The Cardinals won their fourth NL pennant in the last 10 seasons and were two wins away from their third World Championship in the last eight seasons in 2013. The World Series loss to the Red Sox took some of the shine off another successful year in St. Louis, and it does not appear the Cardinals will fall out of contention anytime soon. They have young talent all over the big league roster, a strong and productive farm system, and an excellent front office staff. They are arguably the best run team in the game and once again a threat to win the World Series title in 2014. Let's preview their season.
The farm system that has everything didn't have a shortstop, so the Cardinals handed a four-year contract to Peralta to address that need. Losing Carlos Beltran's production will sting, but I believe the downgrade from Beltran to Adams (who is essentially taking his everyday lineup spot, with Craig moving to right) is smaller than the upgrade from Pete Kozma to Peralta. The Cardinals have a history of using a strong batter in the two-spot of the lineup (Beltran, Larry Walker, etc.), so don't be surprised if Bourjos drops down and someone like Peralta moves up. Top prospect and outfielder Oscar Taveras figures to be a factor at some point this summer.
Martinez is currently competing against Joe Kelly for that fifth spot in the rotation and it really could go either way. I have Martinez listed in the rotation right now because that's who I hope will win the job. The kid is exciting to watch. Miller was excellent as a rookie last season before fading late, and Wacha was just brilliant down the stretch and into the postseason. Jaime Garcia's shoulder is acting up again, and, given his history, the team probably can't count on him this year. Whatever he gives them is a bonus.
Motte is currently rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and won't be ready to start the season. His spot could go to someone like RHP Keith Butler or LHP Sam Freeman for the time being. Rosenthal established himself as one of the best relievers in the game last year and now he'll get a chance to close full-time. Maness and Siegrist had a combined 2.77 ERA in 101 2/3 innings last season. I mean, if you add their ERAs together (2.32 and 0.45, respectively), you get 2.77. Ridiculous.
Under-the-radar offseason transaction
Mark Ellis. Wong is a promising prospect but Ellis, who signed a one-year deal worth $5.25 million over the winter, gives them some veteran protection in case things don't go according to plan. The 36-year-old remains a strong fielder at second and he quietly hit .282/.331/.412 (109 OPS+) against left-handed pitchers last season. Ellis can serve as a platoon partner for the lefty-swinging Wong or play everyday if needed. Nice little bench pickup by the Cardinals.
Underrated in fantasy: Lance Lynn
"Lance Lynn has a 3.88 ERA and 33 wins over the last two seasons. In 2013, Lynn pitched 201 2/3 innings, striking out 198 batters. On any other team, a pitcher who can go 200 innings with a sub-3.75 ERA (his BABIP was high, his xFIP was low and just his general progression as a pitcher suggests he should drop below that line in 2014) and a strikeout per inning would be a third -- possibly second -- starter. But the Cardinals have several options for the back end of the rotation, and Lynn isn't guaranteed a spot. I'll be approaching Lynn as if he's entering 2014 as the team's No. 4, with a projected Fantasy finish among the top 50 starters. But this idea that Lynn will work out of the bullpen should send his value on a death spiral, meaning Lynn's stats could be had for pennies on the dollar. If/when he's announced as a starter, the discount will disappear. But for drafts that happen before Lynn has a spot officially locked up, there's a tremendous bargain to be had here and it only requires a tiny bit of faith and finger-crossing." - Nando Di Fino (Full Cardinals fantasy preview)
Overall depth. The Cardinals' weak bench got exposed in the postseason last year, but the additions of Bourjos and Ellis will help correct that problem. The club has a deep lineup, a deep pitching staff, and more prospects than they know what to do with. This is not a top heavy roster reliant on a handful of stars and some spare parts, they have quality players all over the field and more on the way.
The rotation. Hear me out. The Cardinals obviously have World Series aspirations and rightfully so, and if they're going to win another title, it would require another deep postseason run. Wainwright threw an MLB high 241 2/3 innings last season then tacked on another 35 more in October. That's 276 2/3 innings, his true workload. Lynn threw 219 total innings last season and should be fine for a deep postseason run, but Miller threw 174 1/3 innings in 2013 and was out of gas in September. Wacha threw 180 1/3 innings last season and was running on fumes in the Fall Classic. Martinez threw 120 2/3 innings last year, a career high. The rotation is obviously very good, but I worry the young arms who are assuming bigger roles this summer will battle fatigue late in the year. That's what qualifies as a weakness on this club.
The Cardinals were the best team in the NL Central last year and they got better this winter. The Reds and Pirates, their primary competition, got worse with the free agency losses like Shin-Soo Choo, Bronson Arroyo, A.J. Burnett and Marlon Byrd, among others. I think St. Louis is the clear favorite in the division and have a legitimate chance to post the best record not just in the NL, but all of baseball. The postseason is something of a crapshoot, but another deep run into October would surprise no one. This team is built to win in 2014 and beyond.
Coming Friday: Previewing the Cincinnati Reds.