With the 2017 St. Louis Cardinals having assembled this week in Jupiter, Florida, and the bad news already streaming in, let’s look back one last time at Spring Training 2016 - while we still can.
An uneven spring led to an uneven regular season that ended in disappointment.
Manager Mike Matheny, in his fifth season at the helm, welcomed several important newcomers to the Cardinals spring training camp in February, 2016.
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.
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 by Philadelphia. Outfielder Jon Jay and catcher Tony Cruz had been traded away, to San Diego and Kansas City, respectively. 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 the prior fall, the 34-year-old began the spring very slowly.
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 just enough to be optioned to Memphis, but both spent the entire season on the shelf.
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 two to three months out, but the aftereffects were felt much longer.
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 the veteran suffered a left quad strain in the team’s final spring training contest.
In total, six Cardinals opened the season on the major league disabled list: pitchers Lynn, Walden and Harris, catcher Pena and shortstops Peralta and Tejada.
Though it was not a spring camp injury, midway through, long-time third base coach Jose Oquendo decided to take an indefinite leave of absence following two knee surgeries. The Secret Weapon chose not 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, but May would not be retained for 2017.
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. The long ball proved to be an important weapon during the regular season.
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. That did not carry over to the regular season, however.
On March 2nd, the Cardinals announced they had come to terms with Kolten Wong on a five-year contract worth $25.5 million plus a sixth-year option that could carry the second baseman through his second year of free agent eligibility.
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 back-up 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 to Triple-A. Greg Garcia claimed the reserve spot.
The second left-handed reliever was Tyler Lyons. With no options remaining, it was not surprising he was on the Opening Day roster.
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.
The non-roster hitter 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. Pena’s knee, which he had injured by 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, Kevin 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 Stephen Piscotty, Randal Grichuk, Hazelbaker, Pena and Wong. Hazelbaker and Tommy Pham led the club with three home runs each 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, Matt 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.
Many may “misremember” that Diaz was part of the Opening Day roster, having replaced Tejada, but as noted above, that was not the case.
It happened in a different manner, with a different injury creating the opportunity.
In the second inning of the Opening Day loss in chilly Pittsburgh, left fielder Pham left the game with an oblique strain that put him on the disabled list. (Gyorko was the starting shortstop.)
Before playing a game with Memphis, Diaz was recalled to replace Pham on the active roster and made his MLB debut two days later, in Game 2 of the regular season. (Gyorko slid over to second.) The new shortstop took the game by storm, registering a .423 average in April to lead the entire National League while batting out of the eighth spot in the lineup.
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