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2014 Preview: St. Louis Cardinals

Mar 30, 2014, 9:47 PM EDT

michael wacha getty Getty Images

Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2014 season. Next up: The St. Louis Cardinals.

The Big Question: Another World Series run?

The Cardinals have made the playoffs 10 times since 2000 and they’ve advanced to the National League Championship Series or beyond each of the last three years. It’s a dynasty at this point, and the 2014 squad is poised to further fill the trophy room.

Yadier Molina — long considered MLB’s best defensive catcher — has produced a .317/.366/.489 batting line in 274 games since the start of the 2012 season. He is a rock behind the plate for the young, talented Cardinals pitching staff and he has molded himself into one of the toughest outs in the sport. If his health cooperates, a sixth straight All-Star nod will be in order. Matt Carpenter made a very smooth transition to second base in 2013 and finished fourth in the National League MVP balloting after leading the majors in hits, doubles, and runs scored. He’ll now move back to third base, where he has the most pro experience. Allen Craig has never played more than 134 games in a season, but he left spring training on a clean bill of health and can be a monster in the middle of the St. Louis order if he manages to avoid the disabled list. Craig, 29, has batted .312 with an .863 OPS (136 OPS+) in 328 games since the beginning of the 2011 campaign and he is a .394/.451/.636 career hitter with runners in scoring position. Matt Holliday‘s power numbers are trending downward, but an OPS in the high .800s remains a fair expectation in his age-34 season.

It goes on and on with this team. Matt Adams, the Cardinals’ big-bodied first baseman, slugged 17 home runs in 2013 despite starting only 63 games. Kolten Wong, rated a Top 35 prospect this winter by Baseball Prospectus, will be taking over at second base. He tallied 20 steals in 21 attempts last summer at Triple-A, hit .375/.434/.646 this spring, and is a very strong defensive infielder. Then there’s Jhonny Peralta, who was signed this winter to a four-year, $53 million contract to provide a much-needed upgrade at shortstop.

The lineup is loaded, and the starting rotation is, as usual, filled with gifted arms. Adam Wainwright is a perennial Cy Young Award candidate and clubhouse leader. Michael Wacha — with his mid-90s fastball and elite-level changeup — looks to be a budding ace. Lance Lynn is a more-than-steady No. 3, Shelby Miller has front-line stuff, and Joe Kelly registered a 2.69 ERA (135 ERA+) over 124 innings in 2013.

What else is going on?

  • If the Cardinals need an emergency starter, they don’t even have to pick up a phone. Carlos Martinez will open the 2014 season in a setup role, but he was stretched out this spring in the Grapefruit League and almost beat out Kelly for the final spot in the rotation. The 22-year-old Dominican right-hander has a filthy arsenal and should do well in the meantime as the eighth-inning bridge to closer Trevor Rosenthal. Rosenthal, a 23-year-old who regularly hits 100 mph with his fastball, also wants to be a starter eventually.
  • Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak pulled off a slick trade this offseason, moving third baseman David Freese and right-handed reliever Fernando Salas to the Angels for center fielder Peter Bourjos and 2009 first-round pick Randal Grichuk. Bourjos has outstanding defensive range and his bat showed signs of life this spring in Grapefruit League play. Freese, meanwhile, failed to register a single extra-base hit in 60 plate appearances over in Angels camp. Bourjos will be the Cardinals’ primary center fielder if he’s healthy and hitting. Jon Jay, a left-handed batter, is still around as a possible platoon partner.
  • Cardinals manager Mike Matheny made some promising strides in his second year as Tony La Russa’s successor. In 2012 — Matheny’s debut season — the Cardinals ranked sixth in the National League for sacrifice bunts, most of which were either misguided or completely unnecessary. In 2013, the club’s sac bunts total dropped to 11th in the 15-team National League. Matheny said when he took the job that he was open to progressive baseball thinking, and data-minded general manager John Mozeliak may have given his skipper a crash course in basic sabermetrics between year one and two.
  • According to Forbes’ recently-published financial estimates, the Cardinals had the highest operating income of any Major League Baseball organization last season. Busch Stadium III has welcomed over three million fans every year that it’s been in existence and merchandise sales are always strong for shirts, and hats, and jerseys featuring The Birds on the Bat. The newly-opened Ballpark Village — out in left-center field with features like rooftop seating — should only boost the Redbirds’ bottom line.

