The 2014 St Louis Cardinals were considered the team to beat in the NL Central. The Milwaukee Brewers got off to a great start and gave them everything they could handle before fading away during the second half of the season. The Cardinals won the NL Central with a record of 90-72, holding off the second place Pittsburgh Pirates by two games. Though the Cardinals off season was relatively quiet, it was significant. The team added RF Jason Heyward (.271, 11, 58, 20 SB) from the Braves in exchange for RHP Shelby Miller (10-9, 3.74, 31 starts). And the truth is, the Cardinals return an all around quality team that can compete with anybody. So the question begs, why don't I think the Cardinals are the team to beat in the NL Central in 2015?
One of the things that has helped carry the Cardinals into the postseason each of the past four seasons is their strong, deep starting pitching. Having Adam Wainwright (20-9, 2.38, 32 starts) gives the team an ace few other teams have. Lance Lynn (15-10, 2.74, 33 starts) had a season last year that may give the Cardinals the sense he can be a top of the rotation starter. John Lackey (14-10, 3.82, 31 starts for Red Sox and Cardinals) is the number three starter with Michael Wacha (5-6, 3.20, 19 starts) coming back from an injury riddled 2014. For the first time in years, the Cardinals do not have a legit number 5 starter.
That doesn't mean the Cardinals 5 starter will be bad though. Hope is that flame throwing RHP Carlos Martinez (2-4, 4.03, 57 games, 7 starts) takes the opportunity and becomes a solid starting pitcher. The verdict from his 7 2014 starts was mixed as he showed signs of dominance but his stamina was questioned. That could be because he was not stretched out enough. Knowing all off season that he was going to be a starting pitcher will answer that question. If Martinez is not the answer, the Cardinals will go with oft injured Jaime Garcia (36 starts over the past three seasons after back to back 13 win seasons) or 22 year old LHP Marco Gonzales (4-2, 4.15, 10 games, 5 starts). While I feel that Macha and Martinez can be great, there is no guarantee. I also think that while Lynn is a solid candidate to give you 200 innings each year, he is not a number two starter- more of a 3-4. Once again, if Wacha or Martinez steps up, that will allow Lynn to move back towards the middle to bottom where he is best suited.
Though Heyward's bat will make the Cardinals a better offensive team, it did come at the expense of Miller. Trading Miller after dealing Joe Kelly last year and losing Justin Masterson to free agency drastically reduces the depth in the Cardinals rotation. Garcia should be healthy this year, which gives them one extra starter, but the Cardinals are used to having more flexibility. NRIs John Gast and Carlos Villenueva will probably not cut it.
The trade of Miller also netted the Cards RHP Jordan Walden (0-2, 2.88, 58 games, 62 Ks, 50 IP) which gives the team a solid 8th inning option and also allows Martinez to slide into the rotation without consequence. Closer Trevor Rosenthal (2-6, 3.20, 45 saves, 72 games, 87 Ks, just over 70 IP) had a good first season in his role, but like most closers, showed some kinks at times. RHP Pat Neshek (7-2, 1.87, 71 games) left as a free agent to sign with Houston. RHP Matt Belisle (4-7, 4.87, 66 games for Colorado) was signed to replace him, but is coming off a down year himself. RHP Seth Maness (6-4, 2.91, 73 games) returns as does veteran LHP Randy Choate (2-2, 4.50, 61 games). LHP Kevin Siegrist is the classic tale of two seasons. In 2013, he was 3-1, 0.45 in 45 games, giving up just 2 runs and 17 hits in just over 39 innings. Last year, he was 1-4, 6.82 in 37 games, giving up 23 runs and 32 hits in just over 30 innings. Gonzales and Sam Freeman (2-0, 2.61, 44 games) will also vie for that second lefty role.
Last spring training, the Cardinals best offensive player was Allen Craig. After emerging on the scene during the Cardinals postseason run of 2011 (.917 OPS), he had a big 2012 season replacing Albert Pujols (.307, 22, 92 in just 112 games). He followed that up with a .315, 13, 97 campaign in 134 games in 2013. His 2014 season was as baffling as any in major league baseball (.215, 8, 46, .596 OPS in 126 games). Perhaps it had to do with the decision to play him in RF to replace Carlos Beltran. Stranger things have happened, but the mystery of Allen Craig is one I may never figure out. Craig was traded to Boston with Kelly in the Lackey trade and is currently on the outside looking in when it comes to the Red Sox starting lineup.
Another Cardinals regular that had a big time drop in his numbers was 3B Matt Carpenter. Carpenter played 2B in 2013 and moved to 3B last season. In 2013, he hit .318, 11, 78 with 126 RS, 199 H and 55 2B- all of whom led the NL. Last year, he hit .272, 8, 59 with 162 hits and saw his OPS drop from .873 in 2013 to .750 last year in spite of leading the NL with 95 BB. LF Matt Holliday (.272, 20, 90) has been one of the best 7 year free agent contracts the game has ever seen. SS Jhonny Peralta (.263, 21, 75) and 1B Matt Adams (.288, 15, 68) will be part of the middle of the order and C Yadier Molina (.282, 7, 38) remains the best at his position in the game. 2B Kolten Wong (.249, 12, 42, 20 SB) and CF Jon Jay (.303, 3, 46) complete the projected Cardinals defensive allignment. I would use this lineup: Heyward RF, Molina C, Carpenter 3B, Holliday LF, Adams 1B, Peralta SS, Jay CF, Wong 2B.
The Cardinals were blessed with one of the top prospects in all of MLB last season. Tragically, Oscar Tavaras was killed in an automobile accident in the Dominican Republic on October 26th of last year- at the time of game 5 of the World Series between the Giants and Royals. So terrible to see a young man taken at the age of 22.
The Cardinals bench includes the likes of Peter Bourjos, Randal Grichuk, free agent signing Mark Reynolds and backup C Tony Cruz. Former Yankees infielder Dean Anna battling with Pete Kozma for the backup middle infielder position.
Grichuk leads the Cardinals list of top prospects to look at this season. He hit 25 HR last season in the minors after going 5-43 in his first call up with the Cardinals from April 28 to June 11th. He came up August 26th and was 22-67 the rest of the regular season. His hot streak ended in the postseason as he was just 6-35. OF Stephen Piscotti should be up this season and pitchers Gonzales, Alexander Reyes and LHP Tim Cooney have decent arms. The most intriguing arm in the Cardinals organization is 2014 1st round draft pick Luke Weaver, who in spite of not getting 0s in his pro work last year may be on the fast track to the big leagues just like Wacha. However, I'd be surprised to see Weaver pitching in St Louis before 2016.
In my opinion, Vegas was a little high on the Cardinals putting their O/U at 88 1/2. I'm sure that a lot of that had to do with their past success. The competition in the NL Central has gotten better and I have some serious questions about the depth of their starting rotation. Even with my concerns, I cannot see this team winning any less than 83 games. If Wacha is back and Martinez is the real deal, I will be proven wrong.