
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NEW YORK — Forced from the field by COVID-19, the Miami Marlins returned with enough force to reach the playoffs for the first time since their 2003 championship.

An NL-worst 57-105 a year ago, they sealed the improbable berth on the field of the team that Miami CEO Derek Jeter and manager Don Mattingly once captained.

“I think this is a good lesson for everyone. It really goes back to the players believing,” Mattingly said Friday night after a 4-3, 10-inning win over the New York Yankees.

Miami will start the playoffs on the road Wednesday, its first postseason game since winning the 2003 World Series as the Florida Marlins, capped by a Game 6 victory in the Bronx over Jeter and his New York teammates at the previous version of Yankee Stadium.

“We play loose. We got nothing to lose. We’re playing with house money.,” said Brandon Kintzler, who got DJ LeMahieu to ground into a game-ending double play with the bases loaded after Jesus Aguilar hit a sacrifice fly in the top of the 10th. “We are a dangerous team. And we really don’t care if anyone says we’re overachievers.”

Miami (30-28), second behind Atlanta in the NL East, became the first team to make the playoffs in the year following a 100-loss season. The Marlins achieved the feat despite being beset by a virus outbreak early this season that prevented them from playing for more than a week.

After the final out, Marlins players ran onto the field, formed a line and exchanged non socially-distant hugs, then posed for photos across the mound.

“I can’t contain the tears, because it’s a lot of grind, a lot of passion,” shortstop Miguel Rojas said. “It wasn’t just the virus. Last year we lost 100 games. But we came out this year with the hope everything was going to be better. When we had the outbreak, the guys who got an opportunity to help the organization, thank you for everything you did.”

Miami was one of baseball’s great doubts at the start of the most shortened season since 1878, forced off the field when 18 players tested positive for COVID-19 following the opening series in Philadelphia.

“Yeah, we’ve been through a lot. Other teams have been through a lot, too,” Mattingly said “This just not a been a great situation. It’s just good to be able to put the game back on the map.”

New York (32-26) had already wrapped up a playoff spot but has lost five of six following a 10-game winning streak and is assured of starting the playoffs on the road. Toronto clinched a berth by beating the Yankees on Thursday.

“I don’t like any time somebody celebrates on our field or if we’re at somebody else’s place and they celebrate on their field,” Yankees star Aaron Judge said. “I’m seeing that too much.”

Mattingly captained the Yankees from 1991-95 and is in his fifth season managing the Marlins, Jeter captained the Yankees from 2003-14 as part of a career that included five World Series titles in 20 seasons and is part of the group headed by Bruce Sherman that bought the Marlins in October 2017.

Garrett Cooper, traded to the Marlins by the Yankees after the 2017 season, hit a three-run homer in the first inning off J.A. Happ.

After the Yankees tied it on Aaron Hicks‘ two-run double off Sandy Alcantara in the third and Judge’s RBI single off Yimi Garcia in the eighth following an error by the pitcher on a pickoff throw, the Marlins regained the lead with an unearned run in the 10th against Chad Green (3-3).

Jon Berti sacrificed pinch-runner Monte Harrison to third and, with the infield in, Starling Marte grounded to shortstop. Gleyber Torres ran at Harrison and threw to the plate, and catcher Kyle Higashioka‘s throw to third hit Harrison in the back, giving the Yankees a four-error night for the second time in three games.

With runners at second and third, Aguilar hit a sacrifice fly.

Brad Boxberger (1-0) walked his leadoff batter in the ninth but got Luke Voit to ground into a double play, and Kintzler held on for his 12th save in 14 chances.

Miami ended the second-longest postseason drought in the majors – the Seattle Mariners have been absent since 2001.

Miami returned Aug. 4 following an eight-day layoff with reinforcements from its alternate training site, the trade market and the waiver wire to replace the 18 players on the injured list and won its first five games.

“We’re just starting,” said Alcantara, who handed a 3-2 lead to his bullpen in the eighth. “We’ve got to keep doing what we’re doing.”

TOSSED

Yankees manager Aaron Boone was ejected for arguing from the dugout in the first inning. Plate umpire John Tumpane called out Judge on a full-count slider that appeared to drop well below the knees and Boone argued during the next pitch, to Hicks, then was ejected. Television microphones caught several of Boone’s profane shouts.

“Reacting to a terrible call and then following it up,” Boone said. “Obviously, we see Aaron get called a lot on some bad ones down.”

ODD

Pinch-runner Michael Tauchman stole second base in the eighth following a leadoff single by Gary Sanchez but was sent back to first because Tumpane interfered with the throw by catcher Chad Wallach. Clint Frazier struck out on the next pitch and snapped his bat over a leg.

SLOPPY

New York took the major league lead with 47 errors. Sanchez was called for catcher’s interference for the third time in five days and fourth time this month.

REMEMBERING

Mattingly thought of Jose Fernandez, the former Marlins All-Star pitcher who died four years earlier to the night at age 24 while piloting a boat that crashed. An investigation found he was legally drunk and had cocaine in his system. The night also marked the sixth anniversary of Jeter’s final game at Yankee Stadium.

UP NEXT

RHP Deivi Garcia (2-2, 4.88) starts Saturday for the Yankees and LHP Trevor Rogers (1-2, 6.84) for the Marlins. Garcia will be making the sixth start of his rookie season.