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2013 Preview: St. Louis Cardinals

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2013 season. Up next: The St. Louis Cardinals.

The Big Question: Can the Cards keep rolling?

The Cardinals have made the playoffs nine times since the start of the 2000 season and they have reached the National League Championship Series seven times in that span — securing three National League pennants and two World Series titles. And there is no end in sight for this run of success.

Yadier Molina is the best defensive catcher in baseball and has suddenly become a real offensive threat. Matt Holliday has hit .308/.389/.528 in 502 games since joining the Cardinals in a summer 2009 trade. Allen Craig is emerging as an elite slugger and Carlos Beltran had 32 home runs and 97 RBI in 2012.

And we’ve only scratched the surface on this club’s arsenal of heavy weaponry. Jon Jay (4.1) ranked just behind Josh Hamilton (4.4) and Adam Jones (4.6) on the center-field fWAR leaderboard last season. David Freese won the World Series MVP in 2011 then went on to post career-highs in home runs (20), RBI (79) and OPS (.839) in 2012. Matt Carpenter, who has made an incredibly smooth transition into the starting second base role this spring, batted .293/.372/.467 in 340 plate appearances as a utilityman last summer.

Albert Pujols is entering his second year in Anaheim and ace right-hander Chris Carpenter won’t ever pitch again, but the Cardinals organization is a well-oiled machine, and it’s greased up nicely for the 2013 season.

What Else Is Going On?

  • The rotation is missing Carpenter, but he made only three regular-season starts last year anyway. Adam Wainwright is two years removed from Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery and Jaime Garcia has experienced no shoulder trouble in camp. Jake Westbrook had a 3.97 ERA in 174 2/3 innings last season and Lance Lynn posted a 3.78 ERA and 180/64 K/BB ratio in 176 frames. The final spot will either go to Joe Kelly, a solid sinkerballer, or Shelby Miller, one of the game’s top pitching prospects.
  • The bullpen took a hit this month when closer Jason Motte was diagnosed with a mild right elbow strain, but it’s not a long-term concern at this point and there’s enough high quality depth to keep things ticking in his absence. Mitchell Boggs, who registered a 2.21 ERA and 1.05 WHIP across 78 relief appearances last season, will fill in at closer. Setting Boggs up will be young fireballer Trevor Rosenthal, and behind him you’ll find a solid group of middle relievers and left-handed specialists. Kelly will presumably join the bullpen in a long relief role if he loses out to Miller in the race for the fifth rotation spot.
  • Rafael Furcal tried to rehab a torn ligament in his elbow this winter and it did not work out. He needs Tommy John surgery and will not appear in a game this season. Taking his place at shortstop will be Pete Kozma, who owns a nice-looking .303/.373/.506 batting line in 104 major-league plate appearances but a .236/.308/.344 batting line in 2,752 minor-league plate appearances. It’s highly likely that he will be exposed early on. Look for the Cardinals to launch a shortstop hunt by the end of June.
  • The Cardinals’ farm system is widely considered to be the best in baseball, and it’s about ready to spit out some potential game-changers. Oscar Taveras, a 20-year-old Dominican outfielder, hit .321/.380/.572 with 23 homers, 37 doubles and 94 RBI in 124 games last season at Double-A Springfield. Michael Wacha, the No. 19 overall pick in the 2012 MLB Amateur Draft, owns a 0.50 ERA, 0.62 WHIP and 59/6 K/BB ratio in 35 2/3 total spring and minor league innings. Kolten Wong should develop into a solid everyday second baseman and Carlos Martinez is a hard-throwing 21-year-old righty with great upside. Matt Adams had 18 homers and 50 RBI in 67 games last summer at Triple-A Memphis and will open the 2013 season on the Cardinals’ 25-man roster. And don’t forget the aforementioned Miller and Rosenthal.

Prediction: Second place in the National League Central, winners of a Wild Card spot.

Settling the Scores: Saturday’s results

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA - SEPTEMBER 24:  Denard Span #2 of the San Francisco Giants, right, is congratulated by Roberto Kelly #39 after hitting a two-run home run during the tenth inning of a baseball game against the San Diego Padres at PETCO Park on September 24, 2016 in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images)
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Amid the clash and clatter of division races, wild card nail-biters, and postseason finishes, the Giants and Padres played a baseball game.

It wasn’t a particularly brilliant game — Madison Bumgarner surrendered five runs and a season-high three homers over six frames, while the bullpen blew a one-run lead in the seventh — but it served its purpose in the end. Denard Span’s 10th inning home run cemented the Giants’ 82nd win of the season, scooting them half a game up in the wild card standings and keeping the Dodgers from clinching the division.

Granted, the Dodgers only need one more win (or, alternatively, a Giants’ loss) to lay claim to the division title, and it’s almost certain that they’ll take the NL West on Sunday. A division title may be out of reach for the Giants, but they’ll still face fierce competition from the Mets and Cardinals for a wild card spot heading into the last week of the season.

Here are the rest of the box scores from Saturday’s games. Keep an eye out for Dustin Pedroia‘s grand slam, Josh Reddick‘s grand slam, and Hunter Renfroe’s first career home run.

Royals 7, Tigers 4

Cardinals 10, Cubs 4

Rangers 5, Athletics 0

Blue Jays 3, Yankees 0

Red Sox 6, Rays 4

Orioles 6, Diamondbacks 1

Nationals 6, Pirates 1

Marlins 6, Braves 4

White Sox 8, Indians 1

Reds 6, Brewers 1

Angels 10, Astros 4

Phillies 10, Mets 8

Twins 3, Mariners 2

Giants 9, Padres 6 (10 innings)

Dodgers 14, Rockies 1

Dodgers move within a game of division win

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - SEPTEMBER 24:  Josh Reddick #11 of the Los Angeles Dodgers (R) celebrates with Yasmani Grandal #9, Adrian Gonzalez #23, and Justin Turner #10 after all score on Reddick's grand slam home run in the seventh inning against the Colorado Rockies at Dodger Stadium on September 24, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.   The Dodgets won 14-1.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
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Yesterday, the Nationals staked their claim in the NL East and the Red Sox secured a postseason berth. Today, the Dodgers stand on the cusp of their fourth consecutive division title, with only Tyler Anderson and Ty Blach in their way.

Any combination of a Dodgers win and Giants loss will secure the NL West for Los Angeles, who missed their opportunity to clinch last night despite a 14-1 drubbing at Dodger Stadium. In the end, it came down to the Giants, who pulled off an extra-inning victory against the Padres and delayed the Dodgers’ playoff revelry for another day.

In lieu of starter Rich Hill, whom manager Dave Roberts intends to reserve for next weekend’s set against the Giants, the Dodgers will go to right-hander Brandon McCarthy on the mound. It’s been a rough year for McCarthy, who has not made a regular season start for the club since August 13, when he left the game with stiffness in his right hip after 1  innings. According to Baseball Injury Consultants, the 33-year-old missed 179 days on the disabled list in 2016, due in large part to a prolonged recovery from the Tommy John surgery he underwent in 2015.

Thankfully for the Dodgers, their fallback is a good, old-fashioned offense. They’ve outscored their opponents 46-23 in the last week and are currently riding a five-game winning streak after taking back-to-back series against the Giants and Rockies. Should they win on Sunday, they’ll face off against the Nationals in Game 1 of the NLDS on October 7.