MLB

St. Louis Cardinals 2017 preview

This is the latest of our 2017 team previews. Each week during spring training, we'll preview a division with a team each day (Monday-Friday). This week: The NL Central: Chicago Cubs. Up next: Pittsburgh Pirates

LAST SEASON

86-76, second in NL Central

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WHAT'S NEW

Key additions: CF Dexter Fowler (free agent from Cubs), RP Brett Cecil (free agent from Blue Jays), SP John Gant (trade from Braves)

Key subtractions: LF Matt Holliday (free agent to Yankees), OF/1B Brandon Moss (free agent to Royals), SP Jaime Garcia (traded to Braves), RP Seth Maness (free agent to Royals), OF Jeremy Hazelbaker (waiver claim by Diamondbacks)

3 STRIKES

1. Don't cry Fowler. The Cardinals invested $82.5 million in Fowler this offseason, scooping the center fielder up from the Cubs in the wake of the his first career All-Star selection. But Fowler will be 31 by Opening Day, and it remains to be seen whether he will maintain the pace he set over the past two seasons in Chicago. Fowler is a highly productive leadoff hitter, a good baserunner and a veteran presence, and he represents a significant defensive improvement from Holliday, whose left-field post will now be manned by Randal Grichuk, giving the Redbirds a more reliable outfield all around, as Stephen Piscotty returns in right. But even at Fowler's best, it seems unlikely that he, alone, brings enough to close the 17.5-game gap between St. Louis and the first-place Cubs.

2. Prepare for a power outage. The Cardinals led the NL and finished second in the majors with 225 home runs last season, but more than a quarter of those dingers left the roster with the departures of Holliday, Moss and Hazelbaker, who combined to hit 60 in 2016. Fowler, of course, will bring a little pop to St. Louis, but no one will mistake him for a slugger. Instead, there will be enormous pressure on Aledmys Diaz, Matt Carpenter, a slimmed-down Matt Adams and others to deliver at the plate in 2017. Diaz, particularly, could be primed for a breakout year after a fantastic rookie campaign that saw him post an .879 OPS and drive in 65 runs in 111 games. If the 26-year-old Cuban continues to excel, then so, too, will the Cardinals.

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3. Losing the arms race. After posting the lowest team ERA in baseball (by a mile) in 2015, the Cardinals were the definition of average on the mound last season. And for all intents and purposes, everything that could go wrong did: They lost Lance Lynn to Tommy John surgery during the 2015-16 offseason; Adam Wainwright returned from his Achilles injury and had the worst year of his career; Michael Wacha added nearly two points to his 2015 ERA and Garcia saw his nearly double, too; Trevor Rosenthal was so bad he was removed from the closer's role in June. This season got off to an ominous start as well, as top prospect Alex Reyes had to have Tommy John surgery, making it more important than ever that the Cardinals' veterans regain their past form.

BEST-CASE SCENARIO

Last year's all-around effort on the mound proves to be an aberration and the Cardinals, who entered last September 15 games back in the division, at least make the NL Central race interesting.

WORST-CASE SCENARIO

St. Louis' tweaked offense can't produce enough runs to make up for its underperforming starting pitching and the division is once again decided by the All-Star break.

SURPRISING STAT

Infielder Jedd Gyorko led the National League with 23 home runs after the All-Star break last season, and his career-high 30 home runs are the most ever by a player who played all four infield positions during the season.

BEST BETS

Projected win total (via Atlantis Casino Resort): 87.5

World Series odds (via VegasInsider.com): 25/1

TOP FIVE FANTASY PLAYERS

1. Matt Carpenter, 3B/1B/2B: Compared to other fantasy studs, Carpenter was a late-bloomer. He's made up for lost time to hit 49 homers over the past two seasons and make a strong case for top five draft consideration at third base.

2. Stephen Piscotty, OF: Despite the 22 homers in his first full season, Piscotty really struggled in the second half to the tune of a .247 batting average and 24 percent strikeout rate -- seven percent higher than the first half of 2016. Piscotty remains a top 30 fantasy outfielder based on average draft position.

3. Aledmys Diaz, SS: One of the great "did-not-see-that-coming" stories of 2016. Jhonny Peralta's torn thumb ligament forced him to the spring training shelf this time last year and sent the Cardinals scrambling. All Diaz did was poke 17 homers, score 71 times and hit .300 in 111 games.

4. Dexter Fowler, OF: If you think he can reach the projected 15 homers with 15 stolen bases, Fowler is worthy of a bench outfielder slot.

5. Seung-hwan Oh, RP: A closer with a K/9 rate north of 11.00 is going to cost you as Oh's average draft position is the fifth reliever off the board.

(Courtesy of FOX Sports Fantasy Baseball)

PREDICTION

St. Louis improves slightly on last year's win total and finishes second in the division, but still misses out on the postseason.