Matt Holliday (Jeff Curry/USA TODAY Sports Images)

Recapping the 2016 season for the St. Louis Cardinals.

Coming off a 100-win season, the 2016 St. Louis Cardinals did not spend a single day in first place and lost out on the second Wild Card berth on the final day of the schedule.

This is the first (and only) installment of our annual series recapping the year of 2016 for the St. Louis Cardinals.

Part 1 begins with a quick summary, before we go into significant detail on off-season moves, spring training and the regular season, month by month.

Sections include:

  • Season summary
  • Personnel changes
  • Spring training injuries
  • Spring training results
  • April
  • May
  • June
  • July
  • August
  • September
  • Post-mortem

 

Part 2 of this article, which would have covered the Cardinals in the post-season, has been canceled for obvious reasons.

Season summary

The Cardinals reported to 2016 spring training camp with high expectations – more placed on themselves with the Chicago Cubs the World Series pick of many, including oddsmakers. With the vast majority of the same players that won the division the prior three seasons, the Cardinals were not ready to concede anything, however.

Following an uneven spring and being swept in the opening series at Pittsburgh, the Cardinals were six games back of the Cubs before April was out and never sniffed first place the entire season.

It soon became clear that the streaking Cubs would likely win the division, which they did by 17 1/2 games, so the sight was reset on claiming one of the two Wild Cards. However, their chances were seriously damaged in late September, as St. Louis dropped two of three in Chicago and two of four at home to last-place Cincinnati.

A final series sweep of the Bucs was too-little, too-late as St. Louis missed the playoffs for the first time since 2010. Only with their final-day win did the Cardinals finally achieve the 10 games over .500 mark for the first time, finishing 86-76.

 

Personnel changes

Manager Mike Matheny welcomed several important newcomers to spring training camp in February. Pitcher Mike Leake was signed to a five-year deal as a free agent, taking departed free agent John Lackey’s spot in the rotation. Reliever Jonathan Broxton returned at a lower salary after his 2016 option had been declined. Former Korean and Japanese league closer Seung-hwan Oh also signed a free-agent deal.

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Key new position players were infielder Jedd Gyorko, acquired from San Diego in trade, and veteran catcher Brayan Pena, signed to a two-year contract to back up Yadier Molina.

The pitching staff had lost four hurlers in free agency, with the most prominent being Lackey, who joined the Chicago Cubs. Others were relievers Randy Choate, Matt Belisle and Carlos Villanueva. All quickly found new homes for 2016, with the exception of Choate, who had an audition with Toronto, but was released as camps broke.

Free agent position players leaving included infielder Mark Reynolds and outfielder Jason Heyward. There were no indications the Cardinals tried to re-sign any of their free agents, other than Heyward, who spurned the Cards to join Lackey in the Windy City.

In addition, outfielder Peter Bourjos departed after being claimed off waivers. Outfielder Jon Jay and catcher Tony Cruz were traded away. Catcher Cody Stanley’s second PED suspension led to him being non-tendered, as was reliever Steve Cishek. Of the position player departees, only Stanley remained unsigned.

Initially, there were no changes in the coaching staff from 2015, with David Bell starting his second season as bench coach and former Cubs third baseman Bill Mueller in his second season in Bell’s old job of assistant hitting coach.

Spring training injuries

On the offensive side, the major question coming into spring camp was the left thumb of catcher Yadier Molina. His goal was to be ready to start the regular season, however, given his two surgeries last fall, the now-34-year-old began the spring very slowly.

http://www.scout.com/player/67461-yadier-molina?s=321

Lance Lynn’s recovery from Tommy John surgery, putting him out for all of 2016, was known coming in. Less clear was any lingering issues with Carlos Martinez’ right shoulder, a problem that ended his 2015 season prematurely, but did not require surgery. Again, Martinez was initially put on a slower schedule than the other pitchers.

By the end of camp, both Molina and Martinez were ready to go, though Martinez was held back to make the fifth start.

Though each had health problems in 2015 - Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha and oft-injured hurler Jaime Garcia – all were on a normal spring program.

