In less than a week, the Cardinals will start workouts that will begin defense of their National League championship of 2013. As they get started, they’ve had a lot of turnover for a pennant-winning team, but they should be even better than last year. In fact, if this year’s Cardinals don’t go back to the World Series – health willing – it’s fair to regard the season as a failure.
Let’s start with the pitching. Last season, the Cardinals started with a rotation of Adam Wainwright, Jaime Garcia, Shelby Miller, Lance Lynn and Jake Westbrook. It wasn’t too long before Garcia and Westbrook were injured. Ultimately, Michael Wacha and Joe Kelly wound up in the rotation, and became more effective than the guys they replaced.
This year, the raw ability is better, and it’s not even close. Wainwright has regained his position as a certified ace. Wacha was a late-season and postseason revelation. It’s not unreasonable to expect him to dominate at times – as he did most of last October – and win 15 games. Miller already has won 15 games, and with his electric stuff and a year of experience, Shelby should at least match if not eclipse his 2013 production. Lynn was up and down in his first year of being in great shape. Another offseason of hard work and preparation should make Lynn a more consistent performer. And if Garcia doesn’t come back healthy, Kelly and the dazzling Carlos Martinez will vie for the fifth starting spot.
There are so many things to love about this group. Wacha, Miller, Kelly and Martinez all have better pitching stuff than Westbrook, and having a lefty back will be a key in pitching to teams like the Reds, Nationals and Dodgers’ lefthanded hitters. Also of note is that, for a team that’s been in the postseason for three straight years, not a single starter has pitched all three of those years. Wainwright was hurt in 2011, Garcia was injured much of 2012 and 2013, and Lynn was in the bullpen in 2011. The others didn’t make it to the majors until after 2011. The normal wear and tear for a team with three straight postseason runs isn’t there, but the experience is.
In the bullpen, the Cardinals started last year with Jason Motte injured and Mitchell Boggs closing. Edward Mujica took over the closer’s role for most of the season when Motte faltered, but hard-throwing Trevor Rosenthal claimed the job for the postseason. Mujica has departed in free agency, as has late-season trade acquisition John Axford.
But Mike Matheny will trot out fireballer after fireballer this year. Veteran Randy Choate and Seth Maness are the only relievers who don’t throw really hard. When a starter departs, aside from those two, young lefty Kevin Siegrist, along with righthanders Kelly and/or Martinez, the returning Motte and Rosenthal will be called upon. The Redbirds have a fresh, experienced and amazingly talented bullpen. In fact, this is one of those years in which, at the outset, you wouldn’t be worried about a single one of these guys coming in. Each has postseason experience, but only Choate and Motte have more than two years in the majors. The Cards are in an ideal position to finish off games after the sixth inning.
The superbly consistent Matt Holliday returns in left, established RBI machine Allen Craig is in right, MVP candidates Matt Carpenter and Yadier Molina are at third and catcher, respectively, and emerging slugger Matt Adams will be at first. A new middle of the field of shortstop Jhonny Peralta, second basemen Kolten Wong and Mark Ellis and center fielder Peter Bourjos will most certainly be an upgrade over what the Cardinals had last year. Peralta will be much better than Pete Kozma offensively, Wong brings speed and defense at second, and Bourjos delivers speed and defense in center field. Carpenter should be a defensive upgrade over David Freese at third, Wong should be as good as Carpenter at second, and Bourjos is a defensive improvement over John Jay.
Additionally, Jay as a fourth outfielder is an upgrade. Shane Robinson is a solid bench guy, as is Ellis, and Oscar Tavares is waiting in the wings. Daniel Descalso returns as a super-sub, and Tony Cruz (with experience filling in for Molina last year) is back as the No. 2 catcher.
The Cardinals improved more than anyone in their division this offseason. Cincinnati appears to have regressed with the losses of Shin Soo-Choo and Bronson Arroyo. Milwaukee traded outfielder Norichika Aoki and replaced him with rookie Khris Davis. Journeyman Juan Francisco will play first for Milwaukee, which doesn’t have a ton of help for Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez in the middle of the lineup. Pittsburgh has lost Marlon Byrd, Justin Morneau and A.J. Burnett off of their playoff team, and the Cubs may be the worst team in baseball this year.
The biggest threats in the league appear to be the Nationals and the Dodgers, who don’t have near the winning experience that the Cardinals do. With everything the Cardinals have done to enhance the National League champs this offseason, in my mind they’ve reached Yankee status. If the Cardinals stay healthy and don’t win the World Series, I’ll be disappointed.