Pressing Questions: The St. Louis Cardinals

Matt Carpenter could be headed for a career year
Matt Carpenter could be headed for a career year

Contrary to popular belief, the NL Central flag isn’t a point-and-click product on Amazon. The darling Cubs haven’t clinched yet. There’s a six-month, 162-game schedule to be played, and the Cardinals figure to have a say in things.

We’re used to St. Louis contending, of course. The Redbirds have made 12 playoff appearances in the last 17 seasons, and last year’s near-miss (one game) was their first misstep in six years. The Cardinals have won at least 86 games in nine straight years, and the 2017 edition appears primed to contend again.

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The pitching needs to be a little better if the Cardinals want to see October. St. Louis led the NL in home runs and ranked fourth in the majors in scoring last year, but the staff ERA graded a disappointing 12th. Pitching phenom Alex Reyes was considered a major part of the 2017 solution, but he’s already out of the mix, a winter Tommy John casualty. If the St. Louis staff is going to step back into playoff class this year, it will have to come from holdovers, names you already know by heart.

The Cardinals were able to take one gust out of Chicago’s sails, signing Dexter Fowler to a five-year, $82.5 million deal. If those terms sound pricy for a good-not-great commodity like Fowler, consider how lukewarm the free-agent market was this winter. Fowler should be a rock-solid leadoff man in his new city, provided he can stay on the field. He’s made it past 143 games just once in eight MLB seasons.

Mind your Ps and Qs, let’s take a look at some of the other fantasy angles here.

Q: Can Carlos Martinez be a star through more pitch-to-contact work?

Martinez’s fantasy worth was roughly even the last two years, but the genesis of last year’s success came with new packaging. Martinez had a notable drop in strikeouts (down to 8.02/9) and a mild uptick in walks; the former was a residual of intentionally pitching to more contact. The Cardinals would love Martinez to morph into a 225-inning horse — he’s yet to get past 200 innings — and with a career ground-ball clip at 54.5 percent, contact is an acceptable result. Mind you, the St. Louis infield is a far cry from the heyday of Ozzie Smith, but that’s a concern for another day.

Martinez is an eyelash outside the Top 20 pitchers in current Yahoo ADP, and I find him preferable to a host of the neighborhood plays (Cole Hamels, Gerrit Cole, Zack Greinke, Rick Porcello). You have to decide how to structure your own staff, but I’m fairly confident I’ll punch a few Martinez shares along the way, at peace with the ADP ticket (88.4) and comfortable with the age pocket (25) and reasonable division.

Q: Is Aledmys Diaz, last year’s breakout star, for real?

I don’t blame anyone harboring trust issues on Diaz, concerned how his OPS collapsed by 133 points in the second half (and his homers dropped from 13 to four). And to make the story extra messy, there’s the stench of the .216 September.

His bat will need to drive his real-life value; Diaz isn’t much of a base stealer, and he graded out as a below-average defender. I’m more likely to pay up for a designer shortstop or shop in the discount bin — Diaz is a middle-round play in Yahoo (ADP: 152), and one I’m not eager to punch.

Q: What happened to Michael Wacha last year?

On the surface, it was a lost summer for Wacha. A nagging shoulder injury held him back, his fastball dropped a tick, and his ERA bloated over the 5 mark. But some of the peripheral stats suggest he was unlucky. Wacha’s strikeout, walk and home-run rates were similar to his 2015 levels, and his fielding-independent ERA was almost identical. Meanwhile, his front-door ERA jumped by a whopping 1.71 runs.

Perhaps Wacha will sneak up on some people this year, merely asked to hold down a spot in the back end of the rotation. A healthy shoulder can go a long way. He’s still just 25. You’re in name-your-price territory with Wacha, as his early Yahoo ADP is a giveaway 243. Maybe he can generate some post-hype buzz in March.

Q: Is there a sneaky name-brand value in this lineup?

As much as I hate to tip my hand this early in the draft season, I’m a slave to the reader success. As your broker, I advise you to circle Matt Carpenter’s name and act accordingly during draft season.

Carpenter probably would have surpassed his terrific 2015 season had he stayed healthy last year — a balky oblique cost him about a month. Nonetheless, he maintained his average and slugging percentage, and pushed his OBP up 15 points. He also clocked another 21 home runs, showing that the 28 dingers from 2016 weren’t a fluke.

Carpenter was the regular leadoff man last year, but he’ll drop to the No. 3 position with Fowler in town. That’s the catbird seat for run production. Carpenter routinely hits the ball hard (26 percent line-drive rate for his career) and carries three positions of eligibility (1B, 2B, 3B) in the Yahoo game. His current ADP of 76.4 is oozing with potential profit. St. Louis should have a plus offense again, with Carpenter in the middle of the fun.

Cardinals Projected Lineup

CF Dexter Fowler

SS Aledmys Diaz

1B Matt Carpenter

RF Stephen Piscotty

C Yadier Molina

3B Jedd Gyorko

2B Kolten Wong

LF Randal Grichuk

Cardinals Projected Rotation

SP Carlos Martinez

SP Adam Wainwright

SP Mike Leake

SP Lance Lynn

SP Michael Wacha

CL Seung Hwan Oh

RP Kevin Siegrist

SP Trevor Rosenthal

Projected lineup courtesy of Roster Resource

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