The St. Louis Cardinals celebrate after defeating the Cubs and winning the National League Central Division on Sept. 27.
Having already clinched its first National League Central division title in four years, St. Louis completed a three-game sweep of division rival Chicago Sunday to secure the NL’s best record and home-field advantage throughout the 2013 playoffs.
With 11 World Series championships, the Cardinals will venture into October hunting for their second title in three years.
The NL's No. 1 seed, the Cardinals don’t boast an unstoppable rotation or an influx of power hitters with 30-plus home runs or 100-plus runs batted in. Rather, the youngest team to reach the postseason in 2013 has been ignited by green faces. Twenty rookies to be exact, including 12 rookie pitchers.
As always, questions surround youth and inexperience. The same can be said of injuries. And St. Louis is no stranger to the latter.
Here are five questions facing the Cardinals as they prepare for the postseason:
1) How will the young rotation hold up?
Staff ace Adam Wainwright heads a rotation lacking postseason experience, but one full of raw talent. Wainwright finished with 19 wins, tied for the most in the NL. Backing Wainwright will be Lance Lynn, who completed his second season as a starter and rookies Shelby Miller, Michael Wacha and first-year starter Joe Kelly.
Lynn, who posted 11 wins to four losses prior to the All-Star break, struggled in season’s second half. In 14 starts, Lynn was 4-6 with a 3.93 ERA in 84.2 innings pitched.
Miller, a highly coveted prospect, shined en route to a 15-win campaign. But the 22-year-old hurler worked 173.1 innings, the most he’s ever pitched, including the minors. (Miller pitched 139.2 innings in 2011 while spending stints in Palm Beach and Springfield).
Kelly is relatively new to the starting role, though he was in the mix for the fifth spot in the rotation during spring training. The hard-throwing right-hander owns the third-best record (8-2) in the NL following the All-Star break.
Wacha, another touted prospect, has just nine major league starts under his belt.
Of the five starters, only Wainwright and Lynn have started postseason games.
Will the young guns continue to grow and rise up to the challenges of the postseason, or will they skitter and fall into decline?
2) How will the bullpen hold up?
At times the bullpen has been vulnerable, especially with the late-season struggles of closer Edward Mujica. Five relievers will be making their postseason debut, including Kevin Siegrist, Seth Maness, Sam Freeman, Carlos Martinez and Tyler Lyons.
According to Fan Graphs, Cardinals rookie relievers are a combined 14-7 with five saves and a 2.74 ERA over the course of 256 appearances and 265.2 innings pitched. Those numbers rank in the top five in the NL. More impressive, Cardinals rookie hurlers own an NL-best 3.6 wins above replacement.
On the other side, the Cardinals boast six pitchers who have postseason experience, including Mujica, Trevor Rosenthal, Randy Choate, Fernando Salas, John Axford and Jake Westbrook. Combined, the group is 3-0 with a 2.195 ERA with three saves in nearly 50 innings of work.
Will the rookies continue to shine in October? If not, the Cardinals will be in trouble.
3) Will the offense carry over into October?
This is perhaps the biggest question looming over the club. The Cardinals scored the most runs (783) in the NL over the regular season. They also boasted the most doubles (322) and RBI (745).
However, the Cardinals struggled at the plate during the 2012 playoffs. In comparison to the other four NL teams that reached the postseason last year, the Cardinals ranked fourth in average (.234), third in on-base percentage (.312) and last in slugging percentage (.367).
Will Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran, Yadier Molina and Matt Carpenter continue to rip the cover off the baseball? Will rookie sensation Matt Adams continue his power surge?
After a slow start to the season, Holliday posted a .348 clip with nine homers and 47 RBI following the All-Star break.
4) How will the Cardinals cope without Allen Craig?
There’s no question the Cardinals will miss their best clutch hitter in Craig, at least for the Division Series. Craig, who continues to nurse a sprained foot, posted monumental numbers with runners in scoring position, hitting .454 with four homers and 83 RBI and scoring 57 times this season. The 29-year-old, who signed a five-year extension last offseason, also led the league with runners in scoring position with two out, accumulating a .448 mark with 38 RBI and a pair of homers to boot.
However, rookie Adams aka “Big City” has crushed the ball since taking over for Craig at first base. The rookie left-handed slugger ended the regular season with a .284 mark to go along with 17 home runs and 51 RBI. As a left-handed hitter, those figures are mighty impressive.
Imagine the Cardinals offense in the postseason with both Craig and Adams in the lineup. For now, they'll have to do without the former.
5) Will manager Mike Matheny and the Cardinals learn from last season’s disappointment?
The Cardinals defeated the Cubs and clinched the NL Central Division title last Friday night, but this team has been in a similar situation before. Revert back to last season when the Cardinals squeaked into October as a Wild Card, defeated Atlanta in the one-game playoff and rallied against Washington to advance to the NLCS before coughing up a 3-1 lead in the series to eventual World Series champion San Francisco.
Manager Mike Matheny and his club are happy to own the division crown, but the Cardinals aren’t slowing down. They’re hungry for more.
Why stop now?
“People have asked me why we’re not emotional,” Matheny said last week, courtesy of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “They say we look subdued, always intense. That our actions are methodical, robotic at times. That’s what got us here. This isn’t the time to change it.”
Veterans like Beltran, Molina, Holliday and Wainwright haven’t forgotten the sour taste left behind after last October’s monumental collapse with a World Series berth one game away. This is the makeup of a championship-caliber team, a group never satisfied, always hunting for more.
“It’s kind of our personality,” Matheny said, courtesy of the Post-Dispatch. “There’s a whole lot of unfinished business. And these guys go about this game as professionally as you can. They realize that there’s a lot of work to do.”