Not only did the Cardinals finish at the top of Keith Law's organizational talent rankings, but they have a pretty good major league team, too. They have an excellent mix of overlooked players (Allen Craig, David Freese), legitimate stars (Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina), up-and-comers (Jon Jay, a boatload of pitchers), and aging-but-effective veterans (Carlos Beltran). After beating the Nationals in the Division Series, they looked primed for a back-to-back title run, but the Giants derailed their dreams in the NLCS. But they will be good again this year. Let's take a look:
CF Jon Jay (L): .295/.354/.412, 8 HR, 16 SB, 3.6 SB
3B David Freese (R): .301/.368/.476, 20 HR, 4.2 WAR
RF Carlos Beltran (S): .268/.354/.474, 25 HR, 11 SB, 3.2 WAR
LF Matt Holliday (R): .301/.385/.516, 27 HR, 5.0 WAR
1B Allen Craig (R): .301/.354/.519, 27 HR, 3.7 WAR
C Yadier Molina (R): .290/.350/.426, 14 HR, 8 SB, 5.6 WAR
SS Rafael Furcal (S): .267/.333/.374, 8 HR, 13 SB, 1.1 WAR
2B Daniel Descalso (L): .250/.322/.363, 4 HR, 0.6 WAR
As you'll notice, every one of the first six hitters is projected to get on base at a 35% clip or better, and all of them except for Jay have some power. Additionally, the Cardinals are perhaps the smartest base-running team in baseball. Jay, Holliday, and Beltran are all terrific on the basepaths; Beltran, in fact, is the all-time leader in stolen base percentage among players with at least 150 attempts, at better than 86%. Holliday may look less than graceful in pretty much everything he does (making him the anti-Beltran), but he runs well and fields well to boot. Take note of those projected steals for Molina. Eight! For a Molina! Granted, he's not his brother Jose (perhaps the slowest player in baseball), but none of the Flying Molinas are noted for their foot speed, and that just speaks to how smart a baserunner Yadier is. In the field, the Cardinals boast at least above-average defense across the diamond, with a fairly stellar outfield and of course the best defensive catcher in baseball, whose awareness, arm strength, and accuracy are enough to shut down any opponents' running game (there were fewer stolen bases attempted against Molina last year than seven other catchers allowed). The only major questions with the lineup are related to the performance of the middle infield, where Furcal is coming off of a major injury (Pete Kozma is waiting in the wings) and Descalso has yet to prove himself a solid major league regular. Should one of the outfielders go down, Oscar Taveras, the best pure hitting prospect in baseball, is waiting in the wings, with Matt Carpenter and Shane Robinson on the bench at the major league level.
So long as we're here, allow me to present an argument; Carlos Beltran, Hall of Famer. Granted, many of my fellow Mets fans may have thrown up in their mouths a little, thinking of the infamous strikeout in 2006, but take a look at the case. Since World War II ended, Beltran is probably one of the top ten switch-hitters to play the game (the others, in no particular order: Mickey Mantle, Pete Rose, Chipper Jones, Lance Berkman, Tim Raines, Eddie Murray, Bernie Williams, Ted Simmons, and Roberto Alomar). He is one of eight men in baseball history with 300 career home runs and stolen bases. Then factor in that Beltran was for years one of the very best defensive center fielders in baseball, until injuries forced a move to right field a couple years ago. I feel that Beltran in his prime was under-appreciated, both due to playing for so long in Kansas City, and for the fact that it never looks like he is playing hard. Beltran has been blessed with a peculiar grace that makes everything look ridiculously easy for him: the effortless swing that produces power from both sides, the long glides to track down fly balls in the gaps, and the subtly strong arm. I say yes; feel free to debate.
RHP Adam Wainwright: 203.0 IP, 174 K, 53 BB, 3.33 ERA, 3.13 FIP, 5.6 WAR
RHP Lance Lynn: 185.0 IP, 171 K, 67 BB, 3.84 ERA, 3.52 FIP, 3.1 WAR
LHP Jaime Garcia: 180.0 IP, 151 K, 47 BB, 3.60 ERA, 3.27 FIP, 3.7 WAR
RHP Jake Westbrook: 173.0 IP, 101 K, 58 BB, 4.21 ERA, 4.08 FIP, 1.7 WAR
RHP Shelby Miller: 124.0 IP, 134 K, 42 BB, 3.48, 3.31 FIP, 2.7 WAR
Unlike the lineup, the rotation is full of questions, even more so since the likely career-ending injury to Chris Carpenter announced earlier this week. Can Lynn handle a full year without breaking down? Is Garcia actually recovered from the shoulder problems that plagued him a year ago? Does Westbrook have anything left in the tank? And exactly how good are the young guns coming up? My answers: probably, doubtful, barely, and very. At least Wainwright provides some certainty at the top.
My guess is that not only will Miller break into the rotation and provide a presence, but that neither Garcia nor Westbrook sticks in the rotation all season, providing opportunities for Joe Kelly (who filled in ably as a rookie starter for much of last season when Carpenter was out) and flamethrower Trevor Rosenthal, who comfortably hits triple digits out of the bullpen but probably needs to be tried as a starter (much like Aroldis Chapman). It's possible that the Cards may yet re-sign Kyle Lohse to bolster the rotation, as he is still sitting out there on the market. Losing Rosenthal and/or Kelly would not be a major loss to a deep bullpen that already boasts Marc Rzepczynski (aka "Scrabble"), Edward Mujica, and Mitchell Boggs in front of closer Jason Motte, and will probably benefit the rotation both now and going forward. Still, there may be some growing pains, also known as the Cardinal offense needing to win a number of 8-7 games. Fortunately for them, they are well-equipped to do just that, and should contend for the division crown while settling for at least a wild card spot.