With a team as well-rounded as the Cardinals, it’s actually a bit of a challenge to pick out just four guys who will have a significant impact on the 2014 season. Sure, there are MVP and Cy Young candidates, but there’s also established veterans playing important roles and a new wave of talent that’s starting to hit the big league level. You could easily choose any combination of four from a group of 15 guys or so for this list.
Very few catchers are legitimate MVP candidates every season, but very few catchers have played as well as Molina has over the past few seasons. Not only has he posted impressive offensive numbers for a backstop, but he remains the best (or at least the most feared) defensive catcher in the league. When Tony La Russa rode off into retirement, Molina became the face of the Cardinals — when you think of St. Louis, you’ll probably think of Yadi first, whether it’s because he throws out a lot of baserunners or yells at umpires a lot.
While it’s good to be passionate and fans may like that kind of fire, it’s also preferable to have your team’s best player stay in the game, so it’d be nice if he didn’t get thrown out of the game so often. Still, he’s an important part of the Cardinals’ success, whether it’s hitting 5th in the lineup or guiding a pitching staff that’s still very young once you get past Adam Wainwright. His past three seasons have been the best three seasons of his career and he’s on the other end of 30 now, but it’s hard to see him dropping off just yet. He’ll still probably be worth around 4 or 5 wins above replacement level, still making him an elite catcher. And he’ll still scare the bejeezus out of opposing baserunners — even though his caught stealing percentage dipped to 43% last season, only 46 steals were even attempted against him in 132 games last season.
There are very few legitimate aces in baseball. There definitely aren’t 30, and there’s probably not even 15. Whatever the number is, Wainwright is one of them. With a young (and therefore somewhat unpredictable) staff filling out the rotation behind him, the Cardinals will need Wainwright to continue being the ace he’s been for much of his career.
They say it takes a full year after you start pitching again after Tommy John before you really get back to being your old self, and that held true for Wainwright. When he came back in 2012, his numbers were good, but not quite up to the standard he had set prior to the injury. Last year, the old Wainwright was back, and it led to another second-place finish in the Cy Young voting (a side note, Wainwright has had the misfortune of coming in second behind two historically-good seasons, Roy Halladay in 2010 and Clayton Kershaw last year. Poor guy.). If there’s any concern, it’s that Wainwright is now 32 and coming off a year in which he pitched 276.2 innings between the regular season and playoffs. Wainwright’s always been a workhose, but even workhorses break down eventually, and sometimes it happens fast — just ask Halladay.
Craig really is one of the more underrated hitters in the National League, and the fact that he’s signed through at least 2017 with an annual salary that doesn’t hit 8 figures until the last year of the deal is a coup for the Cards. The problem with Craig is that he’s been a bit of a liability defensively and he’s had trouble staying on the field for a full season. He came close last year, but a Linsfranc injury knocked him out of the lineup in early September and kept him on the shelf until the World Series. A more permanent move to the outfield and a history of lower body injuries would have some people concerned, but there’s always a chance Craig’s injuries have just been bad luck to this point.
When he’s been in the lineup, he’s been one of the more productive cleanup hitters in the league. Much has been made about the Cardinals’ good fortune/good results hitting with runners in scoring position, and Craig has been a huge part of that — put however much weight into it you’d like, but the past two seasons nobody has hit better with RISP than Craig. It’d be unfair to expect him to keep up that level of production, but if he can, the Cardinals will remain one of the toughest offenses in the league to keep down.
As good as the Cardinals have been in the 2010s, they’ve had a real issue closing out games from time to time. Ryan Franklin, Mitchell Boggs and Fernando Salas have all come and gone in the late innings, effectively chased out of town by the end of their tenure in St. Louis. Then there’s Trevor Rosenthal, who was supposed to be a starting pitcher at some point, but has just been so good as a one-inning reliever that the Cards can’t bring themselves to convert him back. When Jason Motte missed all of last season with Tommy John surgey, it was Edward Mujica who stepped in the rack up the saves. But Rosenthal stepped into the 8th inning, often facing the toughest part of the opposing team’s lineup and making it look not-so-tough. By the postseason, he was the team’s most-trusted reliever, and finished 9 of the 10 games he appeared in.
This year, the closer job is officially his, or at least as official as it gets in a town that doesn’t like to name Official Closers. He hasn’t given us much reason to doubt he’ll continue to excel in the late innings, but his move to the 9th inning means he’ll go from being the bridge to the closer to needing someone to give him opportunities to close the game out. There’s a very strong argument to be made that Rosenthal is much more valuable to the Cardinals as a fireman, stomping out rallies in the 7th or 8th inning instead of praying a lead gets to him in the 9th. Of course, if Carlos Martinez doesn’t make the rotation, he showed last October that he’s more than capable of taking the baton in Rosenthal’s old role.