2016 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 2016 season. Next up: The St. Louis Cardinals.

The Cardinals won 100 games last season, but were quietly expelled from the playoffs in four games by the Cubs in the NLDS. It was a premature ending to a great season. The good news is that the bulk of their success in 2015 can be attributed to young players, many of whom are back in bigger roles this year.

Outfielder Randal Grichuk, 24, broke out, putting up an .877 OPS with 17 home runs and 23 doubles in 350 plate appearances and will now handle everyday duties in center field for the Cardinals. Stephen Piscotty, 25, wasn’t far behind with an .853 OPS in 256 plate appearances and is now the club’s everyday right fielder. Second baseman Kolten Wong, 25, had a comparatively paltry .707 OPS but had 43 total extra-base hits with 15 stolen bases while playing solid defense.

Of course, the Cardinals also enjoyed a great year from Jason Heyward, who left to sign with the division rival Cubs. Heyward hit 33 doubles and 13 home runs with a .797 OPS. Baseball Reference credited him with 6.5 WAR, his second consecutive 6+ WAR season. Replacing him will be tough, but the Cardinals seem to be in a good position.

Veteran Matt Holliday will handle left field. He put up a quality .279/.394/.410 line in 227 plate appearances after returning from a quadriceps injury. The Cardinals have toyed with the idea of using him at first base, but as the club already has Brandon Moss and Matt Adams at the position, it seems that Holliday will stick in left.

At third base, the Cardinals are banking on Matt Carpenter to provide an encore of his 2015 power breakout. Carpenter’s career-high in home runs was 11, set in 2013, but he smacked 28 of them with a league-best total of 44 doubles last year. The projections aren’t too keen on Carpenter getting back into the 20-homer club, with both Steamer and ZiPS expecting 16. And gosh darn it, that’s reasonable.

The Cardinals are hurting at shortstop after losing Jhonny Peralta for 10-12 weeks due to a torn ligament in his thumb. The club signed Ruben Tejada to take his place, but those are some big shoes to fill. Peralta hit 17 home runs last year; Tejada has 10 home runs in his entire career spanning 580 games.

Behind the dish, Yadier Molina returns after undergoing thumb surgery and battling a foot injury during spring training. He’s coming off of his worst offensive season in a decade, finishing with a .270/.310/.350 line with four home runs and 61 RBI in 530 plate appearances. Even if Molina isn’t able to hit at the league average, the Cardinals will still value him highly for his defense, ability to call a game, and the way he handles the pitching staff. In case of emergency, Brayan Pena is there as Molina’s back-up.

The Cardinals will make their success with their pitching staff. Adam Wainwright returned late last year after suffering a ruptured Achilles tendon, but made three relief appearances. It’s tough to know exactly where he’s at, as 15 spring innings – in which he has a 4.80 ERA with an 11/6 K/BB ratio – aren’t enough to clue us in. Even Wainwright at 90 percent of his previous effectiveness is a force to be reckoned with, but he’ll turn 35 this year and Father Time catches up with us all eventually.

The club will also be gambling on the continued health of Jaime Garcia. The lefty made only 20 starts last season, but they were quality, as he compiled a 2.43 ERA. Like Wainwright, Garcia has also had a tough spring and is currently dealing with a blister on his pitching hand. And the last time he made 21 or more starts in a season was 2011. If this is the year Garcia finally stays healthy, the Cardinals are in for a fun ride.

Ever-dependable, Michael Wacha is coming off of another solid year, going 17-7 with a 3.38 ERA and a 153/58 K/BB ratio in 181 1/3 innings. Then there’s Carlos Martinez, who transitioned from reliever/swingman to the rotation last year and flourished, compiling a 3.01 ERA with a 184/63 K/BB ratio in 179 2/3 innings. The Cardinals also added Mike Leake, inking the right-hander to a five-year, $80 million deal. He isn’t one to miss bats, but his ability to induce ground balls helps him limit the damage.

Last season, the Cardinals finished with the third-lowest aggregate bullpen ERA at 2.82, trailing only the Pirates and Royals. Of their four relievers to throw 40-plus innings, three of them – Kevin Siegrist, Trevor Rosenthal, and Carlos Villanueva – put up a sub-3.00 ERA. Rosenthal, of course, is back in the closer’s role while Siegrist and new additions Seung-hwan Oh and Jonathan Broxton will help handle high-leverage innings in front of him. Oh was a lights-out reliever in Korea, owning a 1.81 ERA over 11 seasons in the KBO.

The NL Central has plenty of competition, as the Cubs and Pirates are poised to potentially win it all. For the Cardinals to defend their dominance of the NL Central, they’ll need Wainwright and Garcia to stay healthy, Carpenter to show that his power surge last year wasn’t a fluke, and for their young players to continue to flourish. All told, I think the Cardinals are banking on too much to go right and play in too tough a division. If they were in the NL East, I’d be more confident about their chances.

Prediction: 88-74, third place in the NL Central.