St. Louis Cardinals: Recharged with Youth
While they may be the second-best team based on the amount of World Series rings they've received this century, it's easy to argue that the St. Louis Cardinals might be the very best team. They're one of the few teams that don't heavily rely on free agency or trades, instead focusing primarily on their farm system. Their pitching depth throughout the organization is remarkable, and the fact that they were able to lose the best hitter in the game (at the time) and not skip a beat in the National League Central is even more impressive.
They have a tough task ahead of them this year though. The Reds are continuing to grow as an organization, and the Pirates are coming off their first season worth mentioning in two decades. But they, the Cardinals, have the lineup and arms to take on the task.
Same Last Name, Similar Beard Structure, Totally Different Players
Cardinals fans have been accustomed to seeing the name Carpenter on the mound over the past nine years, wearing number 29 and being one of the most dominating pitchers in Major League Baseball.
That was Chris Carpenter, and he's since retired from the game. Now another Carpenter has risen to lead the team to the greatness.
Matt Carpenter, a 2009 Cardinals 13th-round draft pick, was one of the best players in baseball last year, earning his first All-Star selection during his first full season with the big-league club. He finished fourth in the NL MVP voting, along with receiving the Silver Slugger award for second baseman.
Furthermore, he finished in the NL’s top 10 in WAR, offensive WAR, average, OBP and total bases, among other categories. He led the NL in runs scored (126), hits (199) and Doubles (55). Carpenter is the real deal.
In addition to being an offensive stud, he's a versatile defensive player. He had the most double plays turned as a second baseman, and is now making the move to third base to help the team out more.
If Carpenter can maintain similar numbers from last year, further proving he's one of the games best, then the St. Louis has a phenomenal player to build a team around. That can’t be said about every best player on a given team.
Carpenter Sets the Foundation for the Brick Houses
Holliday has the most gigantic forearms in the game, and is the only guy I’ve ever seen snap a bat in half with his hands (the bat may have been slightly cracked before he did it). He's now going into his fifth full season with the Cardinals (he came in halfway through 2009), and has played almost as many games as he did for his first team, the Rockies.
Holliday continues to tear up the NL year-in and year-out. The left fielder batted .300 with a .389 OBP over 141 games, and, in addition, smacked 22 bombs and drove in 96 runs last year. His consistency continues to be impressive, however, there is one flaw that seems to loom over Holliday. Even though his power numbers are fairly consistent, he struggles to put the ball out of the park against lefty pitchers. Last year, of his 21 homers, one came against a southpaw. The year before was better, as he hit 11 of his 27 against them. But 2011 (18 vs. 4) and 2010 (21 vs. 7) were about as bad as 2013. Even though he still hits well off of lefties, it has to be a bit of concern that Holliday can’t get the ball out of the park off of left-handers.
Craig is the next moose in the lineup, although he's the smallest of the three, coming in at 6’2”, 215 pounds. Now that he is finally past the Lisfranc injury that bogged him down in the playoffs last year, it's safe to say we can expect another solid year from Craig. He will start out in the outfield, as he must make the shift to allow Adams to play. That will definitely tax his body a bit more, but it shouldn't be that dramatic of a change, as he has played the right field, at some point, every year in his major league career.
The former Cal Golden Bear had a .315/.373/.457 line last year. He was in the top 10 for average, just outside of the top 10 in OBP (trailing his teammates Holliday (10) and Carpenter (7)), and was just outside the top 25 in slugging. His numbers and first All-Star selection are an amazing display of the Cardinals ability to churn out awesome players within their system - Craig was the player to replace Albert Pujols when he left for the 2012 season.
Next in line is certainly the heaviest of the three massive mashers in the St. Louis lineup, Matt Adams. Adams played in 108 games last year, his second stint with the Cardinals. He also played in the playoffs for them, filling the void left by Craig throughout the year. He hit .284 with 17 home runs and 51 RBIs during that span, and had a solid .353 OBP. Given his large frame, it's safe to assume he won't be legging out any triples or extending any doubles into singles. However, his raw force will generate the long ball for him, and he should be able to improve from the 14 doubles he hit in his abbreviated season last year.
Adams will be a solid five hitter for the Cardinals and will help replace Carlos Beltran's bat in the order, as he, Beltran, decided to join the Evil Empire for the 2014 campaign.
New Guys up the Middle
Kolten Wong has been deemed ready for the bigs by the organization, even though he was picked-off to end a World Series game last year against the Red Sox. He didn’t provide a good showing in his stint last year, batting .153 and only logging a .194 OBP. In postseason play, he only went 1 for 6 and didn’t get on base any other time during the course of the game.
The first rounder has risen through the ranks very quickly, spending no longer than one season at a given level. Wong hit .301 in the minors and stole 50 bases through 280 games in his three years. He'll probably scuffle offensively this season, and don’t be shocked if he gets sent down for a length of time.
The new man at shortstop is Jhonny Peralta. Peralta suffered a shortened season a year ago due to his use of performance enhancing drugs. But he did well in his 103 games, batting .303, with 11 home runs and 30 RBI. Peralta brings another strong bat into the lineup, with a career average of 18 home runs and 35 doubles for every 162 games. He isn't one of the best shortstops in the league, especially defensively, but he's exactly what the Cardinals need at the bottom of the order - a little extra power.
