2014 St. Louis Cardinals Team Preview
The Cardinals made another deep postseason run, this time falling just short and losing the World Series to the Red Sox in six games. They lost a close series in which Boston had better pitching performances than St. Louis, which was surprising considering Boston had succeeded with big offense and average pitching coming into the series while the Cardinals' excellent pitching had impressed all season. The emergence of Michael Wacha late in the season helped the Cardinals seal the NL Central over Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. The bullpen in St. Louis was a mess for the first month of the season before the emergence of Edward Mujica, who handled closing duties through mid-September. Trevor Rosenthal, Kevin Seigrist, and Seth Maness all had excellent seasons in relief during their first full seasons at the top level, which ultimately stabilized the unit.
The biggest issue for St. Louis in 2013 was the left side of the infield where the Cardinals had the worst production in all of baseball out of their third basemen (.244/.312/.359) and the fourth worst production out of their shortstops (.226/.282/.314). The Cardinals attempted to address each issue this offseason both from within and outside the organization. First, the Cardinals traded David Freese & Fernando Salas to the Angels for Peter Bourjos and Randal Grichuk, allowing Matt Carpenter to slide over to third base, his natural position, and prospect Kolten Wong to handle second base. The Cardinals then signed Mark Ellis to slot in behind Wong should he struggle to handle MLB pitching. Finally, Jhonny Peralta was signed to address the Cardinals' dreadful production from their shortstops. Peralta is likely past his prime, but he still marks a significant upgrade over last year's platoon of Pete Kozma and Daniel Descalso.
The Cardinals will head into 2014 with an open competition for center field between Jon Jay and Peter Bourjos, with uber-prospect Oscar Taveras expected to garner some consideration as well. They will also have to determine their final rotation spot between a returning and oft-injured Jaime Garcia, Joe Kelly, and young Carlos Martinez. The outcome of each battle will greatly affect the value those players can provide for fantasy owners this season. Both Taveras and Martinez could have Rookie of the Year campaigns this season, or be reduced to limited playing time as a fourth outfielder and bullpen arm, respectively.
Finally, 2014 should offer another exciting division race between the Cardinals and Pirates, something that is unlikely to change any time soon as both teams have some of the best young talent in the league. The National League should feature plenty of teams capable of deep playoff runs, so winning the division will be the Cardinals' best chance at a playoff spot. Still, the Cardinals' combination of talent, depth, and youth ranks as one of the best in baseball, and should carry them into October once again.
Lost John Axford (Indians), Adron Chambers (Astros), Rob Johnson, Brock Peterson (Nationals), Rafael Furcal (Marlins), Edward Mujica (Red Sox), Jake Westbrook via free agency.
The Cardinals lost some organizational depth and a few bigger names, but no one they should miss in 2014. Mujica likely had his career year for the Cardinals in 2013 and his replacement Trevor Rosenthal is much younger and likely already a better pitcher. Axford appears to have corrected whatever problems he had with the Brewers during his short stint in St. Louis. He may be a very good reliever in 2014, but the Cardinals have a wealth of young, talented arms and a returning Jason Motte allowing the Cardinals to let Axford walk.
Chris Carpenter retired.
Carpenter didn't pitch for the Cardinals in 2013, and only threw 17 innings in 2012. After a couple of failed comeback bids Carpenter decided to retire following last season. The 38-year-old Cy Young winner won 95 games in nine seasons with the Cardinals and while he was an excellent pitcher in his peak years, the Cardinals had realized a return was unlikely since before the 2013 season.
Traded David Freese and Fernando Salas to the Angels for Peter Bourjos and Randal Grichuk.
Freese is heading into his age-31 season in 2014 and with the emergence of Matt Carpenter and the arrival of prospect Kolten Wong there simply wasn't going to be playing time available for Freese. The Cardinals will take a chance on a high-risk, high-reward player in Bourjos and hope he hits well enough to play regularly while providing an upgrade over Jon Jay. He's a great defensive center fielder, but the Cardinals' outfield is crowded, and if he doesn't hit well prospects Oscar Taveras and Stephen Piscotty will be waiting for an opportunity, not to mention the competition he'll be facing from Jay. Fernando Salas will welcome the change of scenery that Anaheim has to offer and prospect Randal Grichuk should provide excellent organizational depth and could eventually develop into a quality major leaguer.
