In 2014, it was business as usual for the St. Louis Cardinals. They won the NL Central with a 90-72 record, which was their second straight NL Central title, and then met the San Francisco Giants in the National League Championship Series. Unfortunately for the Red Birds, they came up short losing four games to one to the eventual World Series Champions.
They’ve won at least 86 games in seven straight seasons, and they’ve had a winning record in every year but one since 2000. The Cardinals have become the gold standard for how to run a Major League Baseball organization. Not only have they been one of the best teams over the past 15 years, but their fans are regarded as the best in baseball. They’ve averaged over 3 million in attendance in 16 of the past 17 seasons.
One of the biggest losses for the Cardinals in 2015 was the tragedy of Oscar Taveras. The talented prospect’s life was cut short in October last year. Because of the unfortunate circumstances, they went out and made a big trade to acquire Jason Heyward. They gave up a lot in Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins for a guy who is a free agent after the 2015 season, but Heyward could definitely be the difference maker in this lineup if he plays to his full potential.
Everything else pretty much remains the same for the Cardinals, and why would you change anything on a team that has been so successful? The Cardinals are once again the favorite to win the Central, and if the pitching stays healthy, we could easily see them in the World Series again.
The Cardinals possess one of the most complete lineups in baseball, with the only question mark being center field. To start the year, it looks like Jon Jay and Peter Bourjos will split time in center as each presents a similar skill set from opposite sides of the plate.
Matt Holliday and Heyward anchor the corner outfield spots. Holliday has been one of the most consistent outfielders over the past three seasons, playing in at least 141 games during that time with an average of .295 or better and at least 20 home runs and 90 RBI. Heyward is in a contract year, and the Cardinals hope he puts it all together before going after that big payday.
Up the middle are Jhonny Peralta and Kolton Wong. Many thought the Cardinals overpaid for Peralta last offseason, but the shortstop held up his end of the bargain hitting 21 home runs. Wong blossomed in the 2014 postseason, and many believe that was a glimpse of what’s to come. If he becomes a top-of-the-order bat, this will be one dynamic combo up the middle for years to come.
Then there’s the two Matts – Adams and Carpenter – at the infield corners. Matt Carpenter is the on-base guy Mike Matheny loves to plug at the top of the order, and Matt Adams brings the thunder with the bat. His home run against Clayton Kershaw in the NLDS is a home run Cardinals fans will remember for a long time.
Behind the plate is the best in the business in Yadier Molina. He runs a game like no other catcher in baseball, and beyond that, he delivers production at the plate. When Molina went down in the middle of last season, you could tell the Cardinals struggled without him. His presence is very important to the Cardinals’ success, especially in 2015 when they might be relying upon some young pitchers in their rotation.
The Cardinals bench might be its weakest spot — not that it’s very weak, but there is definitely room for improvement. Of course, whoever is not playing center between Jay and Bourjos will be a solid pinch runner. Mark Reynolds provides some power off the bench late in games, and Pete Kozma is the utility player. The youngster Randal Grichuk could be used as a backup outfielder and bench bat as well.
St. Louis pitching has been solid during this current run of success, but not as overly dominant as some might think. Last year, they finished with the fifth best ERA among starting pitchers in the National League at 3.42, which is the exact same number they finished 2013 with, so you can’t question their consistency.
Adam Wainwright is by far the best pitcher and ace of the staff. However, he’s dealt with various injuries over the past few seasons and again he is delayed in spring training. If everything goes right, he’s still expected to be the team’s opening day starter.
Behind Wainwright are a lot of question marks. The trade of Miller left some Cardinals fans scratching their heads as he seemed like a reliable piece of the rotation, which will now rely on some young guys and an often banged up Jamie Garcia. Carlos Martinez and Marco Gonzales are competing with Garcia for the fifth spot in the rotation, and both look like the future of the Cardinals’ staff. If Garcia is healthy, which is a big if, then you have to think he’s the man.
Lance Lynn is the most stable piece behind Wainwright, but he’s still not viewed as a number two pitcher. John Lackey was brought over from the Red Sox last year and struggled down the stretch, but the Cardinals were able to keep him at a good price as a veteran in the rotation. And then Michael Wacha remains a big question mark. If he can get over his injury problems, he has the chance to sit atop the rotation with Wainwright to give the Cardinals the 1-2 punch that is crucial come playoff time. To me, the success of the Cardinals’ starting pitching in 2015 hinges on how well Wacha can pitch, and how many times he’s able to take the mound.
The Cardinals bullpen ranked 10th in the National League last year with a 3.62 ERA, which isn’t terrible, but I’m sure it’s something they’d like to improve. In the trade for Heyward, they also picked up Jordan Walden who figures to be the eighth-inning setup man for closer Trevor Rosenthal. They have several other bullpen arms who figure to be key contributors, like Seth Maness, Randy Choate and Kevin Siegrist. Also, if Martinez loses out on a spot in the rotation, he could be moved back to the bullpen where he’s been very effective in the past.
The key may be Rosenthal, though. He was a bit frustrating to watch last year, and the leash may be short if he gets off to a bad start in 2015. He blew six saves last year and had an 3.20 ERA in 72 appearances with a 1.41 WHIP. He walked a ton of batters last year, and that’s something the Cardinals would love to see him improve in 2015 if he’s going to be the dominant closer he can be.
Opening day lineup
Matt Carpenter 3B
Jason Heyward RF
Matt Holliday LF
Jhonny Peralta SS
Yadier Molina C
Matt Adams 1B
Kolten Wong 2B
Peter Bourjos CF
The past several seasons, the Cardinals have been loaded with young talent on the farm, but now that talent has arrived at the big league level and depleted the system. The only player to make MLB.com’s Top 100 prospect list was Stephen Piscotty. The 24-year-old outfielder hit .288 in triple-A last year with nine home runs and 11 stolen bases. He was taken in the first round by the Cardinals in 2012, and he’s moved through the system quickly hitting for average everywhere he’s been. With left field and right field locked up, and the fact Piscotty hasn’t played center in the minors, it looks like he might have to wait his turn until Heyward is gone next year.
Gonzales, who is competing for a rotation spot, is the Cardinals next best prospect. He’s probably ready for the big leagues now, but if he doesn’t win a job in the rotation this spring, he’ll most likely go to triple-A to stay loose for when a spot opens up. He got his first taste of the big leagues last year and struggled at times with a 4.15 ERA, so it might be best to let the Cardinals’ 2013 first-round pick get more seasoning in triple-A.
Alex Reyes is another arm in the Cardinals system drawing some praise. They 20-year-old right-hander struck out 137 batters in 109.1 innings in single-A last year. He’s still years away from making an impact at the major league level though. Rob Kaminsky was a high school arm the Cardinals took in the first round of the 2013 draft. At age 19, he posted a 1.88 ERA in 100.2 innings for the Cardinals’ single-A team in Peoria.
The Cardinals don’t possess the top talent they did a couple of years ago with guys like Taveras, Wong and Martinez, but they have a lot of good arms that could eventually help the big league club, or become trade pieces.
I don’t think I’d be going out on a limb saying the Cardinals are going to win the NL Central for the third straight year. Everything depends on health, but if the Cardinals avoid major injuries, they’re the clear favorite to win the Central. I think the offense hinges on how well Heyward plays, the rotation needs a healthy Wainwright and Wacha, and Rosenthal needs to have a big year out of the bullpen if the Cardinals are going back to the World Series and hoisting the trophy for the third time in 10 years.