Getting more rest for key players was a stated objective of the 2015 St. Louis Cardinals. Their inability to carry through became painfully evident in September and October.
I have been asked a number of times what I think the St. Louis Cardinals should do in preparation for the 2016 season.
I have distilled my answer down to this:
In 2016, they need to do what they said they should do in 2015, but didn’t.
While that sounds overly simplistic, there is plenty behind it.
As I wrote near the conclusion of my 2015 Cardinals season review posted on Friday at TheCardinalNation.com:
“Many, myself included, believe the Cardinals used so many bullets to ensure they won the division and avoided the Wild Card game and were so weakened by injuries that they did not have enough left in October.”
This idea of running out of gas late in the year is hardly new. In fact, it was a major theme one year ago, too.
St. Louis general manager John Mozeliak said the following at the Winter Warm-Up fan event on January 17, 2015.
“As you watch how baseball is evolving, you’ve seen a lot less offense,” the GM said. “There are a lot of theories about why that is happening, but I think Mike Matheny and his staff this year have to really focus on keeping guys fresh, keeping guys where they are getting the rest they need, because we do have a few players who are getting a little older.
“We have to be smart about it, but I think we have protection from our roster to be able to do that.”
A month later, in a Wall Street Journal article focusing on fatigued players, Mozeliak noted challenges in getting coaches and players behind actually accepting and then implementing the idea of more rest.
“It’s a tough thing to sell, because a lot of times coaches want to show that they’re coaching and players want to show that they’re working,” Mozeliak said. “Finding that right balance is ultimately what we’re all sort of chasing.”
Even so, here is why Mozeliak may have felt the team’s plan for 2015 could work. Let’s look at roster depth coming into the season from a positional group perspective.
Even with the trade of Shelby Miller, the top four spots in the rotation looked set in Adam Wainwright, John Lackey, Lance Lynn and Michael Wacha. Carlos Martinez, Jaime Garcia and Marco Gonzales were lined up to battle for the fifth spot, with Tyler Lyons and later, Tim Cooney backing them up. That is nine potential starters.
The ‘other’ player that came to St. Louis in the Miller-Jason Heyward trade, Jordan Walden, had the pedigree to step in as the eighth-inning man. That was an important opening after the Cardinals did not try to re-sign 2014 All-Star Pat Neshek.
Other spots were filled with returnees with the exception being non-roster invitee Carlos Villanueva, who made the team as the long man.
The five-man bench appeared to have the potential to be improved by subtraction. Outfielder Shane Robinson was released and infielder Daniel Descalso was non-tendered, not offered a contract – essentially released.
Coming off a team-leading .408 spring batting average, Pete Kozma took Descalso’s opening. The team’s starting shortstop in 2013 returned to St. Louis after spending almost all of 2014 at Triple-A Memphis.
Veteran slugger Mark Reynolds was signed as a free agent to back up first base and third base.
So, how did it play out?
Every one of the aforementioned nine made at least one start during the season. The reason was that of the nine, only three – Lackey, Wacha and Lyons – went the entire season without spending time on the disabled list. Several – Wainwright, Garcia, Gonzales and Cooney – sat out for major chunks of the season.
Martinez did not miss a lot of time, but it was when the team needed him the most – in the post-season. Wainwright made it back in late September, but only as a reliever, and by then, Lynn and Wacha appeared to be gassed.
Though Lyons was toggled back and forth between Memphis and St. Louis once each month in May, June, July and August before being re-added to the roster for a fifth time in September, the lefty may have been underutilized – making just eight starts for the Cards all season long.
I am not saying Lyons could have been a savior. Only that he was the guy always available to step in and do a credible job if needed. In hindsight, maybe Lynn, Wacha and Martinez could be been better rested through the season with more aggressive usage of Lyons.
Ironically, Lyons’ best outing was the team’s most important. Stepping in for the injured Martinez, the 27-year-old tossed seven innings of four-hit shutout ball at the Pirates in Pittsburgh. The win in Game 159 clinched the Central Division title for St. Louis.
After heavy early use (starting with nine of the team’s first 12 games), Walden suffered a biceps injury that ended his season after just one month of play. The disruptive impact of that loss was felt all season long. Another veteran reliever, Matt Belisle, also missed considerable time and 39-year-old lefty Randy Choate struggled.
Matheny strongly relied on Siegrist and Seth Maness to help fill the void. The former ended up leading the National League with 81 appearances and the latter also set a new career high at 76 games pitched. Neither was impressive in the NLDS.
At the July deadline, Mozeliak added two veteran relievers in Steve Cishek and Jonathan Broxton, but they did not provide a significant impact. Cishek did not even make the post-season roster and likely neither will be back in 2016.
All told, MLB’s best pitching staff statistically since 1988 was that for the first five months, but not in September (4.15 ERA) and certainly not in the playoffs, as the Cubs launched 10 home runs in four games, just one short of the all-time Division Series record.
Amazingly, though there were injuries all around them, four of the Cardinals’ five bench positions remained static all season long – the spots filled by Reynolds, Bourjos, Kozma and Cruz.
(The fifth spot was opened up while Grichuk spent two stints on the disabled list. Of course, many others also came and went, but they were injury replacements.)
