2018 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 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

Braves sweep Mets, take 2-game lead in East with 3 remaining

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ATLANTA — Dansby Swanson and Matt Olson homered for the third straight game, Travis d'Arnaud hit a go-ahead two-run single in the third inning, and Atlanta Braves beat the New York Mets 5-3, completing a three-game sweep of their NL East rival and taking a two-game lead in the division with three games to play.

The defending World Series champion Braves have been chasing the Mets the entire season. In the final series of the season, any combination of one Atlanta win or one Mets loss would give the Braves their fifth straight division title.

New York plays its final three games of the season against worst-in-the-majors Washington. Atlanta closed out the regular season with a three-game set in Miami. Should the season end Wednesday in a tie, Atlanta would win the division after claiming the season series 10-9 with Sunday’s victory.

The Braves won five of the last six games in the series, outscoring the Mets 42-19 over that stretch. New York had a 10 1/2-game lead on June 1 but now is the lower in the standings than at any point this season.

It was a lost weekend for New York, which came to Atlanta hoping to clinch its first division title since 2015. Instead, aces Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer lost Friday and Saturday before 15-game winner Chris Bassitt lasted just 2 2/3 innings on Sunday.

Swanson took Bassitt deep to right-center in the first with his 25th homer, and Atlanta took charge with a three-run third. Bassitt (15-9) issued a bases-loaded walk to Olson before d’Arnaud delivered a single up the middle to score Ronald Acuna Jr. and Austin Riley for a 4-3 lead. That chased Bassitt, who was charged with four runs, three hits and three walks.

Olson connected for his 33rd homer to make it 5-3 leading off the sixth, his 410-foot shot landing in the seats in right-center. Olson, in his first year with Atlanta, surpassed 100 RBIs for the second straight season.

Charlie Morton stranded runners on first and second in the first, but he gave up Daniel Vogelbach‘s 18th homer that tied it at 1 in the second. The righty struck out Francisco Lindor with runners on first and second to end the threat.

Jeff McNeil went deep off Morton in the third and Vogelbach followed with an RBI single to put the Mets up 3-1. Morton entered the game having allowed 28 homers, sixth-most in the NL.

Morton scuffled throughout his start, giving up three runs and nine hits in 4 1/3 innings as the 38-year-old made his first start since signing a $20 million, one-year contract to remain with Atlanta next season.

Dylan Lee (5-1) relieved Morton and pitched 1 1/3 innings, leaving after a walk to Brandon Nimmo with two outs in the sixth. Collin McHugh entered and struck out Francisco Lindor.

Raisel Iglesias faced four batters in the seventh, A.J. Minter faced the minimum in the eighth and closer Kenley Jansen converted his third save of the series with a clean ninth.

Jansen leads the NL with 40 saves in 47 chances.

The Braves’ bullpen, which posted a 1.70 ERA last month, pitched 8 2/3 scoreless innings the last two nights.

BIG NUMBERS

Atlanta leads the NL with 241 homers. And the Braves have their first 100-victory season since 2003.

TWO, DARN HOT

McNeil went 3 for 5 and has multiple hits in five straight games. His average is .326, one point behind the Dodgers’ Freddie Freeman for the NL batting title. In 23 career games at Truist Park, McNeil is hitting .395 with 12 runs, nine doubles, two homers, seven RBIs and four walks. … Jansen tied Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley for eighth place on the career list with 389. He’s also is the 10th closer to have four different seasons with at least 40 saves.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Mets All-Star RF Starling Marte (right middle finger fracture) has yet to begin swinging or throwing. … Braves 2B Ozzie Albies (broken right pinky finger) is still wearing a cast. … Braves RHP Spencer Strider still has not thrown as he gets treatment on a sore left oblique.

ATTENDANCE

The Braves drew 42,713 in their regular season finale, the club’s 42nd sellout of the season. Overall. that’s 3,129,931 for the season – and the most tickets sold since 2000. In 2019, the team’s last full season before the COVID-19 pandemic, Atlanta drew 2,655,100.

UP NEXT

Mets: RHP Carlos Carrasco (15-7, 3.95 ERA) will face Nationals RHP Cory Abbott (0-4, 5.11).

Braves: RHP Bryce Elder (2-3, 2.76 ERA) will face Marlins LHP Jesus Luzardo (3-7, 3.53).