This article is part of our MLB Team Previews series.
Cardinals' Team Preview: Still Really Good
To the surprise of no one, the St. Louis Cardinals are still good. While they did make a splash early in the offseason when they moved Shelby Miller for Jason Heyward, the Cardinals had a relatively quiet winter, heading into 2015 a better and somehow deeper team than they were a year earlier.
St. Louis won the NL Central again in 2014 and advanced to the NLCS for the fourth consecutive season before falling to Giants in five games. Yet in a year that they won their division and 90 games, it seemed to be a forgettable and frustrating season for the Cardinals. This is an organization that has set high expectations thanks to an unrivaled run of success the last 15 years. Here are some numbers to illustrate their dominance since the year 2000: 14 winning seasons, seven NL Central crowns, nine NLCS appearances, four World Series berths, and two World Series titles. That's good.
Still, 2014 felt like an off year. Their team leader, Yadier Molina, struggled with injuries for most of the second half of the season and missed the final three games of the NLCS. Their pitching staff was plagued with injuries and inconsistency. Only three pitchers hit the 30 start mark, while eight different pitchers had 10 starts or fewer. The most consistent arm in their bullpen was the 33-year old sidearmer Pat Neshek, brought in on a minor-league contract weeks before the start of spring training. He departed in the offseason, along with one of their three starters who managed to stay in the rotation the entire season, Shelby Miller.
On the flipside, you don't win 90 games without some positives and the Cardinals certainly had a few. Lance Lynn turned in his best year as a pro in his third full season within the St. Louis rotation. Trevor Rosenthal proved capable of handling the closer role. Kolten Wong emerged in the second half of the season as a top 15 MLB second baseman. Jon Jay ran away with the starting center field job in what was probably his last chance to do so. Adam Wainwright remained dominant. Free agent signing Jhonny Peralta turned in one of the best seasons in Cardinals' history for a shortstop.
Despite struggling to find consistent healthy pitchers for the back end of the rotation, the Cardinals moved on from Shelby Miller, acquiring Jason Heyward and Jordan Walden in the process. Heyward will provide a significant upgrade in right field after the Cardinals turned in the fourth lowest WAR (-1.6) in all of baseball from the position last season. And after acquiring John Lackey at least year's deadline, the Cardinals will let Carlos Martinez and Jaime Garcia battle for the final rotation spot. Walden strengthens a bullpen that might be the most improved area of the club from last season, which makes this Cardinals team more complete than in seasons past.
As with any club, injuries can quickly change a season's outlook, but the Cardinals are positioned better than most to deal with any injury or performance issues during the season. That, along with the overall quality of their top players, and maintaining the same core group of contributors that have led the team in seasons past should put the Cardinals in the thick of it come October.
Passing of Oscar Taveras.
Baseball lost a young man with an extremely bright future when Taveras died in a car accident while home in his native Domincan Republic. Taveras was already a fan favorite in St. Louis and around baseball and will be sorely missed.
Lost A.J. Pierzynski (Braves), Pat Neshek (Astros), Jason Motte (Cubs), Justin Masterson (Red Sox), Mark Ellis (Free Agent), Eric Fornataro (Nationals), Jorge Rondon (Rockies), Shane Robinson (Twins), Daniel Descalso (Rockies) via free agency.
It was another relatively quiet offseason for the Cardinals in terms of players leaving the club. Pierzynksi and Masterson were both acquired this past summer and neither provided any significant help during the final months of the season. Motte was underwhelming and unable to return to his pre-injury form. Ellis exited after an extremely disappointing season for the Cardinals, one in which he was supposed to compete for the starting second baseman job and at the very least provide solid depth. He has since retired. Fornataro, Rondon, Robinson, and Descalso were all bench or organizational depth players.
The only noticeable loss is Neshek, who resurrected his career in 2014 after receiving a spring training invite from the Cardinals last winter. He'll likely get an opportunity to close with the Astros.
The "change of scenery" excuse is used often when any young but somewhat disappointing player is traded, but both Miller and Heyward seem to fit the bill pretty well for players who could use a fresh start. Both have very similar careers thus far, big time prospects, both hitting the MLB at a young age (21 and 20) and both showing little improvement since their debuts. Atlanta felt they would be unable to keep Heyward long-term so they moved him for Miller, who is a year younger and has several more years of team control.
The St. Louis rotation should be largely unaffected as the Cardinals have several young arms jumping at the chance to get in the rotation. Miller posted a fairly pedestrian 3.74 ERA and 127 strikeouts in 183 innings in 2014. Heyward is still just 25 years old, and will provide an immediate boost to the Cardinals' outfield defense after being rated one of the best defenders in baseball last season. He's a career .262/.351/.384 hitter and will provide the Cardinals lineup with some pop and speed. Mike Matheny has said he plans on hitting Heyward out of the 2 spot in the order which should make him a solid fantasy option in all formats.