Signed free agent Jhonny Peralta (Tigers).
The Cardinals addressed their biggest and longest-running weakness by adding Peralta. The 31-year-old is coming off an excellent season in which he hit over .300 (448 PA's) for the first time in his career and he should continue to benefit from hitting in one of the leagues' best lineups. There is plenty of risk with Peralta, who will be 32 in May and is starting his 12th major league season, given that he is returning from a season-ending PED suspension after admitting to steroid use in the spring of 2012.
Signed free agent Mark Ellis (Dodgers).
Ellis will serve as a Plan B and infield depth for the Cardinals at second base, with prospect Kolten Wong expected to take the starting job for Opening Day. With Matt Carpenter switching to third base full time the Cardinals will be relying on Wong to hit right away, something he didn't do in very limited time (62 PA's) in the final weeks of 2013 (.153/.194/.169). If Wong isn't ready or if he fails to impress, Ellis could eventually takeover at second base and may end up being a quality fantasy option in a strong Cardinals lineup, even at age 37. Wong owners in leagues with deep benches should strongly consider adding Ellis as a backup plan.
Signed Pat Neshek (Athletics) to a minor league deal.
Neshek has thrown more than 25 innings as a reliever just three times in seven seasons as a major leaguer and will have his hands full trying to crack deep Cardinals' bullpen. It should be noted, however, that 2013 was Neshek's best season since 2007 and his unusual side-armed delivery could find a home in St. Louis.
1. Matt Carpenter, 3B
2. Yadier Molina, C
3. Matt Holliday, LF
4. Allen Craig, RF
5. Matt Adams, 1B
6. Jhonny Peralta, SS
7. Kolten Wong, 2B
8. Peter Bourjos, CF
This projected lineup is far from a sure thing as spring training could shake things up dramatically. Bourjos may lead off or lose his starting job altogether to Oscar Taveras or Jon Jay. Carpenter or Peralta may hit second, but even Taveras has a small but real chance to hit there. As mentioned previously, Ellis could crack the lineup if Wong fails to impress. The Cardinals should be able to keep everyone well rested throughout the season given their tremendous depth and the defensive versatility of guys like Craig and Carpenter.
1. Adam Wainwright
2. Michael Wacha
3. Shelby Miller
4. Lance Lynn
5. Jaime Garcia / Joe Kelly / Carlos Martinez
Wainwright will again anchor a strong, but young Cardinals pitching staff in 2014. Wacha's impressive end to 2013 has vaulted him to the second spot in the rotation and he will be expected to continue where he left off. The final spot in the rotation is up from grabs, but with Garcia fully healthy heading into spring training it's likely his to lose. That's not to say he won't face some serious competition, Kelly was solid in 2013 across 15 starts for the Cardinals, going 9-3 while posting 2.28 ERA and a 1.333 WHIP. Kelly's advanced stats (4.19 xFIP, 82.4% LOB%) and low strikeout numbers (5.73 K/9) mean he'll likely end up in a long-relief and spot-starter role.
Martinez, the organization's highly-touted young right-hander, will also be given a shot at the rotation this spring and certainly has the talent to lock up a spot. Martinez possesses the highest ceiling of any of the Cardinals' young pitchers, including Wacha, he has a tremendous fastball that can hit triple digits and averages nearly 98 mph, he has displayed a ton of movement on his slider, while also featuring a plus changeup.
Closer: Trevor Rosenthal will start the 2014 season as the full-time closer for the Cardinals, and could very likely be a top-five closer this season. Rosenthal only finished 15 games in 2013 and wasn't handed the closing duties until mid-September. Still, he posted a terrific 2.34 xFIP in 75.1 innings pitched while striking out 108. Only Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen had more strikeouts among relievers than Rosenthal last season. With Jason Motte, an experienced closer, expected to return from Tommy John surgery some time in May, Rosenthal will have to pitch well at the outset. His leash should be relatively long, but the Cardinals do have other options in Motte and darkhorse Carlos Martinez, if Martinez ends up staying in the bullpen.
