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2014 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 2014 season. Next up: The St. Louis Cardinals.

The Big Question: Another World Series run?

The Cardinals have made the playoffs 10 times since 2000 and they’ve advanced to the National League Championship Series or beyond each of the last three years. It’s a dynasty at this point, and the 2014 squad is poised to further fill the trophy room.

Yadier Molina — long considered MLB’s best defensive catcher — has produced a .317/.366/.489 batting line in 274 games since the start of the 2012 season. He is a rock behind the plate for the young, talented Cardinals pitching staff and he has molded himself into one of the toughest outs in the sport. If his health cooperates, a sixth straight All-Star nod will be in order. Matt Carpenter made a very smooth transition to second base in 2013 and finished fourth in the National League MVP balloting after leading the majors in hits, doubles, and runs scored. He’ll now move back to third base, where he has the most pro experience. Allen Craig has never played more than 134 games in a season, but he left spring training on a clean bill of health and can be a monster in the middle of the St. Louis order if he manages to avoid the disabled list. Craig, 29, has batted .312 with an .863 OPS (136 OPS+) in 328 games since the beginning of the 2011 campaign and he is a .394/.451/.636 career hitter with runners in scoring position. Matt Holliday’s power numbers are trending downward, but an OPS in the high .800s remains a fair expectation in his age-34 season.

It goes on and on with this team. Matt Adams, the Cardinals’ big-bodied first baseman, slugged 17 home runs in 2013 despite starting only 63 games. Kolten Wong, rated a Top 35 prospect this winter by Baseball Prospectus, will be taking over at second base. He tallied 20 steals in 21 attempts last summer at Triple-A, hit .375/.434/.646 this spring, and is a very strong defensive infielder. Then there’s Jhonny Peralta, who was signed this winter to a four-year, $53 million contract to provide a much-needed upgrade at shortstop.

The lineup is loaded, and the starting rotation is, as usual, filled with gifted arms. Adam Wainwright is a perennial Cy Young Award candidate and clubhouse leader. Michael Wacha — with his mid-90s fastball and elite-level changeup — looks to be a budding ace. Lance Lynn is a more-than-steady No. 3, Shelby Miller has front-line stuff, and Joe Kelly registered a 2.69 ERA (135 ERA+) over 124 innings in 2013.

What else is going on?

  • If the Cardinals need an emergency starter, they don’t even have to pick up a phone. Carlos Martinez will open the 2014 season in a setup role, but he was stretched out this spring in the Grapefruit League and almost beat out Kelly for the final spot in the rotation. The 22-year-old Dominican right-hander has a filthy arsenal and should do well in the meantime as the eighth-inning bridge to closer Trevor Rosenthal. Rosenthal, a 23-year-old who regularly hits 100 mph with his fastball, also wants to be a starter eventually.
  • Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak pulled off a slick trade this offseason, moving third baseman David Freese and right-handed reliever Fernando Salas to the Angels for center fielder Peter Bourjos and 2009 first-round pick Randal Grichuk. Bourjos has outstanding defensive range and his bat showed signs of life this spring in Grapefruit League play. Freese, meanwhile, failed to register a single extra-base hit in 60 plate appearances over in Angels camp. Bourjos will be the Cardinals’ primary center fielder if he’s healthy and hitting. Jon Jay, a left-handed batter, is still around as a possible platoon partner.
  • Cardinals manager Mike Matheny made some promising strides in his second year as Tony La Russa’s successor. In 2012 — Matheny’s debut season — the Cardinals ranked sixth in the National League for sacrifice bunts, most of which were either misguided or completely unnecessary. In 2013, the club’s sac bunts total dropped to 11th in the 15-team National League. Matheny said when he took the job that he was open to progressive baseball thinking, and data-minded general manager John Mozeliak may have given his skipper a crash course in basic sabermetrics between year one and two.
  • According to Forbes’ recently-published financial estimates, the Cardinals had the highest operating income of any Major League Baseball organization last season. Busch Stadium III has welcomed over three million fans every year that it’s been in existence and merchandise sales are always strong for shirts, and hats, and jerseys featuring The Birds on the Bat. The newly-opened Ballpark Village — out in left-center field with features like rooftop seating — should only boost the Redbirds’ bottom line.

Prediction: The Cardinals roll to 98 wins, easily claiming the National League Central crown.

Ruben Amaro is workin’ out and gettin’ ready to coach first base

Ruben Amaro Jr.
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One of the weirder stories of the offseason was Ruben Amaro going from the Phillies front office to the Red Sox, where he’ll coach first base. That kind of transition is almost unheard of but it’s happening with old Rube.

Today Pete Abraham of the Globe has a story about how Amaro is preparing for the role. And how, while it may look weird on paper, the move actually makes a lot more sense than you might suspect given the Red Sox’ coaching staff and Amaro’s own background. It’s good stuff. Go check it out.

