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2014 Preview: St. Louis Cardinals


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.

John Lackey to start Game 1 of the NLDS for the Cardinals

John Lackey
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St. Louis has decided on John Lackey as the Game 1 starter in the NLDS versus the winner of tonight’s Wild Card game, manager Mike Matheny announced.

Lackey led the Cardinals in starts (33) and innings (218) this season while posting a 2.77 ERA and 175/53 K/BB ratio with 21 homers allowed.

Carlos Martinez being out for the playoffs with a shoulder injury took a big rotation option away from Matheny, but Lackey has a 3.10 ERA in 43 starts since joining the Cardinals in mid-2014 and also has a 3.08 ERA in 117 career postseason innings.

He’ll face either the Cubs or the Pirates, in St. Louis. No word yet on the order, but Michael Wacha, Lance Lynn, and Jaime Garcia figure to follow Lackey in the rotation.

The Yankees were booed last night. Did they deserve it?

Masahiro Tanaka

The boos came raining down from the Yankee Stadium faithful last night. They started when Brett Gardner grounded out in the eighth inning. More came later. A lot of it was, no doubt, based on Gardner’s disappointing performance late in the season. A lot of it was because, around that time, it seemed like the Yankees had zero shot whatsoever to mount a comeback. Which, in fact, they didn’t. A lot of it was pent-up frustration, I assume, from a late season skid which saw the Yankees lose their lead in the AL East and wind up in the Wild Card Game in the first place.

Anyone who buys a ticket has a right to boo. Especially when they buy a ticket as expensive as Yankees tickets are. It’s obviously understandable to be disappointed when your team loses. Especially when your team is eliminated like the Yankees were. And last night’s game was particularly deflating, with that 3-0 Astros lead feeling more like 10-0 given how things were going.

But isn’t booing something more than a mere manifestation of disappointment? Isn’t a step beyond? Booing isn’t saying “I’m sad.” It’s saying “you suck!” It’s not saying “I’m disappointed,” it’s saying “you should be ashamed of yourselves!” And with all respect to Yankees fans, the 2015 Yankees have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.

This was a club expected to miss the playoffs, full stop. Maybe some people allowed for an if-everything-breaks-right flight of fancy, but hardly anyone expected them to play meaningful games late in the year, let alone a playoff game. They were too old. Too injured. There weren’t enough young reinforcements to fill the gaps. Some even went so far as to claim that they were about to spend years in the wilderness.

But then A-Rod broke out of the gate strong. And Michael Pineda had a really nice first couple of months. And Mark Teixeira put up numbers that wouldn’t have been out of place for him several years ago. The bullpen did what it was supposed to do and more, Masahiro Tanaka held together somehow and, eventually, a couple of young players like Greg Bird and Luis Severino came in to reinforce things. The not-going-anywhere Yankees were contenders. And they led the division for a good while. Of course they stumbled late. And of course they lost last night, but by just about any reasonable measure, this was a good team — better than expected — and, unlike a lot of Yankees teams in the past, was pretty darn enjoyable to watch.

Then the boos. I just can’t see how this Yankees team deserved that.

I realize a lot of people in the media have duped a lot of people into thinking that a team with a high payroll is supposed to be dominant. And I realize George Steinbrenner duped a whole lot of people into thinking that anything less than a World Series championship for the New York Yankees is failure. But that’s rhetoric and branding, not reason. In the real world where baseball players play baseball games World Series titles are rare, even for the Yankees. At the end of the season all but one of 30 teams are either at home for the playoffs or went home after suffering a gut-wrenching playoff loss. The Yankees are the most dominant franchise in the history of American professional sports yet they still have finished their year without a title over 75% of the time.

With that as a given, fans are left to judge their team’s performance based on its talent, its health, its heart, its entertainment value and the strength of the opposition which ultimately vanquished it. The Yankees weren’t nearly as talented as many, yet made the playoffs anyway. They were a walking hospital ward, let limped on. They never quit and never got pulled down into the sort of muck a lot of New York teams find themselves in when things start to go sideways. And, ultimately, they were simply beat by a better team. By any reasonable measure the 2015 Yankees were a good story, a successful enterprise, a resilient bunch and no small amount of fun.

It’s OK to be sad that it ended as it did. But that doesn’t deserve to be booed. Not by a long shot.