Key Bullpen Members: The Cardinals' bullpen had a rough first month of the season in 2013 before finally turning the ball over to Edward Mujica. The team's incredible depth played a huge role in assembling their bullpen for 2013 where they used 18 pitchers in relief during the season.
If Jason Motte can comeback fully healthy he is the best candidate to rack up holds and work the eighth inning ahead of Rosenthal. Another option is Seth Maness who, after being called up in early May last season, was a key member of the Cardinals' bullpen. Maness doesn't get a ton of strikeouts (35 in 62 innings in 2013) but is an extreme groundball pitcher (68.4% GB%) and his xFIP of 3.13 from last season indicates he's a quality bullpen arm.
Expect Randy Choate to continue his role as a lefty specialist out of the bullpen in 2014, Choate is rarely asked to get more than an out or two (he faced just 141 batters in 64 appearances in 2013). Kevin Siegrist was another gem that provided more than expected for the Cardinals after a June callup. The 23-year-old lefty used his four-seam and two-seam fastball 85.2 percent of the time in 2013 while racking up 50 strikeouts in 39.2 innings pitched. Siegrist didn't allow a run until his 13th appearance, and only surrendered two earned runs all season, good for a ridiculous 0.45 ERA. His xFIP of 3.00 likely means he'll come back to earth in 2014, but he still should be an excellent member of what looks to be a very good Cardinals bullpen.
Notes of Import, Fantasy and Otherwise:
Will Oscar Taveras finally arrive?
Yes. It might not be as soon as fantasy owners are hoping, though. In almost any other organization Taveras would be an Opening Day roster lock, but he's going to need a dominant spring training and a little help to pull that off in St. Louis. The front office has indicated that the center field job will be a competition between Peter Bourjos and Jon Jay, and while Taveras has played mostly center field his last couple seasons in the minors he will need to show he can handle the demands of the position in spring training to throw his hat in the ring for the starting job.
Fantasy owners need to be patient with the youngster, as scouts still praise his elite hit tool, and the consensus top-five prospect in baseball is still just 21 years old. It may not be as soon as some had hoped, and it may not even happen in 2014, but Taveras has the potential to be one of the game's best hitters sooner rather than later.
Can Matt Carpenter be a top fantasy third baseman?
Owners that took a shot on Carpenter in 2013 were handsomely rewarded as he was considered just a utility player before taking over second base full time to start last season, a position he had very limited experience at after logging just 18 innings at the position prior to 2013.
Carpenter may not be able to replicate the .318 batting average, which was tied to a .359 BABIP, but with Carpenter settling in at third base, his natural position, expect the 28-year-old to be a borderline top-five fantasy third baseman in 2014. Carpenter probably won't provide a lot of power, but as long as he's hitting near .300 and in one of the top two spots of the Cardinals' lineup he should generate a ton of runs and at-bats for his fantasy owners.
Is Michael Wacha for real?
That depends, is he a future ace? Probably not. But he is capable of being an excellent number two or three starter with many quality years ahead of him. The 22-year-old only has nine starts under his belt and he'll have to display an ability to adjust as hitters will adjust to him. Wacha struck out 65 batters in 64.2 innings last season and his strikeout rate will likely fall over the course of a full season.
There will be more of a learning curve in 2014 for Wacha and he probably won't be a top-20 starting pitcher by season's end, despite being drafted as one in many early drafts. He is significantly more valuable in dynasty and keeper leagues as he could be a big part of the Cardinals' rotation for the next decade.
Where to start? The Cardinals may have more strengths than any other organization in baseball - a true ace in Adam Wainwright, an excellent lineup of dangerous hitters, a ton of depth at the major league level, arguably the best all-around catcher in the game in Yadier Molina, and youth. So much youth. Michael Wacha, Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal, Carlos Martinez, Kolten Wong, Matt Adams, Joe Kelly, and Kevin Siegrist are all 25 or younger and will contribute in significant ways to the success of the Cardinals this season. Despite the fact that they will graduate Taveras, Wong, and Martinez this season, the Cardinals will still boast one of the top farms in all of baseball, a credit to what a great job general manager John Mozeliak and the rest of the Cardinals' front office has done.
