Of all of the teams in the NL Central, the Cardinals may stand head and shoulders above the rest. Mike Matheny‘s club lost Carlos Beltran, David Freese, Fernando Salas, Edward Mujica, and in spite of not playing at all in 2013, Rafael Furcal and former ace Chris Carpenter. Those losses would sound significant to any other team, at least in the division, but with their wealth of young talent, the Cardinals should barely notice as they coast to another division championship.
Projected Record: 96-66, 1st Place in NL Central
The defending National League Champions should be able to defend their division crown, barring injuries. Even in that event, there is enough depth in the organization to withstand them. Unless there is a collapse or the Pirates or Reds have better than expected seasons, there is no reason to think the Cardinals will sacrifice their perch atop the central.
Adam Wainwright remains the ace of the Cardinals’ pitching staff in 2014 after an excellent 2013. One interesting note is that they had three starters make 30 starts last season (Wainwright, Lance Lynn, and Shelby Miller), but no other pitcher made 20 starts. That should change this season, with the addition of Michael Wacha on a permanent basis. Additionally, Jaime Garcia should be in the rotation for much of the season, but with his injury history, it would not be a surprise to see his starts split with Joe Kelly, who made 15 starts last season. When he is not in the rotation, though, expect to see Kelly in the bullpen, where he was quite effective.
In what is an embarrassment of riches, the Cardinals’ bullpen is one that will be tough to solve. Carlos Martinez and Joe Kelly are capable of starting. Martinez has started four games this spring and very well could open the season in the rotation. Motte, Rosenthal, Choate, Maness, and Siegrist were all excellent in relief for Mike Matheny last season, which was a major contributor to their World Series run.
In all, on the pitching front, the Cardinals are a unique case in that they have a lot of versatility with their pitchers. Many of them can be effective as both starters and as relievers, which makes dealing with injuries less troublesome. All three of Joe Kelly, Carlos Martinez, and Lance Lynn started games last season, and all could very well pitch out of the bullpen at some point this season, depending on effectiveness and availability of healthy arms.
Yadi Molina remains the gold standard of catchers in the majors. He has progressed into an offensive force, a defensive juggernaut, and a master at handling a pitching staff. While he was not statistically the best defensive catcher last season, he was awarded another Gold Glove. Tony Cruz doesn’t offer much other than the opportunity to allow Molina days off, which come few and far between for the catcher who appeared in 136 games last season.
Matt Adams appears primed to take over duties at first base, pushing Allen Craig into right field. The Cardinals extended the contract of Matt Carpenter and moved him into the hot corner to replace David Freese, who was traded to the Angels over the off-season. The middle infield will feature a new look with Mark Ellis and Jhonny Peralta taking over at second base and short stop. With defense being a weakness last season, the Cardinals didn’t waste an opportunity to improve that by having an infield of Adams, Ellis, Peralta, and Carpenter. They are fielding calls for Pete Kozma, who was terrible at the plate and merely alright in the field last season. He would be easily replaced with Kolten Wong, who is a highly regarded prospect that managed to stick with the team through the playoffs.
There is a place in this group for Oscar Taveras, who was sent down early in the spring because of hamstring issues. After being limited by injuries last season, the Cardinals are in no hurry to rush their stud prospect to The Show. In time, he will be in their line-up, though, illustrating that life is not, in fact, fair at all…because no team should be able to simply pluck a top ten minor league prospect and plug him into a championship caliber line-up. Matt Holliday is the only remaining regular in the group, with Jon Jay being demoted to a reserve role with the addition of Bourjos and Allen Craig getting the at-bats left behind by the departed Carlos Beltran. From a production standpoint, there is no reason to expect any significant drop.
That last statement from the outfield group actually applies to the entire team. While there was some turnover in their roster, there is no reason to expect any dip in production. As evidenced by the departure of Albert Pujols after the 2011 season, the Cardinals can plug in the next man up and keep moving forward. They are a poster to the value of player scouting and development, then coupling it with strong baseball principles and a sustainable business model that ensures relevance year in and year out. This season will be no exception. With the Dodgers and Nationals, the Cardinals are one of the teams who have few weaknesses, many strengths, and a very real possibility of representing the National League once again in the World Series.