Last year, the Cardinals managed to win 90 regular season games despite having an "off year" offensively. That's putting it mildly. Based on an OPS+ of 93, it was their second worst offensive season of the millennium. For the record, only the 2007 Cardinals (92 OPS+) were worse, offensively.
Last year, they managed to win 90 games despite outscoring their opponents by only 16 runs (619 to 603). Helping their cause was a major league-leading 23 shutouts from the pitching staff, which easily offset the 12 times the offense was blanked by the opposition. Also, despite the rather shaky performance of closer Trevor Rosenthal - who allowed 39% of first batters to reach base - he still managed to save 45 games - while the rest of the bullpen secured another ten. Those 55 saves also happened to be the most by any major league team. In other words, the Cardinals were usually engaged in low-scoring games that were decided by two or fewer runs.
Another thing that helped St Louis win a few extra games was a vastly improved defense. Essentially, the Redbirds went from being the second-worst defensive team in the league in 2013 (only Philadelphia was worse) to becoming the second-best defensive team in 2014 (only Cincinnati was better). The addition of right fielder Jason Heyward (from Atlanta) - one of the best defensive players in all of baseball - should put the Cardinals on top of the defensive metric charts by a wide margin in 2015.
Heyward's addition to the roster is just one of the ten major reasons the Cardinals will be vastly improved over last season. Actually, he's probably the number one reason, since he's upgrading a position - right field - that was among the worst in baseball last year for St Louis. The other nine reasons for the team's vast improvement over last year is based on the assumption that certain players (Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn & Matt Holliday for example) will perform similarly this season as last.
Without further adieu, here are ten players who will add significantly greater value to the Cardinals in 2015 than the previous season:
* Yadier Molina suffered through an injury-marred season in '14 - playing in just 110 games, with diminished offensive production (.282/.333/.386). Yadi turns 33 in July, so a gradual decline in his skills is inevitable; however, he should be relatively healthy this season, so appearing in 140 games is likely, and a more potent offensive attack (.300/.360/.420) should be in the Cards as well.
* Kolten Wong is poised for a break-out season based on how well he finished last year - especially with his stellar performance in the postseason. Wong struggled early in the season, then after a brief stint in the minors, returned with renewed confidence and impressive power numbers. In 113 games Kolten finished with a .249/.292/.388 slash line. The other part of the second base dilemma last year was the woeful final season free agent Mark Ellis compiled. In 73 games, he hit .180 with absolutely no power. With Wong taking over on a full-time basis at second base, he should be able to play 150 games with this type of offensive production: .275/.330/.450. He'll probably hit 15 home runs, steal 30 bags and possibly win a Gold Glove Award. Yes, second base is in good hands again.
* Jaime Garcia has had a host of shoulder problems that has limited his work to just 99 innings over the course of the last two seasons. He appears to be healthy again and should be able to work 150 quality innings. His work this spring has been surprisingly effective, exceeding any reasonable expectation so far. His contribution to the Cardinal's success could be huge - possibly NL Comeback Player of the Year material.
* Kevin Siegrist had a variety of physical ailments last season that caused his ERA to skyrocket from 0.45 in '13 to 6.82 last year. He appears to be healthy again, with renewed confidence and effectiveness (5 IP - 0 ERA with 6 SO and just 1 BB so far this spring). Look for numbers much closer to 2013.
* Michael Wacha appears to be healthy again and ready to dominate batters with his blazing fastball and devastating change up - like he did late in 2013. He'll be the number three starter - and would be a number one on most teams. That's scary.
* Jordan Walden, who came over from the Braves in the Heyward deal, is another power arm in the bullpen (254 strikeouts in 211.2 career innings pitched), capable of closing out games whenever needed. Having another viable option will undoubtedly take some of the pressure off Trevor Rosenthal, who probably needed a break from time to time last season, but rarely got one.
* Speaking of Trevor Rosenthal...expect him to dominate hitters they way he did late in 2013, when he was almost flawless. In 2014, Rosenthal's walk rate was over five batters per nine innings. That's going to be cut in half.
* Marco Gonzalez has been impressive so far this spring (3-0 - 0.71 ERA), giving manager Mike Matheny another viable (left-handed) candidate for the starting rotation.
* John Lackey should be able to log close to 200 innings of solid starting pitching - another key to helping the bullpen stay fresh through the long season - and deep into the postseason.
* Jason Heyward - previously mentioned - but his impact on the Cardinals' success will be the greatest, since their biggest weakness from 2014 - right field - is now among their biggest strengths. Heyward is a viable MVP candidate - particularly if he hits for the type of power he's shown in the past (27 home runs a couple of years ago). Even if he just matches his career averages (.262/.351/.429), with his exceptional defensive play, he's an elite player. For the Cardinals front office, the decision to sign him to a long-term contract (he'll be a free agent after this season) should be a top priority - and nailed down sooner than later.
I don't think there's any doubt the Redbirds will be a much better team this year than last. In fact, the 2015 edition of the St Louis Cardinals may surpass the overall performance of the 2004 and 2005 teams.
Here's a ranking of each season of the millennium, combing the team OPS+ and ERA+ (defensive metrics not included):
Rank Year OPS+ ERA+ Total Postseason?
1(Tie) 2004 107 113 220 Y
1(Tie) 2005 98 122 220 Y (Best Pitching of the Millennium)
3 2013 102 110 212 Y
4(Tie) 2011 112 99 211 Y (Best Offense of the Millennium)
4(Tie) 2002 102 109 211 Y
6(Tie) 2000 103 107 210 Y
6(Tie) 2001 100 110 210 Y
6(Tie) 2009 98 112 210 Y
6(Tie) 2012 107 103 210 Y
10 2010 100 109 209 N
11 2008 107 101 208 N
12 2003 111 90 201 N (Worst Pitching of the Millennium)
13 2014 93 105 198 Y
14 2006 97 98 195 Y
15 2007 92 95 187 N (Worst Offense of the Millennium)
Obviously, these numbers provide a good measurement of the team's regular season performance - but once the postseason begins, anything can happen (example: 2006).
What can we expect in 2015? Here's my guesstimate: OPS+ 102 - ERA+ 119 (Total 221). By the time we factor in the expected superior defensive metrics, this could shape up to be the best Cardinal team of the millennium. No kidding.
Odds makers currently give the Cards a 12 to 1 shot to win the World Series. I think that makes them highly underrated...