The St. Louis Cardinals enter the 2014 calendar year as the defending National League champions. As we start to look ahead to the 2014 season, it is hard to ask the team to do more than what it has already been doing. It's a successful franchise.
Of course, it is fair to say we want them to win the World Series. That's a statement every fan should be making about his or her team right now. It is is the ultimate goal.
Short of that, what can we ask this team to do better?
The team has made some changes this offseason. Due to those changes, expectations are being set in many minds. Players will be returning from injury, highly anticipated young players will be reaching the major leagues, veteran players will be looking to take that next step, and some weaknesses can be addressed.
One of the most successful teams in the National League has room for improvement in 2014. The following eight things are what we want to see this season. If they all come true, this team may be unstoppable.
This list starts with the injection of speed into the lineup. It may not be as important as other things on the list, but it can make a difference in 2014.
The Cardinals made a few changes this offseason that should produce a bit more speed in 2014. That speed needs to be leveraged and used to help the team produce runs when the bats are quieter than normal.
The Cardinals acquired speedy outfielder Peter Bourjos in a trade with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. That trade sent David Freese to the West Coast. Ultimately, the assumption has become that Bourjos will see substantial time in center field, Matt Carpenter will move to third base and young Kolten Wong will take over at second base.
Adding Wong and Bourjos to the lineup gives the team an element of speed it did not have in previous years. Utilizing that speed to give team more run-scoring opportunities can make a big difference. Not playing station-to-station baseball and creating more opportunities to score runs when the bats are quiet can propel this team even further into dominance.
Mike Matheny will need to utilize the speed he has inherited to move runners along the bases and help the team win when the offense struggles. We want to see the Cardinals running more often and generating runs without the need for big hits.
Utilizing speed is important, but slightly more important is getting production from the players outside of the starting eight. These men can play a key role in the success of this club more than the speedsters on the basepaths can.
The Cardinals put together a great lineup in 2013 that featured a balanced approach and solid production from key players, but going beyond the starting lineup yielded very few positive results.
The team has made efforts to improve the bench entering the 2014 season. Mark Ellis was added for infield depth, which will keep the team from relying on Daniel Descalso as its primary option. Descalso is a sure-handed defender, but he lacks punch at the plate. The addition of Bourjos allows Jon Jay to fill a fourth outfielder role, which is an improvement over Shane Robinson and Adron Chambers.
The team has to be able to rely on players to come off the bench and provide more than just speed and defense. It needs players who can deliver pinch hits, drive in runs and make a difference late in baseball games.
We want to see this improve so the team can be more successful in close games going forward.
The speed and the bench play roles, but the youth of this organization will play a far greater one in 2014.
The Cardinals have one of the best farm systems in baseball, according to Matt Eddy of Baseball America. Entering 2014, they will rely on a few players from that system to play key roles. We want to see two of those players reach their potential.
Speedy second baseman Kolten Wong is poised to become a starter entering the season. A young player who has been successful offensively throughout his minor league career, Wong has yet to realize his potential on the big league stage. The team would benefit greatly from him reaching his potential very early this season.
Oscar Taveras was slowed last year by ankle injuries, but the team appears to be giving the outfielder the opportunity to earn a spot on the roster when it breaks from spring training. Taveras can be a big part of the Cardinals' success in 2014 if he can reach his potential and find himself in St. Louis instead of Memphis to start the season.
Last season's story was written primarily by young pitchers reaching their potential. This season, we want to see Wong and Taveras do the same.
Moving up the list gets us to one of the key points for any club: defense. For the Cardinals, it is important enough to rank fifth on the list of things we want to see.
The roster adjustments this offseason could potentially lead to new faces at six of the eight defensive positions since Opening Day last year. The team sent a clear message with its moves: It wants to improve its defense.
Bourjos, Wong and Jhonny Peralta will experience their first Opening Day as members of the St. Louis Cardinals in 2014. Matt Carpenter will likely play third base instead of second base, where he was when the season began in 2013. Allen Craig will likely find himself in right field, while his position from last season, first base, will be occupied by Matt Adams.
