The St. Louis Cardinals are unaccustomed to playing the role of hunters. Having won the last three National League Central titles and no fewer than 100 games last season (despite ace Adam Wainwright and slugger Matt Holliday missing significant time with injuries), the Cardinals enter the 2016 campaign in the shadow of the Chicago Cubs. Having signed a pair of significant free-agent cogs from last year’s Cardinal roster — outfielder Jason Heyward and pitcher John Lackey — the South Siders are the trendy pick to win the World Series and end the most famous dry spell (now 107 years) in American sports. Centered around two of baseball’s strongest young hitters (Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant), the Cubs are flexing under Joe Maddon, who was named 2015 National League Manager of the Year despite his team finishing third in the Central Division.
These longtime rivals met in the postseason for the first time last October and the Cardinals were eliminated in a division series at Wrigley Field, as disheartening a finish to a season as any in four years under manager Mike Matheny. St. Louis looked injured, old, and tired, particularly in contrast to the youthful vigor that fueled Chicago’s run to the NLCS. Was that series a tipping point in what has been a one-sided “rivalry” for generations? The next six months — and 19 games played between the two teams — will clarify just how far the Cubs have risen and if, in fact, a glorious era of Cardinal baseball has entered its sunset years.
Even without Wainwright (who missed virtually the entire season with an Achilles rupture), the 2015 Cardinal pitching staff posted the lowest team ERA (2.94) since the 1988 New York Mets. And in a season of conditional qualifiers, the biggest “if” facing the 2016 Cardinals hovers above their starting rotation. Michael Wacha has an ace’s repertoire but wore down last season, posting a 4.01 ERA in the second half after making the All-Star team with a 2.93 mark in the first. Carlos Martinez enters his second season as a member of the rotation after being shut down before last season’s playoffs with shoulder tenderness. Jaime Garcia’s health has been a coin flip for most of his six seasons with St. Louis. With Lance Lynn shelved by Tommy John surgery, this leaves the newly acquired Mike Leake as perhaps the steadiest arm in the mix. (Leake made at least 30 starts each of the last five seasons with Cincinnati and San Francisco.) If — that word – these five pitchers stay healthy, St. Louis will have the best National League rotation west of New York, enough to keep the Cubs within arm’s length.
A healthy Matt Holliday (another “if”!) would boost a Cardinal offense that finished last season 11th in the National League in runs scored. (The Cardinals became the third team in major-league history to win 100 games while averaging fewer than four runs per game.) Holliday’s return should offset the loss — for at least three months — of shortstop Jhonny Peralta, who drove in 71 runs last year but injured his left thumb during spring training and required surgery. (St. Louis signed former Met Ruben Tejada — a career .255 hitter — to man the position, though he’s started the season on the disabled list.) With Holliday (now 36) and Yadier Molina (33) climbing toward middle age, the heart of the Cardinal lineup may soon shift to a pair of recent Memphis Redbirds: outfielders Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty. Each is capable of more than 20 home runs and upwards of 90 RBIs.
If you’re looking for a swing factor — beyond the starting pitchers’ health — for the 2016 Cardinals, you might focus on the bench. Gone are the likes of Pete Kozma, Peter Bourjos, and Tony Cruz, members of a punchless group of reserves last season. New to the roster are infielder Jedd Gyorko (49 homers in three seasons with San Diego), catcher Brayan Pena (a .260 career hitter), and another former Memphis outfielder, Tommy Pham (.327 in 48 games with Memphis last year).
Last season was a rarity, one in which both the Cardinals and Cubs contended for the National League pennant. Count on 2016 being an encore of sorts.