Jenkins was a big time prospect when he first joined the Cardinals but has failed to develop as quickly as some expected. He's still 22 years old and will likely start the year in Double-A for the Braves in what may be a make-or-break year for his career outlook.
Walden has shown he can be a terrific late-innings guy for an MLB teams' bullpen as he's delivered 196.1 innings as a reliever the past four years, posting a solid 3.16 ERA while fanning more than a batter per inning.
Signed free agent Matt Belisle (Rockies)
The 34-year old righty comes to St. Louis after having spent his last six seasons in Colorado. He's coming off a season where he posted a 4.87 ERA and an ugly 1.438 WHIP; however, his FIP of 3.74 is a bit more encouraging. The Cardinals have done well in recent years in bringing in quality relievers at a low cost. They have to be concerned with his dip in strikeouts last year, down almost a full K/9 from his career rate.
Signed free agent Mark Reynolds (Brewers)
Reynolds is coming off an ugly year that saw him bat just .196, but 22 of his 74 hits cleared the fence. It appears he'll play mostly against lefties while providing a power bat off the bench the rest of the time. It's unlikely he'll provide much use to fantasy owners outside of deeper daily start leagues. The Cardinals wanted some power off the bench and now they have it, with the added bonus that he can play both the corner infield positions.
Signed free agent Carlos Villanueva (Cubs) to a minor league deal.
The depth of relievers on the open market this winter led to some quality arms having to take deals far below what they were anticipating. In 2014 the Cardinals brought in Pat Neshek on a minor league deal and they were rewarded handsomely. They'll hope to get the same level of return from Carlos Villanueva. As a solid long-reliever the Cardinals will hope the Villanueva can be the answer to some of the spot-start issues they've had the past couple of seasons. With a strong showing this spring he should be able to make the opening day roster and provide a bit more consistency in roles for other members of the Cardinals' MLB and Triple-A pitching staffs.
Projected Lineup vs. RHP
Projected Lineup vs. LHP
The Cardinals lineup is a bit easier to project heading into 2015 with no real position battles evident. Jon Jay clearly won the starting CF job in 2014, as did Kolten Wong at 2B. Reynolds should get most of the starts at 1B against left-handed pitching. Who is in the lineup is simple, but the order could get shuffled around some. Matheny has stated he plans on batting Heyward in the 2nd spot of the lineup, but Wong's career numbers are much better than Heyward's against lefties so it's possible he could sneak into that spot. Then again a hot spring could land Wong in the 2nd spot no matter the pitcher. The Cardinals don't have a ton of pop in the bottom half of the lineup, so keeping an effective table setter in the 2nd spot with Wong could help balance the lineup.
Matheny prefers stability in his lineups and with positional roles seemingly defined heading into 2015 he could send out the same lineup no matter the handedness of the pitcher, with the only exception being Reynolds slotting in for Adams against lefties.
The more things change the more they stay the same as Adam Wainwright again anchors a strong Cardinals staff. While he'll turn 33 in 2015 he hasn't logged the kind of innings you'd see from other aces his age and is a smart enough pitcher that his decline - while almost certainly coming soon - should be gradual. Even though he may not deliver on his ace reputation this year, fantasy owners should be comfortable knowing his floor is still very high.
Wacha and Lynn will again slot in behind Wainwright this year. Concerns about Wacha's health are warranted but are also probably overstated as he looks to complete his first full season as a pro. Meanwhile Lance Lynn delivered the best season of his young career in 2014 and has developed into a prototypical mid-rotation innings eater, throwing 582 innings over the last three seasons while going 48-27 with a 3.48 ERA, 1.297 WHIP and 559 strikeouts. He's not the most exciting name to have in your fantasy rotation, but he has consistently delivered excellent value with a ton of innings, a mid-3.00 ERA and nearly a strikeout every inning.
John Lackey will step into the 4th spot of the rotation after being acquired from Boston last July. He'll be 36 in 2015 and looks to be somewhat of a poor man's Lance Lynn. The Cardinals should be good again this year, and if he stays healthy he could rack up the wins while approaching 200 innings and 160+ strikeouts to go with an ERA around 4.00.
Finally, the fifth spot in the rotation will likely come down to Carlos Martinez and Jaime Garcia. Both battled with Joe Kelly last spring before Garcia was hurt and the Cardinals ultimately chose Kelly. Garcia's health is a major question mark and Martinez has to be viewed as the favorite after last spring's dominant performance in the rotation. It's obvious that Martinez wants to be a starter and not a reliever but it seems as though the Cardinals would prefer to keep him in a setup spot. Garcia is a much riskier play in fantasy as it's far from guaranteed that he'll stay healthy much less win the rotation spot. Prospect Marco Gonzales is a long-shot to grab the spot but is a name worth watching.
