Manager: Mike Matheny Projected Record: 90-72
As is usually the case, the Cardinals have no obvious weaknesses. They are the well-oiled developmental machine that successful organizations around baseball seek to emulate because even though they lose players to free agency or in trades, they seemingly always produce replacements who can keep them at or near the top of the standings. It is this continued excellence in drafting, signing, and developing players that gives them the annual opportunity to compete for championships. So, although many who read this blog are going to hate that there are so many nice things said about them here, they are the model organization…as painful as it is to say.
The Cardinals could actually go to a seven man rotation and feel really good about who they have from top to bottom. Carlos Martinez and Jaime Garcia are also both having very good springs, and either of them could make starts this season. They should not notice the loss of Shelby Miller to Atlanta in the Heyward trade. Wainwright figures to get the nod on Opening Night at Wrigley Field, as an early spring abdominal strain was not serious. Wainwright is as steady as they come, posting over 4 fWAR every year since 2009. After only 19 start last season, Wacha comes back healthy and should improve on his 1.8 fWAR from 2014. At 23, his best years are ahead of him and he appears to be an obvious replacement for Adam Wainwright, whenever he decides to retire. John Lackey is on a veteran’s minimum contract this season, thanks to the genius of Theo Epstein, putting that clause in his contract when he signed on with the Red Sox, so the Cardinals get a very cheap mid rotation starter. The rest of the rotation features good arms who are all very capable, including spot starters. It is an embarrassment of riches for the Cardinals in the starting pitching department, which will only help them in their quest to repeat as division champion yet again.
Much like their starting rotation, the Cardinals seem to keep finding very capable relievers. Led by Trevor Rosenthal and his 45 saves, the bullpen is full of effective arms. Carlos Martinez and Jaime Garcia are starting rotation options, but if they fall out of that race, they could both end up in the bullpen. Martinez has been in the bullpen over past seasons, so there would not be any adjustment required for him to assume that role. There is plenty of depth in the group, because although Jason Motte was lost to the Cubs, they brought in Carlos Villanueva on a minor league deal from the Cubs. The bullpen may not be the strength of their team, but it is very capable and very strong. It doesn’t matter who they bring in or who they lose, the beat goes on for this group.
It is fair to say that Yadier Molina did not have the kind of season he is accustomed to in 2014. His .282/.333/.386 is one of the least productive offense seasons he’s had since 2006 and he only played 110 games, which is the fewest he’s played since becoming the regular starting catcher. Molina will turn 33 this summer, so his best years are definitely behind him, but he is still an excellent player who can change the course of a game, both offensively and defensively. It remains unclear how many more years of All-Star caliber play Molina has left, but one thing that will never go away is that ridiculous neck tattoo.
Mark Reynolds is the new comer to the group who may split time with Matt Adams at first base. Adams struggled against left handed pitching to the tune of 190/.231/.298 in 2014. Mark Reynolds does not offer much more in the way of defense or in the slash line, but he does bring a bit more power to the equation. Jhonny Peralta moved to the Cardinals after spending time with the Tigers and suddenly posted the best fWAR (5.4) of his career. He also turns 33 this season, so Peralta may have seen the best of his career at this point, too, but even a small regression is a very good short stop. Matt Carpenter was not the prolific hitter in 2014 that he was in 2013, but he was still quite good, posting a .750 OPS. It would be a surprise if he was anything less than a very good third baseman this season. In general, the Cardinals have a deep and reliable group of infielders, both offensively and defensively. They may not do the things that wind up on Sportscenter, but they all do the things to enable them to celebrate wins on a regular basis.
After the untimely and unfortunate death of Oscar Taveras, the Cardinals swung a trade with the Braves to acquire Jason Heyward. While Heyward hasn’t been what scouts thought he would be with the bat, his defense has been enough to make him as valuable as any right fielder in the game. None of this is to say that Heyward is not good with the bat, either. .271/.351/.384 and a 10.3% walk rate are nothing to write off. If his offense takes a step forward this season, it could make the Cardinals an even more difficult team to handle, and make Heyward an extremely rich man when he reaches free agency next winter. On the other corner, Matt Holliday remains a consistent contributor, hitting 20 home runs, getting on base at a .370 clip, and only striking out 15% of the time. He is the embodiment of what the Cardinals are, steady production even in the absence of big numbers on the back of his baseball card. Interestingly, all three of the projected starting outfielders were acquired via trade, which makes it the only place on the roster where they haven’t home grown at least one regular starter.
There are some aging players on the Cardinals roster, including Molina, Wainwright, Peralta, and Holliday, but none of them have shown any sign that their production is going to slip in 2015. Even if those players showed their age, the Cardinals quite typically have somebody who is capable of picking up the slack and continuing down the line toward another division championship. For those reasons, it is very difficult to pick a team other than the Cardinals to win the division in 2015. Because while the other teams in the division are talented, no team has the amount of talent, experience, depth, and track record of proven results that this organization has built. They are a machine. Even after notable losses of players like Albert Pujols and Chris Carpenter, the Cardinals continued on down their path. Consistency and production are hallmarks of a great organization, and the Cardinals are nothing if not consistent and producers. It may be difficult for the regular readers of this blog to swallow, but this division still belongs to them until someone else proves otherwise.