On a personal note, it serves as a signal to me to keep my eyes peeled for reports about Amaro from Fort Myers once camp gets started:

Amaro has been working out in recent weeks with his nephew Andrew, a Phillies prospect, to get ready for throwing batting practice and hitting fungoes.

Could we be so lucky as to get the first-ever Best Shape of His Life report for a coach? God, I hope so!

It’s pretty stupid that athletes can’t endorse beer

San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Madison Bumgarner celebrates after pitching the Giants to a 8-0 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League wild card game in Pittsburgh Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar) ORG XMIT: PAGP102
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One of the more amusing things to spin out of the Super Bowl were Peyton Manning’s little Budweiser endorsements in his postgame interviews. It was hilarious, really, to see him shoehorn in references to going and cracking a crisp cool Budweiser multiple times. It was more hilarious when a Budweiser representative tweeted that Manning was not paid to do that. Of course, Manning owns an interest in alcohol distributorships so talking about The King of Beers was in his best financial interest all the same.

After that happened people asked whether or not Manning would face discipline about this from the NFL, as players are not allowed to endorse alcoholic beverages. This seemed crazy to me. I had no idea that they were actually banned from doing so. Then I realized that, huh, I can’t for the life of me remember seeing beer commercials with active athletes, so I guess maybe it’s not so crazy. Ken Rosenthal later tweeted that Major League Baseball has a similar ban in place. No alcohol endorsements for ballplayers.

Why?

I mean, I can fully anticipate why the leagues would say athletes can’t do it. Think of the children! Role models! Messages about fitness! All that jazz. I suspect a more significant reason is that the leagues and their partners — mostly Anheuser-Busch/InBev — would prefer not to allow high-profile athletes to shill for a competitor. How bad would it look for Alex Rodriguez to do spots for Arrogant Bastard Ale when there are Budweiser signs hanging in 81% of the league’s ballparks? Actually, such ads would look WONDERFUL, but you know what I mean here.

That aside, it does strike me as crazy hypocritical that the leagues can rake in as much as they do from these companies while prohibiting players from getting in on the action. If it is kids they’re worried about, how can they deny that they endorse beer to children every bit as effectively and possibly more so than any one athlete can by virtue of putting it alongside the brands that are the NFL and MLB? Personally I don’t put much stock in a think-of-the-children argument when it comes to beer — it’s everywhere already and everyone does a good job of pushing the “drink responsibly” message — but if those are the leagues’ terms, they probably need to ask themselves how much of a distinction any one athlete and the entire league endorsing this stuff really is.

That aside, sports and beer — often sponsored by active players — have a long, long history together:

Musial

And the picture at the top of this post certainly shows us that Major League Baseball has no issues whatsoever in having its players endorse Budweiser in a practical sense.

Why can’t they get paid for doing it?

The Orioles signed Rafael Palmeiro’s son

Rafael Palmeiro
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Last summer we posted about Rafael Palmeiro coming out of retirement to play for the independent league Sugar Land Skeeters. The reason: to play a game with his boy Patrick. In that game the elder Palmeiro went 2-for-4 with an RBI, a walk, and a run scored. His son, who is now 26, went 2-for-4 with a grand slam.

Did that serve as an audition for Patrick? Possibly, as Jon Meloi of the Baltimore Sun reports that the Orioles just signed him to a minor league deal.

As Meloi notes, it’s certainly just an organizational depth move, as Patrick is no prospect. And it’s actually likely something of a coincidence that it’s the Orioles who signed him, as Palmeiro doesn’t have any real contacts with the Orioles baseball operations people, all of whom are different folks now than back in his day.

This may not be the last of the Palmeiros, by the way. Peter Gammons tweeted this morning that Patrick’s younger brother, Preston, is a first baseman at North Carolina State who could be drafted this june. Gammons says he has a swing “remarkably similar to dad.”

Diamondbacks, A.J. Pollock avoid arbitration with two-year contract

Arizona Diamondbacks center fielder A.J. Pollock drives in two runs against the Cincinnati Reds during the eighth inning of a baseball game, Thursday, Aug. 20, 2015, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Gary Landers)
AP Photo/Gary Landers
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Steve Gilbert of MLB.com reports that the Diamondbacks and outfielder A.J. Pollock have avoided arbitration by agreeing to a two-year extension. The deal is worth $10.25 million, per ESPN’s Buster Olney.

Pollock was arbitration-eligible for the first time this winter. The 28-year-old requested $3.9 million and was offered $3.65 million by the Diamondbacks when figures were exchanged on January 15. It wasn’t much of a gap, but the two sides were ultimately able to find common ground on a multi-year deal. Pollock will still be under team control for one more year after this new deal expires.

Pollock is coming off a breakout 2015 where he batted .315/.367/.498 with 20 home runs, 76 RBI, and 39 stolen bases over 157 games. He ranked sixth among position players with 7.4 WAR (Wins Above Replacement), according to Baseball Reference.