Thursday, February 21, 2013

2013 NL Central Preview: St. Louis Cardinals

by: Scott Eddy
Staff Writer

It was another magical campaign for the Cardinals last year. Once again left for dead by many in mid-season after battling injuries, St. Louis took advantage of the newly added second wild card spot and the infield fly heard round the world to shock Atlanta for a spot in the “second round” of the post-season. The Cards kept their run alive with another storybook, miracle ending to the NLDS to knock off Washington with the type of heroics that left many recalling their improbable World Series of one year prior. Finally, though, the magic ran out in the NLCS as a red-hot Giants squad ended the Cardinals’ run one step shy of another pennant.

Still, it wasn’t a bad season for a team that lost both its manager and best player the previous off-season. The Cardinals proved that there was indeed life after Albert Pujols and Tony LaRussa and with a fairly stocked major league roster along with a farm system full of young talent, there’s little indication the Cards are going anywhere any time soon.

It was quiet offseason this time around in St. Louis with very little in the way of splashy additions. There have, however, been a couple of notable losses – particularly to the starting rotation.

A prime example of the Cardinals’ magic of recent years, the once mediocre Kyle Lohse, who transformed into an ace over the past two years, is gone. Lohse posted a 30-11 record with a 3.13 ERA the past two seasons and priced himself out of St. Louis. Though free agency didn’t go quite as Lohse may have planned as training camps opened without Lohse finding a new home, the Cardinals balked at the asking price and let him walk following the season. Earlier this month it was also revealed that veteran Chris Carpenter, limited to just a handful of starts last year, would likely miss the entire season, and perhaps may have his career ended by nerve issues in his right shoulder and neck. Those are two heavy blows to what has been one of the NL’s best rotations in recent years.

The losses of Carpenter and Lohse leave the rotation with question marks. Adam Wainwright looked like his old self at the end of last season (14-13, 3.94) after a lost season due to Tommy John surgery in 2011 and a bumpy start to 2012 while still working his way back. After that, though, things become less certain. Jake Westbrook was much better in his second season as a Cardinal last year (13-11, 3.97), but was fairly awful the year before with a 4.66 ERA and 1.53 WHIP in 2011 and at 35 years old should be on the downside of his career.

The coming Cardinals’ youth movement begins to take full shape in the rotation, however, and allowed the team the ability to balk at Lohse’s contract demands.
Lance Lynn (18-7, 3.78) was outstanding in his first year as a starter at the major league level and certainly lived up to his billing as a hot prospect through the minor leagues. Right-hander Shelby Miller is one of baseball’s top prospects at 23-years old and looked outstanding in his cup of coffee in the bigs last season. Also back is lefty Jaime Garcia. Injury questions plague Garcia, but when healthy he has top of the rotation talent. He finished 7-7 with a 3.92 ERA in just 121.2 innings a year ago after injury issues.

Gone from the lineup are Lance Berkman, who teased retirement before signing with Texas, and the underrated Skip Schumaker, who was traded to the Dodgers. Not exactly a Pujols-sized hole to fill this season, but notable losses none the less, although the team was without Berkman for all but 32 games last season as well as the veteran struggled through injury. The outfield of Matt Holliday, Jon Jay and Carlos Beltran stands up against any other in the NL, although Beltran is always an injury risk given past history.

The infield is solid if unspectacular with World Series hero David Freese at third and Rafael Furcal holds down short. A year after looking completely washed up in Los Angeles, Furcal was a key to the World Series title in 2011, but fell to .264/.325/.346 last season and is another injury risk at 35 years old having played in just 121 games last year. Though he hit .306 in the NLDS, Daniel Descalso showed his true colors offensively last year (.227/.303/.324) and could have a tough time holding off Matt Carpenter at second base. Allen Craig holds down first base and when healthy, all he does is hit (.307/.354/.522). Not much to say behind the plate as love him or hate him, Yadier Molina is one of the two best catchers in the league, hands down.

