I hate the St. Louis Cardinals. That's not something I say lightly, either. The other teams in the AL Central are nuisances -- man, it's nice to call them that after the last four years -- but they don't make my blood boil any more than another team that upends the Tigers. They're even likable at times. The New York Yankees are long past their latest era of dominance, and the Los Angeles Dodgers' free-spending ways haven't overshadowed how fun their roster currently is. Hating Roger Clemens and Derek Jeter was one thing. Hating Clayton Kershaw and Yasiel Puig? Impossible, in my opinion.
The Cardinals, on the other hand? That's easy. The 2006 World Series plays a role, but my disdain runs deeper than that. Part of it stems from their national perception of "playing the right way" and having the "best fans in baseball." Part of it is because of the relative lack of competition in the NL Central. They have won eight division titles since 2000 and have 180 more wins in that span -- 12 per season -- than the second-place Cincinnati Reds.
Part of it is just pure jealousy. While they don't necessarily play the "right way" any more than other baseball teams, it sure seems like an apt way to describe how they have built their organization. From GM John Mozeliak to new scouting director Chris Correa, the Cardinals have developed a systematic method to drafting and developing talent that no one else in baseball has matched. This continuous pipeline of solid if unspectacular prospects -- they're regularly drafting at the end of the first round, remember -- has kept the Cardinals atop the National League for the last 15 years. It should keep them there for many years to come, but especially in 2015, as the Cardinals are once again the class of the NL Central.
Manager: Mike Matheny (4th season)
2014 record: 90-72
SB Nation blog: Viva El Birdos
First series vs. Tigers: May 15-17 @ Busch Stadium
After a long run as one of the top two or three catchers in baseball, Yadier Molina finally showed signs that he is, in fact, human. Molina made his sixth consecutive All-Star team after hitting .287/.341/.409 in the first half, but a thumb injury in July led to six weeks on the disabled list. Molina returned to hit just .267/.309/.317 in the second half. He was even worse in the postseason, and missed the final three games of the NLCS due to an oblique injury. Keeping the 31-year-old Molina healthy will be a priority for the Cardinals in 2015, but backup Tony Cruz isn't necessarily someone you want taking at-bats or innings away from the seven-time Gold Glover.
Like Molina, left fielder Matt Holliday is also on the wrong side of 30. His offensive numbers took a slight hit in 2014, as his 132 wRC+ was his lowest since 2005. That said, Holliday still put up a 132 wRC+ in over 600 plate appearances, something only 21 other MLB hitters were able to do in 2014. His power is dipping -- he has back-to-back seasons with sub-.200 ISOs -- but he will still be a very productive hitter in 2015. Center fielder Jon Jay took his job back from Peter Bourjos after losing it in a subpar 2013 season, hitting .303/.372/.378. Right fielder Jason Heyward should be a monster improvement over the Cardinals' options in 2014. The former Braves product hit .271/.351/.384 and played his usual spectacular defense in right field. He won his second career Gold Glove award and was worth 5.2 WAR. Randal Grichuk appears poised to start the year as a bench option after hitting .320/.346/.520 last September.
Third baseman Matt Carpenter appeared to need a short adjustment period after moving back to his natural position last year, as he hit just .264 with four extra-base hits in April. When the calendar flipped to May, Carpenter hit .307/.383/.412 with 11 extra base hits. He made his second consecutive NL All-Star team and was worth 4.0 WAR, but the Cardinals will be expecting a bit more power after consecutive seasons with a .160 ISO or better in 2012 and 2013. Former Tiger Jhonny Peralta was the most valuable shortstop in Major League Baseball last season according to WAR, but his offensive numbers took a hit from his spectacular 2013 season. He hit .263/.336/.443 with 21 home runs, the second-best total in baseball.
Second baseman Kolten Wong overcame a slow start to become a Rookie of the Year contender by season's end. His .544 OPS in April earned him a demotion to the minors, but he hit .254 with a .709 OPS in 93 games after being recalled in late May. He hit three home runs in eight postseason games last fall and will enter 2015 as a popular breakout pick despite a slow spring. First baseman Matt Adams struggled in his first full season at the major league level, hitting just 15 home runs in 563 plate appearances. This may not seem so bad for most players, but Adams hit a combined 54 home runs in the minor leagues in 2010 and 2011, and is expected to be one of the bigger power threats in the Cardinals' lineup. Working in his favor are his high average (he hit .288 last year), his youth (he's 26), and the fact that Mark Reynolds will likely slide into a platoon role. Reynolds is coming off back-to-back sub-.700 OPS seasons, but he has a career .351 on-base percentage and .227 ISO against left-handed pitching.
