The performance of rookie shortstop Aledmys Diaz was one of the highs for the Cardinals this season. (Bill Greenblatt/UPI)

By Rob Rains

Any time a team fails to reach the playoffs, there are likely going to be far more lows than highs in the season, and that certainly is true with the Cardinals this year.

Saying that, however, some of the team’s highs were notable and offer hope that 2017 can be better – if the lows can be corrected and not repeated.

Here is a look at some of the Cardinals’ significant highs and lows from this season, starting with the highs, with one eye looking at what it potentially means for next year and beyond:

Highs

Aledmys Diaz – The case can be made that the Cardinals might still be playing if not for Diaz getting hit by a pitch on July 31, breaking his right thumb and forcing him to miss the next 37 games. The Cardinals’ record when Diaz was the starting shortstop was 60-43, meaning they were 26-33 when he did not start.

Diaz finished the year with an even .300 average, and while there were complaints early in the season about his defense, from June 9 through the end of the season he was charged with only three errors in 207 chances as he established himself as the starter not only for this year but going forward.

Signing Diaz was the Cardinals’ first foray into the Cuban market, and his success no doubt was a factor in the team signing three more players who had defected from Cuba this year, two of which (pitcher Johan Oviedo and outfielder Jonatan Machado) now are considered among the top prospects in the organization. The Cardinals likely will continue to be aggressive in the Cuban market in the coming years.

Seung Hwan Oh
– Just as was the case with Diaz, there was an element of the unknown when the Cardinals made their first significant investment in a player from the Far East last winter, signing Oh to a two-year deal because of his success as a closer in his native South Korea and Japan.

Oh was used in a setup role until Trevor Rosenthal was hurt, then moved into the closer’s role, and saved 19 games over the final three months. He finished the year with a 1.92 ERA and 103 strikeouts in just 79 2/3 innings.

Oh’s success as the closer could make for an interesting decision when it comes to Rosenthal’s role, considering his salary likely will be at least double what Oh will earn in 2017 because of his arbitration status.

Yadier Molina – This was supposed to be the year the Cardinals found a way to get the 34-year-old Molina more rest. Brayan Pena was signed to a two-year deal, but because of a knee injury suffered late in spring training, played in only nine games and had 13 total at-bats. Molina instead played in a career-high 147 games – and led the team’s regulars with a .307 average.

Molina was at his best when he should have been wearing down, in the second half of the season, hitting .365 in 65 games after the All-Star break. He did allow a career-high 67 stolen bases, throwing out only 18 runners, the lowest percentage of his career. That can be attributed more to the team’s pitchers not keeping runners close than to any decline in his throwing ability.

Next year might offer some relief for Molina as Carson Kelly is closing in on being ready for the majors. Kelly, 22, likely will begin next season at Triple A to gain more experience, but it will not be a surprise if he is in St. Louis by the middle of the season.

Carlos Martinez
– Martinez became the ace of the staff this year and likely should remain that for years to come. He went 16-9 with a 3.04 ERA and did not turn 25 until late September. He also showed much more maturity on the mound, another positive sign for his continued improvement in the future.

Alex Reyes
– If Martinez will be the ace of the staff going forward, Reyes should not be far behind. He was thrust into an important role late in the season, both as a starter and coming out of the bullpen, and thrived in both assignments, going 4-1 with a 1.57 ERA in 12 games, including five starts.

What was most encouraging for the Cardinals was that after struggling with his control in many of his minor-league starts, Reyes walked just 13 batters in 28 2/3 innings in his four starts. Because he pitched only 46 innings, he remains eligible for the 2017 NL Rookie of the Year award and should be a strong candidate.

Pinch-hitting – The Cardinals tied the major-league record with 81 pinch-hits, which included a record 17 pinch-hit home runs. The composite average was .333, 51 percentage points higher than the second-best team in the majors, the Rockies, and the team produced 51 RBIs in 274 pinch-hit plate appearances, 10 more than any other team.

The fans
– Despite their struggles at home, the Cardinals drew 3.4 million fans to Busch Stadium, second to the Dodgers in the major leagues, the 13th consecutive season they have drawn more than 3 million fans.

Combined with the attendance and the new television contract that begins next season, the Cardinals will have money to spend this winter – and it will be interesting to watch what decisions they make.

Lows

Home record – Easily the most disappointing part of the Cardinals’ season was their 38-43 record at Busch Stadium. It was their first losing season at home since 1999 and their most losses at home since 1990. They went from July 22 to Sept. 10 without winning two consecutive home games. Still, the Cardinals just missed becoming the first team since the 2001 Braves to make the playoffs with a losing home record.

Over-reliance on home runs
– This is directly connected to the Cardinals’ struggles at home. In 52 of their 81 home games, the Cardinals hit either one or no home runs – and their record in those games was 17-35.

By comparison, in 2015, the Cardinals played 66 home games in which they hit only one or no homers – and had a record of 44-22 in those games. In 2014, they played 65 home games in which they hit only one or no homers – and had a record of 39-26.

The 225 home runs were the second highest total in franchise history and let the Cardinals lead the NL for only the second time since 1944 (also 1998). But the down side was that 45 percent of the team’s RBIs – 351 of 779 – came on home runs. The results were simple – when they hit home runs, they won; when they didn’t, they lost.

Nine players recorded more than 50 RBIs, and only two of them – Stephen Piscotty and Molina – had more than 35 RBIs without the benefit of a home run, both finishing with 46. Piscotty struggled late, however, driving in only two runs in 70 at-bats after Sept. 12 that did not come on a home run, despite hitting either third or fourth in the lineup.

The opposite end of the spectrum was Jedd Gyorko, who led the Cardinals with 30 homers but drove in only 14 runs when he did not hit a home run.

Finding more hitters who can drive in runs when not hitting a home run would appear to be one of the Cardinals’ biggest needs this winter.

Baserunning
– The Cardinals finished last in the NL with just 35 stolen bases, and even worse, had 26 runners thrown out – a success rate of just 49 percent. The Cardinals also consistently had runners thrown out on the bases even when they were not attempting to steal.

This is another area the team needs to address before next season.

Defense – In addition to poor baserunning, the Cardinals suffered from playing poor defense. They were charged with 107 errors, which ranked 11th among the 15 NL teams, and continued a disturbing trend – it was the fourth consecutive year in which they committed more errors than in the previous year. The total has risen from 75 in 2013, to 88 in 2014, to 96 last year, to this year’s total.

That total also does not include throws to the wrong base, or a failure to hit the cutoff man, or what became one of the catch phases for the season – “non plays” – which can be defined as a play which should have been made, but wasn’t, but in which the fielder could not be charged with an error.

Lineup construction
– Part of the problems on defense likely can be placed on having too many moving parts on this team. Many of the players did not know from one day to the next where they would be playing on the field, and that no doubt led to some of the errors.

This also was a problem when it came to putting the batting order together. The Cardinals did not use the same lineup for three consecutive games until the last three days of the season. Injuries, and poor performances, forced manager Mike Matheny to constantly tinker with the lineup hoping he could find a good combination.

Being able to establish more stability, both in terms or who is playing where, and where the players bat in the lineup, also makes sense as one of the Cardinals’ goals for 2017.

Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains