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The St. Louis Cardinals: Relentless Reloading

Analysts love the St. Louis Cardinals. Their front office does no wrong. Every off-season signing is smart. Every failure to sign is smart. The Cardinals develop their players. They successfully convert hitters to pitchers. I’m sick of the praise. I wish it wasn’t true.

Every expert projects the Cardinals to win NL Central Division in 2014. It’s easy to find a power ranking with the Cardinals perched atop Major League Baseball. Last season, they won 97 games before beating the Pirates (3-2) in the NLDS and the LA Dodgers (4-2) in the NLCS. On paper, the’ve reloaded, relentlessly reloaded, and will be better this year.

Talented, young and deep, I admire them. And, of course as rivals, I despise them.

Basics

  • Manager: Mike Matheny (third year)
  • 2013 Record: 97-65
  • 2013 Division Finish: First place
  • 2013 Overall Finish: Lost World Series to the Boston Red Sox (4-2)
  • 2013 Runs Scored: 783
  • 2013 Runs Allowed: 596
  • 2013 Attendance: 3,369,769
  • 2013 Payroll: $112.6 million
  • 2014 Expected Payroll:  $109.5 million

Losses from 2013

  • OF Carlos Beltran, free agency
  • 3B David Freese, trade
  • RP Edward Mujica, free agency
  • RP John Axford, free agency
  • SP Jake Westbrook, retirement

Acquisitions/Extensions

  • CF Peter Bourjos acquired in trade for David Freese
  • SS Jhonny Peralta, free agent, 4 years/$53 million
  • 2B Mark Ellis, free agent, 1 year/$5.25 million
  • 2B/3B Matt Carpenter, contract extension, 6 years/$52 million
  • SS Aledmys Diaz, Cuba, 4 years/$8 million

Run Production

The Cardinals led the NL in runs scored by a Mississippi River-wide margin in 2013.

Yes, they had an unsustainably lucky high batting average with runners in scoring position last year. But St. Louis had great offensive production without that. Cardinals’ hitters were first in the NL in Joey Votto’s favorite stat, adjusted weighted runs created (wRC+) and on-base-percentage, two important and clutch-ignoring stats. Most teams have their share of high-strikeout, low-walk, dead pull hitters. St. Louis doesn’t. The Cardinals hit more line drives than any other team in the National League, even more than all but one DH-aided American League club. The Cardinals struck out the second fewest times in the NL. The Cardinals’ success was not based on home runs (thirteenth in the NL) or stolen bases (last). The St. Louis Cardinals scored so many runs in 2013 because they avoided striking out, avoided popping out and avoided rolling over on ground balls.

Projected Lineup and Batting Order

  1. Matt Carpenter (28) – 3B
  2. Peter Bourjos (26) – CF
  3. Matt Holiday (34) – LF
  4. Allen Craig (29) – RF
  5. Matt Adams (25) – 1B
  6. Yadier Molina (31) – C
  7. Jhonny Peralta (31) – SS
  8. Kolten Wong (23) – 2B

Their signing of Jhonny Peralta gives the Cardinals five regular players with a 2013 OBP of at least .350 and SLG of .450 last season (the Reds have one). Peralta was the second best-hitting shortstop in baseball last year (.303/358/.457) and represents a huge improvement over Pete Kozma (.217/.275/.273) at the plate.

[If any other team had signed a PED-user to such a generous contact, eyebrows and scorn would have reached peak level across the punditry. But the Cardinals did it, so the off-season move was brilliant, done to fill an important need. Last season, Matt Holiday was outspoken in saying that 50 games wasn’t enough punishment for the cheaters. He favored a full-season penalty for first offenders and a ban for the second. Two strikes and you’re out. Then, his organization became the only club to reward an admitted PED-user with $53 million. Hey, PEDs are immoral, but have you seen Pete Kozma hit?]

Carlos Beltran’s power will be missed but the Cardinals expect Peralta, 1B Matt Adams (.284/.335/.503) and a fully healthy OF Allen Craig to make it up. Holliday continues to have strong seasons at the plate (.879 OPS in 2013). Molina had a .836 OPS despite fighting a knee injury the second half of the season. Matt Carpenter led the National League with 199 hits, 55 doubles and 126 runs scored.

The Cardinals are deep. John Jay, Mark Ellis and defensive whiz Pete Kozma are on their bench. They have position flexibility across the infield.

And they have Oscar Taveras,  who will soon be healthy enough to leave his Minor League nest. Taveras (21) is widely considered baseball’s best hitting prospect. He missed much of 2013 due to a recurring ankle problem that eventually led to season-ending surgery. His recovery from the surgery carried over to this spring, where he missed enough time that he couldn’t really compete for a major league job. Taveras ended up straining his hamstring because of favoring his ankle, further delaying his emergence, but like other Cardinals’ phenoms, he’ll make his presence felt, probably (cue meta-narrative) in time to star in the post-season.

