“Know Your Division” is a series of evaluations for the 2016 season. We will preview each team in the NL and AL Central as the Cubs and Sox prepare to match up against these foes, breaking down each part of the game and what to look for going into the year.
The St. Louis Cardinals have been the class of the NL Central, possibly the MLB, since 2000. In the past 15 seasons they have finished below .500 only once, won the division nine times and have claimed two World Series rings. Last season they finished with 100 wins but lost in the League Division Series as a result of injuries and a hot Cubs team. That same Cubs team is looking at the Cardinals’ success as a model for what they want to do for the next 15 years.
It’s really hard to talk about the additions before mentioning the losses. Jason Heyward took less money to be with a Cubs team on the rise and John Lackey joined him, meaning the Cardinals went into 2016 trying to replace their best player and one of their top arms. Adam Wainwright will make his return after missing most of 2015 with an achilles injury, and they also added Mike Leake to give some depth to their rotation.
Aside from trying to replace Jason Heyward, the Cardinals suffered a loss early in spring training as Jhonny Peralta needed surgery on his thumb that will keep him out until midseason. They signed Ruben Tejada as a replacement, who isn’t exactly known for his bat. Stephen Piscotty is going to be trying to replace Heyward in right field. They don’t need him to duplicate the offensive production of Heyward, but they haven’t signed anyone to help pick up the pieces. Piscotty, Grichuk, and Pham all have some pop but none have the track record to pencil them in for 20 home runs. Matt Carpenter will be the centerpiece of their offense, assuming Yadier Molina and Matt Holiday don’t have magical bounce back years at the ages of 33 and 36. The Cubs have a major advantage offensively this season, and it’s not unfair to think they’ll outscore the Cardinals by 100 runs.
Yet another part of the game where losing Heyward leaves a gaping hole. Heyward is the best defensive right fielder in the game and it’s really not even close. Now that he’s on the North Side, the Cardinals will be trotting out a negative dWAR player in Stephen Piscotty. They’re also downgrading at shortstop due to the Peralta injury. Despite his injuries, Yadier Molina is still probably the best defensive catcher in the game, and the rest of the defense up the middle (Wong, Grichuk/Pham) should be solid to above average. That being said, Heyward and Fowler are going to cover enough ground in the outfield to give the Cubs a slight edge on defense (assuming Schwarber is moved around).
Maybe the only part of the game where the Cardinals have a slight edge. They will be getting Wainwright back, and Wacha, Martinez and Garcia are no slouches. Though they may not have a true ace (debateable) they can pitch with anyone in the majors one through four. The addition of Mike Leake is a depth move, and he’ll be their fifth starter at the beginning of the season. Trevor Rosenthal has established himself as a premier closer and they have enough options in the rest of the bullpen to get him the ball with the lead in the ninth. After Lackey (quite frankly I have my concerns about him as well) the Cubs’ rotation gets a little sketchy with some yuck thrown in. Joe Maddon is going to use his bullpen to keep Hammels and Hendricks from facing batters too many times, but that bullpen may be due for a regression.
The Meat and Potatoes
You won’t be seeing a passing of the torch with the Cubs and Cardinals this season. Though the Cubs are superior in talent the Cardinals have enough young players to remain relevant in this division. I expect them to be competing for the Wild Card if not the division title once again, but it’s pretty clear they don’t match up with the Cubs well on paper. I actually love the Cubs way more in a seven game series against this team than I do in the regular season. Why? Because the Cubs can disintegrate baseballs very often.