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Cardinals' Team Preview: Familiar Beginning

Paul Sporer

Paul Sporer

Sporer covers pitching for RotoWire. He also writes for Baseball Prospectus and publishes an annual guide on starting pitcher. In his spare time, he roots for the Tigers.

Another season without an ace, this time Chris Carpenter, yet the Cardinals still managed to make the playoffs. An ace-like performance from Kyle Lohse eased the loss of Carpenter while Allen Craig and Carlos Beltran joined forces with Yadier Molina's MVP-worthy season to cover the offseason departure of Albert Pujols and the injury-stunted season of 2011 star Lance Berkman. Unfortunately, they couldn't turn this Wild Card into another World Series title. In fact, had it not been for the addition of the second Wild Card, the Cards wouldn't have been close to the playoffs in the first place.

The bad news for the National League is that last year's runner up is already strong and they are sitting on one of baseball's best farm systems positioning them for yet another run at the title. The bad news for the Cardinals is that they have made it a trifecta and for the third straight year they have lost an ace before the season with Carpenter repeating. There is serious concern that he has thrown his last pitch. Thankfully their No. 1 strength is depth. They just didn't want to tap into it this early.

Offseason Moves

Signed RP Randy Choate.

This is what happens when you are the NL-runner up carrying a load of stud prospects, your big signing ends being a LOOGY. The Cardinals gave the 36-year-old lefty a three-year deal no doubt hoping he can continue to dispense of lefties without incident. Southpaws managed a meager .461 OPS against him a year ago as he led baseball with 80 appearances. He led the American League in appearances back in 2010 with 85. Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Anthony Rizzo, and Pedro Alvarez should start watching Choate video now. They will be seeing him in their nightmares the next three years.

Acquired SS/2B Jake Lemmerman Dodgers for 2B/OF Skip Schumaker.

Last year was Schumaker's first OPS north of .700 against right-handers in three years and that is supposed to be his strong side of the platoon split. There was no room for him in the outfield, nor can his bat really sustain being an outfielder, and Daniel Descalso can approximate his value at a third of the cost as they await the arrival of Kolten Wong. The 24-year-old Lemmerman is organizational depth up the middle.

Signed UT Ty Wigginton.

Yes Cardinals fans, your MLB nucleus combined with the farm system is so good that this is the second-highest impact move of your team's offseason. Even the Dodgers fan base would trade you their active winter for the Cardinals' mostly stationary one as long as it meant they could have the St. Louis roster. This signing happened two days after the Schumaker deal so maybe they set it up for the two to work in concert as it essentially six in one, half-dozen in the other. Though Wigginton coming off the bench brings a power element that Schumaker certainly doesn't have, so it is easy to see why general manager John Mozeliak would view jettisoning Schumaker in favor of Wigginton as a net positive.

Signed IF Ronny Cedeno.

Cedeno brings the aspects of Schumaker's game that Wigginton can't provide, though that's not exactly a ringing endorsement. They need someone who can legitimately handle shortstop if/when Rafael Furcal is hurt.

Re-signed RPs Edward Mujica, Mitchell Boggs, Jason Motte, and Marc Rzepczynski.

They were all signed before going to an arbitration hearing and Motte was the only one of the group to get a two-year deal. This group is the core of their bullpen. They accounted for 46 percent of the team's relief innings in 2012. They will be joined by Choate and a couple others in the 2013 bullpen. Rzepczynski would have ideally filled the Choate role after holding lefties to a .478 OPS in 2011, but he was far less dominant in 2012 as the OPS jumped to .682 and the strikeout rate dropped from 31 to 20 percent.

Projected Lineup (vs. RH/LH)

1. Rafael Furcal, SS**
2. Allen Craig, 1B
3. Matt Holliday, LF
4. Carlos Beltran, RF
5. Yadier Molina, C
6. David Freese, 3B
7. Jon Jay, CF*
8. Daniel Descalso, 2B*

The middle infielders bookending the non-pitcher portion of the lineup are the only dull spots offensively and a healthy Furcal still carries the potential to be a substantially above average asset. In fact, only his power holds him back as his batting average and on-base percentage were better than the NL average at shortstop. The two through seven spots can hold their own with any team in the league leaving no rest for pitchers, and all but Jay carry the serious threat to leave the yard at any moment.