The bullpen had its issues at times last year, recording a 3.90 ERA, a mark that was 20th in baseball. There’s certainly talent here, though, and last year’s unit returns in tact for the most part with the only significant loss being Brian Fuentes. Newcomer Randy Choate joins Marc Rzepcynski from the left side and Jason Motte was signed to a two-year deal to return to closer’s duties after 42 saves a year ago. Guys such as Mitchell Boggs, Edward Mujica and Fernando Salas provide the Cardinals with some stability in setup roles while some questions will need to be answered in spring training. Starter Joe Kelly could shift to the pen and youngster Trevor Rosenthal might be an option to start the season.

There’s little question St. Louis has enough talent at the major league level to compete for the NL Central crown again in 2013, but where the Cardinals really shine is in the minor leagues. Ranked by prospect guru John Sickels as the best farm system in baseball, there are strengths at nearly every position. Miller could be an impact rotation arm this season and there’s much buzz about outfielder Oscar Taveras. Seen as perhaps a top three prospect in the game, the 20-year old Taveras might not have much if any impact this year, but his .321/.380/.572 line with 23 home runs and 94 RBI at Double-A Springfield last season have earned him an invite to major league spring training. There are also multiple interesting pitching prospects that could be ready during the year.

Key Additions: Randy Choate (signed as a free agent), Ty Wigginton (signed as a free agent), Ronny Cedeno (signed as a free agent).

Key Losses: Kyle Lohse (free agent), Chris Carpenter (injury), Lance Berkman (signed with TEX), Brian Fuentes (free agent), Skip Schumaker (traded to LAD).

Youngsters to watch: RHP Shelby Miller, OF Oscar Taveras, 1B Matt Adams, RHP Trevor Rosenthal

Manager: Mike Matheny (88-74, 2nd season)
2012 Payroll: $110,300,862 (9th highest in MLB)
Avg. Home Attendance: 40,272 (6th MLB)

2012 Records:
Overall: 88-74
Home: 50-31
Away: 38-43
Vs. NL Central: 45-32

Notable 2012 Stat Rankings
Runs – 765 (2nd NL)
HR – 159 (7th NL)
AVG – .271(2nd NL)
SB – 91 (13th NL)
ERA – 3.71 (6th NL)
BAA – .255 (10th NL)
WHIP – 1.27 (6th NL)
Errors – 107 (6th most NL)

Projected Lineup
SS Rafael Furcal
RF Carlos Beltran
LF Matt Holliday
1B Allen Craig
3B David Freese
CF Jon Jay
C Yadier Molina
2B Daniel Descalso / Matt Carpenter

Projected Rotation
RHP Adam Wainwright
RHP Jake Westbrook
LHP Jaime Garcia
RHP Lance Lynn
RHP Shelby Miller

RHP Edward Mujica (SU)
RHP Mitchell Boggs (SU)
RHP Jason Motte (CL)

Best case scenario: There’s certainly a scenario where everything comes together again for the Cardinals. They’re a team that will scare anyone come playoff time in the right circumstances and can produce runs in bunches all year long. Beltran, Holliday and Craig are bash brothers in the middle of an impressive lineup that blends average and power abilities and anywhere up to six guys can help fantasy rosters across the world with great offensive numbers. The losses of Carpenter and Lohse are offset by the emergence of Miller and the return to Cy Young form of a fully healthy Wainwright. The bullpen led by Motte at the end is among the most reliable in the game. Taveras amazes right out of the gate and forces his way into the lineup. Final record: 97-65 (1st place, NL Central).

Worst case scenario: There are simply just too many injuries to overcome. With a roster of guys like Beltran, Craig and Garcia holding down key roles, the likelihood of injuries knocking this team out of the playoff picture is too large to ignore. The young pitchers hit bumps in the road – Miller struggles as a rookie, Lynn regresses and the talent pool behind them in the minors doesn’t produce someone this season to replace what’s been lost. Furcal continues to decline and with Craig fighting injury issues at first, the infield quickly becomes riddled with holes. Final record: 79-83, (3rd place, NL Central).

Bottom line, there’s a lot to like about the Cardinals both now and in the future. Well, not really to “like” if you’re a Reds fan and this is your heated rival, but you get the point. The best case scenario is far more likely than the worst, although injuries could certainly knock the Cardinals’ train off the tracks. At the end of the day, there’s little question they’re the top competition to stop Cincinnati from returning to the top of the division.

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