Reliever Jordan Walden was supposedly healthy after spending most of the last 10 months rehabbing his shoulder. That turned out not to be the case as the right-hander continued to feel discomfort after pitching and spent his entire final season as a Cardinal on the disabled list.

Mitch Harris and Tim Cooney both dealt with shoulder ailments in camp that kept them from fully competing to make the team. Cooney improved enough to be optioned to Memphis, while Harris’ nerve problem kept him on the MLB DL all year.

The biggest injury of the spring occurred quickly. In just the third game, shortstop Jhonny Peralta tore a thumb ligament, an injury similar to Molina’s. The initial prognosis was 2-3 months out.

http://www.scout.com/player/36533-jhonny-peralta?s=321

To be the everyday shortstop, the Cardinals then went out and signed Ruben Tejada, who had been released by the Mets a few days before. The bad luck continued when Tejada suffered a left quad strain in the team’s final spring training contest.

Though it was not an injury, midway through camp, long-time third base coach Jose Oquendo decided to go on an indefinite leave of absence following two knee surgeries. The Secret Weapon is not planning to return to the big league staff, his home since 1999, instead working with minor leaguers in Florida.

First base coach Chris Maloney moved to third, with Mueller taking Maloney’s old duties. Minor league hitting coordinator Derrick May became the new assistant hitting coach under John Mabry.

 

Spring training results

On the field, the club was off to a solid 8-4 start before suffering through a 1-9-3 stretch from March 13 through 27 that led to an overall spring record of 11-13-3. It was just the team’s second losing spring in Matheny’s five years as manager amid anonymous clubhouse grumbling.

Continuing the pattern from 2014 and 2015, the pitching led the way, with the fifth-best team ERA in MLB at 3.81. The offense struggled with a .725 OPS that was fifth to last in MLB. Only one of 30 teams scored fewer spring runs than the Cardinals.

One small consolation was that the club had its best hitting day in its final spring game, blasting five home runs while dismantling the Yankees in Tampa, 9-1.

With an announced focus on baserunning for the second straight spring, the Cardinals were sixth in MLB with 28 stolen bases. Their success rate was 73.4 percent.

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On March 2nd, the Cardinals announced they had come to terms with second baseman Kolten Wong on a five-year contract worth $25.5 million plus a sixth-year option that could carry him through his second year of free agent eligibility.

 

Spring competitions

Though no one would likely admit it, there were really no wide open roster spots in camp. Sure, not all jobs were written in ink, but the leaders at each spot would have had to play their way off the team - and they did not.

The closest may have been the reserve infielder position. Early on, Cuban native Aledmys Diaz made some noise, but the acquisition of Tejada to start in place of Peralta led to Diaz being sent down. Greg Garcia claimed the reserve spot.

The second left-handed reliever was Tyler Lyons and with no options remaining, it was not surprising he made the team. 

Rule 5 acquisition Matt Bowman needed the re-injury to Walden to make his first Major League roster as the last man in the bullpen.

http://www.scout.com/player/173078-matt-bowman?s=321

The non-roster player to stand out most during spring training was outfielder Jeremy Hazelbaker, in his first Cardinals camp at the age of 28. Despite his solid play (.304 average, three home runs and 10 RBI), there appeared to be no room for Hazelbaker on the season-opening 25-man roster.

That changed with Tejada’s final-day injury as Hazelbaker made the team in his place and soon made his loud MLB debut, as well.

While the roster seemed set, the club made another move just before Opening Day. Brayan Pena’s knee, which he had injured slipping on wet dugout steps, required surgery. That opened the door for Eric Fryer to begin the season as Yadier Molina’s back up. A non-roster invitee, Fryer had prior MLB experience with Pittsburgh and Minnesota.

With a full 40-man roster, the Cardinals placed Lance Lynn on the 60-day disabled list and designated for assignment pitcher Jayson Aquino to make room for Hazelbaker and Fryer.

 

Individual spring standouts

Among starters, Leake and Martinez posted ERAs of 2.30 or below but Wacha, Wainwright and Garcia fell between 4.00 and 5.52, foreshadowing regular season struggles ahead.

