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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.

Jackie Robinson: ” I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag”

FILE - In this April 11, 1947 file photo, Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers poses at Ebbets Field in the Brooklyn borough of New York. Robinson's widow said Major League Baseball has yet to fully honor her husband's legacy. "There is a lot more that needs to be done and that can be done in terms of the hiring, the promotion" of minorities in the sport, Rachel Robinson said Monday, Jan. 18, 2016 during a Q&A session with TV critics about "Jackie Robinson," a two-part PBS documentary airing in April.  (AP Photo/John Rooney, File)
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One more bit of baseball via which we may reflect on the Colin Kaepernick controversy.

In 1972 Jackie Robinson wrote his autobiography. In it he reflected on how he felt about his historical legacy as a baseball player, a businessman and as a political activist. A political activism, it should be noted, which favored both sides of the aisle at various times. He supported Nixon in 1960, supported the war in Vietnam and worked for Nelson Rockefeller. He did not support Goldwater and did support the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He supported Humphrey against Nixon in 1968. He was no blind partisan or ideologue. When you find someone like that you can usually rest assured it’s because they’re thinking hard and thinking critically in a world where things aren’t always cut-and-dried.

As such, this statement from his autobiography, describing his memory of the first game of the 1947 World Series, is worth thinking about. Because it came from someone who spent a lot of time thinking:

There I was, the black grandson of a slave, the son of a black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion, a symbolic hero to my people. The air was sparkling. The sunlight was warm. The band struck up the national anthem. The flag billowed in the wind. It should have been a glorious moment for me as the stirring words of the national anthem poured from the stands. Perhaps, it was, but then again, perhaps, the anthem could be called the theme song for a drama called The Noble Experiment. Today, as I look back on that opening game of my first world series, I must tell you that it was Mr. Rickey’s drama and that I was only a principal actor. As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.

Colin Kaepernick is not Jackie Robinson and America in 2016 is not the same as America in 1919, 1947 or 1972. But it does not take one of Jackie Robinson’s stature or experience to see and take issue with injustice and inequality which manifestly still exists.

As I said in the earlier post, the First Amendment gives us just as much right to criticize Kaepernick as it gives him a right to protest in the manner in which he chooses. But if and when we do, we should not consider his case in a vacuum or criticize him as some singular or radical actor. Because some other people — people who have been elevated to a level which has largely immunized them from criticism — felt and feel the same way he does. It’s worth asking yourself, if you take issue, whether you take issue with the message or the messenger and why. Such inquiries might complicate one’s feelings on the matter, but they’re quite illuminative as well.

(thanks to Kokujin for the heads up)

Former Dodgers owner Frank McCourt is a sports owner once again

File photo of Frank McCourt leaving Stanley Mosk Courthouse after testifying during his divorce trial in Los Angeles
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There aren’t many major league ownership reigns which ended more ignominiously than Frank McCourt’s reign as Dodgers owner. He was granted access to one of business’ most exclusive clubs — one which being a convicted criminal or even a Nazi sympathizer cannot get you kicked out of — and somehow got kicked out. The clear lesson from his saga was that saddling your team with debt, using it as your own private piggy bank and exercising bad judgment at every possible turn will not get you drummed out of baseball but, by gum, having it all go public in a divorce case sure as heck will.

McCourt landed pretty safely, though. By sheer luck, his being kicked out of ownership coincided with the vast appreciation of major league franchise values and the expiration of the Dodgers cable television deal. He may have left in disgrace, but he also left with a couple of billion dollars thanks to the genius of capitalism. At the time it was assumed he’d ride off into the sunset, continuing to make a mint off of parking at Dodgers games (he retained a big piece of that pie) and not get his hands messy with sports ownership again.

Such assumptions were inoperative:

The soccer club has suffered from poor financial decisions in recent years. So I guess it was a match made in heaven.