Last season, the St Louis Cardinals posted the best record in the National League (97-65), then cruised through the NLDS and NLCS before eventually losing a six game World Series to the Boston Red Sox. To better understand what may be in store for St Louis in 2014, here's a brief overview of last season's hitting, pitching, and fielding statistics (NL rank in parenthesis):
RUN DIFFERENTIAL +187 (1)
BA .269 (2) - OBP .332 (1) - SLG .401 (3)
RUNS 783 (1) - 2B 322 (1) - 3B 20 (12) - HR 125 (13) - SB 45 (15)
ERA 3.43 (5) - SO 1254 (5) - SV 44 (5)
FLD % .988 (1) - ERRORS 75 (1) - DP 177 (1) - DEF EFFICIENCY .691 (14) - RUNS SV -37 (14)
This is a very good team that in all likelihood, got even better during the offseason by addressing four areas of weakness:
(1) Offensive production at shortstop - featuring a .222 BA (second lowest in NL) and .307 OBP (third lowest in NL). The fiscally responsible John Mozeliak signed free agent shortstop Jhonny Peralta to a four-year $53 million deal, just a couple of months after Peralta served a 50 game PED suspension as a member of the Detroit Tigers. After doing his time, the well rested and clean Jhonny was welcomed back by his teammates just in time for the postseason, which didn't end the way Detroit would have liked; although the future Redbird hit well for his former mates; something that didn't go unnoticed by either the Cardinals' front office or JP's agent (presumably). Peralta's track record has been good the last three seasons, averaging .278 BA and .438 SLG. He should reach double digits in home runs for his new team and play above average defense.
(2) Speaking of defense, despite the high fielding percentage, the Cardinals were one of the worst teams in the NL in defensive efficiency - basic run prevention. With rookie Kolton Wong projected to be the new starting second baseman, Matt Carpenter will move over to third base (his natural position). Incumbent third baseman David Freese became the odd man out after an injury hampered season which produced just 9 home runs, .381 SLG, no speed on the bases, and limited range on defense. He and reliever Fernando Salas were shipped to the LA Angels of Anaheim in exchange for Peter Bourjos and 22-year old outfield prospect Randal Grichuk. When healthy, Bourjos is one of the best defensive centerfielders in the game, and will more than likely get the bulk of the playing time over Jon Jay, who had numerous misadventures on defense last season. Thus, in one fell swoop, the Cardinals will be heading into the 2014 season significantly better defensively at three positions. The extra bonus in the deal is Grichuk, who may develop into a bona-fide power hitter in the not-too-distant future.
(3) Aside from Clayton Kershaw (go figure), the Cardinals had great difficulty winning against left handed pitching last season. They signed former Dodger free agent second baseman Mark Ellis - a right handed batter who hits well against lefties - to a one year $5.25 million deal. Ellis will be a solid defensive insurance policy in case Wong has trouble making the adjustment to major league pitching. The previously mentioned additions of Jhonny Peralta and Peter Bourjos - both right handed hitters - should help the team fare better against southpaws this season.
(4) Team speed - or lack thereof - resulted in the Cardinals swiping a NL low 45 bases last season; plus a less than desirable defensive efficiency (previously mentioned). The Cardinals proved that they can win despite these shortcomings. However, with two new additions to the lineup - Bourjos and Wong - the stolen base will become a legitimate offensive weapon; and it's a good bet the team's defensive efficiency will be vastly improved as well.
PITCHING - Heading into the new season, the Cardinals pitching seems to be significantly stronger than the staff that posted the fifth lowest ERA (3.43) in the NL in 2013. With Chris Carpenter permanently out of action, Kyle Lohse gone via free agency, and Jaime Garcia sidelined for most of the year (only 55 IP) with recurring shoulder problems, St Louis had to heavily rely on rookies or second year pitchers to eat up innings, along with veteran Jake Westbrook who was effective early in the season but had shoulder issues of his own as the season wore on. The bullpen was especially shaky for much of the season, with a host of underperforming relievers not getting the job done on a consistent basis. Edward Mujica became the closer by default, and to his credit, pitched admirably until the last month or so of the season when he either ran out of gas or simply lost his skills. He became a free agent and somehow convinced the Red Sox to sign him.