Among the relievers with strong springs were newcomer Oh, Siegrist, Broxton and soon-to-be reinjured Walden. Closer Trevor Rosenthal was not sharp, allowing 15 baserunners and four scores in nine innings.

On the offensive side, .300 hitters included Piscotty, Grichuk, Hazelbaker, Pena and Wong. Hazelbaker and Pham led the club with three home runs and Hazelbaker was the only Cardinal with at least 10 RBI.

Four players who opened the season on the active roster finished the Grapefruit League under the Mendoza line – Molina, Carpenter, Gyorko and Fryer. As noted above, Molina was coming back from two surgeries and had a number of early at-bats in which he was ordered not to swing.

 

April

Uneven play led to a 12-12 April in which the Cardinals finished the month in third place (or worse) for the first time since 2008. In the standings, St. Louis was six games behind the first-place Cubs after going just 5-6 at home.

In eight games against standout competitors Pittsburgh, Chicago and Washington, St. Louis won just one. The month ended on a down note, with a three-game losing streak, including the Nationals’ first series win at Busch Stadium in nine years.

Defense was a major issue right out of the gate, with the team averaging one error per game with their 24 through April - the highest miscue rate in MLB.

The pitching staff, usually among the leaders, was a middle of the pack bunch with an ERA of 3.94, which placed them 16th of the 30 clubs. The offense was feast or famine – leading baseball in scoring – but they came in bunches. In seven of their 12 wins, the Cardinals amassed double-digit run totals, but all were against teams with losing records. On the other hand, in their seven losses to top clubs, the Cards averaged just 2.3 runs per game.

Wainwright struggled to a 7.16 ERA, second worst among NL starters, to go with 11 walks and 14 strikeouts in 27 2/3 innings. Leake was fourth from the bottom, lugging a 5.83 ERA through his five April starts.

Among hitters mostly missing in action were Randal Grichuk (.189), Kolten Wong (.226) and Jedd Gyorko (.228), along with Matt Adams (6 RBI, 38 percent strikeout rate).

In the second inning of the Opening Day loss in chilly Pittsburgh, Tommy Pham had to leave the game with an oblique strain that put him on the disabled list. Shortstop Aledmys Diaz soon made his MLB debut as a result and took the game by storm, registering a .423 average to lead the entire league.

Tejada returned from the DL on the 18th, pushing Greg Garcia back to Triple-A, but Diaz played most often despite co-leading MLB with five errors. He was followed by Wong with four, who at times made spectacular plays, only to muff more routine ones.

http://www.scout.com/player/142384-jeremy-hazelbaker?s=321

Rookie Hazelbaker, another beneficiary of Pham’s injury, started red hot (.481 average) through his first nine games, but the outfielder cooled off almost as quickly.

Molina, playing almost all of the time with Pena on the DL, finished April on an 11-game hitting streak and 18-game on-base stretch. Despite a .230 batting average, leadoff man Matt Carpenter led the team with 17 RBI.

As he would all season long, Martinez paced the rotation, going 4-0, 1.93. Rosenthal was 5-for-5 in saves with 16 strikeouts in eight innings.

Newcomer Seung-hwan Oh was heavily used, pitching in half of the team’s games in April and showing he would be an important member of the relief corps. The Korean veteran allowed just two earned runs in 13 innings and struck out 19 against just six walks.

 

May

The Cardinals had their first winning month at 16-13, but managed as many as three consecutive wins just once. St. Louis spent the entire period in third place and lost another 2 1/2 games to Chicago in the standings, finishing May 8 1/2 games back.

In a month of highs and lows, the Cards swept Albert Pujols and the Angels in Anaheim, but turned right around and lost two of three at Dodger Stadium.

In an odd set of circumstances, while in LA on May 12, the Cardinals revoked their announced plan to option Seth Maness to Triple-A Memphis and instead placed the reliever on the 15-day disabled list.

