The St. Louis Cardinals finished above .500 for the seventh straight season in 2014 but were downed 4-1 in the NLCS against the Giants. The real heartbreak came just days later, though, when their top prospect Oscar Taveras was killed in a drunk driving accident.
The 22-year-old’s tragic death struck at the heart of the organization and also changed their plans for the future, forcing them to trade for Jason Heyward to fill the outfield spot reserved for baseball’s No. 3 top prospect.
The Cards enter the season with one of the NL’s best rotations featuring some of the best young arms in the league with even more promising youngsters waiting for their shot. The offense, which finished in the bottom 10 last year, now features a couple of new veterans while their younger outfielders have had a year to develop.
With two World Series appearances in the last four seasons, are these Cardinals as good as the St. Louis team of the last half decade?
Batting Average: 14th
After hitting 17 home runs but just 14 doubles in 108 games in 2013, Adams became a much more well-rounded hitter as he hit 15 homers and 34 doubles in 142 games last season. He posted a strong .288 BA and .779 OPS despite almost never drawing a walk. The 26-year-old is still developing but is already a very welcome presence in the middle of the lineup.
If Scruggs makes the roster, he’ll offer the Cards some much-needed power off the bench and can play both first and outfield. He’s hit 20+ home runs in five straight seasons in the minors but does strike out a ton and doesn’t hit a lot of doubles. He draws a good deal of walks which helps alleviate the other holes in his game but he’s essentially here for his power and not much else.
Wong had a solid rookie season as he finished third in Rookie of the Year voting. He batted .249 with a .680 OPS while adding 12 HR, 14 2B, 42 RBI, 52 R, and 20 SB. The former top-40 prospect showed an ability to consistently hit .300+ in 298 games in the minors and has a bit of pop, good speed, draws walks, limits his strikeouts, and has a very good glove. He’s not an elite hitter but, at just 24, he’s already one of the better all-around second basemen in the league.
Kozma is a singles hitter and not an impressive one at that but he does have a very strong glove and can play all over the infield.
3B: Matt Carpenter, Mark Reynolds
Carpenter’s first full season was head-turning as he led the NL with 55 doubles, 199 hits, and 126 runs in 2013. His 2014 campaign was something of a bust by comparison but still a strong showing by a third baseman as he batted .272 with a .750 OPS, 43 extra-base hits, 59 RBI, and 99 runs. He did lead the NL with 99 walks last season and does as good a job of getting on base as anyone in the league, plus he plays a solid third base.
Reynolds is like a veteran version of Scruggs, offering a minimal batting average and striking out a ton but putting up impressive power numbers. He’s not a great hitter by any stretch, though he does a good job of drawing walks, but he’s primarily here for his power after hitting 20+ home runs every full season he’s been in the league. He also has a solid glove and can play either corner infield position.
SS: Jhonny Peralta
Peralta didn’t miss a beat as he moved from Detroit to St. Louis, playing a career-high 157 games while putting up a .263 BA, .779 OPS, 21 HR, 75 RBI, 61 R, and 38 2B. He does a good job of getting on base and had one of the best defensive seasons of his career in his first year with the Cards. This is a great spot for the 32-year-old.
Molina’s numbers fell across the board in an injury-plagued 2014 campaign. His 80 RBI in 2013 fell to just 38 last season while his .319 BA fell to .282, his 44 2B fell to 21, and his 68 R fell to 40. If healthy, there’s no reason Molina shouldn’t rebound after putting up three straight seasons with a .300+ BA, double-digit home runs, 65+ RBI, and a good deal of doubles. He seldom strikes out and may be the best defensive backstop in the game.
Tony Cruz has now posted four straight seasons of below average production at the plate and behind it and the Cards would be remiss not to look at other backup options with Molina now 32.
Matt Holliday saw his .300 average fall to .272 but produced a strong 20 HR, 90 RBI, 83 R, and 37 2B. He draws a good deal of walks and keeps the strikeouts manageable but does lack in the defensive department. Still, even at 35, Holliday is one of the best hitting outfielders in the NL.
Jason Heyward had an up-and-down run with the Braves, hitting as many as 27 home runs and as few as 11 while stealing as many as 21 bases and as few as two. The one thing the Cards can always rely on is his stellar glove and Heyward is unarguably one of the best defensive outfielders in the game. If healthy, he’s poised to bat in his usual .255-.270 range and should add double-digit home runs, 70+ runs, and could steal as many as 20.
Jon Jay batted a strong .303 last season but is just a singles hitter who doesn’t steal and doesn’t produce a whole lot but certainly doesn’t hurt you. He’s mostly here for his ability to man center field and an outfield with him and Heyward should track down a lot of balls and make up for Holliday’s inefficiencies.
Peter Bourjos was awful in his first year with the Cards, batting just .231 with 18 extra-base hits and nine steals in 294 plate appearances. He seldom walks and strikes out more than you’d like, though his defense is very solid. He has a good glove off the bench but not much else. He’s just 1-for-23 so far in spring training so it’s not out of the question that he doesn’t even make the roster.
Randal Grichuk has a good shot to make this team after hitting 22+ home runs in his last two seasons in the minors (and already slamming three this spring). He doesn’t strike out as much as most power hitters but doesn’t walk a lot either. He’s a decent doubles hitter but doesn’t bat for a high average. He does have a good glove though, and would be a significant upgrade over Bourjos.
