BY RYAN MILOWICKI
2013 Record: 97-65 (1st Place NL Central, – GB)
Without a doubt, the St. Louis Cardinals are the most consistent team in the National League, if not the entire Major Leagues. Over the past ten seasons, the Redbirds have won the World Series twice, reached the Fall Classic 4 times, won the NL Central 5 times, and reached the playoffs seven times. Now I know what you’re thinking: “Yeah, but all those years were with Tony LaRussa.” Well, in Mike Matheny’s first two seasons as manager, the Cardinals averaged 93 wins, reached at least the NLCS both times, and won the NL pennant last year.
The defending NL champs accomplished that feat last year with a dangerous combination of excellent starting pitching and some of the timeliest hitting this game has ever seen. The team’s unheard-of collective .330 batting average with runners in scoring position is far away the best of all time, and it turned young players like Allen Craig and Matt Carpenter into household names and MVP candidates. Pair that with four returning starters with double-digit victories and a guy named Wacha, and this is a truly fearsome squad. They’ve done some roster shuffling this offseason, but in a year that has already plagued several NL contenders with injuries, the Cardinals still look like the ones to beat in the Senior Circuit.
SS Jhonny Peralta (4yr/$53 mil)
OF Peter Bourjos (trade with Angels)
Yea, PEDs! In a deal that caused much controversy when it happened in November, Peralta’s offer ranks amongst the biggest contracts given to convicted steroids users. Despite this apparent “rewarding” of illegal activity, Peralta provides further depth to the already-stacked Cardinals infield, and should be their starting shortstop right from the start. At age 32, he also instantly becomes the second-oldest player in the Cardinals lineup (behind Matt Holliday), so he provides veteran experience to the young roster.
Carlos Beltran’s flight to New York in free agency left a large hole in the Cardinal lineup. With David Freese having a below-average season, the Cardinals and Angels did a one-for-one swap over the winter, sending the speedy Bourjos to St. Louis. His offensive numbers lag severely behind those of Beltran, but his glove and speed will make him a solid bet to start in center field.
Carlos Beltran: In his two seasons in St. Louis, Beltran hit 56 home runs and had 181 RBI. Not bad for someone in his 15th and 16th seasons in the majors. Taking notice of old men with power like they always do, the Yankees offered him a bigger contract than the Cardinals could match.
David Freese: The hero of the Cardinals’ 2011 World Series triumph, Freese struggled in 2013, hitting just .262 with 9 HR and 60 RBI. Given the strength of their infield depth, and the void left by Beltran’s departure, the Cardinals’ front office had no issue shopping Freese to Anaheim to bring in Peter Bourjos. Expect Matt Carpenter to slide over to third base to take over Freese’s duties this year.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Michael Wacha. Brought up at the end of the season, the rookie dominated his first starts in a Cardinals uniform, going 4-1 with a sparkling 2.78 ERA. What’s more, Mike Matheny called on the youngster in a high pressure situation, and he delivered big-time. With the Cards down 2 games to 1 in the NLDS against the Pirates, Wacha outdueled Charlie Morton and kept the Redbirds alive in a series they would ultimately win. In the NLCS, he went 2-0 and threw 14 scoreless innings against the mighty bats of the Dodgers. Now I’m no fan of superlatives, but his performance that day reminded me more than a little bit of Josh Beckett’s 2003 rookie playoff run. Heading into his age 22 (!!) season, expect Wacha to collect a full season’s worth of starts as the #2 starter behind Adam Wainwright. If his numbers come close to matching his totals from his abbreviated 2013 campaign, he has the potential to win at least 18 games and get more than a few Cy Young votes sprinkled his way.
Projected Opening Day Lineup
Wainwright is followed in the rotation by Michael Wacha, Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller, and Jaime Garcia.
Losing veterans like Beltran and Freese would be problematic for any team, but the Cardinals have been the dictionary definition in past seasons of how to rebound from departing stars (Albert Pujols being the obvious example). The core of the team is still young, and their pitching looks as strong as ever. On the offensive side, their depth is unbelievable, as Daniel Descalso, John Jay, and Pete Kozma are on the bench, and would be starters on virtually any other team. With injuries rendering the Braves and Dodgers hobbled at the beginning of the season, the Cardinals are an easy pick as favorites to defend their NL pennant this year. That being said, they still have to navigate the difficult NL Central, and the Reds (8-11 vs. STL in 2013) and Pirates (10-9 vs. STL in 2013) will be thorns in their side the whole year. Look for another exciting dogfight.