Projected Rotation

1. Adam Wainwright
2. Jaime Garcia
3. Jake Westbrook
4. Lance Lynn
5. Shelby Miller

Lynn was a revelation shifting from the bullpen to the rotation and dominating for most of the year save half of June and a bumpy August during which he seemed to hit a wall and briefly went back to the bullpen. There is still some uncertainty within the staff mostly focused on the shoulder of Garcia, but even with adding Miller to replace Carpenter the reinforcements remain plentiful as half of their top prospects are starters and all but one has at least reached Double-A.

The best after Miller is Trevor Rosenthal who got a taste of the majors at the end of last year would be among the first considered should someone go down with an injury and there is even an outside shot that he vaults past Miller in spring training for the No. 5 spot. Joe Kelly quietly did yeoman's work in 107 innings last year, too. He will likely fulfill the swingman role yet again perhaps giving Miller or Rosenthal a break to manage their innings should Garcia get hurt. It cannot be stressed enough how deep this team is both on their main 25 and in the minors.

Closer: Jason Motte - It was a brilliant season as a first-time closer as he mauled batters with his 98 mph four-seamer and 92.5 mph cutter both of which only looked faster juxtaposed with his 85 mph changeup. The 42-save effort, which led the National League, earned him a two-year, $12 million dollar deal giving the Cardinals one of the game's best stoppers through 2014.

Key Bullpen Members: Trevor Rosenthal and Edward Mujica will handle the job from starter to Motte along with the aforementioned Randy Choate handling any tough lefties in between. Rosenthal's future is still thought to be in the rotation, but as of now there isn't a spot and his stuff played amazingly well out of the bullpen for nearly 23 regular season innings spread over parts of the final three months of the regular season plus another 8.2 innings in the playoffs during which he was nearly unhittable. He allowed just two hits walking two others and fanning 15 of the 30 batters he faced.

Mujica joined the team at the trade deadline and was unstoppable during his time with the Cards. He cut his walk rate in half to just three percent resulting in an even 7.0 K/BB in 26.1 innings spent primarily as the seventh-inning guy.

Notes of Import, Fantasy and Otherwise:

What can Allen Craig do with a full season?

More importantly, can he make it a full season? Craig missed April recovering from surgery on his right kneecap, but had an incredible start to his season in May before a strained left hamstring cut him down for two weeks in mid-May. He returned on June 1 and played the rest of the way setting career-highs all over the place, but most importantly in games played and plate appearances. He finally topped 500 plate appearances and fans saw what a stud he can be with a major sample of playing time.

What can he do in 2013 without a starting a month behind due to knee surgery? He had a .309/.357/.532 line the last two years and while the organization would love to see that over 162, they would almost certainly settle for 140-145 which could no doubt yield a 30-homer, 100-RBI season, too. He might even be able to nab 100-plus runs scored if he can avoid the disabled list. The Cardinals' No. 2 spot has been among the NL's top three in runs scored every year since 2008 netting over 100 all but once (98 in 2011) and twice leading the league.

Can they find room for Matt Carpenter?

He was instructed to hone his second-base skills in the offseason with that being the team's only obvious hole and his bat being one worth taking a defensive hit for, especially against righties. The second base aspect will be something to monitor during spring training, but even if he doesn't find regular reps there he is on a team that is filled with some great, but fragile stars in Beltran, Craig, Freese, and Furcal. He wouldn't be Furcal's replacement, but Descalso could be which would open up second.

Could Trevor Rosenthal or Shelby Miller force Lance Lynn out of the fifth spot?

There is some speculation that Lynn could be Alexi Ogando'd out of his spot in favor of one of the young blue-chip prospects. General manager John Mozeliak put Lynn as the front-runner thus far, but also made it clear that it was still something that needed to be fought for as he indirectly advised Lynn not to rest on the laurels of his 2012 breakout. It's a great position for the Cardinals to be in, but it could add some stress for fantasy managers working their way through the back end of that rotation.

Strengths

Identifying strengths would imply they have weaknesses. Joking aside, their offense and bullpen are definite strengths. Their overwhelming depth is the primary strength of the team especially one filled with stars who have checkered injury pasts (though their overall best player, Yadier Molina, is a model of health with just two DL stints in his career with the last one coming in 2007). They will have a pair of top 10 prospects in Oscar Tavares and Shelby Miller just a call away.

Weaknesses

The middle infield could be a net negative at the dish, but thankfully the star power everywhere else on the diamond should more than cover them. While every team is subject to injuries, their vulnerability is definitely higher than average with most of their best players having a significant injury within the last couple of years.

