Cards ready to ride core back to World Series
Most of 2013 roster returns, while Peralta, Bourjos strengthen team
ST. LOUIS -- The Cardinals were quick to act this offseason, filling their three primary areas of need by mid-December. Now, the organization merely awaits the payoff.
The Cardinals have little work left to do before players and staff members descend upon Jupiter, Fla., in February for the start of another season. When they do, they'll find a new face at shortstop (Jhonny Peralta), another option in center (Peter Bourjos) and a veteran (Mark Ellis) ready to provide value on and off the field. But there will be absences, too, most notably with Chris Carpenter, David Freese and Carlos Beltran having moved on.
The defending National League champions are pleased with their core and content that their winter shopping is done. Yet questions do remain heading into 2014. Here are 10 of them to consider as the calendar turns:
10. Where will the leadership come from?
Though the Cardinals have maintained a winning culture, they have watched several of their veteran leaders exit the clubhouse in recent years. Two years ago, the club lost Lance Berkman, Skip Schumaker and Kyle Lohse. This year, Carpenter, Jake Westbrook and Beltran are among those who departed. It's a changing of the guard, of sorts, and the Cardinals will now look to a new bunch to assume those leadership roles. It's not so critical as to who will step up, but simply that someone will to fill this veteran void.
9. Will Adam Wainwright endure any negative effects from his 2013 workload?
Two years removed from Tommy John surgery, Wainwright erased any concerns about him not being able to regain his place among the game's elite. He finished second in the NL Cy Young Award race in 2013, but he was also needed to carry an innings workload of 276 2/3. It was a number Wainwright has never come close to hitting before. The Cardinals have noted that they will give Wainwright the option of following a modified Spring Training program if he would like. The Cards need Wainwright to serve as an ace, and are therefore banking on him returning fully fresh after a demanding season.
8. Will the offense show more power?
The Cardinals were terrific hitting with runners in scoring position in 2013, but every expectation is that they will regress toward the mean in that area in '14. That will require the offense to find other ways to drive in runs. One solution would be through a display of more power. A year after boasting a lineup with five 20-homer guys, the Cards ranked 13th in the NL with 125 home runs in 2013. Only two Cardinals hitters reached the 20-homer mark. With Peralta and Matt Adams poised to be in the starting lineup, there does seem some potential for added pop.
7. How much better will the defense be?
With one November trade, the Cardinals believe they improved defensively at three positions. That was seen as a must this winter after St. Louis finished as one of the worst defensive teams (based on various metrics) in baseball last season. Bourjos, acquired for Freese and Fernando Salas, gives the Cardinals one of the game's elite defensive center fielders. Swapping Freese for Matt Carpenter improves the range at third base. Second base should be a handled fine by Kolten Wong and/or Ellis. Upgrades on defense could make the Cardinals' pitching staff even more formidable.
6. Will Wong be the right fit at second base?
The Cardinals have been bold with their confidence in Wong, who will get every opportunity to earn the second-base job despite limited Major League experience to this point. He is the most unproven position player projected to open the season in the team's lineup. The Cardinals believe that Wong's production in the Minors (he hit .301 over three seasons) will translate into success in the Majors, even though Wong went just 9-for-59 with the Cards last season. His defense and basestealing abilities are much less in question than the bat. Bringing Ellis into the organization does give the Cardinals insurance in case Wong struggles.
5. What will the encore be for Matt Carpenter?
For the first time in his career, Carpenter will show up in Spring Training with a starting Major League job in hand. The unknown now is whether his 2013 breakout season is a harbinger for production to come. Carpenter is expected to slide back over to third base, a position he has played for years. He'll likely get strong consideration to stay in the leadoff spot, where the Cardinals will count on Carpenter to again be a table-setter. He led the Majors in hits, runs scored and multi-hit games last season. Carpenter should also benefit from the time off he enjoyed this winter.
4. Can the rookies repeat their success?
The Cardinals needed contributions from several rookies to make a successful push to and through the postseason in 2013. Now, they have built a roster where they will be reliant upon continued production from those youngsters. Trevor Rosenthal will get the chance to solidify his place as closer. Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha will be challenged to help anchor the rotation. Kevin Siegrist, Seth Maness and Carlos Martinez could again hold critical bullpen roles. The Cardinals will seek middle-of-the-order production from Adams as he gets his first chance to be the team's everyday first baseman. There could be sophomore stumbles for this bunch, but the Cardinals are going to need key contributions from this young core.
3. When and where will Oscar Taveras make his debut?
If, as expected, Taveras reports to Spring Training fully recovered from right ankle surgery, the Cardinals then have to turn their attention to placement. Taveras is projected to begin the year starting in Triple-A, but a strong showing in camp could persuade the Cardinals to add him to their Opening Day roster. If he does make that jump, the Cards could use Taveras in any number of ways. He could be an everyday starter in right field, which would affect playing time earmarked for Adams (with Allen Craig sliding over to first base). If the Cardinals choose to try him in center, that would affect the roles of Bourjos and Jon Jay. And if the Cards decide to have their top prospect get a bit more Minor League seasoning before bumping him up, the question then becomes how long he remains away.
2. Who will make the rotation cut?
The Cardinals have the luxury of having too many starting pitchers for too few rotation spots. While the club is glad to enjoy that sort of depth, there will be a lot of Spring Training scrutiny as the organization begins to whittle down the list of candidates. Wainwright will return as ace. Jaime Garcia, a lefty, will be back from injury and ready. Another five pitchers -- Miller, Lance Lynn, Wacha, Joe Kelly and Martinez -- could also make an argument for rotation inclusion. Once the Cardinals find clarity with their rotation, they can backfill the bullpen with the extra arms.
1. Can the Cardinals repeat as NL champs?
Expectations are high for the defending champions of the Senior Circuit, who have both a division title and a pennant to defend. The Cards haven't won the NL Central in consecutive seasons since 2004-06, and they haven't been to back-to-back World Series since 1967-68. Repeating as league champs has become tougher in the expansion era, but the Cardinals are set up to contend again. They went through minimal offseason turnover and appeared to address their biggest deficiencies through winter moves.