Prediction: The Cardinals roll to 98 wins, easily claiming the National League Central crown.

  1. cohnjusack - Mar 30, 2014 at 10:03 PM

    They’re so damn deep. A lot of things can go wrong and with people like Ellis, Jay and Carlos Martinez in bench roles, it should be alright. Not to mention Jaime Garcia hopefully coming back and Oscar Tavares in AAA. Oh, and Jason Motte may be back in May.

  2. spudchukar - Mar 30, 2014 at 10:09 PM

    Saved the best for last.

  3. renaado - Mar 30, 2014 at 10:18 PM

    Dang….Their rotation is just… Cardinals is definitely the Team to beat this 2014.

  4. florida76 - Mar 30, 2014 at 10:46 PM

    The St. Louis Cardinals aren’t currently a dynasty, even though they have a more impressive run than the Atlanta Braves did a while back. The Braves could muster only one World Title, and while the Cards have two since 2000, those were five years apart. Last time I checked, the Cards bought the farm against Boston last year.

    It’s more accurate to say currently the Cards are like the San Antonio Spurs of the NBA, and you better believe they’ll miss Carlos Beltran in 2014.

    • cohnjusack - Mar 30, 2014 at 10:56 PM

      I don’t know, what you do consider a dynasty in the wild-card era? Not to mention the Cardinals have won 4 pennants and 2 titles in the past 10 years. It’s fine if you’re answer is no, but you’d probably have to consider them either #1 or #2 team in the game over the last 10 years.

      I honestly highly doubt they’ll miss Beltran much. He’s turning 37, and he actually ranked *5th* on the club in OPS last year. They are essentially replacing him with Matt Adams, plus they have one of the top prospects waiting in the wings.

      As for “buying the farm” in the WS…yep, they lost. The series also went 6 games…only 1 series went longer since 2003.

      • forsch31 - Mar 30, 2014 at 11:55 PM

        The wild card era began in 1994, and the New York Yankees managed to reel off four World Series in five years in the later part of that decade.

        “Dynasty” tends to get thrown around too much, and to be blunt, dynasty teams should be pretty damn rare. The Mets weren’t a dynasty team in the 1980s, and the Braves weren’t in the 1990s. And the Cardinals currently stand where they are.

        In my mind, a dynasty team has to do three things:

        1. Win multiple World Series, at least two in a row.
        2. Win those championships with more or less the same roster, or at least a large core group of players.
        3. Dominate during the regular season.

        John McGraw’s Giants–dynasty. The Big Red Machine–dynasty. The Cardinals today? Not right now.

        Yeah, the Cardinals won the Series in 2011. But that was mostly a different team, and it was a championship by scratch and claw. They were the wildest of wild cards, and that was a Series and playoff run that was singular and should be remembered that way.

        The Cardinals are building toward a core group–Molina, Holliday, and Wainwright are the veterans signed long-term, and Craig and M. Carpenter have joined them. Miller, Wacha, Martinez, Rosenthal, Wong, and others could possibly join them. There’s something developing in St. Louis I’ve never seen in my lifetime, and it’s going to be fun for the next few years.

        But they’re not a dynasty now. They have to earn that. Losing a Series does not make a dynasty. Just ask the Braves.

    • stlouis1baseball - Mar 31, 2014 at 11:47 AM

      Hahaha! Wonderful stuff 76.
      I just have two questions.
      Who are you trying to convince? Us…or yourself? Lol!

  5. perryt200 - Mar 31, 2014 at 12:41 AM

    Why did I know this review was gonna happen late on a Sunday nite? No prime work time on a weekday.

    But the thing I have learned about StL baseball. You don’t play against the starters, you don’t play against the 25 man roster, the 40 man roster or all of them plus AAA, AA and A.