Closer: Trever Rosenthal
Rosenthal begins his second year as the Cardinals' closer and won't turn 25 until the end of May. He had some rough patches in 2014 but still managed to post a 3.20 ERA. His 1.41 WHIP is concerning and indicates that he had his fair share of struggles, but the fact that he held on to the job all year is a promising sign that he'll further improve in 2015. Fantasy owners should expect a fairly high floor from Rosenthal and know that he has the ability to be a top three closer going forward.
Key Bullpen Members
The Cardinals have seemingly improved their bullpen heading into 2015 with the additions of Jordan Walden, Matt Belisle and Carlos Villanueva. Youngster Sam Tuivailala, along with the return of either Marco Gonzales or Carlos Martinez to a late inning role, should give the Cardinals one of the better bullpens in the National League.
That depth won't help fantasy league owners looking for holds but it should keep everyone rested and help deliver more wins to the Cardinals' starting pitchers. Seth Maness, Randy Choate, Sam Freeman, and Kevin Siegrist all figure to play similar roles as they did in 2014. It's possible the Cardinals will move on from Choate if they can find a trade partner as he's owed $3 million in 2015. With the depth their bullpen has they may not want to carry a pitcher who usually only throws to lefties.
Will Jason Heyward take a step forward in St. Louis?
There is certainly reason for optimism. Heyward is still young - just 25 - and the Cardinals are a talented team who figure to be one of the best in baseball again this season. Those factors alone have to buoy the expectations for Heyward who'll likely be sandwiched between consistent, successful players in the lineup. Some other reasons for optimism include a career low strikeout rate in 2014 of 15.1 percent, the second straight year Heyward has lowered his strikeout rate. Heyward also kept his walk rate over 10 percent for the second consecutive season after a career low 8.9 percent in 2012. It's certainly reasonable to expect an improved offensive year for Heyward and a 20/90/80 line is well within reach.
Can Carlos Martinez be a solid starting pitcher?
Absolutely. It's unclear if he'll get the opportunity, but Martinez has made it obvious he wants to be a starter and he seems more comfortable in that role. He was lights out last spring training, but it wasn't enough to land the starting job as it became clear the Cardinals preferred having Martinez in a late innings role. Since he's unlikely to close he obviously has a ton more value in fantasy as a starting pitcher, so for most owners he'll come with some risk as the decision on the Cardinals' final rotation spot likely won't be made until fairly close to the season. If Martinez does win the spot he'll come with a ton of upside and should deliver nearly a strikeout per inning.
Both Molina and Peralta will turn 33 this season and it's fairly clear they're in the decline phase of their career, despite Peralta coming off a very good season in his first year as a Cardinal. There's no reason to think that Peralta won't provide similar value in 2015 as he did last season. While it's likely to come with a low average, he should deliver 15 HR's and 70+ RBI again in 2015.
Molina on the other hand is much tougher to forecast as he's only two and three years removed from his best seasons as a pro. Since he plays such a physically demanding position, it's very possible he may never again get near those numbers (.317/.366/.489 in 2012-2013) and his 110 games in 2014 was his lowest number since his rookie year in 2004. If he can remain healthy there's no reason to think he can't be a top ten catcher in 2015 pretty easily, but a top three or even top five season at the position may be out of the question.
The Cardinals have some solid young talent and great depth throughout the team so they should challenge for another NL Central crown since they are one of the few MLB teams with legitimate World Series aspirations. Their pitching staff from the rotation to the bullpen is deep and talented and should be the biggest strength of their team in 2015. There may be some questions with their lineup (Can Jon Jay and Kolten Wong contribute like they did in the second half of 2014? How will Yadier bounce back? What about the decline of Holliday and Peralta?). Still, it's a solid strong lineup from top to bottom and while it may lack the high-end power of a traditional top-notch lineup, it should still be very good.
Age. The Cardinals' best producers and leaders are all on the wrong side of 30 and while the Cardinals have solid depth and a plethora of youth ready for a shot, they'll still need their veteran leaders to stay healthy and productive if they want to compete into October. Peralta and Molina are both 32, Wainwright is 33, Holliday is 35, and Lackey is 36. That's a significant portion of their rotation and everyday lineup.
Rising:Kolten Wong - Wong probably won't be a sneaky pick in most leagues this spring as he's rising up draft boards fast, and with good reason. After his final demotion in late June, Wong came back up and hit .262 over the final three months and 244 at-bats of the season, belting 11 home runs and tallying 21 extra base hits to go with 11 stolen bases. He'll need to draw more walks if he wants to move into the top half of the lineup as indicated by his .292 OBP in 2014. Still, there's a lot to like about a 24 year old second baseman that can go 20/20 and approach 100 runs scored. Wong has proven he's capable of adjusting and there's no reason to think his OBP won't improve in 2015, although it may still be in the low .300's. Probably the most encouraging note is that Wong will have the starting job from the outset with no veteran presence looming behind him.
