2018 Preview: St. Louis Cardinals

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

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 2018 season. Next up: The St. Louis Cardinals.

The Cardinals were one of the teams benefiting from the Marlins’ latest fire sale, acquiring outfielder Marcell Ozuna in a trade in December. The Cardinals sent prospects Sandy Alcantara, Magneuris Sierra, Zac Gallen, and Daniel Castano to the Marlins. The first three now rank third, seventh, and 14th in the Marlins’ system, respectively. The Cardinals also signed veteran reliever Luke Gregerson to a two-year, $11 million contract, Bud Norris to a one-year, $3 million deal, and Miles Mikolis to a two-year, $15.5 million deal. Are those moves, adding to a core that won 83 games last year, enough to help the Cardinals keep pace with the Cubs in the NL Central?

Ozuna is a great addition. The 27-year-old had a career year last year, batting .312/.376/.548 with 37 home runs and 124 RBI in 679 plate appearances. He’ll be sharing an outfield with Tommy Pham, who broke out by hitting .306/.411/.520 with 23 home runs, 73 RBI, 95 runs scored, and 25 stolen bases in 530 PA this past season. And Dexter Fowler had another great season, batting .264/.363/.488 with 18 home runs and 64 RBI in 491 PA. As far as outfields go, the Cardinals’ ranks among the best in baseball.

In the infield, 35-year-old Yadier Molina returns for his 15th season in the majors, handling things behind the plate for the Red Birds. Across 136 games, Molina hit an adequate .273/.312/.439 while maintaining his defense and handling the pitching staff. He signed an extension with the Cardinals last April, which kicks in this year and lasts through 2020. He’s in no danger of losing his job anytime soon. Carson Kelly will back him up.

The versatile Matt Carpenter will return to first base. In the past four years, he’s been the club’s starting third baseman, second baseman, and first baseman. Along with his versatility, the 32-year-old still hits as he compiled a .241/.384/.451 triple-slash line last year along with 23 home runs and 69 RBI across 145 games.

Kolten Wong will play to Carpenter’s right at second base once again. He has been something of an enigma since debuting in 2013. He has some speed, he plays solid defense, and as his performance last year indicated, he can hit occasionally as well. But he’s averaged just about two Wins Above Replacement over the last four seasons, per Baseball Reference, which is equivalent to a league average player. A breakout performance from Wong would go a long way towards gaining some ground on the Cubs.

Paul DeJong will serve as the everyday shortstop, fresh off of signing a six-year, $26 million extension earlier this month. In his debut season last year, DeJong batted .285/.325/.532 with 25 home runs and 65 RBI in 443 PA. He finished second in NL Rookie of the Year Award balloting behind Cody Bellinger.

Rounding out the infield, Jedd Gyorko returns to the hot corner. He has put together two solid seasons with the Cardinals after coming over from the Padres, posting an OPS above .800 both years. Last year also saw him save 17 runs above average defensively according to Baseball Reference. During the offseason, some thought then-free agent third baseman Mike Moustakas fit well with the Cardinals, but the club ultimately passed in favor of Gyorko.

Carlos Martinez will lead the starting rotation. The two-time All-Star, now 26 years old, finished with a 3.64 ERA and a 217/71 K/BB ratio in 205 innings this past season. He had posted ERAs just barely above 3.00 in the previous two seasons, so his results in 2017 were a little disappointing in that regard. Martinez has terrific stuff and is clearly the ace of the Cardinals’ staff now, and no one would be surprised if he pitched himself into Cy Young contention.

The rotation behind Martinez is a different story, however. It is comprised of Michael Wacha, Adam Wainwright, Miles Mikolas, and Luke Weaver. Wacha has a 4.56 ERA and veteran Adam Wainwright has a 4.81 ERA across the past two seasons. Mikolas hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2014 – he pitched in Japan over the last three years — and owns a career 5.32 ERA. The 23-year-old Weaver, meanwhile, was solid in 10 starts and three relief appearances last year, compiling a 3.88 ERA with 72 strikeouts and 17 walks in 60 1/3 innings. Martinez aside, the Cardinals’ rotation is unreliable and has a realistic chance to be really bad. There’s a less likely chance it could be really good if Weaver is able to sustain his success over 30 starts, if Wainwright can put together one more solid year before drifting off into the sunset, and if Mikolas can repeat the success he had in Japan.

Gregerson, who turns 34 years old in May, will have the responsibility of closing games out. The veteran right-hander recently sustained an oblique injury in spring training but is expected to be ready for Opening Day. Last season, he posted a career-high 4.57 ERA with a 70/20 K/BB ratio for the Astros. While his strikeout rate was quite good, he also posted his highest walk rate since his rookie season in 2009. Needless to say, he’ll need to cut down on the walks if he has any hope of prolonged success in the ninth inning for the Cardinals.

