The Cardinals have been the class of the National League for the past few seasons, making three straight NLCS appearances and advancing to the World Series twice. Not only have they had more big league success than just about anyone, but they also boast some of the best prospects in the game that are now knocking on the door. The rich get richer, and the rest of the National League gets jealous. With one of the most complete rosters in baseball again this season, is a fourth straight LCS appearance in the, uh, cards?
Depth Chart (As of 3/14):
C: Yadier Molina
1B: Matt Adams
2B: Kolten Wong / Mark Ellis
SS: Jhonny Peralta
3B: Matt Carpenter
LF: Matt Holliday
CF: Peter Bourjos
RF: Allen Craig
SP: Adam Wainwright
SP: Michael Wacha
SP: Shelby Miller
SP: Lance Lynn
SP: Joe Kelly
CL: Trevor Rosenthal
The Cardinals didn’t have many weaknesses last season, but outfield defense was one of them. After seeing Jon Jay struggle in centerfield last year, the Cardinals went out and acquired Peter Bourjos in a trade from the Angels. While Bourjos likely won’t hit all that much, his defense will be a welcome sight — especially with Allen Craig moving to right field full-time. Another weakness was shortstop, where Jhonny Peralta will be taking over after signing a four-year deal. He won’t exactly be Rafael Furcal with the glove, but at least shortstop won’t be a black hole in the lineup any longer.
David Freese and Fernando Salas were the price St. Louis had to pay to acquire Bourjos, but Freese’s departure at least created a full-time job in the lineup for Matt Carpenter. After a very good 2011 season, Salas never found that level of success again and was likely going to be squeezed out of the Cardinals’ bullpen even if he hadn’t been traded. The biggest loss is Carlos Beltran, who put together two All-Star seasons as a Cardinal (and two more memorable postseason performances) and managed to stay healthy enough to get a three-year deal from the Yankees.
Kolten Wong still has rookie status in 2014, and will hopefully perform well enough that he can make people stop remembering him as “the guy who got picked off to end a World Series game.” While he figures to have a platoon partner at second base in Mark Ellis, Wong should see most of the playing time as the left-handed hitting part of the platoon. Carlos Martinez also still qualifies as a rookie after making 21 rocky appearances last season. He still has the stuff to be a frontline starting pitcher, but the same thing that happened to Trevor Rosenthal may end up happening to him — he could make the Cards fall in love with him as a late-inning reliever, effectively taking himself out of the rotation by being too good in relief. The Cardinals also recently signed Cuban middle infielder Aledmys Diaz to a four-year major league deal. The 23-year-old will probably start the year in the high minors, but could work his way into the middle infield picture later this year.
With just about every position set, there isn’t a whole lot to talk about here. The closest thing to a battle is probably for the 5th spot in the rotation, which Jaime Garcia would have had a fairly strong hold on if his shoulder didn’t start acting up again. Joe Kelly and Carlos Martinez were still in the discussion, though, and with Garcia likely missing the start of the season, the competition for that spot has thinned out a bit. Kelly is the leading candidate to take the spot now, but Martinez clearly has more upside if the Cardinals do want to stay on the starter path with him.
As mentioned, Garcia is still having shoulder problems, and was shut down during the second week of spring training when he started feeling discomfort again. He’s been a solid mid-rotation starter for the Cards when he’s been healthy, but that’s been happening less and less often lately — he only made 9 starts in 2013, and only 20 the year before that. Even if the recent shoulder pains aren’t big red flags (and when you have Garcia’s injury history, it’s hard to see it as anything but a red flag), he’s so far behind in his throwing program that he won’t be ready for Opening Day and the Cardinals will have to go forward without him in the rotation. There’s also Jason Motte to think about here, who’s working his way back from Tommy John surgery and likely won’t be ready until May.
The Cardinals won 97 games last year, and most of the talent from last year’s team is still here. If anything, they got even better after addressing their weaknesses quickly and efficiently this offseason. That’s a scary thought for the rest of the teams in the National League, with only the Dodgers being able to match that kind of talent across the board. After letting a 2-1 World Series lead slip away last year, the obvious goal is to get back to the Fall Classic and finish the job. Not only is that their best-case scenario, but it’s not all that unlikely, either.
The Cardinals are so stacked, it’s hard to imagine their worst-case scenario being anything less than still making the playoffs, but as a wildcard entrant. For them to miss the playoffs completely would take a combination of impossible-to-predict events. Outside of maybe the Tigers, it’s hard to think of another team that could basically play the season on auto-pilot and still make it to the LDS.
The Cardinals won 97 games in 2013, and frankly probably should have won more. They haven’t gotten noticeably worse. With the Reds and Pirates losing some significant pieces, the Cardinals should win the NL Central fairly easily. It’s always hard to predict just how far into October a team will go, but given recent history and their status as one of the two clear favorites in the NL, it’d be a surprise if they didn’t win at least one postseason series.