Major League Baseball | St. Louis Cardinals

Cardinals Can’t Presume Cakewalk in NL Central

Most of the baseball media has anointed the Cardinals as National League Central champs, 100-game winners and even “the perfect team” before the 2014 season has even started. Yes, the Cardinals are young, talented, deep and experienced, but there’s always a chance that the prognosticators could be wrong, and I’m here to tell you how.

First of all, having played in three straight NLCS and two of the last three World Series, the Redbirds will be one of the most targeted teams in baseball. More than the highly paid Dodgers or the up-and-coming Nationals, the Cardinals, because of their history of success, will be the targeted team in the National League. If you’re the Reds, Pirates, Phillies, Braves, Brewers, Nationals or Dodgers and your season has ended on some level because of the Cards over the last three years, you want to get them.

Furthermore, if you’re a young team like the Padres, Cubs or Marlins, you’ve watched the Redbirds on TV for the last three Octobers. That’s the team you want to be like, to emulate. So every player in the league is going to want to take down the team perceived as the dominant one.

Secondly, because the Cardinals are so young, it certainly could happen that they start to believe the media hype. This happened to the Rams in the early 2000s. Young players who arrived on the scene seemingly believed that because they were part of the Greatest Show on Turf that it would be easy, and quickly found out that the reason for the club’s success was talent, hard work and preparation. The Cardinals are extremely talented, but it’s important that Mike Matheny and his staff, and the veteran players on the team, make sure that the young players are aware of how hard it is to win. Even a two-week stretch where some guys don’t pull their weight could derail a promising season.

Young players also have to deal with the adjustments made by other teams. The second trip through the league will be a test for guys like Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez and Kevin Siegrist. Matt Adams is going to have to deal with being an everyday player and having any deficiencies exposed by the opposition. Kolten Wong is going to have to endure his rookie year without being taken advantage of by veteran pitchers. The youthful players of the Cardinals are going to have to endure the tough six months – especially the month of September – and overcome the rest of baseball trying hard to figure out how to bring them down.

Like any winning team, the Cards are going to have to overcome key injuries. Last year they lost Adams for a while early in the season, catcher Yadier Molina with knee troubles in July and Allen Craig down the stretch with a foot injury. Once again, we know there will be injuries. The Cardinals don’t have anyone capable of nurturing their young pitching staff like Molina, so at the moment he’s indispensable.

The other indispensable position player is Matt Carpenter. As the Cardinals’ leadoff hitter and third baseman, he was an integral part of the Redbirds’ success last year. His offense obviously is vital. But the Cardinals don’t have another player in the system who can play third base at a high level. Daniel Descalso would fill in at third, but can’t do what Carpenter does offensively. We don’t know if the currently disabled Mark Ellis can move back to third, but he certainly can’t lead off like Carpenter. And if Carpenter would go down, can Wong or Peter Bourgos be effective enough at the top of the lineup to fill in?

If an outfielder goes down, the Cardinals can turn to Stephen Piscotty, Randal Grichuk or perhaps Oscar Tavares. Ellis is a capable backup at second, and the Cards have won with Pete Kozma at shortstop if newcomer Jhonny Peralta is rendered unavailable. Craig can play first, of course. And there appears to be great pitching depth beyond the staff that will be introduced on opening day.

Bob Nightengale wrote in USA Today toward the beginning of spring training that “no one is going to come close to stopping this runaway train in the National League Central,” going on to write “now, the only distraction might be the annoyance of lining up playoff tickets for their family and friends.

“Pass the Bud Light and bring on the Clydesdales.”

Unfortunately, it’s not going to be that simple. Yes, this is a really good team. But there are bound to be bumps in the road. Hopefully the young Cardinals will understand that it isn’t easy, and will do what everyone expects them to do in 2014: run away from the National League Central.