Buffa: Five lessons the Cardinals learned in 2016

As Alfred once told Bruce Wayne, sometimes "enduring" is the hardest yet appropriate task for one to take. In accepting the first October without Cardinal playoff baseball since 2010, the team and its fanbase can learn a valuable lesson. Taking things for granted comes with consequences.

Lesson #1

Going into the final game of a season needing another team to fail is a bad idea for a playoff ticket.

Carve your own path. Sure, ten years ago, John Smoltz beat the Houston Astros and the Cards backed into the playoffs. That doesn't happen every year.

The 2016 Cardinals wasted countless opportunities to lock down a wildcard spot in the final two months of the season, including winning only two out of eight series' at home in August and September. That's not a winning formula.

Lesson #2

Losing to bad teams in August and September is a bad idea.

I can point a finger at two series in the last two months that crippled the Cardinals. A four-game series against the Milwaukee Brewers in early September and a four-game series with the Reds in late September. Instead of taking three of four in those matchups, the Cards fought out a mere split. That isn't good enough. 

Sept. 8: Jaime Garcia gets blasted for five runs in 3.2 innings and Mike Mayers gets lit up for six runs in an inning. Cards lose 12-5. That is easier to accept than the Sunday finale where Ryan Braun hit a game-winning blast off Kevin Siegrist. 

Sept. 26: Jaime Garcia, Michael Wacha, and Luke Weaver combine to give up 14 earned runs in 4.1 innings pitched. The offense managed two runs against Tim Adleman(not the guy who mowed your lawn last weekend) and they lose 12-5.

Those are the games where one can shake their head at the Cardinals. How about the Sunday finale of a home series against Atlanta where Adam Wainwright allowed six earned runs? Garcia getting lit up in a 9-1 loss in Cincinnati on Sept. 3. Mike Leake getting beat up in back to back starts against Cincinnati in August. 

That doesn't tell the entire story, but it paints a legible picture.

While the defense was horrendous and the baserunning questioned natural logic, the starting pitching simply wasn't there for the Cardinals. After constructing an historically great 2015 staff, the 2016 rotation was in shambles by the trading deadline and reinforcements, in the form of Alex Reyes and Luke Weaver, were too late. 

Wacha broke down. Garcia was ineffective. Weaver was only good for a couple games. Reyes was promoted as a starter too late. The innings weren't there. The Cards ERA ranked 12th in baseball, but it didn't pitch effectively into the premium stretch run. 

Lesson #3

Wake up, Cardinals! The rest of the National League is wired and ready to fight.

Without 3/5 of their opening day rotation, the New York Mets were phenomenal from Aug. 15 to the end. The San Francisco Giants rebounded from a terrible mid-season swoon to hold off the Cardinals. The Dodgers and Nationals were strong all season long while the Chicago Cubs dominated from day one. 

It is no longer a given that the Cardinals will be in the playoffs. The NL Central framework has changed over the past two seasons and will remain a battle for years to come. 85 wins won't do it like it used to. 

Lesson #4

Age doesn't exactly compute to wins when it comes to the Cardinals, especially in 2016.

Adam Wainwright was very very human, compiling his first 4.00 ERA in years. He pitched well on Oct. 2, but was bad far too many outings before it. Too little, too late. Matt Holliday wasn't the same type of hitter before his injury. Brandon Moss went into a September dive. Jhonny Peralta lost his power stroke with a thumb injury. Moving forward, the Birds may need to get a little younger. 

Lesson #5

Mike Matheny needs to improve as a tactical game manager.

His faults in lineup construction, strict loyalty to players and bullpen management hurt an already flawed team. Batting a struggling Matt Holliday third for so long did the lineup zero favors. Sending Trevor Rosenthal out to close games stung. Sending Jonathan Broxton, Mr. High WHIP, into meaningful games was a mistake. Repeatedly sending out a struggling Jaime Garcia instead of promoting Reyes early wasn't good. 

Matheny repeatedly said, "We will fix that," or "We need to get better," without crafting a solution. His flaws were exposed this season.

Does he deserve to be fired? No way.

Does he need to improve as the Cards work uphill against the Cubs and company? Yes sir.

A leader of men needs to minor in tactician work. 

________________________

The Cards won 86 games, reaching 10 games over .500 on their tenth try, the last day of the season. A decent record that simply wasn't good enough. There's a sexier way of breaking this season down, but it's not available right now. The Cards had countless opportunities for their well-paid, proven ballplayers to move ahead and they were wasted. Over and over again. 

In the end, deserve or not, the Cardinals weren't good enough for playoff baseball. 

It's time to get leaner, faster and try to keep the power while adding more high-average-hitting folks.

Improve the defense and baserunning. Skype Jose Oquendo into live games or something.

If there is a way, the Cardinals need to raise their baseball IQ in 2017 and beyond. The talent is there. Refinement is needed.

Remember this: It wasn't all for nothing.

Holliday got a grand exit worthy of a hero. Aledmys Diaz emerged as a shortstop for the future. Reyes blazed a trail. Carlos Martinez solidified himself as potential-ace. Stephen Piscotty made us forget about Jason Heyward very quick. In a "rebuilding" year, talent emerged.

Put it together in a tighter package in 2017 and this team is a contender. 

There are three stages of a Cardinals-less October.

  1. Disappointment
  2. Sadness
  3. Relief.

Take a breath. Go outside. Spend time with the family. Live a little. Endure. Come back and get ready for the offseason off the field game. 

The Cardinals are done. Time for John Mozeliak and the suits to go to work and improve this team. The Cardinals found out the rest of the National League is ready to rumble in 2016. It's their job to rise to the task.


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