The Cardinals infield remains entirely intact from last season, when they lost to the eventual World Champion Giants in the NLCS. Matt Adams has cemented himself as the team's everyday first baseman. He hits for a respectable average (.288), extra bases (34 doubles, 15 home runs in 2014), and is a much more nimble defender than any man his size should be. The one knock on Adams is his inability to draw a walk. He isn't a free swinger by any means, but 49 walks from your burly first baseman in two years is not going to cut it. Second base is once again property of Kolten Wong. Wong had his rough patches during his rookie season, but showed the flashes of speed and power that had Cardinals' scouts projecting him as a perennial 20/20 guy. He had 12 homers and 20 steals in 112 games last year. Similarly to Adams though, developing patience at the plate is still a work in progress. He is still just 24 though, so he has plenty of time to work these things out and get everyday reps. Jhonny Peralta, who was putting the H in front of the O before it was cool, will reprise his role at shortstop after a solid St. Louis debut. Peralta played in a career best 157 games for the Cardinals and hit 20 home runs for the fifth time in his career. The media recognized his importance to St. Louis as he made his first ever appearance in MVP voting, finishing 14th. Were you expecting somebody other than Matt Carpenter at third base? The numbers predictably came down after his breakout 2013, but Carpenter was still an All-Star and a premier lead off man in the National League. He may not be long for third however as his errors nearly doubled to 16 in 2014. Yadier Molina will be behind the plate for his 12th season in red. Molina dealt with a serious thumb injury that put a damper on his offense. Even with that, he was able to garner his seventh consecutive Gold Glove at catcher. That is the second longest streak in MLB history for a catcher behind future Hall of Famer Ivan Rodriguez. The bench has versatility with former starting shortstop Pete Kozma and winter signing Mark Reynolds.
The outfield would have remained the same if not for the tragic drunk driving accident in which Oscar Taveras killed both himself and his girlfriend Edilia Arvelo in the Dominican Republic. GM John Mozeliak couldn't afford to grieve very long and he went and acquired Jason Heyward from Atlanta. It cost him a young arm in Shelby Miller but I think a change of scenery, and organizational philosophy, will do Heyward a great service. Manager Mike Matheny will do his best to break the career pattern on good year, bad year with Heyward. He certainly won't run the 25 year old into the ground like they did in Atlanta. Jon Jay and Matt Holliday comprise the rest of the Cardinals' outfield. Jay isn't a star, but he is well deserved of his chance to play every day in center for the Cardinals. He gets on base at a fairly impressive clip (.372 OBP in 2014), a trait usually unseen at the bottom of National League lineups. His ability to play every position in the outfield competently is also valuable, especially when bringing in a guy like Heyward who is going to need scheduled days off. Even at 35, Holliday is still one of the best three hole hitters in the game. His defense in left field has never been stellar but you can pencil him in for 20 home runs and 90 RBI and not think twice about it. A bench of Randal Grichuk and Peter Bourjos gives them power and speed in a pinch. Top prospect Stephen Piscotty also looms.
The starting rotation on paper looks really good. It is very determinant on the health of its top two though. Those two are of course Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha. Wainwright is still one of the elite pitchers in the National League but the toll of 200 innings a year plus four consecutive deep playoff runs is beginning to show. His 2014 may have been his best yet with a 20-9 record, 2.38 ERA, and 1.03 WHIP. Even with that stat line, it doesn't change the fact that his elbow is still creaky and he already hurt himself in offseason workouts. Wacha missed a big chunk of 2014 and was Jekyll and Hyde on either side of his injury. He looked the part of a solid #2 in the early goings but did not thrive on an innings limit when he returned in September. I won't even get to his NLCS cameo. That has been harped on enough. While Wacha was down, Lance Lynn asserted himself as a viable Robin to Wainwright's Batman. While keeping both his 15-10 and 33 starts stagnant over the last two years, Lynn shaved 1.20 points off his ERA and 0.05 off his WHIP in 2014. His consistency got him a three year deal this winter to keep him in St. Louis until 2017. The Cardinals have quite the bargain with their #4 starter, John Lackey. After accumulating over $80 million in his time with the Red Sox, Lackey, who came over at the deadline last year, will make just $500,000 in 2015. If Lackey starts off strong, there is a good chance the Cardinals will do right by him with an extension to balance out his puny 2015 figure. If not, he becomes an incredibly value trade chip with his minuscule price tag. After some back and forth, Carlos Martinez was finally named the Cardinals' official fifth starter. Martinez wasn't dominant as a reliever last year, but struggled even more in 7 summer starts. Pitch counts and wildness doomed him. He seems to have adjusted to the role better in the spring, but it remains to be seen what he can do over more than a month's sample.
Trevor Rosenthal will once again close for the Cardinals. Rosenthal made the ninth inning very interesting most nights but was still able to rack up 45 saves, second best in the National League. He needs to cut down on his walks (42 in 70 1/3 innings) or his job may be in jeopardy. First cracks at closing in event of a Rosenthal implosion will most likely go to new addition Jordan Walden. He's been used primarily as a set-up man since his 2011 All-Star season, but Walden still possesses closer stuff. He can sometimes run into the same walk issues as Rosenthal but has learned to get more savvy outs instead of trying to blow each subsequent batter away. Pat Neshek's departure leaves the middle inning righty work all for Seth Maness. Maness has been a steady 7th inning hand in the Majors. Matheny showed confidence in him as a stand in closer though letting him finish 17 games and register 3 saves. The left handed batters will have to deal with Randy Choate and Kevin Siegrist. Choate is an old dog who doesn't need new tricks. Siegrist could use some new tricks because after an impressive 2013 debut (0.45 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, 50 K/18 BB) he got blasted in 2014 to the tune of a 6.82 ERA, 1.58 WHIP, and 37 K/16 BB.
The Cardinals will make the Playoffs. There is a good chance they'll get to the NLCS. A lot of it rides on the health of the pitching staff and the necessity for Heyward to provide some pop in the middle of the order. The Cardinals don't have much down on the farm so what you see now is what you are probably going to get until at least the trade deadline. If they stay healthy, what you see is one of the more dangerous teams in the National League. If they don't, what you'll get won't be pretty.
LAST YEAR'S RANKING: #5 (DOWN 4)
PREDICTED RECORD: 89-73
PREDICTED ALL-STAR REPS: Yadier Molina (catcher), Matt Carpenter (third baseman), Jason Heyward (outfielder), Adam Wainwright (starting pitcher)
Trevor Utley lauds the Cardinals organization but can say with complete honesty that St. Louis may be one of the worst cities he's ever stepped foot in.
Image Credit: Cardinals logo (sportslogos.net)