Five questions: St. Louis Cardinalsby Greg Simons
March 20, 2013
The 2012 campaign was another successful one for St. Louis. The Cardinals sneaked into the postseason as the second Wild Card and knocked off the Braves in the league's first play-in game. St. Louis then used the last of its residual magic from 2011 to upset the Washington Nationals, who of course were without Stephen Strasburg. But the Redbirds' good fortune expired after jumping out to a three-games-to-one lead on the eventual World Series champions from San Francisco.
The playoffs aren't taken for granted by Cardinals fans, but the team gives its supporters ample reason to expect a competitive team year after year, and 2013 will be no different. As with any team, there are concerns, so what are the particular issues St. Louis needs to tackle leading up to Opening Day?
Who's taking the bump?
The season hasn't even started, and the Cardinals have lost one of their rotation members: Chris Carpenter's continued nerve and numbness issues are likely to shelve him for 2013—and quite possibly for good.
Not quite as big a question mark, but still concerning, is Jaime Garcia's shoulder. I witnessed first-hand last fall as Garcia's injury forced him out of the NLDS Game Two and the rest of the postseason. After a winter of rehabbing, Garcia has said he feels good this spring, and maintaining his health will be vital for the Cards' chances of playing into October again.
One pitcher who is much less of a health concern two years removed from his date with an operating table and Tommy John surgery is Adam Wainwright. Some of his early 2012 starts were a bit shaky as he got his groove back, but Wainwright clearly is the staff ace heading into the new campaign, and he is expected to set the tone for his rotation mates. If the team and Wainwright's agent can find common ground, he could be the ace for the next several years, but free agency looms at this point. Wainwright said it won't be a distraction.
Jake Westbrook may not be an exciting pitcher—his black-ink contributions are composed of leading the league in complete games in 2004, shutouts in 2006 (with two!) and hits allowed that same '06 season—but he's a reasonably dependable No. 4 starter. He appears to be lined up for the No. 3 slot for St. Louis, though. Ideally, that will be nothing more than semantics; the hope is that the youngsters will out-pitch Westbrook.
And that brings us to the question of the final two rotation slots, which initially looked to be a battle among four candidates—Lance Lynn, Joe Kelly, Shelby Miller and Trevor Rosenthal.
Lynn's work last year—including 18 wins and an All-Star berth—gave him a significant leg up on the competition. That experience and success, along with Carpenter's injury, appear to have locked up a spot for the slimmed-down righty. However, Lynn wore down as the 2012 season progressed, so he'll need to maintain effectiveness while adding some endurance if he wants to hold off his competition throughout the year.
Rosenthal was a starter most of his minor-league career, but he was deployed out of the bullpen with great success when he was called up last year. His sizzling fastball—which I also was able to witness in the NLDS—will be ticketed for the bullpen again in 2013, at least to begin the year. However, Rosenthal should be prepared to start if and when he's called upon. If given a shot at the rotation, he's a good bet to open some eyes and set himself up for a season-long starting role in 2014.
While Kelly made 16 starts in his debut season last year, he was seen as a place-holder while other pitchers got healthy. He would be a solid choice to slot into the 2013 rotation, but he's being pushed by a former first-rounder who has been viewed as a future rotation piece since the day he was drafted.
Miller, the team's first-round pick in 2009, has been a top-rated prospect as he's steadily risen through the minors, and he was placed in most prognosticators' top 10 again this spring. After working through some maturity issues in 2012, Miller's time to start seems to be now, though he has to get past Kelly first.
Even if Miller gets tabbed, he may receive the kid-glove treatment of shorter outings or skipped starts—especially is his early-spring shoulder soreness rears its ugly head again—and the presence of Kelly makes this approach completely workable. If he's given 25 or so starts, Cards fans should get a great look at their future top-of-the-rotation stud.
Middle-infield instability again?
In last year's Five questions article on the Cardinals, I asked who would man second base from the unispiring trio of Skip Schumaker, Daniel Descalso and Tyler Greene. Well, Schumaker and Greene are gone, which might have made Descalso more confident in holding down the starting role he held for a good portion of 2012, but ... uh, no.
The Cardinals have had Matt Carpenter—nominally a third baseman, but a four-corners guy last year—work this winter at the keystone. It seems Descalso's career .245/.318/.337 BA/OBP/SLG isn't viewed as a positive, though his defense is sure to surpass Carpenter's ability at a new, more demanding position. The tradeoff between offense (lil' Carp has hit .283/.359/.447 in 359 big-league plate appearances and .299/.408/.450 in the minors) and defense will have to be balanced, so if Carpenter does get the bulk of the starts, expect to see Descalso on the field in the late innings of most games.
Of course, these two second sackers probably are just keeping the seat warm until Kolten Wong arrives. While his minor league numbers (.300/.363/.434) look similar to what Carpenter has achieved in the bigs, the team sees continued growth from his bat, and he actually can play second base, so he is viewed as a long-term solution who melds the best of both of the incumbents. In other words, Carpenscalso can be abbreviated as Wong.
On the other side of second base, the unsurprising development that Rafael Furcal will miss the year following Tommy John surgery creates a bit of a mess. While Pete Kozma delivered big-time in his late regular-season run last year, it's difficult to see him performing anywhere near that level over a full season, especially since his career minor league numbers are .236/.308/.344. Players almost never blossom at the big league level, and it's unlikely Kozma will be the exception. Still, he's the probable Opening Day shortstop and is likely to get the bulk of the playing time.
