2015 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 2015 season. Next up: The St. Louis Cardinals.

The Big Question: What will the Cardinals get from Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha?

Adam Wainwright posted a career-best 2.38 ERA in 227 innings last season, guiding the Cardinals to their second straight division crown and a fourth straight appearance in the NLCS. But he acknowledged to fans and reporters at the club’s annual Winter Warm-Up in January that he didn’t have the strength to open a can of soda by the end of the 2014 postseason.

Since returning from Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery in April 2012, the 33-year-old Wainwright has logged more innings (playoffs included) than any other pitcher in baseball. His right elbow needed a cleanup procedure back in late October and Wainwright had to be whisked away from Cardinals camp this spring shortly after arriving because he strained an abdominal muscle while trying to return a 45 lb. weight to a rack.

The guy is a workhorse — with the ribbons and medals and flowered saddles of a top-flight racehorse — but there are flashing neon signs that point to a full-on breakdown. Beyond the health stuff, look at his tumbling strikeout rate: Waino finished with a 7.1 K/9 in 2014 after posting an 8.2 K/9 in 2013 and an 8.3 K/9 in 2012.

And then there’s Michael Wacha, who appeared to be emerging as a co-ace to Wainwright in 2013 when he registered a 2.78 ERA and 1.098 WHIP over his first 64 2/3 major league innings before becoming the second-youngest player to be awarded NLCS MVP. Wacha had a 2.79 ERA through his first 15 starts last year until a stress reaction in his throwing shoulder put him on the shelf in mid-June. The 23-year-old right-hander returned in early September, but he did not look like the same dude and he eventually served up the meatball that ended the Cardinals’ 2014 postseason run. (Cardinals fans might not want to click on that link).

Wainwright and Wacha are both expected to be healthy, contributing members of the Cardinals’ rotation when the 2015 regular season begins and Wainwright will probably even get the nod on Opening Night against the Cubs, but you’d have to be wearing Cardinal-red-colored glasses to project 200 innings out of each of them.

What else is going on?

  • For all the doom and gloom presented in the paragraphs above, St. Louis is equipped with the kind of rotation depth to navigate around the loss of a front-line starter (though losing two would be a dagger for any team). Carlos Martinez, Jaime Garcia, and Marco Gonzales are battling for one spot this spring and they all carry some level of promise. Martinez doesn’t have sparkling numbers in the major leagues, but he’s a hard-throwing 23-year-old righty with a nasty array of breaking pitches. Garcia is claiming that he finally feels healthy after being limited to a total of 16 starts between 2013-2014 due to chronic shoulder discomfort. The left-hander boasts a 3.50 ERA in 594 2/3 career innings and he has a 2.91 career ERA at pitcher-friendly Busch Stadium. Gonzales, the 19th overall pick in the 2013 MLB Amateur Draft, owns a 2.48 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, and 8.7 K/9 in 145 1/3 minor league innings and has been the sharpest of the three in the 2015 Grapefruit League. One will slide into the rotation, one will probably head to the bullpen, and the Cardinals will likely stick the other guy at Triple-A Memphis as their “next man up.”
  • Lance Lynn and John Lackey are pretty good bets for 200-inning seasons with sub-3.75 ERAs. We could see a St. Louis rotation of Lynn, Lackey, Martinez, Garcia, and Gonzales at some point in 2015. That isn’t horrible, but it’s probably not a championship-level group either. The Cardinals have advanced to the NLCS in nine of the last 15 seasons — 2000, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014.
  • Oscar Taveras was supposed to take over as the Cardinals’ starting right fielder in 2015, but he killed himself and his girlfriend Edilia Arvelo when he wrapped his car around a tree while driving drunk in the Dominican Republic last October 26. Cardinals GM John Mozeliak moved quickly to bring in a replacement, acquiring outfielder Jason Heyward and setup man Jordan Walden from the Braves on November 17 for right-handers Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins. Heyward is expected to bat second for the Cardinals, behind Matt Carpenter and in front of Matt Holliday. It’s a great fit for the 25-year-old Heyward, who is due to become a free agent next winter. He registered an .849 OPS (131 OPS+) as a rookie in 2010 and he slugged 27 home runs as a 22-year-old in 2012. St. Louis will be hoping that Heyward — a terrific defender — can finally put it all together offensively, even if this only turns out to be a one-year rental.
  • St. Louis finished 23rd in the majors last season in runs scored. Teams like the Mets, Astros, and Marlins had more productive offenses. But that’s what happens when you don’t get a breakout year from any of your hitters and your luck with runners in scoring position dries out. On paper, the Cardinals’ lineup for 2015 looks as lethal as any lineup in baseball. Matt Carpenter takes great at-bats at the top. Jason Heyward can do it all. Matt Holliday still has some pop left in his 35-year-old bat. Matt Adams should be ready for a step forward in his age-26 season. Jhonny Peralta tallied 21 homers and 75 RBI last summer and led the team in WAR. Yadier Molina, an all-time-great defensive catcher, has slashed .307/.357/.460 over the past three years. Jon Jay put up a .372 on-base percentage in 2014. And second baseman Kolten Wong carries 20-homer, 20-steal potential into what will essentially be his sophomore campaign.

Prediction: If the Cards keep Wainwright and Wacha away from the disabled list, they’ll run away with the National League Central and march to their first 100-win season since 2005. If they lose one or both of those arms, the Redbirds will have some stiff competition in a division that doesn’t really have a bad team. I’ll guess Wainwright and Wacha combine for around 280 innings — just enough for first place in the NL Central.

Braves clinch postseason spot with 10-1 win over Nationals

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The Braves clinched a postseason berth with Saturday’s 10-1 win over the Nationals. Now, the only question is whether they’ll get there with an NL East division title or via one of two wild card spots currently up for grabs.

Granted, things are looking pretty good on the division title front. After losing their second straight game to the Braves, the Nationals sit 10.5 games back of first place in the NL East, and every other division rival is at least 15 games out. The Braves, meanwhile, carry a magic number of four; should they clinch, it’ll be their 19th franchise title and 14th since they migrated to the East division in 1994.

They certainly looked like postseason contenders on Saturday. Mike Foltynewicz led the charge with six innings of one-run, five-strikeout ball, limiting the Nationals to four hits while rookie right-hander Austin Voth kept the Braves scoreless through 5 2/3 frames. Things started to tip in Atlanta’s favor in the sixth inning: Nick Markakis put the team on the board with an RBI single, and a four-run breakout in the seventh helped cement a sizable lead. Over the last three innings, the Braves found opportunity after opportunity against the Nationals’ bullpen, capitalizing on walks, throwing errors, and productive outs as they climbed toward a double-digit finish.

The win didn’t come without some sacrifice, however. The Braves lost Charlie Culberson to a facial injury after he was struck by a Fernando Rodney fastball in the seventh inning, and they’ll likely be without him for the remainder of the regular season — pending a formal diagnosis, of course. Culberson’s loss isn’t the only one the club is feeling right now, either, as Johan Camargo ended his season with a hairline fracture in his right shin and Freddie Freeman is playing through a minor bout of elbow soreness after making an early exit from Friday’s 5-0 shutout.