Tejada was designated for assignment on May 28 and released on June 1.

http://www.scout.com/player/133115-matt-adams?s=321

During May, Matt Adams led the Cards with 19 RBI. Carpenter and Holliday hit six long balls each. Adams batted .364 and Piscotty’s May average was .346.

The party was over for April phenom Hazelbaker, who batted .176 in the second month. Regulars Moss and Molina hit .203 and .212, respectively.

Speaking of rough stretches, Martinez had his only bad period of the season, going 1-5 with a 5.18 ERA. But Wacha (0-5, 6.75) was even worse.

In a magic act, Leake gave up six home runs in six starts, but still managed a 2.31 May ERA and a 4-1 record. Wainwright went 4-0 in six starts despite a 4.62 ERA.

Speaking of magic, one could sense more troubles ahead for Rosenthal, with 10 walks and nine hits allowed in nine innings. Though he dodged major damage in May, it is a rare case indeed when a pitcher has a higher WHIP (2.11) than ERA (2.00).

 

June

With the return of Peralta from the DL on June 5, there was yet another strange occurrence. Wong was demoted to Memphis – to learn to play center field. After four home runs in seven games, Wong was brought back up, but made just seven starts in center the rest of the season and only played sporadically at second. 

After having spent a month in Memphis himself, Pham was returned to St. Louis on the 18th, a day after Wong made the same move. Correspondingly, Grichuk was demoted to Triple-A for a three-week period. 

A three-game sweep in Pittsburgh from June 10-12 put the Cardinals back into second place, where they would remain the rest of the way.

Overall, however, the 12-13 month was disappointing, as the Cards lost another 2 1/2 games in the standings to Chicago, ending June 11 games back.

Especially damaging was the dismal 2-10 showing against American League competition, including being swept at home by Houston, Texas and Kansas City. That obscured a three-game sweep of their own over the Cubs at Wrigley which occurred in the midst of the interleague losses.

http://www.scout.com/player/133929-trevor-rosenthal?s=321

After an especially tough ninth-inning defeat at Seattle on June 24, the struggling (and we later learned, injured) Rosenthal was removed from the closer’s job. In 10 innings during the month, Rosenthal allowed 25 baserunners, 11 of whom scored (9.90 ERA).

Oh took over the ninth and went on to save 19 of 22 opportunities the rest of the way. Speaking of Oh, he and Broxton teamed up to give up just two earned runs in 24 June innings.

Martinez continued to lead the rotation, but suffered from a lack of support. Despite a 1.31 ERA over five starts, the right-hander won just two games. In five outings each, Garcia (5.40 ERA) and Leake (4.85) went a combined 2-4 with four no-decisions during June.

Moss went from ice-cold in May to red-hot in June, batting .333 with eight home runs. Despite batting .224, Holliday’s 16 RBI led Moss by one. Piscotty hit just .209 for the month.

 

July

In terms of winning percentage, July turned out to be the Cardinals’ best month of the season. Despite their 16-11 record, they were still 7.5 games back of the Cubs as the calendar flipped to August. That was as close as St. Louis would get, as they consistently lost ground to Chicago over the final two months.

Within the first week of July, the injury bug bit hard, with four players placed on the disabled list in rapid succession – Siegrist, Moss, Pena and Carpenter. The latter’s July 6 oblique injury was especially damaging as evidenced by his drop in OPS from .988 pre-injury to just .726 after his August 5 return.

The Cards headed into the mid-summer break at 46-42 overall.

http://www.scout.com/player/133107-matt-carpenter?s=321

A year after six Cardinals were named to the National League All-Star Team, just one received the honor in 2016, Carpenter. However, with the infielder unable to play in the Mid-Summer Classic, teammate Diaz was added to the team as a replacement.

On the 19th, the injuries continued as Peralta returned to the DL, followed by Rosenthal on the 26th.

In July, Gyorko exploded with seven home runs in 73 at-bats and batted .301. Piscotty led the club with 19 RBI. Diaz, who batted .299, was next with 17 driven in. On the other hand, power hitters Adams and Holliday finished July under the Mendoza Line.