This season, the Cardinals are loaded with young power arms that will either win spots in the five-man starting rotation or provide manager Mike Matheny with significantly better options out of the bullpen than he had for most of last year. In fact, between the now departed Mitchell Boggs and the previously mentioned Fernando Salas (to Halos in Freese - Bourjos trade), six games that could easily have been won last year, were blown by this pair.
Barring injury, the St Louis bullpen will be a major strength - not a liability - this season. In all likelihood, the left-handers coming out of the pen will include Randy Choate, Tyler Lyons, and Kevin Siegrist (50 SO in 39.2 IP to go with a ridiculous 0.45 ERA).
Two pitchers trying to return from injury - Jaime Garcia and Jason Motte - are still questionable for a healthy return to duty; any contributions from either of them will be a luxury.
Right-handed options out of the bullpen include Seth Maness and the young power-arms of setup man Carlos Martinez and closer Trevor Rosenthal (108 regular season SO in 75.1 IP). The blown saves that plagued the Cardinals last year should be a thing of the past in 2014.
HITTING - Last season, the Cardinals led the National League with 783 runs scored despite hitting fewer home runs than all but two other NL teams. They did it by hitting a MLB-record .330 with RISP, by grinding out a league high .332 OBP and by hitting more doubles than any other NL team - 322 (the sixth highest total in franchise history). Matt Carpenter's 55 doubles not only led MLB, it was the most by a left-handed hitter in franchise history (breaking Stan Musial's record). Yadier Molina's 44 two-base hits were the most by a catcher since Pudge Rodriguez hit 47 in 1996.
The type of relentless offensive attack the Cardinals put together last season may be unsustainable in 2014. However, the team should be significantly better defensively and more consistent with their pitching; overall, a more balanced team, still able to maintain a favorable run differential over the course of the regular season.
The Opening Day lineup should look something like this:
Matt Carpenter - third base (led MLB with 126 runs scored last season)
Peter Bourjos - centerfield (led AL with 11 triples in 2012)
Matt Holliday - leftfield (22 home runs last season)
Allen Craig - rightfield (97 RBIs despite missing most of Sept last season)
Matt Adams - first base (17 home runs and team-leading .503 SLG last season)
Yadier Molina - catcher (career high 80 RBIs last season)
Jhonny Peralta - shortstop (significant offensive upgrade)
Kolten Wong - second base (must prove he can hit like he did in minors)
Waiting in the wings is the highly rated prospect, Oscar Taveras - a left-handed power hitting outfielder. He may well slug his way into the lineup, forcing manager Mike Matheny to juggle Matt Adams and Allen Craig around to make room for the rookie.
The projected starting rotation:
Adam Wainwright (NL-leading 241.2 IP last season)
Michael Wacha (NLCS MVP as a rookie last season)
Shelby Miller (3.06 ERA as a rookie last season)
Lance Lynn (198 SO in 201.2 IP last season)
Joe Kelly (2.69 ERA in 124 IP last season)
Jaime Garcia may prove healthy enough to slide into the rotation, but any sustained work from him seems unlikely, given his history of shoulder trouble. Tyler Lyons, a promising 24-year old lefty may earn a spot in the rotation, if any of the above have performance or injury issues over the course of the season.
PROGNOSIS - The Cardinals should be able to repeat as NL Central champions. In fact, barring injury, they may prove to be even better than they were last year. Many baseball analysts now rate them as the number one team in MLB, based on how much they improved their roster this off season.
If all goes as expected, St Louis will be playing postseason baseball once again in 2014 - for the fourth straight year - a feat they have never accomplished in franchise history. Of course, there's a first time for everything.