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.

Joey Votto thinks he can win the Home Run Derby, but hasn’t been invited yet

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Despite having hit at least 20 home runs in eight of his 11 seasons in the majors, Reds first baseman Joey Votto has never participated in a Home Run Derby. Currently, he’s tied for the National League lead in home runs with 20, and he hasn’t been invited to this year’s festivities at Marlins Park.

In the event he is invited, Votto said he thinks he can win it, C. Trent Rosecrans of the Cincinnati Enquirer reports. Votto likened himself to Ichiro Suzuki, a player known more for his contact abilities and mastery of the strike zone than power. “Just think of me as the Canadian Ichiro — Japan has theirs and Canada has theirs,” Votto said. “I could pull homers into the seats at will.”

Along with the 20 homers, Votto is currently hitting .306/.419/.601 with 53 RBI, and 52 runs scored in 313 plate appearances.

Teammate Scott Schebler also has 20 home runs at the moment and Adam Duvall, who made it to the semifinals of the Derby last year, has 16. Neither of them have been approached about participating in the Derby, either. Per Rosecrans, in the event each was invited, Duvall said he would consider participating if he wasn’t an All-Star and Schebler would participate regardless. Votto said he would only participate if he made the All-Star team.

There was apparently some miscommunication between Pete Mackanin and Pat Neshek

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The Phillies won their first game since last Thursday, beating the Cardinals 5-1 on Thursday afternoon. Starter Aaron Nola pitched into the eighth inning, but left with one out. Pat Neshek took the mound with a runner on first base and induced an inning-ending double play on a 3-1 count to Tommy Pham.

Given that Neshek only threw five pitches and the Phillies were staked to a four-run lead, it wouldn’t have seemed unreasonable if the sidewinding right-hander came back out to finish the ninth inning as well. But Luis Garcia had that honor, tossing a scoreless final frame to nail down the win in a non-save situation.

After the game, manager Pete Mackanin said he asked Neshek to go back out for the ninth, but Neshek didn’t want to, per Stephen Gross of the Morning Call. Neshek told the media that Mackanin never asked him. There was also a miscommunication on Wednesday. The combination of Joaquin Benoit, Hector Neris, and Edubray Ramos combined to allow four runs in 2 1/3 innings, helping the Phillies lose 7-6. Neshek never appeared. According to Mackanin, Neshek told him that he wasn’t available to pitch. Neshek said he was told he’d have the day off.

The disconnect between Mackanin and Neshek could speak to a larger divide between the manager and his failing team. The Phillies have underwhelmed across the board due to players like Odubel Herrera (whose head was down and did not see Juan Samuel’s stop sign last night in what became a base running blunder), Maikel Franco, Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez, Aaron Nola (today’s start notwithstanding), and Hector Neris not living up to expectations. The Phillies signed Mackanin to a contract extension last month, but the team has completely fallen apart since then and the latest communications issues certainly don’t reflect well on him. Neither does last night’s travesty of a game.

As for Neshek, he said that going to the Phillies was “the best thing that happened to me in a few years” but also realized, given the state of the team, that it remains very likely he winds up in a new uniform by the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. After Thursday’s performance, Neshek is carrying a 0.63 ERA with a 25/4 K/BB ratio in 28 2/3 innings. He very well could be the Phillies’ lone representative at the All-Star Game in Miami next month. That is, if he’s still wearing their uniform. Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports reports that the Nationals have shown interest in Neshek.