Bench, young talent power Cardinals' 2016

Adams, Hazelbaker come through in clutch; Diaz stands out at short

Bench, young talent power Cardinals' 2016

ST. LOUIS -- As they settle into the unfamiliar position of being postseason observers, not participants, this October, the Cardinals are also left to reflect on how their bid for a sixth straight playoff berth fell, quite literally, one win short.

Though the Cubs were the popular pick to dethrone the Cardinals in the National League Central this season, expectations were nevertheless high in St. Louis. Yet the three-time defending division champs never spent a day in first place and couldn't pull 10 games above .500 until the final day of the season. By then, it was too little, too late.

It was a season complicated by injuries, flawed fundamentals and struggles at home, where the Cards posted their lowest winning percentage since 1990. Those obstacles balanced the emergence of several impact rookies, a team power surge and historical pinch-hit success. In the end, it left the club often middling around mediocrity. The Cardinals never had a winning streak longer than five games, nor did they ever lose more than five straight.

Martinez earns win No. 16

In order to narrow the Cardinals' needs this offseason, it's first helpful to evaluate what happened in 2016. So here's a look back at some of the key players and factors in the club's finish:

Record: 86-76, second place, NL Central

Defining moment: At 5:11 p.m. CT on Sunday, the Cardinals' path to the postseason officially ended. Though they still had an inning and a half left to play against the Pirates, the Giants' 7-1 win over the Dodgers sealed the Cardinals' fate. It meant that for the first time under manager Mike Matheny, the Cardinals found themselves playing an inconsequential game.

What went right: After combining for 242 home runs from 2014-15, the Cardinals led the NL with 225 this season. They tied the NL single-season record by boasting six players with 20-homer seasons and had a player (Jedd Gyorko) hit 30 homers for the first time since 2012. The team scored 350 of its 779 runs via the long ball.

Gyorko homers to give Cards lead

At 48-33, the Cardinals finished with the best road record in baseball. Of the 26 road series they played, the Cardinals lost just six of them.

The Cardinals' position-player depth led to extraordinary production off the bench. The Cardinals established a Major League record with 17 pinch-hit home runs and tied another with 81 total pinch hits. Matt Adams led the club with 12 hits off the bench, while Jeremy Hazelbaker topped the Cardinals with four pinch-hit blasts.

Cards hit three pinch-hit homers

For all the preseason talk about the Cardinals' aging core, the organization saw several young players assume key roles. Aledmys Diaz shined as a rookie shortstop, while Alex Reyes pitched unfazed in a postseason race. Carlos Martinez emerged as the team's most dynamic and consistent starter. Stephen Piscotty, Randal Grichuk and Matt Bowman all proved they can be key pieces for the future, too.

What went wrong: Start with the defense, which was porous all the way back to Spring Training. The Cardinals finished the season ranked 25th in ultimate zone rating, 13th in defensive runs saved and 26th in defensive runs above average, a metric that determines defensive value relative to league average. The Cardinals were particularly susceptible at shortstop, third base, left field and center field.

Any discussion about defense also relates to pitching, and it's one reason why the starting rotation performed below expectations. The biggest surprise may have been Adam Wainwright not pitching like the ace he's been, though struggles by Michael Wacha, Jaime Garcia and Mike Leake did not help stabilize things on the back end. The Cardinals finished seventh in the National League with a rotation ERA of 4.33.

Leake's strong all-around effort

Though they finished the year with a 5-2 homestand, the Cardinals struggled all season to win at Busch Stadium. They had 43 home losses and won only one home series against a team with a winning record. These woes came after a four-year stretch in which the team averaged 53 home wins.

Matheny's push to be more aggressive on the basepaths often turned into recklessness. According to Baseball Reference, the Cardinals ran into 54 outs on the bases this year, tied for sixth-most among NL teams. They had the lowest stolen-base percentage (57 percent) in the league, and they ranked 12th with an extra-bases-taken percentage of 38.

Biggest surprise: After going unclaimed on waivers in July 2015, Diaz became a cornerstone in the Cardinals' lineup this year. He got his chance after the Cardinals lost Jhonny Peralta and Ruben Tejada to spring injuries, and, until getting hurt himself in late July, Diaz stood as a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate. Diaz became the first Cardinals rookie (minimum 330 plate appearances) since Albert Pujols (2001) to hit .300.

Diaz's emotional grand slam

Hitter of the Year: Yadier Molina turned back the clock and had one of the most prolific offensive years of his career. That production was especially plentiful in the second half, as Molina hit .365/.398/.529 to finish the season with more hits (164) and doubles (37) than any other catcher. He led the Cardinals with 13 three-hit games, 46 multihit games and did so while making a career-high 142 starts behind the plate.

Molina hits homer, points to bro

Pitcher of the Year: Martinez had a career year as a second-year member of the rotation. Over a career-high 195 1/3 innings, Martinez posted a 3.04 ERA, 1.224 WHIP and 174 strikeouts. Baseball Reference calculated his season WAR as 5.4, fifth-best among all NL pitches and higher than aces Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester and Madison Bumgarner. Martinez had 14 starts of at least seven innings, most on the team.

Rookie of the Year: It'd be easy to go with Diaz, though since he has already been recognized above, Seung Hwan Oh deserves a mention. A decorated closer for years in South Korea and Japan, Oh became a critical piece in the back end of the Cardinals' bullpen. He took over as closer midseason and posted the third-highest strikeout total (103) by a reliever in franchise history. Oh converted 19 of his 22 save opportunities and tallied 14 holds.

Oh secures Cardinals' comeback

Jenifer Langosch has covered the Cardinals for MLB.com since 2012, and previously covered the Pirates from 2007-11. Read her blog, follow her on Twitter, like her Facebook page and listen to her podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.