How dependable is Adam Wainwright? If you exclude 2011, which Wainwright missed due to Tommy John surgery, he has thrown at least 198 innings in each of his past five seasons. He threw 227 frames with a 2.38 ERA and 2.88 FIP in 2014, but had elbow surgery shortly after the season. He still has yet to win a Cy Young award, finishing in the top three on four occasions since 2009. Michael Wacha's sophomore season was a rousing success for the first couple months of the year, but a stress fracture in his right scapula sidelined the 2012 first round pick for nearly three months. His numbers in his September return weren't pretty, and his only appearance of the postseason resulted in Travis Ishikawa's walk-off home run that sent the San Francisco Giants to the World Series.
Lance Lynn has been one of the more underrated pitchers in the Cardinals' organization over the past few years. He has put up a sub-3.50 FIP in each of his four MLB seasons and has logged 175 innings or more in the past three. He has been worth a combined 7.1 WAR over the past two years while striking out nearly a batter per inning. If that wasn't good enough already, Lynn has been working on improving his changeup during the offseason. If he can harness it (he barely used it in 2014), he should be able to maintain the gains he made against left-handed batters last season. John Lackey will pitch for the league minimum salary this season thanks to a clause in the contract he signed with the Boston Red Sox back in 2009. He struggled after being traded to the Cardinals at the deadline last summer, but has topped 185 innings with a 3.5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in both of the past two seasons.
The Cardinals opened spring training with one of the more enviable fifth starter situations in baseball. Touted young pitchers Carlos Martinez and Marco Gonzales were slated to go head-to-head for the final starter's role, with the loser either headed to the bullpen (Martinez) or the minors (Gonzales). While this battle has raged throughout the spring, left-hander Jaime Garcia has started to enter the conversation. Garcia has logged just 99 innings in the past two seasons, and missed the latter half of the season after undergoing thoracic outlet surgery in July. Martinez has the highest upside of the three, but Garcia is the most experienced and Gonzales might be the best starter right now.
One of the things that might push Martinez into the rotation is the presence of Jordan Walden, who was acquired from the Atlanta Braves in the Jason Heyward deal. Walden spent the last two years as Craig Kimbrel's setup man, and should fill a similar role for Cardinals closer Trevor Rosenthal. The 24-year-old right-hander saved 45 games in 51 chances with a 3.20 ERA last season, but walked 13.6 percent of the batters he faced. He doesn't allow many hits, but a 1.41 WHIP is still a bit higher than you would like to see from your closer. Kevin Siegrist also took a step back after bursting onto the scene with a spectacular 2013 season, but continued to strike out over 11 batters per nine innings. Left-hander Randy Choate took over the LOOGY role in 2014, holding lefties to a .351 OPS despite a 4.50 ERA. Right-handers Matt Belisle and Seth Maness are also locks for the bullpen according to this handy chart from Viva El Birdos.
Down on the farm
For as seamlessly as the Cardinals transition prospects to the big leagues, their farm system doesn't rank that high in 2015. Part of it is due to the recent graduation of a number of young players, and the death of budding star Oscar Taveras also dealt them a blow. They have a number of solid prospects in the high minors, but the top-end talent is stashed in the lower levels of the system. Alexander Reyes, Jack Flaherty, and Rob Kaminsky are all potential front-of-the-rotation starters, while Magneuris Sierra and Sam Tuivailala have names as awesome as their on-field potential. Stephen Piscotty, Randal Grichuk, and Marco Gonzales should all contribute at the big league level in 2015.
Player to watch: Jhonny Peralta
Oh hell, why not? Peralta led the Cardinals with 5.3 WAR in 2014, a career-best total in his age 33 season. Peralta didn't hit quite as well as in his final season with the Tigers, but he rebounded after a slow April to batt .276/.347/.445 with 15 home runs and 63 RBI after May 1st. Peralta also upped his walk rate and power (ISO) to numbers he hasn't reached since his days with the Cleveland Indians, which could be a sign that he is due for regression in 2015. One thing that shouldn't regress is his steady defense, which has always resulted in high UZR totals despite a lack of lateral range. He may not reach the 20-homer plateau again in 2015 (it would be the sixth time in his career), but he should still hit for a high average and provide plenty of value for the Cardinals.
Like the Tigers, the Cardinals look to be the best team in a division that has loaded up around them. While they have plenty of talent in the organization, they did not rest on their laurels, striking quickly to acquire a young, valuable player in Jason Heyward. This type of pinpoint aggression from Mozeliak is what makes the Cardinals one of the top organizations in baseball, and a favorite to win the NL Central again in 2015. There are questions about parts of the roster, including whether their young talent will take the requisite step forward, but this is still one of the best teams in the National League. Expect them to make the postseason for a fifth consecutive season in 2015.