The St. Louis Cardinals just keep on producing wins. First year Manager Mike Matheny had his team finish 88-74 overall, and 12-4 down the wire last year, which was good enough to grab the 2nd wild card spot in the National League. In classic Cards fashion they made a deep run. First, they won the play-in game over the Braves, then they took out the Nationals, the best regular season team of 2012, in a 5-game series.
The magic finally ran out against the Giants though. San Francisco rallied from a 3-1 deficit to end the Cardinals’ season. Disappointment always creeps in when a team blows a big playoff lead on the brink of a World Series berth, but the 2012 campaign for the Cards was by and large a work of art.
St. Louis received huge offensive seasons from Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran, David Freese, Allen Craig, and Yadier Molina. All 5 of these stars are back and looking to do repeat damage for a team that finished 2nd in the NL behind the Brewers in terms of runs scored.
The pitching staff worked almost exclusively without Chris Carpenter and lost Jaime Garcia for a stretch as well. But they held it together behind a nice injury rebound year from Adam Wainwright, a great season by free agent Kyle Lohse, an 18-win season by Lance Lynn, and some fine work from Jake Westbrook.
Oftentimes the Cardinals resemble more of an American League type of a roster. They are loaded with power bats and figure to be one of the game’s top offenses again this year. Their farm system, featuring future star Oscar Taveras, was recently ranked the #1 system in the game by ESPN’s Keith Law. The present and the future remain bright in STL.
Best Case Scenario for 2013
Even when things look like they might not go the Cardinals’ way, they find a way to dig deep and always make a charge. Despite having to work once again without Carpenter, leading to a more unproven rotation, St. Louis possesses the ultimate upside of a World Series champion.
Most Important Cardinals
Perhaps no other Cardinal holds as much value as Yadier Molina. He has always been one of the game’s best backstops but his last 2 seasons of offense have really set him apart from everyone at the position except for Buster Posey. Consider that in his first 7 big league seasons he hit just 41 homers. He has cranked out 36 in 2011 and ’12 alone while hitting .305 and .315 respectively. With some uncertainty brewing in the starting rotation, Molina will be asked to guide some young arms this year. Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal, and Carlos Martinez are knocking on the rotation door and all are likely to get big league paychecks at some point this summer. In Molina, the Cardinals can certainly trust.
With Carpenter out and Lohse departing, the ace burden is clearly being written back into the profile of Adam Wainwright. The big righty was 14-13 in his comeback season with a 3.94 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, and 184 K’s in 198.2 innings of work. Perhaps most encouraging was the effort Wainwright put forth in July and August. He was 2-2 in July with a 2.76 ERA and 5-1 in August with a 2.75 mark. That is the Wainwright that the Cards need in 2013. He fell off a bit in September, perhaps a little fatigued from his first season of pitching since 2010. If Wainwright can lead the charge in front of Garcia and Westbrook and Matheny plucks the right guys to fill out the rotation, it will be business as usual for St. Louis.
Potential Breakout Players
For outfielder Oscar Taveras, it’s only a matter of time. He is widely regarded as one of the top 3 prospects in the minor leagues, and the most advanced hitter by far. In 124 minor league games a season ago, he hit .321 with a .380 on-base % while blasting 37 doubles, 7 triples, and 23 homers. He drove in 94 runs and even stole 10 bases. Fortunately, the Cardinals are in no position to have to rush Taveras’ development. However, if the aging Beltran breaks down over the course of the season or Jon Jay doesn’t have a strong start, all eyes will turn to the front office and when they will tap the 20-year old future star.
There is likely going to be a battle for the 5th spot in the rotation. Miller, Rosenthal, and Martinez will all get long looks but Shelby Miller probably has the upper hand. Miller is entering his age 22 season and got a sniff of the big leagues last year, acquitting himself quite well. MLB.com ranks him as the 25th best prospect. Miller isn’t a lock to break camp in the rotation. Despite fanning 160 hitters in 136.2 AAA innings last year, he allowed over a hit per inning. He will need to cut down on that if he wants to find success at the major league level. If he fails to impress this spring, Rosenthal and Martinez are equally as tantalizing from a talent perspective.
Worst Case Scenario
With some of the improvements made to certain NL squads this offseason, somebody is going to get left holding the bag. San Francisco, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Washington, and Cincinnati all have legitimate playoff aspirations and we haven’t even mentioned Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Arizona yet. If the Cards get hit by the injury bug or the rotation shows cracks in the foundation they could very quickly get squeezed out of a playoff spot. Their worst-case scenario is probably a record just over .500 and a near miss on the playoffs.
Areas of Concern
Injury is probably the one bugaboo that could rise up and bite the Cardinals this year. In Rafael Furcal, Freese, Craig, Beltran, Jay, and Holliday, the disabled list has been a common vacation destination. If that lineup can stay intact all season they are going to cause major destruction to opposing pitching staffs month after month.
Who Needs to Bounce Back From a Down 2012
Last year was pretty much status quo for Rafael Furcal. He is notorious for getting off to a hot start and then either getting hurt, struggling, or both. The Cards don’t necessarily need Furcal to be a stud at the plate but it certainly wouldn’t hurt matters. His average by month in 2012, starting with April, went like this: .315, .349, .176, .247, .227. He didn’t play in September due to injury. Furcal, 35, is no spring chicken and the days of a near .300 batting average, double digit homers, and 30+ steals are long gone but when his bat is right he can still be a difference maker in a National League lineup.
Furcal’s keystone combo mate Daniel Descalso figures to get his fair share of at-bats again this year. As with Furcal, the Cards don’t really need his offense but that doesn’t mean that watching his average drop 37 points and his on-base % tumble 31 points is fun to watch. But let’s be honest, when we start calling out Descalso as a player in need of a rebound, things are in pretty good shape with your ballclub. Veteran infielder Ronny Cedeno has been inked to a 1-year deal to provide some middle infield insurance for Matheny should these guys struggle yet again or Furcal fails to come back in a timely fashion from his elbow injury.
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