Rising: Allen Craig - The skills are in place having been on display the last two years, but in just 75 and 119 game stints. Without a month on the shelf predestined into his season, he has a chance to set another career-high in games played, finally hit that 600 plate appearance plateau, and announce himself to the entire baseball world as a star player.

Declining: Jake Westbrook - The 35-year-old veteran has now put up three straight average-at-best seasons during which he has a combined 1.42 WHIP. A classic innings-eater, the team may soon decide that he's gotten his fill and one of Shelby Miller or Trevor Rosenthal deserve to be fed while Westbrook assumes a swingman/long reliever role who can get a key groundball when necessary.

Sleeper: Trevor Rosenthal - He has been all over this preview, but with good reason. Even if he doesn't get a shot in the rotation until the summer, he could be a Kris Medlen type who bides his time in the bullpen only to explode as a starter down the stretch. That doesn't mean he will have that otherworldly 12-start run that Medlen had, but he will make up for it by being a much more useful bullpen asset than Medlen was as he should have no problem striking out 25 percent of the batters he faces with an upside nearing 30 percent.

Supersleeper: Kolten Wong - Their 2011 first-round pick was is a fantastic hitter with some solid gap power that could translate into 10-13 home runs a year in the big leagues. Descalso is hardly chiseled in stone as the second-base starter so Wong could even sneak up and steal the job out of spring training. That is unlikely, though, meaning he would start the season in Triple-A and bide his time while continuing to hone his average defensive profile. While Tavares and Miller get all the ink, Wong could surprise as the most productive of the three at the big league level in 2013.

Top Prospects

Oscar Tavares, OF - One of the purest hitters you can find on the diamond, especially when you consider that he is a 20-year old who hasn't hit Triple-A yet. On the right day, he has an 80-grade hit tool and even on his worst days it is seemingly no worse than 70-75. His 67 extra-base hits give a glimpse into his plus power, as well. Of course it doesn't stop there as he also brings above average defense and solid-average speed to the table. Total it all up and you have a bona fide top five prospect in all of baseball who would easily push for the top spot in a year that didn't have a hitter who matches Tavares skill for skill while playing outstanding shortstop (Jurickson Profar) and a seemingly-surefire ace (Dylan Bundy).

Shelby Miller, SP - He lost his way a bit in his Triple-A debut struggling into July with a 6.17 ERA and 1.72 WHIP in 77 innings. He was striking out 25 percent of the batters he faced, but also walking 12 percent and allowing a full two homers per nine innings. After a mechanical adjustment over the All-Star break, he once again showed why he is regarded as an elite prospect posting a 2.88 ERA and 0.93 WHIP in 59 innings while fanning 33 percent of his foes and walking a mere three percent. Home runs were still a bit of an issue at 1.1 per nine innings, but a far cry from that disastrous 2.0 in the first half. As mentioned throughout this piece, Miller will be in contention for a spot in Spring Training and should he fail to take one, he will almost assuredly be the first up once reinforcements are needed.

Trevor Rosenthal, P - See above.

Carlos Martinez, SP - The 21-year old flamethrower gives the Cards yet another elite-level arm to dream on for the future. With a fastball that sits in the mid-90s, Martinez has been known to pop 100 mph from time-to-time as well. Did I mention he is six-feet and 165 pounds? That type of velocity draws the obvious parallels to another slight righty with his surname, but putting any measure of Pedro expectations would be entirely unfair. He pairs that heater with a nasty curveball that flashes as plus, but still needs some refinement. He spent two-thirds of his season in Double-A, but that was still on 71 innings so he may return before hopefully hitting Triple-A sometime in the summer.

Kolten Wong, 2B - See above.

Matt Adams, 1B - A 23rd-round pick from 2009, Adams has developed into a quality bat ready to step in at a moment's notice. Not only are the Cards crushing their first-round picks (picking in the middle or late, mind you), but they are also striking gold in the late rounds. Even the guy blocking Adams, Allen Craig, was an eighth-round pick. Adams has power and average in his bat capable of making him a middle-of-the-order threat once he establishes himself in the bigs. However, like Craig before him, he may not get a real chance until his mid-20s through no fault of his own.

Michael Wacha, SP - The Texas A & M product was taken 19th overall in last June's draft and he is yet another big time starter in the system. The 6-foot-6 Wacha can hit mid-90s with his fastball, but his changeup is easily his best pitch and gives him a leg up on most youngsters who barely have any semblance of a changeup at age 21.

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