Despite dominating for most of the regular season, they face a whole new set of challenges in their pursuit of the 2013 World Series Championship.
Here are three reasons why St. Louis may succumb to an early playoff exit.
Allen Craig's Absence
It was a bittersweet day for the Cards considering their announcement regarding Allen Craig.
Still bothered by a foot injury, general manager John Mozeliak has ruled out the star run producer for the upcoming NLDS, tweets Bob Nightengale of USA Today. There's also doubt about Craig's availability should St. Louis advance to the NLCS. He hasn't played since Sept. 4.
In 134 games this summer, the California native boasts a .315/.373/.457 batting line with a team-best 97 runs batted in. He's most valuable when at the plate with runners in scoring position. Craig has a jaw-dropping 1.138 OPS through 152 plate appearances in those situations.
Meanwhile, 25-year-old Matt Adams is receiving increased playing time. He has started 18 of 21 games since Craig went down with the injury, flourishing with a .325 batting average and six home runs in that span.
Unlike the All-Star he's replacing, however, Adams lacks the athleticism to occupy a corner outfield spot. He also struggles against left-handed pitching, whereas Craig was effective regardless of whether or not he had the platoon advantage.
Uncertainty at Closer
St. Louis opened 2013 without much confidence in its ninth-inning options. Six months later, the same statement applies.
Edward Mujica was largely effective in the interim, but he has admittedly been dealing with fatigue lately, per Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Notice how his performance has deteriorated in September:
|Apr. 2-14 (not closer)||5.0||1.80||0.80||5/1|
|Apr. 18-Aug. 26||52.1||1.72||0.78||38/2|
Trevor Rosenthal is next in the pecking order.
The flamethrower recorded the final out on Friday to clinch the division, and unlike Mujica, he isn't reliant on balls in play. In fact, his 108 strikeouts this season rank third among MLB relievers, according to FanGraphs, behind only Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen.
Even so, he's not an ideal candidate to save games. There have been two recent appearances—Aug. 10 and Sept. 16—in which Rosenthal surrendered three or more earned runs despite less than an inning of work. Those implosions cannot happen in October.
While the Birds undoubtedly benefit from great bullpen depth, they won't make that trip to the White House unless somebody suddenly solidifies the all-important closer's role.
The Los Angeles Dodgers are locked into the No. 3 NL playoff seed. That means this club will likely oppose them in the NLDS. The Atlanta Braves hold the tiebreaker over the Cardinals as a result of winning their head-to-head series, and they both enter Saturday with 95-65 records.
Kershaw, the best pitcher on the planet, is projected to start Game 1 of the matchup on regular rest, so he'll also be available for a potential winner-take-all Game 5. In case you're unfamiliar, the left-handed workhorse has started his career on a historically significant pace, and he's peaking right now (1.83 ERA, 0.92 WHIP in 236.0 IP in 2013).
Which of these challenges should worry the Cardinals most?
The Cards have faced him only once during the past 14 months (Aug. 6 at Busch Stadium). Neither Adams nor Yadier Molina started that evening. It's obviously a problem when two of your middle-of-the-order hitters aren't well acquainted with the opposition's superstar.
Just like in 2006 and 2011, this proud franchise has slim-yet-realistic odds of overcoming adversity and raising another championship banner.