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.

And That Happened: Sunday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here’s where we stand:

  • The Indians salvaged one in their three-game series against the Twins, but losing two of three means that the Tribe is back four and a half for the AL Central lead with two weeks to play;
  • The A’s won again — they’re rolling — and the Rays lost, putting Oakland a game and a half up on Tampa Bay in race for the first Wild Card, with Cleveland trailing Tampa Bay by one and a half;
  • The Nats’ win keeps them one and a half up in the first NL Wild Card slot. Chicago and Milwaukee both won while the Mets and Phillies both lost to keep the Cubs up a game on the Brewers for the second Wild Card, the Mets three and a half out and the Phillies four and a half back.

Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Red Sox 6, Phillies 3: Christian Vázquez homered twice, one of which was a grand slam, accounting for five of the six Boston runs. They sweep the two-game series and have won three in a row overall. That’s nice, but I think the AP gamer’s mention that “Boston began play on Sunday trailing Tampa Bay by 10 games for the AL’s second wild card” is a tad superfluous at this point. Maybe everyone forgot how to talk about the Red Sox playing almost completely meaningless games?

Blue Jays 6, Yankees 4: Randal Grichuk homered twice and knocked in four as the Jays win on a day when both teams made it a bullpen game. At least on this day the Toronto bullpen was better, though the Yankees aren’t totally sad here seeing as though both Dellin Betances and Jordan Montgomery made their season debuts. Montgomery didn’t pitch too well. Betances threw only eight pitches but still struck out two dudes.

In addition to the Yankees being in Toronto this past weekend, so too were my parents, as they are on a ten-day driving vacation around Canada. I’m watching their cat and getting their mail and stuff. My dad called me yesterday to tell me that “the traffic in Toronto is TERRIBLE” and to ask, rhetorically, “how in the hell do people deal with the metric system?” Given that my dad has spent the vast majority of his 76 years on this planet living less than 100 miles from the Canadian border — and much of that living within bike-riding distance — given that he has traveled into and through Canada many, many times, and given that he spent his entire career in a scientifically-oriented field, neither Canada nor the metric system should be all that disturbing to him, so I’m gonna chalk it up to age. And that’s the case even if traffic in Toronto is terrible.

Now, where were we? Ah, baseball:

Indians 7, Twins 3: The Indians salvaged one in the three-game series and now trail the Twins in the Central by four and a half games, but with no more head-to-head matchups between these two they really needed a sweep or at least two of three. Roberto Pérez hit a three-run homer as part of a four-run rally in the sixth. Eddie Rosario homered twice from Minnesota and Miguel Sanó and LaMonte Wade Jr. went deep as well. Rosario’s first was his 30th on the year and now the Twins have four guys who have hit at least that many this season. They’re the first team since the 2009 Philadelphia Phillies to have pulled that off.

Nationals 7, Braves 0: The Braves clinched a postseason spot on Saturday but you can’t blame this one on a hangover lineup as just about all the regulars started. They just got whupped. Aníbal Sánchez spun a beauty against his old mates, allowing only three hits over seven shutout innings. Howie Kendrick homered and drove in three.

Orioles 8, Tigers 2: The second-worst team in baseball takes two of three from the worst team in baseball. Seems about right, I suppose. Probably a “victory” for the Tigers, though, right? As it gets them closer to the number one overall pick. A top overall pick all manner of teams who have been excellent for years haven’t had in decades, so maybe tanking in baseball is dumb. I dunno. I don’t know much about Spencer Torkelson. Maybe he’s the one player who can single-handedly turn a franchise around. Anyway, Asher Wojciechowski won for the first time in eight starts, allowing two runs and eight hits in five innings. Rio Ruiz hit a tie-breaking homer. Less than two weeks to go of this cursed season for each of these teams.

Astros 12, Royals 3: An unsurprising sweep. Josh Reddick hit a two run homer, had five hits and drove in three on the afternoon. Abraham Toro drove in three as well. Kyle Tucker hit a two-run homer. Yuli Gurriel hit a solo shot. It was the Astros’ 98th win, which ties them with the Yankees for the most in the bigs.

