photo: Busch Stadium, September 27, 2017 (Jeff Curry/USA TODAY Sports Images)
As I do each January, last year at this time, I published my predictions of the topics I thought could evolve into the top five stories across the St. Louis Cardinals nation for the New Year of 2017.
Today, with the benefit of full hindsight, including the top 10 stories of 2017 countdown now on the books, it is time to take my annual look back at my initial forecast. After all, anyone can make predictions, but how many actually return after the fact to review how they fared?
The original top five projections follow, along with where the stories actually ended up, including links to the appropriate articles. I won’t be repeating my 2017 summaries here, so click on the hot links if you’d like to read those detailed 10 articles.
My predictive powers were ok this year. I hit on all five of my top guesses from one year ago in the final top 10, covered in part by seven different stories. However, I admit I took some liberty with the “In-Season Help” (it did not really come) and the “Is Fowler Enough” (the reinforcement came a year late) story alignments.
Almost always, how the season ends up becomes my number one story of the year. That did not change for 2017, with the Chicago Cubs remaining a big reason why St. Louis missed the playoffs again.
|Pre-2017 prediction story||rank||rank||Post-2017 actual story|
|“Catching” the Cubs||1||1||Falling Short Again|
|Is In-Season Help Coming?||2||3||Pham’s Emergence|
|5||From Diaz to DeJong|
|8||Major Roster Turnover|
|Is Fowler Enough?||3||2||Ozuna in the Outfield|
|Determining Molina’s Fate||4||6||Molina Sets Future|
|Can the Rotation Rebound?||5||7||The Young Guns|
Revisiting my predicted top five St. Louis Cardinals stories of 2017
- “Catching” the Cubs
The optimist will point out that the 2017 St. Louis Cardinals were tied for first place with Chicago Cubs on August 12. The pessimist will note the difference at the end of the season was nine games, with Chicago repeating as division champion while the Cards slid into third place.
The reality is that neither club performed as well as the year prior, either in terms of regular season wins, or in the case of Chicago, in the post-season.
However, results in head-to-head action indicate the gap between the long-time rivals remains huge. In 2017, St. Louis managed just five wins in 19 tries against Chicago. It extended the Cards’ struggles with the Cubs to 15 wins in 42 head-to-head games stretching back to the 2015 National League Division Series, considered the inflection point when Chicago took control.
Then there was the icing on the cake – Chicago clinching the division and eliminating the Cardinals from wild card contention on consecutive nights at Busch Stadium in late September.
This gap does not seem to be closing any time soon.
- Is In-Season Help Coming?
Many would have liked for the Cardinals to beef up their 2017 roster more than they did with the free agent additions of Dexter Fowler and Brett Cecil. Some wanted a top-flight pitcher while others preferred a middle of the order hitter, perhaps to play third base. The wildly optimistic wanted both.
Neither occurred last winter, but many fans hoped the Cardinals would flex their financial muscle to make a major in-season trade. It would have been unusual, given the only in-season move that could be considered major since the acquisition of Matt Holliday in 2009 was the trade for John Lackey in 2014.
As the trade deadline approached and the Cardinals had been struggling for weeks just to get back to .500, there was as much – or perhaps even more – speculation about St. Louis becoming a seller rather than a buyer. Others suggested an oddly-ambiguous “both”.
As it turned out, the correct answer was “neither”. Despite wide-spread rumors, free-agent-to-be Lance Lynn remained with the club. Perhaps St. Louis did not receive an acceptable offer or just maybe the front office realized the negative fan impact from what would have perceived to be a “white flag” trade.
In late August, the Cards divested themselves of Mike Leake and his contract, admitting a mistake made two winters earlier while eating $17 million. Following the loss of Trevor Rosenthal due to injury, the club did add reliever Juan Nicasio as a September band aid, but it was too little, too late.
A number of internal promotions during the season did make a significant impact on the 2017 team, led by Tommy Pham, Paul DeJong and Luke Weaver. However, they offset as many or more major disappointments, including Jhonny Peralta, Aledmys Diaz, Stephen Piscotty and pretty much the entire bullpen.
Turnover has been high, with the changes continuing. Less than half of the top 27 players to open the 2017 season are still with the Cardinals and just two of Mike Matheny’s seven coaches from the close of 2016 remain with the organization.
- Is Fowler Enough?
As noted, the club’s major off-season addition one year ago was center fielder Dexter Fowler, who received a five-year, $82.5 million contract. Essentially, the switch-hitter replaced long-time Cardinal slugger Matt Holliday on the roster.
The original plan to insert the former Cub into the top spot in the lineup and the resulting move down of prior (and future) lead-off man Matt Carpenter had to be scrubbed when the first baseman’s productivity cratered while in the #3 spot.
Coupled with Stephen Piscotty’s surprising decline, the offense never totally recovered, lacking run-producers in the middle of the batting order. Through the almost-constant lineup juggling (144 different batting orders in the 162 games), manager Mike Matheny tried 11 different players in his number four spot, including Fowler for 18 contests.
While Fowler was the offense’s best hitter with a .991 OPS from his second return from the disabled list on August 7, his defense in center field was a major disappointment all season long. That has led to a likely move to left field in 2018.
To finally add the big bat the team needed at least a year earlier, the Cardinals sent four prospects to Miami for outfielder Marcell Ozuna in December.
The answer to the initial question is “no”. The addition of Fowler was not enough for the 2017 Cardinals – nor should he have been expected to be.
- Determining Molina’s Fate
With catcher Yadier Molina entering the final year of his then-current five-year contract, his agent put the Cardinals’ feet to the fire last spring. Either an extension needed to be in place by the start of the regular season or the 34-year-old would test the free agent market in the fall.
A few hours before the first pitch on Opening Day, the two sides agreed to a three-year extension, which covers 2018-2020 and will net Molina $60 million. His annual salary of $20 million is the highest in team history.
Many fans applauded the deal, which may keep the Cardinals icon with the club for the remainder of his playing career. Others were not so positive, feeling the club overpaid in money and years, while in the process, essentially blocking top catching prospect Carson Kelly until 2021.
- Can the Rotation Rebound?
When the Cardinals won 100 games in 2015, the starting pitching led the way. Many believed that for the team to be successful in 2017, the rotation – a middle-of-the-pack group in 2016 – needed to once again set the pace.
A number of important individual questions were answered positively, as leader Carlos Martinez topped 200 innings for the first time, Lance Lynn performed admirably coming off Tommy John surgery and Michael Wacha pushed questions about his shoulder into the background.
However, Adam Wainwright’s late-career slide continued and the Cardinals gave up on Mike Leake entirely by August. Of course, the problems began day one of spring training when Alex Reyes blew out his elbow.
In the second half, Luke Weaver stepped up nicely before slowing in September and prospect Jack Flaherty was rushed to the majors, but overall, the starting pitching was not the reason the Cardinals fell short of the post-season for the second consecutive year.
By the numbers, St. Louis’ rotation ERA of 4.13 was sixth-best in the 15-team National League. I look at it this way. If the team had managed to win the sixth-most games, they would have made the playoffs.
Given the turnover, the rotation will be another major question area in 2018. Speaking of which…
In my final article of this annual series, I will outline my predictions for the top five St. Louis Cardinals stories of 2018.
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