Behind Gregerson, the Cardinals will entrust Dominic Leone, Tyler Lyons, John Brebbia, Matt Bowman, Brett Cecil, Sam Tuivailala, and Bud Norris. That’s a pretty solid bullpen as Leone, Lyons, Brebbia, and Tuivailala each posted a sub-3.00 ERA last year. Bowman and Cecil also had decent years. Bridging the gap from the starter du jour to Gregerson should be the least of the Cardinals’ worries in 2018.

Overall, the offense should be decent, but starters two through five may create some bumps in the road as might Gregerson if he has another year like last year. This is a good roster with some flaws, leaving it a bit behind the division rival Cubs.

Prediction: 85-77, 2nd place in NL Central

Texas Rangers ink free-agent ace Jacob deGrom to 5-year deal

Jacob deGrom
USA Today

ARLINGTON, Texas — Jacob deGrom is headed to the free-spending Texas Rangers, who believe the health risk is worth the potential reward in trying to end a six-year run of losing.

The two-time Cy Young Award winner agreed to a $185 million, five-year contract Friday, leaving the New York Mets after nine seasons – the past two shortened substantially by injuries.

“We acknowledge the risk, but we also acknowledge that in order to get great players, there is a risk and a cost associated with that,” Rangers general manager Chris Young said. “And one we feel like is worth taking with a player of Jacob’s caliber.”

Texas announced the signing after the 34-year-old deGrom passed his physical. A person with direct knowledge of the deal disclosed the financial terms to The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the club did not announce those details.

The Rangers were also big spenders in free agency last offseason, signing shortstop Corey Seager ($325 million, 10 years) and second baseman Marcus Semien ($175 million, seven years).

The team said deGrom will be introduced in a news conference at Globe Life Field next week following the winter meetings in San Diego.

“It fits in so many ways in terms of what we need,” Young said. “He’s a tremendous person. I have a number of close friends and teammates who played with Jacob and love him. I think he’s going to be just a perfect fit for our clubhouse and our fans.”

Texas had modest expectations after adding Seager, Semien and starter Jon Gray ($56 million, four years) last offseason but still fell short of them.

The Rangers went 68-94, firing manager Chris Woodward during the season, and then hired Bruce Bochy, a three-time World Series champion with San Francisco. Texas’ six straight losing seasons are its worst skid since the franchise moved from Washington in 1972.

Rangers owner Ray Davis said the club wouldn’t hesitate to keep adding payroll. Including the $19.65 million qualifying offer accepted by Martin Perez, the team’s best pitcher last season, the Rangers have spent nearly $761 million in free agency over the past year.

“I hate losing, but I think there’s one person in our organization who hates losing worse than me, and I think it’s Ray Davis,” Young said. “He’s tired of losing. I’m tired of losing. Our organization is tired of losing.”

After making his first start in early August last season, deGrom went 5-4 with a 3.08 ERA in 11 outings. He helped the Mets reach the playoffs, then passed up a $30.5 million salary for 2023 and opted out of his contract to become a free agent for the first time.

That ended his deal with the Mets at $107 million over four years, and deGrom rejected their $19.65 million qualifying offer in November. New York will receive draft-pick compensation for losing him.

The fan favorite becomes the latest in a long line of ace pitchers to leave the Mets for one reason or another, including Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden and David Cone.

The Rangers visit Citi Field from Aug. 28-30.

When healthy, deGrom is perhaps baseball’s most dominant pitcher. His 2.52 career ERA ranks third in the expansion era (since 1961) behind Los Angeles Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw (2.48) and Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax (2.19) among those with at least 200 starts.

The right-hander is 4-1 with a 2.90 ERA in five career postseason starts, including a win over San Diego in the wild-card round this year that extended the Mets’ season. New York was eliminated the next night.

A four-time All-Star and the 2014 NL Rookie of the Year, deGrom was a ninth-round draft pick by the Mets in 2010 out of Stetson, where he played shortstop before moving to the mound. He was slowed by Tommy John surgery early in his career and didn’t reach the majors until age 26.

Once he arrived, though, he blossomed. He helped the Mets reach the 2015 World Series and earn a 2016 playoff berth before winning consecutive NL Cy Young Awards in 2018 and 2019.

But injuries to his elbow, forearm and shoulder blade have limited him to 26 starts over the past two seasons. He compiled a career-low 1.08 ERA over 92 innings in 2021, but did not pitch after July 7 that year because of arm trouble.

DeGrom is 82-57 with 1,607 strikeouts in 1,326 innings over nine big league seasons. He gets $30 million next year, $40 million in 2024 and 2025, $38 million in 2026 and $37 million in 2027. The deal includes a conditional option for 2028 with no guaranteed money.

The addition of deGrom gives the Rangers three proven starters along with Gray and Perez, who went 12-8 with a career-best 2.89 ERA in his return to the team that signed him as a teenager out of Venezuela. Young didn’t rule out the addition of another starter.

With several holes on their starting staff, the Mets have shown interest in free agents Justin Verlander and Carlos Rodon to pair with 38-year-old Max Scherzer atop the rotation.

Now, with deGrom gone, signing one of those two could become a much bigger priority.