Freak of Nature Staff
As I mentioned previously, the Cards have one of the best farm systems out there. The most amazing aspect of it is how they've been able to produce a star-studded rotation every year with homegrown players.
The ace of the staff, Adam Wainwright, is one of the best pitchers in baseball, and bounced back great in 2013 after being injured for all of 2011, and scuffling in return season in 2012.
Last year, the two-time All-Star finished second in the Cy Young voting for the second time in his career. If not for Clayton Kershaw’s outrageously amazing season, then Wainwright would have been the clear-cut winner for the honor, as he led the league in multiple categories - he started the most games (34) and tied the NL lead for wins (19), too. His five complete games and two shutouts were also the most, in addition to his 241.2 innings.
Wainwright had other impressive numbers that didn’t necessarily lead the league. He had an 8.2 K/9, and his 1.07 WHIP was among the top 10 in the entire bigs. Wainwright is the definition of an ace, horse, however you want to put it. He’s a stud through and through and he will continue to lead the Cardinals on the mound.
The number two man was the kid with the most hype in 2013 playoffs, Michael Wacha. A lot of people expect Wacha to play well, however, his youth and lack of experience over a full major league season is reason to worry. While fans are high on him, he doesn't have the breaking ball that he needs in order to be an electric starter. His changeup is devastating, but the Red Sox showed that it's tough to be a two-pitch starter when they faced Wacha for a second time in the World Series, rocking him for six runs in 3.2 innings after he had shut down everyone in his path to that point in the playoffs.
While he's going to have success down the road, Wacha is going to go through bumps and bruises this year.
Third in the rotation is Lance Lynn. This will be his third year as a starter, and he has career 3.87 ERA as a starting pitcher. Lynn has been a stable arm on the Cardinals rotation, and should continue to be a very capable three, as the Cardinals will look for the 2012 All-Star’s help as a veteran on this young staff.
Following Lynn is one of the most underrated players of the 2013 season. Shelby Miller was one of the best young arms in the league last year, yet it seems that he was forgotten when it came to the playoffs. While he did poorly when he got the chance to pitch out of the pen in the NLDS, he had done well in his starts in September, posting a 2.76 ERA in the month.
Miller should come back big this year, wanting to prove that he is a Cy Young-caliber pitcher.
Rounding out the rotation is the righty with the specs, Joe Kelly. Kelly's had chances in the past two seasons, having thrown in 31 games through 2012 and 2013. His overall 3.08 ERA is good to see, and his 3.03 average as a starter is comforting, too. Like Wacha, Kelly has not been through an entire season, but he still has more regular season time than his younger teammate. Kelly will be able to churn out a solid season, as long as he can command his heavy mid-90s fastball and continue to mix his change and curve a sold amount, on top of his awesome slider.
Fountain of Youth Pen
Rosenthal will get his first shot at closing to start the season, and deservedly so. With his average fastball at 96 mph, the 23 year old has thrown in two postseasons and 17 games, four times against the eventual World Series Champion, and he has never allowed an earned run. There is no tougher stage to perform, and he's risen to the occasion multiple times, striking out 33 hitters over the 20.1 innings, walking only five.
His regular season numbers are also very impressive. His career 1.06 WHIP ranks 25th among all relievers during the time he has played (2012-2013), and among that group, he has the fourth best K/9 (ninth overall amongst relievers). Rosenthal will provide some nice stability in the ninth inning, and could find himself at the All-Star game this year.
Carlos Martinez has a lot of pressure on him, mainly because his mechanics have been compared to those of Pedro Martinez. His average 96 mph fastball out of the pen is definitely something to smile about.
Martinez didn't have the greatest opening to his career, logging a 5.08 ERA over 28.1 innings, with a high WHIP of 1.41. The unfortunate thing for Martinez, much like most relievers, is a few games got away from him and his numbers were hurt from those. Really, in 15 of his 21 appearances, he allowed zero runs and he allowed one run just twice. In the other four outings, he let up three or four runs each time, and only threw six innings. One of those games was his lone start, where he went 4.2 innings and allowed four runs.
Martinez was just getting seasoned as a 21-year-old last year and should be a reliable arm for the Cardinals in 2014.
The last gunslinger in the back end is Siegrist, a 6’5” lefty from Buffalo, NY. He was a beast in his 45 games last year, with an ERA of 0.45 and a WHIP of 0.88. He only gave up two runs (both earned) over the entire year, and never game up a run at home. Siegrist averaged 95 on the gun last year, in addition to utilizing a healthy mix of his off-speed pitches (change, curve and slider). He's the shutdown lefty any staff wants in their back end.
A Not So Bold Prediction
The Cardinals started off on the right foot on Opening Day, winning 1-0 against Johnny Cueto and the Reds. They will definitely find their way back to the playoffs, and if Wacha ends up having the year most expect him to, then there is no doubt they will find themselves winning the NL crown again.