There's not much to choose from here. The Cardinals addressed last year's glaring weakness by signing Jhonny Peralta to play shortstop. Their center field situation is still being sorted out between Oscar Taveras, Jon Jay and Peter Bourjos, but they seemed to handle a similar situation with Matt Adams quite well last season. Youth could be considered a weakness, but most of the young players were a big part of the Cardinals' World Series run last season. They do play in a difficult division, and Pittsburgh looks like a true contender. All that said, there's not much for weaknesses, and the Cardinals should be very good for years to come.
Rising: Matt Adams will get a full-time job this season after smashing 17 home runs and 14 doubles in 319 plate appearances last season. The most encouraging part of last season's numbers was what he did in September when he logged 21 of his 63 starts and posted a .315/.344/.609 line with eight home runs. If Adams gets the at-bats in 2014 he could make a serious run at 30 home runs, but the Cardinals' crowded outfield could cut into his playing time with Allen Craig still in line to get the occasional start at first base. There's a lot to like with Adams in the heart of the Cardinals' lineup and he could end up providing significant value in the middle rounds of drafts.
Declining: The Cardinals addressed their shortstop problem by adding Jhonny Peralta, but at 31 it may be a problem again soon. Peralta is coming off a PED suspension but not before hitting .303 in 448 plate appearances thanks to BABIP of .374, nearly 100 points higher than in 2012 when Peralta hit .239. The Cardinals' strong lineup should be able to hide some of Peralta's decline, but expect his 2014 numbers to look more like his 2012 season and less like last year's.
Sleeper: Carlos Martinez and Jason Motte both have sleeper potential for 2014. Martinez is a long shot to grab the last spot in the starting rotation, and if he does he could take it and run, he's capable of racking up a ton of strikeouts along the way.
Motte is hoping to return in April, but May is the most likely scenario, where he will likely takeover as the main setup man for Trevor Rosenthal. When he does return he would be first in line for the closer's role should Rosenthal struggle or is injured. In 2012, Motte saved 42 games while striking out 86 in 72 innings pitched and posting a 2.75 ERA and 0.92 WHIP. If he can return to that form and gets another shot at closing he can easily become a top-five closer again. Martinez could also find his way into the closer's role at some point this season if Rosenthal struggles and Motte can't return to form. He certainly has the arsenal to excel in a late-inning bullpen role if the Cards choose to use him in relief again.
Supersleeper: As mentioned previously, if Kolten Wong doesn't run with the second base job, Mark Ellis could step into a full-time role and be a quality fantasy second baseman, even at the bottom of the Cardinals' lineup. Stephen Piscotty was the Cardinals' first-round pick in 2012 out of Stanford. In 637 at-bats between High-A and Double-A, Piscotty posted a .295/.362/.458 line with 19 home runs and 14 stolen bases last season. Piscotty also boasts the best outfield arm of any Cardinals prospect. He needs a lot more help than Ellis to crack the Cardinals' lineup in 2014, but at 23 Piscotty may be ready to contribute at the major league level.
Oscar Taveras, Carlos Martinez, Kolten Wong, Stephen Piscotty - See above.
Marco Gonzales, LHP - The Cardinals' first-round pick in 2013 from Gonzaga University, Gonzales boasts one of the better changeups in the minors and should move through the minors quickly. After posting a 2.70 ERA and 1.11 WHIP in his first 23.1 innings as a pro, Gonzales will get a chance to showcase his talents during spring training as a non-roster invitee for the Cardinals.
Alex Reyes, RHP - At age 18 Reyes had his first full year at pro ball for the Cardinals, going 6-4 with a 3.39 ERA and striking out 68 in 58.1 innings across 12 starts for rookie-class Johnson City. The talented righty is already considered one of better pitching prospects in baseball and could be a top-five pitching prospect as soon as 2015. If everything clicks for Reyes he could be a very good No. 2 starter.
Carson Kelly, 3B - Kelly is just 19 but already has two years of professional baseball under his belt after being drafted in the second round of the 2012 draft. He's had his struggles but he's also younger than most of the players he's playing with. At the very least, he's a young player to track in 2014, especially as the Cardinals give him a look behind the plate to see if he can handle the defensive rigors of becoming a catcher.