JUPITER, Fla. — They call it “The Cardinals Way.” But in 2016, the St. Louis Cardinals lost their way.
After winning 86 games and falling one victory short of the playoffs last season, the Cardinals took a hard look at what kind of team they had. They didn’t like what they saw.
Remember the go-go Cardinals teams of the Whitey Herzog era in the 1980s? It’s still part of the St. Louis baseball identity to feature pitching, defense and speed. But last year’s version stole a National League-low 35 bases and was, by one advanced measure, the worst baserunning team in baseball. It also was the worst defensive team with a winning record.
“If you’re a Cardinal baseball fan, it was tough,” Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch last month. “It was the total opposite of what we were accustomed to. I think this year there is a lot more emphasis on making sure you get back to the fundamentals and having a point of reference. I think they lost their point of reference last year. Trying to get it back.”
St. Louis, in an effort to gain ground on its NL Central rival — the defending World Series champion Cubs — set about to improve its overall athleticism. The centerpiece move was the signing of former Cubs centerfielder Dexter Fowler to a five-year, $85-million contract.
The other moves were internal. Matt Carpenter from part-timer at first, second and third to everyday first baseman. Jhonny Peralta from shortstop to third base. Randal Grichuk from center to left. A full commitment to the young double-play combo of Kolten Wong and Aledmys Diaz.
As it stands now, the Cardinals will have only three players in the same defensive position on Opening Day as they did in last year’s opener: Wong, eight-time Gold Glove catcher Yadier Molina and pitcher Adam Wainwright.
The Cardinals made 107 errors last year, the sixth-highest total in baseball. Their Defensive Efficiency Ratio — the amount of balls put into play that they turned into outs — was 24th at .696.
The St. Louis pitching staff gave up ground balls 49.5 percent of the time, tops in MLB. They need people to catch those ground balls. Fly balls, too.
“This is something that as a team we’re working on a lot this year,” Peralta said. “Defense is really important. You score some runs and you go back on defense and make an error and the other team scores. That’s something that we’re working really hard on.”
The Cardinals brought Smith, a 13-time Gold Glove winner at shortstop, into camp as a guest instructor to work with Diaz. The 26-year-old Cuban committed 16 errors in 106 games as a rookie in 2016. But Diaz’s bat (.300, 17 homers, 65 RBIs) played well enough that he finished fifth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting.
“In the beginning, he kind of struggled a little bit on defense,” said Peralta, who appeared in only 82 games last season because of left hand surgery. “But by the end of the season, I see better and better. I think he needs to have confidence, and the more he plays, he’s going to be better.”
Diaz also has worked regularly with infield coach Jose Oquendo, who was absent from the club last season as he recovered from knee surgery. Oquendo, a former Mets infielder, is seen as a necessary piece of The Cardinals Way.
In an exhibition game against the Mets last week, Diaz charged a slow roller and threw high over first base for an error. Oquendo was in Diaz’s ear almost immediately about the need to make those routine plays once the bell rings on April 2 against the Cubs.
“You can pick up from these guys,” Diaz said. “The way they anticipate the plays in the field, knowing your pitcher and the hitter. Stay low. Attack the ball. It’s great for my career. Every time I have a chance to talk to those guys, I’m going to do it.”