Brewers 7, Cardinals 6: The Brewers were down 4-3 and were down to their final strike in the top of the ninth inning when Ryan Braun smacked a grand slam to give them a three-run margin. It’d be a margin they’d need, too, as the Cards rallied for two themselves in the bottom of the ninth before coming up just short. All three of the baserunners Braun knocked in via that salami drew walks, by the way. That’s the kind of thing that takes years off a manager’s life. It was Milwaukee’s ninth win in ten games.

Watch Braun go yard:

Cubs 16, Pirates 6: A three game sweep thanks to 16 runs yesterday — and 47 runs in the three games — is pretty crazy, but losing Anthony Rizzo to a sprained ankle is rough stuff. Kris Bryant homered twice and Ian HappKyle Schwarber and Jonathan Lucroy each went deep themselves. The Cubs are hanging on by one game over the Brewers.

The Pirates, meanwhile, maybe committed the worst error of the season in this one:

 

Athletics 6, Rangers 1: Sean Manaea tossed six shutout innings and also forgot both the buttons to his jersey and an undershirt:

Hey, that chest piece ain’t gonna show off itself. Marcus Semien and Matt Chapman each homered. Neither of them decided to go with the 70s swinger look, however. Our loss.

Rockies 10, Padres 5:  Ryan McMahon homered twice and drove in four to give the Rockies the sweep and their fifth win in seven games. It was the Padres’ 81st loss, ensuring a non-winning record on the year. Which, yeah, will be a losing record given that they’re highly unlikely to win their final 13 games. The future looks bright but the present is still dim for San Diego.

Giants 2, Marlins 1: For non-divisional opponents it sure feels like these guys have played each other 19 times this year. Alas, it was only six, but the mind is a funny thing sometimes. Johnny Cueto tossed five shutout innings in his second strong start after coming off the injured list. Mauricio Dubón homered. Mike Yastrzemski scored the go-ahead run on a wild pitch.

Angels 6, Rays 4: Albert Pujols hit a three-run homer and drove in four on the day. The old man still’s an artist with the Thompson. Sometimes anyway. The Angels snapped a six-game losing streak. They also lost Mike Trout for the remainder of the season after learning that he’d need foot surgery, but it’s been a hell of a season for him, he should still win the AL MVP, even if a bunch of columnists crank out columns to the contrary this week that, secretly, they don’t even believe themselves.

Reds 3 Diamondbacks 1: Eugenio Suárez hit two of three Cincinnati homers to tie him with Pete Alonso for the MLB lead at 47. The two RBI also gave him an even 100 on the year. I think Suárez is a hell of a player, but I also think that we’ll look back at 2019 and its insane home run rate and hold up the 50 homers or whatever he ends up with as a symptom of the broader disease. He’ll be the 1987 Brook Jacoby of the New Rabbit Ball Era. Even if he’s a better player than Brook Jacoby was.

Mariners 11, White Sox 10: Chicago was up 10-5 after seven and a half when Kyle Seager singled in a run to make it 10-6, Kyle Lewis hit a three-run bomb to make it 10-9 and then Mallex Smith singled in a run to tie it up. After the M’s held serve in the top of the ninth José Ruiz of the White Sox gave up two singles — one of them to Lewis — and then intentionally walked a guy to load the bases with one out. He got Tom Murphy down one ball and two strikes, Murphy worked the count full and then ball four gave the M’s a walkoff walk. Lewis finishes his first week in the bigs having gone 9-for-25 with four homers, two doubles and nine driven in in six games. Not too shabby.

Dodgers 3, Mets 2: Zack Wheeler pitched brilliantly for seven innings and the Mets led 2-1 into the eighth, but they couldn’t hold it beyond that. Chris Taylor doubled in Jedd Gyorko to tie it up at two and, an inning later, Gyorko singled in Kiké Hernandez to put the Dodgers over. L.A. takes two of three in a series the Mets really needed to win.

Two weeks to go. Every game looms large for the contenders now.