From a stability perspective, this would seem to be good, but overall, it really wasn’t. The Cardinals kept at least three of the five bench spots filled with players the manager did not seem to want to use – Bourjos, Kozma and Cruz.
Reynolds did what was expected of him, though many probably did not anticipate he would receive 432 plate appearances. While his power was down, his .230 batting average exactly matched his career mark.
Bourjos was never able to gain any traction as a fill-in starter, or even as a pinch-hitter or pinch-runner. Though he received 225 plate appearances, only 34 of them occurred after July 31, during which time he went 2-for-30 at the dish (.067). Despite his quickness, he was awful on the bases, stealing just five in 13 attempts for the season. Not surprisingly, Bourjos was left off the post-season roster and seems destined to play elsewhere in 2016.
Kozma provided yet another reminder that spring training results are worth nothing. In the regular season, his .152 batting average ranked 224th of all 225 NL players with at least 100 plate appearances.
Kozma’s situation was complicated by the fact he is out of minor league options. The Cardinals were clearly reluctant to risk losing him on waivers by attempting to send him down to Memphis, and he remained with St. Louis for the entire season.
Like Bourjos, Kozma spent more and more time on the bench as the season continued. Though middle infield starters Jhonny Peralta and Kolten Wong were backsliding in the second half, Kozma’s mediocre offense was even worse.
As a result, we saw even less of Kozma than Bourjos down the stretch. After July 31, Pete had just 27 plate appearances, during which he batted .167 (4-for-24). A bad as it was, it was actually an improvement over his earlier season results.
Once Greg Garcia returned from Memphis, he ate into Kozma’s playing time, but he is not Kozma’s equal defensively. Still, like Bourjos, Kozma was not active in the NLDS.
While the Cardinals had other outfield options than Bourjos, especially as rookies Tommy Pham and Stephen Piscotty arrived on the scene, behind Peralta they had no other true shortstop on the roster besides Kozma.
Though Matt Carpenter could at least cover second base for Wong, with Reynolds taking over at third, it happened rarely. Specifically, Carpenter made just nine starts at second and played just one entire game there all season long.
As a result, Peralta led the Cardinals with 155 games played and Wong appeared in 150 contests. Their slow second halves continued in October. The two up-the-middle infield starters batted an identical .143 in the NLDS, combining for just four hits versus 11 strikeouts in 28 combined at-bats.
In fact, in his two years with St. Louis, the 33-year-old Peralta has logged the two busiest seasons of his entire 13-year MLB career at 157 and 155 games played, respectively. This season, Peralta was voted a starter on the NL All-Star team after leading the Cardinals in home runs (13) and RBI (46) while batting .298 in the first half, before dropping to just 4/25/.243 afterward.
Despite missing four games and taking five days off in May due to ‘extreme fatigue,’ Carpenter still played in 154 games. With the same number of appearances as Carpenter, Heyward is the fifth member of the Cardinals’ ‘150 Games Club.’
Cruz is well-liked, but let’s face reality. There is a huge drop off in skill both offensively and defensively from starter Yadier Molina. Coupling that with the manager’s apparent fear of getting caught with no reserve catcher on the bench means that Cruz takes the field even less often than most MLB backups. And when he did, he did not hit.
Cruz did show better results in late September playing every day after Molina was injured, raising his season average from .173 to .204. Yet like we saw with Kozma this spring and in his magical September of 2012, any player can play above his norm for a short spell.
Here is an indicator of the confidence level in Cruz. At the time of his injury, Molina had appeared in 136 of St. Louis’ 149 games, putting him on pace for a career-high 148 games played. Even without the 13 games lost, Molina still finished just 17 at-bats short of his busiest-ever season hitting – all at the age of 33.
Though it was noble for Molina to come back and try to play injured in the NLDS, it was not successful. He went just 1-for-8 before aggravating his torn thumb ligament, leaving Game 3 and sitting out Game 4 before undergoing surgery. It was the second straight year that Molina was injured and unable to play as the Cardinals were eliminated from the post-season.
The Cardinals came into the 2015 season thinking they had enough depth to provide adequate rest to their key players, unlike in 2014.
One reason it did not work was that the big drop off in performance – or at least the perceived gap – between the starters and the reserves led to the former being used too much and the latter not enough.
Matheny acknowledged the impact on the roster in his season-recap press briefing, as reported by the Post-Dispatch.
“Does this come down to us possibly overworking guys? Possibly. Yeah,” Matheny said. “We have to go when we can go. Most of these guys want to play. This is an everyday game. This is what they want to do. They want to play. They want to push. …”
Part of being a players’ manager is the trust Matheny places in his key veterans. If they want to play, he seems to let them. As a result, this ‘win today’ mindset continually overrules the greater long-term need.
While the manager seems to understand the impact, it doesn’t sound like a change in course is ahead.
“We have been trying to overthink how to save up so we can save later,” Matheny said. “It’s actually much simpler than that. We have to win every day. And it doesn’t matter if it’s in October, our philosophy is the same.”
The problem is that putting the very best lineup on the field every single day for six months and having fresh front-line players in October are by definition mutually exclusive.
For 2016, the Cardinals must figure out how to actually get their key players more rest instead of just talking about it.
In Part 2, I will offer up my thoughts on how the Cardinals might do so by improving their roster depth.
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