By this time last year, the wheels were already falling off the St. Louis Cardinals' wagon. From injuries to players and even a valued coach, spring training was an unmitigated failure, setting the stage for the team's first playoff miss since 2010.
Manager Mike Matheny's team appears far more ready to succeed this spring, thanks to a re-emphasis on fundamentals and the addition of former Chicago Cubs center fielder Dexter Fowler. That move not only aids St. Louis across the board, but weakens its Central Division rival a little bit and could help close some of last year's 17-game gap between the teams.
Fowler's arrival helps shore up the middle of a defense that even with perennial Gold Glove catcher Yadier Molina, showed serious weaknesses last year. Randal Grichuk wasn't quite as good in center as the team hoped, so he moves over to left with Stephen Piscotty staying in right.
The club hopes that Aledmys Diaz will continue the improvement he flashed at shortstop over the year's last four months, when he cut down on errors and looked like he could be at least a league-average defender, if not slightly above average. Jhonny Peralta has looked more comfortable at third, while Kolten Wong and Jedd Gyorko should form a platoon that will get the job done at second. Matt Carpenter is locked into first base.
Peralta's thumb injury early in spring training last year was the first shot across the bow. Another one was the news that third base coach and valued defensive guru Jose Oquendo had to sit out the season with knee problems. Some felt Oquendo's absence had a negative impact on a defense that not only made more errors, but failed to execute simple fundamentals that cost the Cardinals multiple games.
Bad defense had a ripple effect. It forced the starters to throw extra pitches, which in turn left more innings for the bullpen to cover. Neither was as good as it had been in previous seasons, and the combination was especially toxic at Busch Stadium, where a team mismatched for its ballpark finished with a losing record.
If St. Louis can catch the ball more consistently, its starting rotation should bounce back. Carlos Martinez has won the No. 1 spot in the rotation, a position befitting his ability, and Adam Wainwright is the No. 2 man, a better spot for him at this stage of his career. Mike Leake, Lance Lynn and Michael Wacha fill out the rotation.
Leake, a sinkerball pitcher who was most affected by last year's subpar defense, actually started trying for strikeouts because he wasn't sure his teammates could make plays behind him. This spring, Leake has led the staff in innings and is producing a plethora of groundouts, looking more like the guy the Cardinals spent $80 million on before 2016.
"When he is making good pitches like he has almost all spring, and guys make plays, we have seen a lot of zeros," Matheny told mlb.com. "Staring at a complete game every time he gets out there with his style of pitching."
Seung Hwan Oh is the closer this year with Kevin Siegrist as the primary setup man. Trevor Rosenthal is slated for a role similar to what Andrew Miller filled for Cleveland last postseason. The club thinks he could work multiple innings at high-leverage spots prior to closing time, shortening games and getting the game to Oh with a lead.
Matheny said after last year's 162nd game that a lot of teams were happy the Cardinals didn't make the postseason, because they could have given playoff teams fits. No one will ever know if that was true, but based on the signing of Fowler and a return to emphasizing the fundamentals that so mysteriously disappeared last summer, St. Louis could be back as an October mainstay.