    You play against an organization that from top to bottom totals the best machine in baseball. Add in the scouts, the owners, the back office, the trainers, the coaches, the doctors, the farm system, hell even the secretarys and the grounds keepers, and the guys that keep the toilets flushed properly (while some other teams can’t even do that) and every other person contributing to a win for the birds on the bat; there is no doubt they want to be competitive.

    Add in the fact that they still make money is a hellva bonus.

    While sure I want to see them win the WS; as a fan I want my team to do the best they can to be competitive. StL provides that. It makes it easy to be a fan. How hard would it suck to try and support a team that everyone knows is a dog turd?

    So bring on the Cardinal hate, but when you do realize there isn’t a team in baseball that wishes they couldn’t duplicate the Cardinal Way.

  6. paperlions - Mar 31, 2014 at 8:45 AM

    I wouldn’t use the term “the starting rotation is, as usual, filled with gifted arms” to refer to talented arms in the Cardinal rotation…that pretty much started last year. The rotation in 2011 was Carpenter, Garcia, Lohse, Westbrook, and McClellan…in 2010 it was Carpenter, Wainwright, Garcia, Suppan, Westbrook, Penny, and Lohse (only the first 3 pitched more than 100 innings).

    This loaded awesome arm thing is totally brand new and not to be taken for granted.

    • shadowshand - Mar 31, 2014 at 10:10 AM

      Paper–As always the most critical words of all–” … and not to be taken for granted.”–applies to every team in every sport in every season. Sure, the Cards–and I’ve been a fan for 60+ years–look very good and remarkably deep, but we haven’t even opened the very long season yet. Lots can happen, so let’s not take ANYTHING for granted.

      • paperlions - Mar 31, 2014 at 10:15 AM

        Exactly….I both super excited about the young arms and young position players (Wong and Piscotty look like future building block players, maybe not super stars, but guys that contribute in all phases of the game, and Taveras’ bat is special, if he can get and stay healthy)….but with that comes a huge dose of fear that they won’t stay healthy or live up to expectations…which are REALLY high.

  7. unlost1 - Mar 31, 2014 at 9:19 AM

    Any time you dump the best player in baseball (Pujols) and still make the world series, you got game. Sad how Albert isn’t even the best player on his own team now.

    • cohnjusack - Mar 31, 2014 at 9:58 AM

      In all fairness, no other player in baseball is better than the current best player on Albert’s team.

      Albert is 34…this is what happens to players in their 30s virtually every time. Production drops quickly, injuries rapidly increase and we act surprised about it every single time.

  8. gibbyfan - Mar 31, 2014 at 10:02 AM

    Nice to have Cards as favorites to win the division. Nice while it lasts because Pirates and Cubs have a lot of talent coming up………I guess dynasty can mean different things to different people but in my mind I think of the 50/60s Yankees. If the Cards can be a dynasty these days with their payroll –I would say that would be an awesome accomplishment by management.

    • cincinata - Mar 31, 2014 at 11:49 AM

      The Cubs? They are at the bottom of the barrel. The Pirates, will present a problem, and I thought they could take the division as I have some doubt that the birds second line pitching will hold. Also, you have too much faith in Mott. He comes off of surgery, but even at his best, he gave up too many long balls and actually only has one reliable pit. If he groves the FB (at 95-100), it will be out of the park. They only thing that Chapman has over him is that his FB is 100 plus and even if you know it is coming, it is too late. Well, that is how it was, now Chapman will be on a long re-hab regardless of what the homers in Cinti seem to think.

  9. savior72 - Mar 31, 2014 at 11:40 AM

    The trick is knowing when to let players go and who to let go so the team can still be affordable and competitive. That’s what it takes to be a dynasty these days I think. The Cards have a formula that’s working right now, only time will tell us if this club is a dynasty. If they were to win the WS this year, I’d say yes.

    • gibbyfan - Mar 31, 2014 at 12:40 PM

      Yes, that’s what it takes if you have a somewhat limited budget……….that rule of thumb doesn’t necessarily apply to the the Dodgers, Yanks, and maybe a few others

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