Over the last three seasons, the St. Louis Cardinals own a World Series title and have come within a victory of competing in three straight Fall Classics. Needless to say, life's pretty good for a franchise that has won two titles and appeared in eight League Championship Series since 2000.
Some organizations enjoy success, then struggle while they rebuild. The Cardinals rebuild while winning.
Even though the Redbirds played deep into October last season, there were holes to fill. New additions at shortstop and center field, coupled with some hyped rookies and rotation competition offer intriguing storylines for spring training in Jupiter.
With a strong track record of rookies delivering on their promise in St. Louis, the Cardinals look to Kolten Wong and Oscar Taveras to be the latest rookie cogs in their winning machine.
Wong inherited second base after the Redbirds shipped David Freese to Anaheim, sliding Matt Carpenter to third. Wong flopped in his cup of coffee in 2013 and had the dubious distinction of getting picked off first to end Game 4 of the World Series.
The former University of Hawaii star can shake off that embarrassing moment by providing the top-notch defense that had him voted as the premier defensive second basemen in the Pacific Coast League, as well as some much-needed speed to a usually dormant Cards running game. Wong does a little bit of everything offensively, as evidence by a .303/.369/.466 line in Triple-A Memphis to go along with 10 homers, 45 RBI and 20 steals.
Extended struggles from Wong would give more playing time to veteran Mark Ellis, signed partly as insurance but mostly as a right-handed platoon complement to Wong.
Taveras certainly would’ve made his debut in St. Louis in 2013 had he not suffered an ankle injury that ultimately led to surgery, cutting short his Triple-A season to just 46 games.
The Cardinals don’t need Taveras, ranked No. 3 in MLB.com’s top 100 prospect’s list, to make the team out of spring training. Not with Allen Craig manning right field and newly acquired Peter Bourjos and Jon Jay battling over playing time in center.
But Taveras could push his way onto the Opening Day roster with a healthy, strong showing in Jupiter. And if he can handle center field on even a part-time basis, he’ll get 300 at-bats and provide a lethal option off the bench.
At 22, Michael Wacha enters his first full Major League season with an NLCS MVP, a near no-hitter and the adoration of every female fan in St. Louis. In a matter of months, he emerged as one of the elite starters in baseball.
But instead of subjecting the former first-rounder to 200 innings in 2014, he’ll be treated with kid gloves—as he should. One of the advantages of the Cardinals’ pitching depth will be to monitor Wacha’s innings by skipping starts and using off days to give him extra rest. He’ll be this year's version of Shelby Miller.
And Wacha will go through his struggles like all young hurlers do. But there’s no indication he won’t continue to develop into an Adam Wainwright/Chris Carpenter hybrid.
The next step for Wacha is continued improvement on the curveball. He used the pitch more frequently in the postseason and was able to keep opposing hitters from eliminating that devastating changeup and focusing on the fastball.
The loopy version of the curve Wacha owned at Texas A&M is much tighter now, and much like the Cardinals did with Miller, Molina and pitching coach Derek Lilliquist will force Wacha to use it even when it’s not working.
Wacha also doesn’t seem to have an issue dealing with the increasing media spotlight. His aw-shucks southern humility hasn’t wavered since his debut, which will continue to serve him well in an admittedly mild media market like St. Louis.
By Thanksgiving, the Cardinals had filled their offseason wish list by acquiring Bourjos and signing shortstop Jhonny Peralta to a four-year, $53 million deal.
Peralta isn’t the defensive shortstop Pete Kozma is, but the former Tiger is above average and makes up for any defensive deficiencies with his bat.
The rub on this situation will be how Peralta is accepted into the Cards family and fanbase after serving a 50-game suspension in 2013 for performance-enhancing drugs.
Left fielder Matt Holliday, who has been outspoken regarding tougher penalties for PED users, told the Associated Press at the team’s winter warm-up in January he’s “happy to have him as a teammate. I’m against PEDs and always will be. But I also am a forgiving person and he served his suspension.”
Spring training will give us a better idea of where Mike Matheny plans to hit Peralta when the season starts. Carlos Beltran was the primary two-hole hitter in the St. Louis lineup last season, and his departure to the Bronx leaves Peralta as the early favorite to fill that void despite having never hit second in his career.
Only one spot in the St. Louis rotation is really in doubt heading into spring training. And all of that uncertainty will be put to rest if left-hander Jaime Garcia proves fully recovered from shoulder surgery.
Rookie Carlos Martinez would be a shoo-in to step into most rotations after his dazzling 2013 debut. He dominated Triple-A with a 2.49 ERA over 16 starts, then as a 21-year-old looked downright filthy as a late-inning reliever during the Cards’ postseason run to the World Series.
Ideally, Matheny wants a southpaw in the rotation. And it’s not like Garcia’s a slouch. Plus, the Cardinals’ unbelievable pitching depth affords the skipper the luxury of starting Martinez back in the minors or in the bullpen. With the club monitoring Wacha’s workload and the inevitable injury to someone in the starting five, Martinez is almost assured a handful of starts for St. Louis.
The bigger question is Martinez’s long-term role with the Redbirds. His dominant fastball/slider combination plays well in the late innings, possibly as a closer down the road. And his sleight build coupled with a slinging arm action could lead to injury under a starter’s workload.
The Cardinals’ front office also knows that further developing a third pitch could make Martinez a potential staff ace. He’ll get every chance to prove he can’t start in the majors before he finds a permanent home in the bullpen.
Peter Bourjos was a high-ranking prospect with the Angels before a wrist injury and Mike Trout’s emergence made him expendable in LA. With the November trade to St. Louis, Bourjos has found renewed life.
Defensively, Bourjos is a plus fielder who will be an upgrade over Jon Jay. According to FanGraphs, Bourjos’ UZR (Ultimate Zone Ranking) since his rookie campaign in 2010 is 40.1, second only to the Brewers’ Carlos Gomez. Playing in just 53 games last season, Bourjos’ defense struggled, posting a UZR of -0.3. But even that was light years better than Jay’s -7.3 UZR rating over a full season, placing him 20th among NL center fielders with at least 250 innings.
"I want to take away as many hits as I can, cut them off, keep them to singles," Bourjos told MLB.com. "Whether it's running into the wall or making a diving play, I want to do that. I really have fun out there playing center."
Bourjos, Peralta and Wong, along with the perennial Gold Glove-winning catcher Molina, completely reshapes St. Louis’ defense up the middle.
Offensively, Bourjos is just three years removed from a promising season that showcased his versatile skill set when he hit .271 to go along with 12 homers, 43 RBI and 22 steals in 2011. Matt Carpenter’s presence and Bourjos free-swinging approach means he’ll be ticketed for seventh or eighth on Matheny’s lineup card.