Run Prevention

The Cardinals rotation finished second in the NL in FIP (3.39), sixth in xFIP (3.69) and second in ERA (3.42). They had the second highest K/9 and finished in the middle of the pack in BB/9. They were second (to the Pirates) in ground ball percentage (48.1%).

Peter Bourjos brings speed and outstanding middle-of-the-field defense to the Cardinals’ outfield, replacing Jon Jay. (Bourjos is talented enough in the outfield that the Angels put Mike Trout in left field when Bourjos played.) The shift of Matt Carpenter from 2B back to his natural position at 3B will improve their defense at both positions. Top-three system prospect, Kolten Wong, takes over at 2B. Catcher Yadier Molina, who won his sixth consecutive Gold Glove award, finished third in NL-MVP voting and Matt Carpenter finished fourth.

Expected Starting Rotation

  1. Adam Wainwright (32) – RHP
  2. Michael Wacha (22) – RHP
  3. Shelby Miller (23) – RHP
  4. Lance Lynn (26) – RHP
  5. Joe Kelly (25) – RHP

Veteran Adam Wainwright anchors the staff and returns as an elite starter. Wainwright finished second to Clayton Kershaw in the 2013 NL Cy Young voting and won the NL Gold Glove for pitchers.

Second-year pitcher, Michael Wacha, who made his major league debut on May 30, 2013, earned the MVP award in the NLCS after pitching 13.2 shutout innings, with 13 strikeouts and only 2 walks. Wacha came within one out of adding a no-hitter to his resume. His challenge will be to sustain that level of excellence across six or seven months.

Rookie Shelby Miller had two different 2013 seasons – a strong first half and a weak second. He made it to the seventh inning only three times after June 1. Miller was benched for all but one inning in the post-season, allowed to pitch when the Cardinals were down by five runs (he gave up a home run). Lance Lynn once again had a solid first half of the season in 2013, only to see his performance drop off in the final three months.

Joe Kelly has been named the Cardinals fifth starter. Kelly started 15 games for St. Louis last year in the regular season and four more in the post-season, with an ERA of 3.08.

Carlos Martinez, despite allowing only three earned runs in 15.1 innings this spring, has been assigned to the bullpen. If one of the starters goes down, Martinez stands ready as a competent replacement. Jaime Garcia is still struggling with shoulder pain. Garcia pitched only 55 innings in 2013 and he’ll start the season on the DL.

Bullpen

Believe it or not, as great as the Cardinals’ hitting and starting pitching is, the bullpen is the strongest part of their team. In 2013, the Cardinals relievers were second in the NL in FIP (3.26), second in xFIP (3.49) and eighth in ERA (3.45). Their pen is deep, talented and restocked with the same players in 2014. Oh, plus their shutdown closer from 2012.

  • Closer: Trevor Rosenthal (23)
  • Set-up: Jason Motte (31), Carlos Martinez (22), Seth Maness (25)
  • Lefty specialists: Kevin Siegrist (24), Randy Choate (38)

Homegrown Trevor Rosenthal took over as the Cardinals closer at the end of 2013 and returns to that role. Rosenthal was a 21st-round draft choice out of Cowley County Community College. He was an infielder, but after seeing him pitch just one inning as a reliever, the Cardinals were convinced to draft him in 2009. Rosenthal rang up 108 strikeouts in just 75.1 innings in 2013. His ERA was 2.63 and FIP was 1.91. The tall right-hander throws a devastating fastball (avg: 97-mph) about 80 percent of the time and increasingly incorporates a change-up, producing a 14.7 swinging-strike rate. Rosenthal pitched 11.2 scoreless innings in the post-season.

Jason Motte, the Cardinals’ closer from the end of 2011 through 2012, was lost to Tommy John surgery for all of 2013. He’s back. Motte saved 42 games in 2012 and recorded 8 saves in the 2011 and 2012 post-season. He’ll form a devastating 1-2-3 punch to set-up Rosenthal with Carlos Martinez (96.7 mph fastball) and Kevin Siegrist (95 mph fastball). Siegrist’s ERA was 0.45 and FIP 2.29 last year with an 11.45 K/09. He went 13 appearances before giving up his first run.

Conclusion

In case you didn’t know, the Reds open the season with a three-game series against the St. Louis Cardinals at Great American Ball Park, beginning tomorrow. A week later, they travel to St. Louis for three more games in the Cards’ home-opener series at Busch Stadium.

4 thoughts on “The St. Louis Cardinals: Relentless Reloading

  1. My least favorite professional sports team, but you still gotta respect them. Year after year after decade…they’re always in the conversation.
    As a Cincinnati Reds, Carolina Panthers and NC State Wolfpack Fan I have no idea how that must feel.

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