Declining:Matt Holliday - He's been the picture of consistency the last 10 seasons, averaging 557 at-bats, 26 home runs and a 100 RBI in that span. At 35 there's no doubt he's in decline, but he's still declining at a very slow and consistent rate and he should be in line for another solid season in left field for the Cardinals. He'll probably be given a few more days off than the six he received in 2014 but he's a good bet for 20 HR's, 80 runs and 80 RBI again this year which is a very good floor from a fantasy and real-life perspective. Holliday's contract with the Cardinals runs through 2016 and after that he could be aided by a switch to the AL where he can DH. Holliday certainly seems like the type of player that, with enough rest, could be productive with the bat even as he approaches 40.
Sleeper:Marco Gonzales - Another in the long line of quality pitchers the Cardinals have developed in their system, Gonzales looked very promising in his MLB debut in 2014. After being roughed up in his first three MLB starts early last summer, he was sent down before returning again in late August. He bounced back and forth between the bullpen and the rotation over the final month of the season but looked very good in both roles, and especially good as a starter. Over that final month Gonzales threw 20.2 innings and posted a 2.18 ERA with a WHIP just over one while striking out 21 batters. He held opponents to an absurd .153/.262/.278 line but that was helped by an extremely low .180 BABIP. There's a lot to like here for Gonzales and he'll head into 2015 the same way Carlos Martinez did 2014 - looking like a long-shot to land the final rotation spot but probably destined for a late innings role as he continues to develop. Still, the upside is there and hard to ignore.
Supersleeper:Stephen Piscotty - Arguably the Cardinals' top prospect this year, Piscotty has performed at every level of the minors since being drafted out of Stanford as a 21-year old. In 500 at-bats for triple-A Memphis last year, Piscotty hit .298/.364/.440 while hitting 41 extra base hits and stealing 11 bases. He also struck out just 61 times while drawing 43 walks and has struck out just 146 times in a career 1,226 minor league at-bats. There's no doubt he can hit and seems like one of the safer bets for an easy transition to the big leagues. However, the ceiling is limited and he's probably not going to be a superstar, but he could easily be a solid MLB player who hits .290 with 20 HR power and some speed over the next decade-plus and that's nothing to sneeze at. Right now he's blocked by Heyward and Holliday in the Cardinals' corner outfield positions but Heyward's contract is up after this year and Holliday's is up after 2016. If Piscotty keeps hitting and Heyward struggles, it's not unrealistic to think they'll move Heyward this summer and hand Piscotty the job. At the very least he has to be considered the favorite for the starting right fielder job in 2016.
Alexander Reyes, RHP - Reyes has flashed some truly special stuff in the lower levels of the Cardinals farm system, but he's also looked very average at times. He'll start 2015 in High-A and try to develop better control and improved command, something he struggled with often last year. At 20-years old he's still younger than most of the guys he's pitching to and has plenty of time to develop those elite tools. He could be a dominant starter one day near the top of a rotation or he could end up a bullpen guy, but it will likely be several more years before that becomes clear.
Rob Kaminsky, LHP - The Cardinals' first round pick in 2013 is on the same timeline as Reyes and will be moving to High-A to start 2015. Kaminsky doesn't have the elite fastball that Reyes does but he is a fairly smart pitcher and has two very good pitches with his fastball and curve. He'll have to work on developing his change if he wants to evolve into the solid mid-rotation arm he has the potential for. Kaminsky is a bit safer bet to develop into an MLB starter than Reyes, but he doesn't have as high of a ceiling either.
Charlie Tilson, CF - Tilson is a quality defender with plus speed and both skills should develop into MLB quality, but he'll need his bat to improve to ensure that he gets there. Tilson has shown some excellent progress over the past year or so, and if he can continue to adjust and improve as he moves from Double-A to Triple-A he could break into the Cardinals lineup sometime in late 2016. But it's unlikely he'll push for a full-time role until 2017 at the earliest.
Tim Cooney, LHP - Cooney is nearing the end of his minor league development and will likely see some starts for the Cardinals in 2015. At 6'3" he's a big pitcher that can throw four different pitches for strikes. He's not likely to be a big time strikeout pitcher at the MLB level but he has a good approach and knows how to mix up his offerings to keep hitters off balance. He's not going to be an elite MLB pitcher but Cooney is a pretty safe bet to make a career as a decent MLB starter at the back end of a rotation.