This is the one month of the season during which Wainwright pitched like he did in the old days, with a 3-0 record with a 1.77 ERA in five starts. The highlight was a three-hit, complete game shutout of the Marlins at Busch on July 16th, which came after a nine-day break at All-Star time.

Another pair pitched like in the old days, too, as Siegrist and Maness combined to yield just two earned runs in 18 1/3 innings. Oh picked up seven saves in seven tries, but took one loss.

Leake (5.70 ERA) and Garcia (4.86), in five and six starts, respectively, were among the July strugglers. 

The Cardinals made their lone trade deadline move on the 31st, sending outfield prospect Charlie Tilson to the Chicago White Sox in return for reliever Zach Duke. The lefty was a solid contributor down the stretch, but will miss 2017 due to a late-season injury.

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The month ended on an especially sour note. Diaz was hit by a pitch on the 31st, suffering a fractured thumb that caused him to miss 37 games. He returned on September 12, but did little with the bat the rest of the way.

 

August

Any hopes of catching Chicago were swept away in August. The Cardinals began the 14-13 month by losing four of six to struggling Cincinnati and Atlanta and ended the month 15 games behind the Cubs.

When Diaz was shelved, Grichuk was sent down for a second time in 2016, with Peralta and Moss coming off the DL on August 2. Tyler Lyons’ season ended due to injury the next day.

The DL moves kept coming like clockwork – Wacha (9th, with Alex Reyes called up), Adams (11th, with Grichuk back from Memphis), Holliday (13th, with Luke Weaver promoted), Maness (15th, with Sam Tuivailala added) and Leake (29th, replaced by Dean Kiekhefer).

After Mike Mayers and Luke Weaver were tried in the rotation, Reyes was given his first MLB start on the 27th against Oakland. The bullpen blew a 2-1 lead as the Cards went on to lose four of five to the AL West cellar-dwelling A’s this season.

Relief in August was either really good or really bad, depending on the pitcher. Reyes, Duke and Oh combined for 42 innings of 1.07 ERA ball. Oh saved seven of nine and won two. On the other hand, Broxton, Siegrist, Bowman and journeyman Jerome Williams were brutal, combining for an ERA of 7.44 over 38 1/3 frames.

The starters continued their collective second-half swoon. Wainwright, Garcia, Wacha and Leake had ERAs between 4.88 and 6.10 for the month. Only Martinez at 3.38 stood out for the right reason.

http://www.scout.com/player/36659-brandon-moss?s=321

Gyorko continued his power outburst with 10 August home runs, though the infielder batted .230. A resurgent Moss went deep eight times and plated a team-best 21 runs. Molina’s .337 batting average was 50 points higher than the next-closest Cardinals hitter.

Seeing semi-regular time with Diaz out and the manager unwilling to play Peralta at short, Garcia was exposed, batting just .200 for the month while striking out at a 23 percent rate.

 

September/October

Only with the final series sweep over the Bucs did the Cardinals manage to play above .500 ball over the final month-plus two days, going 16-14. It was not enough to enable them to reach the playoffs.

As the Cubs widened their final NL Central margin to 17 1/2 games over St. Louis, the Mets and Giants claimed the two Wild Card berths, though the Cards were in the race until the final day. As noted above, St. Louis’ chances were seriously damaged in the final 10 days, as they dropped two of three in Chicago and two of four at home to last-place Cincinnati.

As rosters expanded, the Cardinals added a group of minor leaguers and activated a number of injured major leaguers as well. Up from Memphis were catcher Carson Kelly, outfielder Jose Martinez and pitchers Mike Mayers and Sam Tuivailala. From the fourth through the 15th, Pena, Leake, Diaz, Wacha and Rosenthal were brought off the DL.

http://www.scout.com/player/56696-matt-holliday?s=321

The Cardinals had signaled in advance their intent to not pick up their 2017 contract option on Holliday. The club activated the 36-year-old for the final weekend and he shined in the spotlight each of the final three games.

On Friday, Holliday launched a pinch-hit home run. The next night, his pinch-hit single helped St. Louis win a one-run game. Finally, on Sunday, he was sent out to left field alone in the ninth inning for a final bow as the fans cheered and his teammates joined in from the dugout.