Tommy Pham also has a chance to win the fifth outfielder job after spending 699 games in the Cards’ farm system. He’s a singles hitter who struggles to consistently hit for a high average but has a bit of speed, stealing 20 bases last season while drawing a good amount of walks and keeping his strikeouts manageable. He’s not as impressive as Grichuk at the plate but does a good job of manning the outfield and gives the Cards speed off the bench.
Adam Wainwright put up arguably the best season of his career at age 32, going 20-9 with a 2.38 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 179 K to 50 BB, allowed just 10 home runs (the best HR/9 rate in the league) and finished third in Cy Young voting. A healthy Wainwright is as good as anyone in the league, even with his strikeouts falling a bit as he ages.
Lance Lynn was was good but not great in his first two years with the Cards but turned the corner last year as he went 15-10 with a 2.74 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, and 181 K to 72 BB while allowing just 13 HR. He gives the Cards a wicked one-two punch at the top of the rotation if he can keep the baserunners manageable.
John Lackey was traded by Boston to St. Louis last season and struggled in 10 starts, posting a 4.30 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, and allowing nine home runs (one less than Wainwright allowed all season). At his best, Lackey is a mid-3.00s ERA pitcher who gives up a lot of hits and is often hurt by the longball. At his worst, Lackey is a 4.00+ ERA pitcher who gives up a ton of hits and home runs.
Michael Wacha is already one of the best young pitchers in the game, putting up a 3.04 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, and 159 K to 52 BB in his first 171.2 innings in the league. He was limited to just 19 starts last season but has nearly replicated his dominant success in the minors where he posted a 2.25 ERA and 0.91 WHIP and needed just 108 innings to make it to the Bigs. Lackey is a big question but Wainwright, Lynn, and Wacha are as good a core of a rotation as you’re going to find.
Carlos Martinez is fighting for the fifth spot in the rotation after an iffy season primarily out of the pen last year. On the one hand, Martinez was one of the most highly regarded pitching prospects in the league since 2012 and owned an impressive 2.61 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, and 347 K to 119 BB in 338 minor league innings. He struggled in his first 21 appearances in 2013, posting a 5.08 ERA and 1.41 WHIP (though a 3.08 FIP) and was somewhat better last year as he posted a 4.03 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, and 84 K to 36 BB in 89 innings.
He’s already been tagged for six runs in eight innings this spring but has the highest ceiling out of anyone competing for the job. He almost never gives up home runs and doesn’t struggle with control as much as many young pitchers do but he puts a lot of men on base and, at just 23, still struggles to get out of jams. He’s a work in progress but the finished product could be downright amazing.
Marco Gonzales is a top-50 prospect entering this season after posting a 2.48 ERA and 1.12 WHIP in 145 minor league innings. While Martinez has struggled, Gonzales is already 3-0 with a 0.84 ERA and 0.94 WHIP in 10.2 innings this spring. Right now he’s the leading candidate for the job but did give up 16 runs, four homers, and a whopping 53 baserunners in his first 34.2 MLB innings last year. Regardless of how this race plays out, expect to see Martinez and Gonzales round out this stellar rotation for years to come.
Jaime Garcia has an outside shot at the fifth starter job but has been limited to just 16 starts over the last two years and just 36 starts over the last three. He’s consistently a mid-to-high-3.00 ERA pitcher who allows a lot of hits, doesn’t walk a lot of batters, and gives up more home runs than you’d like. In any case, he’s not the future of this rotation like the youngsters he’s battling with and the Cards would be better suited letting one of them develop.
Trevor Rosenthal was impressive in his first season as closer, saving 45 of a possible 51 games while posting a 3.20 ERA. He struggled with baserunners though, surrendering 5.4 BB/9 after giving up just 2.4 walks per nine the previous season. He did a good job getting out of jams but he’ll need to limit those situations if he’s going to be an elite closer.
Jordan Walden was a great acquisition this offseason. He posted a 2.88 ERA last season for Atlanta and owns a career 3.10 ERA and 1.23 WHIP in 211 innings. He does get hurt a bit and gives up a lot of walks but he limits the hits and homers and strikes out better than 11 batters per nine.
Seth Maness now has two very impressive seasons under his belt, posting a 2.66 ERA and 1.17 WHIP in his first two years in the Bigs. He doesn’t strike out a lot of batters but almost never walks anyone and limits the home runs. At 26, he’s still developing but he’s already one of the best arms in this pen.
Matt Belisle may have been hurt by pitching in Colorado but his 4.87 ERA last year is cringe inducing and it’s not like he was any better in his early seasons with the Reds. He gives up a ton of hits and his strikeouts have fallen steadily as he’s aged. The Cards could have acquired a much better arm than Belisle this offseason.
Randy Choate was great in his first season with the Cards, putting up a 2.29 ERA and 1.05 WHIP in 64 appearances. He struggled last season though, posting a 4.50 ERA. The journeyman lefty specialist is solid but inconsistent and, at 39, increasingly more difficult to rely on.
Carlos Villanueva is a long reliever/spot starter who isn’t very good but limits the walks and eats up innings.
Starting Pitching: A-
Overall: B+ to A-