While this isn't is appealing, at least the Cards didn't drop $10.5 million on Stephen Drew.
When will St. Louis fans see Oscar Taveras?
The system's highest-regarded prospect—and one of the best prospects in all of baseball—Taveras seems to be on a collision course with the majors sometime this season. After hitting .303/.342/.485 as an 18-year-old in Rookie League ball in 2010, he upped his performance to .386/.444/.584 in Single-A the next season, and last year in Double-A, Taveras put up a .321/.380/.572 line with 23 homers and 94 RBIs.
Barring some sort of stunning development, such as an injury to one of the Cardinals' starting outfielders, Taveras will begin the year in Triple-A, which is where he belongs. He needs more reps against advanced-level pitching, and he wouldn't get many at-bats as a backup outfielder in St. Louis.
Nagging injuries that cost Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday or Jon Jay a few days here or there won't be enough for GM John Mozeliak to summon Taveras from Memphis. However, if any of the three starters lose significant time—definitely not a desired outcome—Taveras is the most likely candidate to fill in.
Unless he utterly collapses in Triple-A, Taveras will be wearing a Cardinals uniform at some point in 2013. Most likely it will be as a September call-up, though a brief appearance earlier in the year while someone is on the DL might be worth it to give him a taste of the bigs before he is fully immersed in the experience.
Oliver, the projection system developed by THT's Brian Cartwright and available this season at FanGraphs, forecasts an impressive .296/.344/.483 line for the youngster, and even if you think that's optimistic, it's a strong indication of the expectations most prognosticators have for this intriguing talent.
For Cardinals fans chomping at the bit to see the player they expect to be their next star hitter, the wait is nearly over.
What if Taveras doesn't pan out?
It may be blasphemous to even hint at Taveras not being able to hit the ground running in the majors, to imply that a Hall of Fame career isn't all but guaranteed, but there certainly exists the possibility that he will suffer some setbacks, endure some failures, at the highest level of the minors. It could happen. If it does, and a starting outfielder does get hurt, then what?
It's odd that the Cards' least valuable outfielder may be the most difficult to replace. If Jay goes down, Beltran is too old to cover center any more, so the job would be handled by some combination of Adron Chambers and Shane Robinson. Neither player is a capable full-timer, though St. Louis could limp along with the two in a platoon for a brief stretch.
If Holliday or Beltran comes up lame, the Redbirds have a variety of options. Allen Craig could move to the pasture, with Ty Wigginton (shudder) or minor league thumper Matt Adams sliding into the first-base slot. Matt Carpenter could be thrown into the mix, too, giving Descalso more time at second base.
It's good to see the Cardinals have developed the hitting depth necessary to cover for injuries and other contingencies. And while Wigginton isn't someone you want to see start more than a handful of games every month, it's refreshing to see some right-handed thump on the bench, a bat more threatening than the versatile, slappy players of years past.
If Taveras needs the bulk of 2013 to be ready for the majors, St. Louis is poised to be patient. His time will come, but until then, the Cardinals are constructed for success.
Will the Cardinals make the playoffs again?
St. Louis slipped into the postseason last year on the strength of an 88-win campaign, fending off a late-season surge by the Los Angeles Dodgers. Heading into the 2013 season, there appear to be six leading candidates for the five available playoff spots.
The Dodgers have gotten stronger, adding Zack Greinke to front the rotation and Hyun-Jin Ryu to squeeze in somewhere, and they'll have full seasons of Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez and (if he's healthy) Carl Crawford. Meanwhile, the defending world champion Giants figure to be strong again, so those two squads will duke it out for supremacy in the West.
Over in the East, the Nationals picked up Denard Span to patrol center field and Rafael Soriano to lock down games, adding depth to what was already a strong bullpen. And Washington will get full seasons from Strasburg and Bryce Harper. Meanwhile, the Braves added both Upton brothers, though Chipper Jones retired and Brandon Beachy will miss a large chunk of the year as he recuperates from Tommy John surgery. With Miami weaker, the intra-division schedule will be a bit easier for those two teams.
At home in the Central, the Reds topped the Cardinals by nine games in the Central division last year and acquired Shin-Soo Choo, so they're sure to be tough once more. And, of course, the loss of Houston to the American League takes away a patsy for Cincinnati and St. Louis to pound on.
Add it all together, and the Cards are going to have a tough battle in their quest to reach the promised land of postseason baseball again. They've basically stood still while the rest of the league made efforts to improve.
Of course, injuries, trades, promotions and the inherently unpredictable nature of baseball's 162-game season mean today's leading contenders can fall on their faces (think 2012 Red Sox), and apparent bottom-feeders can challenge for the division (think 2012 Orioles). It sizes up to be another promising campaign in the Gateway City, and Cardinals fans can go into the year knowing their team is likely to be in the running throughout the 2013 season.
References and Resources
Thanks to Brian Cartwright for his Oliver projections and to FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference for the data.
Greg Simons finally, sadly has conceded that he won't have an MLB playing career. However, in his dreams, he's still the second coming of Ozzie Smith. Please don't wake him up, though you can e-mail him at gregbsimons AT yahoo DOT com.