Moss was the poster child for the struggling offense, going 9-for-91 (.099) in the final period. He was joined by Diaz (.216), Carpenter (.224) and Gyorko and Wong (.231 each).

Molina (.388) and Peralta (.289) were the only Cardinals batting over .270 from September 1 on. The hot-hitting Molina’s 17 RBI was just one off Grichuk’s team-leading total.

In four starts and two relief outings, Reyes was superb, with a 1.97 ERA. Martinez logged a 2.92 ERA and won four games. In the bullpen, Bowman allowed just one run in 11 innings and Siegrist two in 12 frames. Oh was 5-for-6 in save opportunities, and took one loss to go with two wins.

Weaver was hit hard in September, with an 8.22 ERA over four starts and one bullpen appearance. Three of the five regular starters also posted ERAs over 5.00 in the final month – Wainwright, Leake and Garcia.

Considering this inconsistency down the final stretch, it is not difficult to see why the Cardinals as a team fell short.

 

Post-mortem

The 2016 Cardinals were never able to run off a hot streak, with their longest winning stretch just five games. They also never lost more than five consecutive outings. After failing nine times previously, it took all 162 games for the Cards to reach the 10-games over .500 target, a point they first reached in 2015 on May 1, 22 games into that season.

Among the key factors in the 86-76 finish was an inability to consistently win at home. At Busch Stadium, the Cards won just 38 of 81 home dates. The .469 winning percentage was the team’s worst since current ownership took control of the club over two decades ago and is St. Louis’ first losing home season since 1999.

In addition to the 8-12 record against the American League, the Cardinals lost season series to the Cubs (9-10), Arizona (3-4), the Dodgers (2-4), Miami (3-4) and Washington (2-5). The only clubs against whom St. Louis had more than a one-game edge are San Diego (6-1) and Milwaukee (13-6), two doormats who finished a combined 42 games under .500.

In the division, the Cardinals had a 42-34 record but overall, they struggled against the better opponents. St. Louis’ season mark against teams that finished .500 or above was just 24-35.

In one-run contests, St. Louis was just one game over .500 at 24-23 and the club’s issues with left-handed pitching returned with a 20-24 mark versus lefty starters.

Though the 2016 offense was inconsistent and reliant on the home run, overall scoring was not an issue. St. Louis finished third in the National League in runs scored, was first in home runs and second in slugging. The club set a new MLB record with 17 pinch-hit long balls.

However, the defense, baserunning and pitching declined from 2016. St. Louis was 27th of 30 MLB teams in UZR, Ultimate Zone Rating. 57.4 percent of Cardinals attempting to steal a base were thrown out, dead last in MLB. Their season total of 35 steals was lowest in the NL.

Team ERA, which was the best in the game the year before, declined from 2.94 in 2015 to 4.08, smack in the middle of the NL pack.

Injures also remained a problem in 2016. According ManGamesLost.com, which tracks player injuries, the Cardinals lost the most WAR (Wins Above Replacement) due to injury in all of MLB - for the second consecutive season. As a result of all the injuries, the club had just two players appear in more than 132 games – Piscotty (153) and Molina (147). That compares to six in 2015.

http://www.scout.com/player/140971-stephen-piscotty?s=321

Put that all together and the St. Louis Cardinals remained home from the post-season for the first time since 2010.

 

To review key individual player stats from the 2016 Cardinals, check out these four articles:

TCN 2016 St. Louis Cardinals Rookie of the Year

TCN 2016 St. Louis Cardinals Relief Pitcher of the Year

TCN 2016 St. Louis Cardinals Starting Pitcher of the Year

TCN 2016 St. Louis Cardinals Position Player of the Year

 

For more

Link to master article with all 2016 award winners, team recaps for this entire 45-article series, now complete for another year.

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Brian Walton can be reached via email at brian@thecardinalnationblog.com. Also catch his Cardinals commentary at The Cardinal Nation blog. Follow Brian on Twitter.

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