In an era filled with parity and unprecedented levels of roster turnover, the St. Louis Cardinals' consistency is something to be admired. Since 2000, the Cardinals have made the playoffs 10 times, won seven division titles, and reached the World Series four times. They have more championships (two) than losing seasons (one) during this stretch. Heading into this season, the Cardinals are coming off yet another trip to the World Series. They return the same young roster that is a combined seven wins away from a three-peat and should make another deep postseason run in 2014.
Manager: Mike Matheny (3rd year)
2013 record: 97-65, 1st in NL Central
SB Nation blog: Viva El Birdos
The Cardinals love their postseason heroes as much as anyone, but they replaced a pair of them heading into 2014. Third baseman David Freese was traded to the Los Angeles Angels for center fielder Peter Bourjos, resulting in an instant upgrade to the Cardinals' outfield defense. Bourjos only appeared in 55 games in 2013, but showed breakout potential by hitting .274 with a .333 on-base percentage. If Bourjos can revert to his 2011 form, Jon Jay's days as a contributor could be numbered. Jay fell out of favor with the Cardinals brass with an abysmal showing in the postseason on both sides of the ball.
Allen Craig will begin the season as the Cards' starting right fielder, but his playing time will be slashed whenever Oscar Taveras gets called up. Taveras, considered by some to be the top prospect in baseball before the 2013 season, suffered an ankle injury that limited him to just 188 plate appearances. Craig, a converted first baseman, hit .315/.373/.457 last season. He could see time at both positions in 2014. Left fielder Matt Holliday is 34 years old, but has not showed any signs of slowing down. He put up an .879 OPS last year in 602 plate appearances. His .490 slugging percentage was the worst of his career since his rookie season in 2004, but it still ranked 12th in the National League.
The other postseason star to lose his job is 2012 NLDS hero Pete Kozma, who was shuttled into a utility role after the Cards signed former Tiger Jhonny Peralta. While Peralta's defense will not be as good as Kozma's, he is a huge upgrade at the plate. Peralta was the second-best offensive shortstop in baseball last season, hitting for an .815 OPS and 123 wRC+ in 448 plate appearances. Peralta will be flanked by Matt Carpenter, who moves back to third base after a year at second. Carpenter had a huge season in 2013, hitting .318/.392/.481 with 11 home runs and 78 RBI. He led the National League with 55 doubles and 126 runs scored, earning him a fourth place finish in the NL MVP voting.
Taking Carpenter's place at second base -- a position he learned on the fly in 2013 -- will be top-100 prospect Kolten Wong. Wong, a natural middle infielder, should be much more productive than he showed in limited action last season. He had a .363 OPS in 62 plate appearances during the regular season, and went 1-for-6 as a pinch hitter during the postseason. He put up an .835 OPS for Triple-A Memphis, though typical Pacific Coast League caveats apply. At first base, Matt Adams will get a shot at a full-time gig after putting up an .839 OPS in 319 plate appearances last year. He only had 52 at-bats against lefties, who held him to hitting just .231/.231/.423.
It seems like Yadier Molina has been around for 20 years, but he is still only 31 years old and has only been an all-world catcher on both sides of the ball for three years. He has won six consecutive Gold Gloves, but he posted a .671 OPS as recently as 2010. He has stayed remarkably healthy throughout his 10 big league seasons, catching at least 100 games in every season since 2004. He will wear down someday, but the Cardinals hope that day does not come until his contract expires after the 2017 season. He has a backup named Tony Cruz who might as well be this cat since neither one really does anything. Google and Baseball Reference tell me that Cruz is not very good, so it would be in the Cardinals' best interest for Molina to continue being ridiculously healthy.
Despite having only three pitchers start 20 games or more, the Cardinals' rotation posted the second lowest ERA and FIP in the National league in 2013. Adam Wainwright had one of the best seasons of his career, allowing a 2.94 ERA and a career-best 2.55 FIP in 241 2/3 innings. He led the league in innings pitched, complete games, and shutouts, but finished a distant second to Clayton Kershaw in the Cy Young race for obvious reasons. It was Wainwright's third top-three finish since 2009. The often overlooked Lance Lynn put up the first 200 inning season of his career, but had a half-run discrepancy between his ERA and FIP, possibly due to a dip in his runners stranded rate. Cardinals fans are big believers in that 3.28 FIP, naturally.
