One thing you can’t escape in the offseason/spring training environment is speculation. I’ve seen and been surprised by a lot of it already this year, and I think some of it is off target (because I’m as prone to speculation as the next guy). The 2015 St. Louis Cardinals were not projected anywhere near the 100 games they won, and they are basically the same team, minus a Gold Glove right fielder and a starting pitcher that they replaced with a slight downgrade.
At this point, other than all the hype about the “Cardinal Way,” I don’t see any reason to expect St. Louis to be the team that makes things difficult in the National League Central for the Chicago Cubs. In fact, I believe it’s more likely that if anyone gives a solid chase to the Cubbies, it’s going to be the Pittsburgh Pirates.
What initially set this article in motion was listening to Casey Stern on MLB Network going on about how the Cardinals rotation and bullpen were better than that of the Chicago Cubs. The numbers don’t add up. The Cardinals have Carlos Martinez with a sore shoulder before the season even starts, Adam Wainwright who is, I realize, a serious ace, but who has hardly pitched in a year, Michael Wacha who only got 107 innings in 2014 due to a shoulder injury, Mike Leake coming in to replace John Lackey, which is (in my opinion) a slight downgrade. My point is that, healthy, yes, this is a formidable lineup, but the odds of this already injury riddled rotation remaining healthy don’t seem very good when stacked against a Cubs rotation who – other than the weird leg thing that struck Jason Hammel last season – remained healthy through the entire season, and show every sign of being in better condition this year.
The obvious weaknesses in the Cubs rotation, at least in the second half, were Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks, but Hendricks got better down the stretch, and Hammel spent the winter addressing the issues that plagued him – in the first half of last season he was better than every pitcher the Cardinals have except Wainwright, who wasn’t pitching. Hammel has dropped twenty pounds, changed his diet, and spent the winter learning from Tommy Hunt. If he comes out of the gate even slightly worse than he did last year, he’s bumping at John Lackey for the third spot in the rotation, and Kyle Hendricks, who has also upped his conditioning game, and is expected to have a break-out season, will be giving him competition. Again…both are healthy.
When you add into that mix Adam Warren, who was a good starter in the American League, and could be a two- or three-slot guy in the National League given a chance, and consider that most of the Chicago bullpen, while putting up good numbers in relief, are possible starters as well, with Travis Wood, Trevor Cahill, Clayton Richard, and even Justin Grimm waiting to step into the rotation if needed, the depth scale leans heavily toward Chicago, and the WAR and zWAR projections bear it out.
Of the starting pitchers in the St. Louis rotation in 2015, all but three spent time on the DL, and one of those three is now a Chicago Cub. Now let’s look at the Pirates.
Gerrit Cole is the solid number one in the Pirates rotation, and the difference between Cole and Wainwright is the stud Pirate pitched last year, and pitched very well. He lost the wild-card game, but the Cubs were surging, and Jake Arrieta was (at that point) on fire. Cole also won 19 games. I put my money every time on a healthy ace coming off a great season over another ace coming off a season where he barely pitched due to an injury. Francisco Liriano nearly gave the Pirates 200 innings last year, and he was very good, showing signs of brilliance. In fact, his strike out number at 208, was significantly higher than his innings count, in the 180 range. And again, healthy. Jon Niese and Jeff Locke were passable #3 and #4 level pitchers last year (Niese being new to the Pirates in 2016). Their number five could be Ryan Vogelsong or Tyler Glasnow. Vogelsong is coming off a poor season in San Francisco, and it is unclear what he will give the Pirates. Conceivably, Glasnow could start the year in the rotation, but the Pirates may hold him back for financial reasons.
The Pirates bullpen was solid and Mark Melancon clocked 51 saves over the season. He is one of the best in the game. On the Cardinals side, Trevor Rosenthal had 39 saves, but the overall ERA of the bullpen was not as good. Also, the number of wins dependent on that bullpen and closer were larger for the Cardinals, and the Pirates have right-handers Tyler Glasnow, Jameson Taillon and Trevor Williams in spring training with a shot at bumping some of the less than stellar arms from the bottom of the rotation, or joining the depth of the bullpen.
On offense, the Cardinals will be depending heavily on rookies Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty, and veteran Matt Carpenter. It is entirely possible that this is a solid plan, that Carpenter will retain his all-star level play, and Grichuck and Piscotty will step up, but statistically it’s as likely the two rookies will have a slight dip from 2015 productivity, and that Carpenter is due for a decline. Pittsburgh will be relying on the trio of Andrew McCutchen, one of the best players in the game, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco, who just might be the best starting outfield trio in the National League, unless Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler up their defensive game in 2016. The Pittsburgh infield will feature (if healthy) Jung Ho Kang at third, Josh Harrison at second (third if Kang is not yet healthy) and some very talented prospects battling it out for the remaining infield positions. They will have former catcher John Jaso at first, who if he transitions well, will add a solid bat to the lineup.
The Pirates have won at least 88 games in the last three seasons and have reached the Wild Card round three times. They are arguably a little stronger than they were last season, while St. Louis is arguably slightly weaker.
The point of this article is a simple one. It’s very easy to buy into the big Cubs-Cardinals rivalry, and how it’s going to be the focal point of the 2016 battle in the National League Central, but unless things fall apart, the gap is larger than is being let on, and the real battle may be between St. Louis and Pittsburgh for second place, or a wild-card slot.
My personal prediction for 2016 is that the Cubs will win more than 94 games and will win the division, that the Pirates will repeat at 88 or more games, and that they will be fighting off a third place Cardinal team dealing with an injury-riddled rotation. The entire Internet baseball world is up in arms over the PECOTA prediction that the Cardinals will win only 84 games, but I don’t believe it’s that far off. The rivalries will still be strong, and fun, but they will be based on tradition and history more than on the actual pennant race.