Many feel that Adams, Wong, Carpenter and Bourjos are defensive upgrades at their respective positions. Peralta is likely worse than Pete Kozma was defensively, but he is more than capable at shortstop. Allen Craig may be the only defender who is considered a major downgrade.
The defense can help turn close games around and prevent runs from scoring on mental and physical errors. A strong defense can also inject confidence into pitchers, allowing them to pitch with a bit more vigor.
We want the team to perform better defensively in 2014, and it seems to be on the right track.
Fourth on our list is our first individual call-out. The team has collective goals, but one of the most important things to see will be the return of a dynamic pitcher.
Often injured and occasionally ineffective, left-hander Jaime Garcia will return to the team this spring and attempt to reclaim his position in the rotation. The time has come for Garcia to show what he is really made of.
At times, Garcia is brilliant and almost unhittable. At others, he appears to be shaken and lacks the focus to get the job done. The team seems to expect him to be a part of the starting rotation in 2014, and if he pitches well, he certainly deserves to be.
With a bevy of young, talented arms coming through the system, the Cardinals have the luxury of replacements for Garcia if he is not the dominant pitcher they feel he can be. Garcia will have to pitch while peering over his shoulder at potential replacements throughout the season.
We want to see the real Jaime Garcia in 2014. If that person is inconsistent and shaky, that's fine—the team can make the necessary adjustment to the rotation. If he is dominant and effective, even better—the team knows it can count on him.
Either way, we are ready to see the player he really is.
As we near the top of the list, only a couple of things are more important than the team making strides to win and win decisively.
The Cardinals may have had the National League's best record by the end of 2013, but there were times throughout the season they did not seem like that team. Their division-winning record of 97-65 gave them the smallest margin of victory among all National League division winners.
The Cardinals were the National League champions in 2013. By most accounts, they have improved that team this offseason. When they take the field in 2014, it will be time to show just how dominant they are. Victories will need to be statements.
We want to see this team establish itself as the clear-cut leader within the division and the league. That starts with statement victories and pulling away from the competition within the division.
When listing the things we want to see from the club this season, only one thing is more desirable than seeing the team hit the ball out of the yard more often. Home runs can be a bit cliche, but producing them ranks high on this list.
Runners in scoring position (RiSP) became the biggest catchphrase for St. Louis in 2013. The team's ability to get a hit when there was a runner on second or third base was uncanny. That success allowed them to overcome a lack of power to still win games.
The Cardinals seemed to take a different approach at the plate last season. Shorter swings and hitting to the opposite field became routine. They found ways to drive in runners when the situation dictated it.
But we did not witness statement-making big hits very often. A single with a runner on second would produce a run, but the team lacked the fortitude to produce a two-run blast in that situation.
The players are there. Matt Holliday, Allen Craig, Yadier Molina, Matt Adams and Jhonny Peralta are all home run threats. They can all produce big hits and drive in their share of runs.
We want to see the team drive the ball out of the park and win games. We want the feeling late in baseball games that any swing could end it. We want to see scoring innings become big innings with one swing of the bat.
More than anything else on this list, we want to see one of the most deserving men in baseball reach the ultimate individual prize. The Cardinals ace is poised to put together a Cy Young Award-winning season, and we want to see it in 2014.
The St. Louis core might be the young pitchers and hitters, but the leadership is fairly clear. Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina may as well have "C" on their chests; they are the captains of this club.
Wainwright has spent his career just outside the discussion of the best pitchers in the league. He was overshadowed by his mentor, Chris Carpenter, and players from other organizations who put up career years. Despite his injuries, he has established himself as one of the best pitchers in the game today.
We want to see Wainwright make that final statement for himself. We want to see him go out and put together a masterful season that leaves little doubt that he is the best pitcher in the league in 2014. He is one of the "good guys" of baseball, and we want to see him show the world that good guys can finish first.
None of these eight goals is too lofty for the team to reach. The Cardinals can continue to improve their impressive team by checking off the points on this list.
We have already said that the No. 1 thing on every team's list is to win the World Series, and we know that the goal of this franchise is to do just that. If the Cardinals can accomplish all eight things on this list, that will be the obvious conclusion.
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