Right-hander Shelby Miller was the early season favorite to win the NL Rookie of the Year award thanks to an 8-4 record and 2.08 ERA through his first 14 starts. He was not quite as effective for the remainder of the year, but still finished with a 3.06 ERA in 173 1/3 innings. Had Jose Fernandez and Yasiel Puig not gotten involved, Miller would have been a slam dunk winner. Joe Kelly put up a 2.69 ERA in 37 appearances, and was 9-3 with a 2.28 ERA as a starter. He benefited from an 82% strand rate and a .245 BABIP, so expect something closer to his 3.98 FIP as a full-time starter in 2014. Kelly's competition, lefty Jaime Garcia, is having shoulder issues (again).
The most impressive aspect of this rotation is their depth; after listing four names, I still have not mentioned postseason savant Michael Wacha or setup-man-turned-starter Carlos Martinez, both of whom will get varying amounts of starts in 2014. Wacha put up a 2.78 ERA and 2.92 FIP in 64 2/3 regular season innings before allowing just three runs and 11 hits in his first 27 postseason innings. His 7 1/3 inning, one run effort against the Pittsburgh Pirates in a must-win Game 4 of the NLDS turned the tide of the series. He also won Game 2 of the World Series with a strong six-inning effort, but allowed six runs in 3 2/3 innings in the decisive Game 6.
At first glance, the Cardinals' bullpen seemed like a pedestrian unit in 2013. They finished seventh in the National League in both ERA and save percentage, and their 20 blown saves were the fifth-most in the league. However, they put up the second-best FIP and xFIP in the league while suffering the third-highest BABIP, at .303. They would be wise to repeat last year's superb walk rate of 2.80 free passes per nine innings, the lowest in the NL. Closer Trevor Rosenthal led the way with 108 strikeouts and 20 walks in 75 1/3 innings. Lefty Kevin Siegrist allowed as many earned runs in the postseason as he did in the entire regular season. He probably will not repeat last year's 0.45 regular season ERA.
King of diamonds (in the rough)
Now that the Tampa Bay Rays' dearth of early first round picks has evaporated, the Cardinals have taken over the "best run franchise in baseball" moniker. Unlike their "Best Fans in Baseball" title, this one is well-earned. They have not had many top draft picks in recent years, but the scouting department has uncovered plenty of gems in the draft. Guys like Matt Carpenter (13th round), Allen Craig (8th round), Matt Adams (23rd round), and Trevor Rosenthal (21st round) were all drafted and developed by the Cardinals. This seems to be a long-standing trend that speaks highly of both the scouting and player development departments, as Yadier Molina (4th round) and Albert Pujols (13th round) were also found outside the first couple rounds of the draft.
Player to watch: Carlos Martinez
The 22 year old Martinez made headlines earlier this week for a social media gaffe, but his beefed-up right arm is why you should be paying attention in 2014. He emerged as the Cardinals' setup man in September and worked a solid postseason, holding opponents scoreless in nine of 12 outings during the team's run to the World Series. This spring, Martinez will work as a starter. He started in 67 of his 68 minor league appearances, allowing a 2.69 ERA across all levels. The Cardinals have a history of breaking starting pitchers into the big leagues via the bullpen -- remember Adam Wainwright in 2006? -- and Martinez's three-pitch arsenal should play well in the rotation. Plus, his fastball is better than Jose Fernandez's, which is impressive.
Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane is famous for calling the postseason a crapshoot, but it would be tough to fault Cardinals fans for calling the 2014 season "World Series or bust." They won it all in 2011 and have been within sniffing distance of championships in both 2012 and 2013. The entire organization has made a seamless transition from the Tony LaRussa and Albert Pujols days to this new era of seemingly endless homegrown talent. The Cardinals are hands down the class of the NL Central, and possibly the National League. If their pitching stays healthy and effective, the only real question may be whether they can surpass the 100-win mark.