Storyline: A solid starting rotation and a line-up of power hitters give St. Louis a real chance to regain the NL Central title.
The Chicago Cubs finally won the World Series last year, breaking “The Curse of the Billy Goat.” And the defending World Series Champs appear to be primed for a repeat. Pretty much the same team returns, outside of center fielder Dexter Fowler and closer Aroldis Chapman. Vegas pegs Chicago a 7-2 favorite to win it all again (Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook).
But despite those favorable odds, Chicago’s path to World Series #4 won’t be easy. Several teams are capable of humbling the Cubbies and one of those clubs is their hated division rival to the south, the St. Louis Cardinals.
Last year Cardinals had to fight through constant injuries, which ultimately resulted in the team missing the postseason for the first time since 2010. St. Louis went 86-76, finishing one game behind San Francisco and New York in the NL Wild Card Race. But this year the Cardinals may just have the right tools to dethrone the Cubbies.
Over the winter the Cards bid farewell to veterans Matt Holiday, Jamie Garcia, and Brandon Moss. In addition to welcoming Fowler from the Cubs, St. Louis acquired pitchers Brett Cecil from the Blue Jays and John Gant from the Braves.
Expect Fowler to provide a spark: his range and anticipation in center field will be a huge bonus for St. Louis–a position where the Cardinals didn’t have a reliable, consistent starter last year. And veterans Cecil and Gant should make valuable contributions in what has been an inconsistent bullpen.
Stellar Starting Rotation
Despite not having a true “ace,” St. Louis may have one of the best pitching rotations in the National League. Carlos Martinez, a flame-thrower who has the ability into the triple-digits, occupies the top of the rotation. Expect him to issue few walks as he attacks the strike zone aggressively. Martinez has the ability to overwhelm opponents.
Adam Wainwright, a fan favorite, is second in the rotation. Wainwright isn’t the same fireballer that he was before Tommy John surgery, but his looping curveball can make opposing batters look foolish at times.
Michael Wacha is third in the rotation. Wacha is coming off one of the worst seasons of his career–7-7 with a 5.09 ERA– but he has the potential to be a force on the mound. A NL All-Star in 2015, Wacha finished that year with an impressive 17-7 record and 3.38 ERA.
At the fourth spot in the rotation is Lance Lynn, who missed all of last season with Tommy John surgery. In his first start of 2017 Lynn gave up just two runs and five hits in 5.1 innings of work against the explosive Cubbies.
Rounding out the rotation is Mike Leake, who can shut down opponents with a sinking fastball. But Leake struggles when he pitches at the top of the zone.
Every Hitter Is A Threat To ‘Go Yard’
It’s the long ball…. St. Louis drove 225 balls over the outfield wall last season, ranking second in the Majors behind Baltimore. The thing that made the Cards so dangerous last year was that anybody in the lineup–even pinch hitters off the bench–could drive the ball.
While the Cardinals did lose aging sluggers Brandon Moss and Matt Holiday, they picked up Dexter Fowler to offset those losses. Fowler hit 13 home runs with 48 RBIs last season with the Cubs.
All-Star Matt Carpenter can also slam the long ball. Known for hitting doubles (he led the NL in 2013 and 2015), Carpenter also hit 21 HRs last season–despite missing a month of the season with an abdominal oblique strain.
Outfielder Stephen Piscotty is another HR threat. He drove 22 over the wall in 2016.
In addition to all of that firepower, Manager Mike Matheny has youngsters Aledmys Diaz and Jedd Gyorko to boost the offense. Diaz, who made the NL All-Star team as a rookie last season, hit 17 home runs and had 65 RBIs for the year. Gyorko went on a tear after the All-Star break and finished the year with 30 homers.
Finally, there’s pinch hitter Matt “Big City” Adams. He’s always a threat to crunch one into the upper section.
The bottom line is that the Cardinals are a power threat from top to bottom. Opposing pitchers won’t be able to relax against this team.
With all those strengths the Cardinals do have a weakness: they were one of the most error-prone teams in the MLB last season (107 for the year). It’s a miracle St. Louis remained in the Wild Card race as long as they did.
But one of the hardest things in sports is to remain on top of the mountain. And you can bet that Mike Matheny and his Cardinals will press hard to knock off the Cubbies.
Will they do it? We’ll know come October.