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2013 Preview: St. Louis Cardinals

By Dayn Perry | Baseball Writer
The St. Louis Cardinals are getting ready for the 2013 season. So what does the 2013 season have in store for them? (AP)

Spring training coverage | Cardinals: Camp report | Likes, dislikes | Prospect watch

The St. Louis Cardinals last season came within one game of winning their second consecutive pennant. As such, the offseason has brought very few changes (their signature addition is Randy Choate), but when you're in contending mode and the farm system is arguably the best in baseball, that's a good thing.

Now that manager Mike Matheny has his first season behind him and ace Adam Wainwright has his first post-Tommy John season behind, what will 2013 bring for those relentless contenders in St. Louis? Let's explore that very question in detail ...

Probable lineup

1. Rafael Furcal, SS
2. Allen Craig, 1B
3. Matt Holliday, LF
4. Carlos Beltran, RF
5. Yadier Molina, C
6. David Freese, 3B
7. Jon Jay, CF
8. Daniel Descalso, 2B

Probable rotation

1. Adam Wainwright
2. Jaime Garcia
3. Jake Westbrook
4. Lance Lynn
5. Shelby Miller

Bullpen construction

Closer: Jason Motte
Setup: Mitchell Boggs, Marc Rzepczynski

Notable bench players

IF Matt Carpenter, IF Ronny Cedeno, OF Shane Robinson, IF/OF Ty Wigginton, C Tony Cruz

Under-the-radar offseason transaction

2013 Team Previews
Spring Training Page

The trade that sent Skip Schumaker to the Dodgers in exchange for fringy minor-league infielder Jake Lemmerman isn't especially notable in a vacuum. However, the trade's implications for the Cardinals are. More specifically, the absence of Schumaker has prompted the Cardinals to give super-sub Matt Carpenter an extended look at second base. So far, so good on that front.

While Schumaker's value as a second baseman was confined to his ability to provide some OBP in platoon-advantaged situations, Carpenter is a better all-around hitter and figures to make a smoother transition to the keystone (thanks to his already having experience as an infielder). Schumaker is living, breathing, recently traded proof that the Cardinals will sacrifice fielding for hitting at the position, and Carpenter, if given the chance, could emerge as core contributor in 2013. The deal that sent Schumaker to L.A. made it all possible.

Fantasy Bust: Carlos Beltran

"If owners focus on Beltran's 32 home runs and 97 RBI from a season ago, they may feel emboldened to draft him among the top 30 outfielders. In fact, I did this myself in our early head-to-head mock draft conducted in December. I knew Beltran's power numbers were pumped up by an unsustainably high home run per flyball rate over the season's first two months, but what I overlooked was the severe deterioration in his plate discipline. He continued a four-year trend of swinging at offerings outside the strike zone at an increasing rate. Last season's 124 strikeouts -- his highest total since 2002 -- were no accident, and if the trend continues he could pay the price with a sub-.260 average and depleted power and run production stats. Resist the urge to take Beltran until 40 or so outfielders have come off the board." - Al Melchior [Full Cardinals fantasy preview]

Biggest strength

In 2012, the Cardinals ranked second in the NL in runs scored. However, once you consider the run-suppressing nature of Busch Stadium and the fact that the Cardinals topped the loop in OBP, you should consider this the NL's best offense a year ago. And that offense is still intact. Throw in what should be a full season of Allen Craig in tandem with more Matt Carpenter (and, by extension, less Skip Schumaker) and perhaps a measured dose of Oscar Taveras at some point, and you should expect the St. Louis offense to again be among the game's very best.

To be sure, there are concerns. Will decline take hold of Carlos Beltran, as Al Melchior forecasts above? Can Yadier Molina replicate his career numbers from 2012? How healthy will Rafael Furcal be? Will Mike Matheny opt for a defense-first approach at second base (i.e., will Daniel Descalso be the regular at the pivot)? The Cardinals also had the third-oldest offense last season (average age of 29.2), which increases the possibility of broad-based decline. Even with those concerns (and even with a team-wide propensity to hit into double plays), this is one of most powerful attacks in the game today. Scoring 800 runs is a possibility.

Biggest weakness

Given the (almost certain) loss of Kyle Lohse to free agency and the quasi-retirement of Chris Carpenter, most would point to the St. Louis rotation as the soft underbelly. However, as I've already opined, the Cardinals have such impressive pitching depth in the upper levels of the system that I think those concerns are overstated. Instead, it's the team defense that's the biggest worry headed into 2013.

Consider how the Cardinals fared last season in terms of these key statistical indicators …

Cardinals defensive rankings, 2012
StatNL Rank (out of 16)
Fielding %8th
ROE16th
DER11th
PADE10th
UZR12th

ROE - times opponent reached on error; DER - defensive efficiency rating; PADE - park-adjusted defensive efficiency rating; UZR - ultimate zone rating.

As you can see, every measure, whether traditional or advanced, colors the 2012 Cardinals as a comfortably below-average defense. That's even more troublesome when paired with a pitching staff that doesn't miss bats all that much (Cardinal hurlers ranked 10th in the NL in strikeouts as a percentage of plate appearances).

In the interest of keeping perspective, though, keep in mind that these numbers capture very little of what goes into catcher defense, and Yadier Molina famously excels at everything having anything to do with catcher defense.

Best-case scenario

The offense repeats its excellence from a season ago, Adam Wainwright returns to vintage form, Shelby Miller lives up to the press clippings, Jaime Garcia stays healthy ... If those things happen, then the Cardinals will usurp the Reds in the Central and be in the mix for top overall seed in the National Lague.

Worst-case scenario

While it's easy to imagine the Cardinals' falling short of expectations and missing the postseason, utter disaster seems impossible, thanks largely to the organizational depth in place. With that said, if all those unknown quantities in the rotation (and backing up the current members of the rotation) don't pass muster, the older position players show signs of decline (e.g., Holliday, Beltran, Molina, Furcal) and the middle-infield situation fails to stabilize, then the Cardinals could very easily finish out of playoff position and as low as third or fourth place in the division.

Most-likely scenario

Let's not forget that the Cardinals last season finished nine games back of the Reds in the NL Central. While the Cards' superior run differential suggests the two teams are much closer in quality than the standings would suggest, on a certain level nine games is nine games. The Reds have improved the offense with the addition of Shin-Soo Choo and figure to get more games out of Joey Votto this time around. As such, a division title for St. Louis doesn't seem to qualify as the "most likely scenario." So bet on a repeat of 2012 -- a wild-card berth for the Redbirds.

For more baseball news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnBaseball on Twitter, subscribe to the RSS feed and "like" us on Facebook. Also, individually interact with us on Twitter: @MattSnyder27, @daynperry and @mikeaxisa.

 
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