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.

Marlins, Giants get into heated beanball war

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You may have heard that Giants closer Hunter Strickland broke his hand punching a door in frustration after Monday night’s subpar performance. He’ll miss six to eight weeks as a result. Strickland came in to protect a 4-2 lead but ended up giving up three runs. The tying run was knocked in by Lewis Brinson on a single to right field. Brinson moved to third base on a go-ahead single by Miguel Rojas, which prompted manager Bruce Bochy to take Strickland out of the game.

On his way to the dugout, Strickland started chirping at Brinson. Much like Bryce Harper and Strickland, Brinson and Strickland have a bit of a history. Last Thursday, Brinson handed Strickland a blown save with a sacrifice fly to deep center field. Brinson was happy to help his team tie the game, pumping his fast and saying, “Let’s go” at no one in particular. That rubbed Strickland the wrong way. Everything seems to rub Strickland the wrong way.

During Tuesday night’s game, Giants starter Dereck Rodriguez threw at Brinson with the first pitch, a 92 MPH fastball. Home plate umpire Andy Fletcher issued warnings to both benches. Manager Don Mattingly came out to argue, suggesting that his team hadn’t done anything wrong so it was unfair to essentially take the inside part of the plate away from his pitchers. On his way back to the dugout, Mattingly could be seen saying, “You’re next” to catcher Buster Posey.

The Giants scored twice in the bottom of the second against Dan Straily to extend their lead to 3-0. Posey came to the plate with a runner on first base and one out. Straily hit Posey with a 91 MPH fastball on the first pitch, prompting ejections of both Straily and Mattingly. Posey was hit on the arm. If the pitch had come in a bit lower and hit Posey on the wrist or hand, Posey might have had to go on the disabled list for a couple months. Or if the pitch had hit Posey a couple of inches higher, in the head, then who knows what would have happened.

Things calmed down from there, thankfully. The two clubs have one more game against each other in San Francisco on Wednesday and that will be the final time they meet this season. If anything further is going to happen — and hopefully, nothing happens — then it will come tomorrow.

Straily will almost certainly be facing a suspension and a fine, as will Mattingly. It’s less clear if Rodriguez and/or Bochy will be reprimanded for throwing at Brinson, even though it was fairly obvious the pitch was intentional. Regardless, the punishments amount to just one missed start for the pitchers, which isn’t nearly enough of a detriment to deter beanball wars.