Pressing Questions: The St. Louis Cardinals

Scott Pianowski
February 3, 2014
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When it comes to money, market and glamour, the Cardinals probably can't match some of the big boys at the table, your Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox. But you could argue St. Louis is the best current organization in baseball. The resume leaps off the page.

St. Louis has 10 playoff appearances over the last 14 years, including two championships and four overall World Series trips. The roster is stuffed with talent at every possible arc - proven veterans, ascending young talent and even some blue-chip prospects. No one hands you 90-plus wins before the season starts, but it's hard to imagine the Cardinals having a crash landing anytime soon. This is a loaded group.

We're just in it for the numbers, of course, but when a real-life baseball team is in the yearly playoff conversation, we're going to find plenty of juicy roto angles. And the Cardinals certainly didn't sit on their success; there's been a fair amount of winter change under the arch. Let's take a look.

Q: What happened to last year's infield? Where can I buy a scorecard?

A: The Redbirds basically blew up last year's infield floor plan, opting for a completely different set of starters this time around. Settle in and we'll give every position a run through the car wash.

Matt Adams has the first-base job on paper, a gig he more or less shared with Allen Craig last year (Craig finished with more infield starts in 2013, so this still qualifies as a change). Adams is a lumbering type with no speed, but the power is exciting (17 homers in 296 at-bats). He turns 26 at the end of August.

While Adams is a defensive liability with struggles against lefties (.231/.231/.423 in last year's small sample), he's ardently working on both of those things. He shed some weight over the winter (you know how that Mad Lib goes) and he's putting in extra work against southpaws, trying to lessen the platoon split, looking to justify a spot in the everyday lineup. The Cards want Craig in the outfield full-time, in part so Adams has a clear path to play. If it all clicks for Adams, a 30-homer season is possible.

But if Adams has a slump or speed bump in his first full season, the Cardinals can easily move pieces around. Craig could return to the infield at any point, perhaps to make room for buzzy outfield prospect Oscar Taveras. Bottom line, there's a wide range of outcomes with Adams; this is a risk-reward pick in the middle rounds. His current ADP in the National Fantasy Baseball Championship is 129 - that's around an 11th round pick in a standard league.

Highly-regarded rookie Kolten Wong gets a look at second base. He's coming off a nifty .303/.369/.466 season at Triple-A (10 homers, 20-for-21 in steals), and ranks him the No. 1 prospect at the position. Wong didn't hit at all during a brief St. Louis trial last year and he had a regretful baserunning gaffe in the playoffs, but he looks ready for a spot in The Show.

But before you start making mixed-league plans for the 22-year-old, we have to discuss the downside. The Cardinals added veteran Mark Ellis for depth, and he could see some platoon time at second (at least the left-handed Wong would take the heavier side of the split). And even if Wong gets the starting gig right away, there's a fair chance he'll be in the bottom of the order. In the National League, that's often a death sentence for stolen-base opportunities.

The Cardinals are making a defense-for-offense trade at shortstop; goodbye Pete Kozma, hello Jhonny Peralta (four years, $52 million). Projecting Peralta into his Age-32 season is a tricky proposition - while he's coming off his best run-creating efficiency in eight seasons, he's also just a few months removed from a 50-game PED suspension. And his .239/.305/.384 nightmare from 2012 is fresh in everyone's mind. You'll probably get 10-15 homers here, but Peralta doesn't run much. Batting average? Work off his .263 career mark, I suppose. He's the No. 18 shortstop on Yahoo's current board, though NFBC drafters have been a little more optimistic (he ranks 14th in their ADP).

Matt Carpenter is the surest bet in the infield, coming off a delicious breakout year (.318-126-11-78-3) and parked at the top of the order. He wasn't horrible in last year's makeshift experiment at second, but he's more experienced and a better fit for third base, where he'll play in 2014. Last year's .359 BABIP might make some nervous, but he was at .346 for his 114-game sample in 2012 and his career line-drive rate is absurd (27.3 percent). This is a damn good hitter. And remember, you can grandfather Carpenter as a second baseman if you like. I'm a believer; the current ADP (52.76) seems downright affordable to me.

Q: What's new in the outfield?

A: After that extensive infield rake, the outfield run is a lot simpler. You know all about Matt Holliday in left, and Craig's a fairly-known commodity in right. A Lisfranc injury wrecked Craig's stretch run last fall, but he's expected to be at full throttle for the fresh season. Both players hold Top 20 slots on the current Yahoo outfield board.

The Cardinals have been indifferent to outfield defense in recent years, especially on the flanks (Holliday is always a tentative mess in left, while Carlos Beltran's defense fell off the cliff in recent seasons). Jon Jay wasn't any gemstone in center field, either. With that in mind, the Cards made a late November trade, swapping David Freese for Anaheim spare part Peter Bourjos. The Cards will give Bourjos every chance to settle in as the regular in center, much to the joy of the pitching staff.

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Bourjos is an interesting toss of the roto dice into his Age-27 season. He gave us a 12-homer, 22-steal campaign back in 2011, but roster gridlock and persistent injuries ended his OC relevance. St. Louis added him as an defensive move all the way, but they'd love to see him rediscover his prior offensive form. Jay in theory could settle in as a platoon partner, but given how poorly the Redbirds defend on the edges, Bourjos's presence is important.

Taveras is the X-factor in all this, a glittering 21-year-old prospect who's adored on all the scouting clipboards. Alas, Taveras is coming off a lost season - a bum ankle cost him four months and eventually required surgery. Given his age and experience level (just 46 games at Triple-A), there's no need to rush Taveras. Maybe we'll see a midseason debut, maybe he's still a year away. In a non-keeper pool with no special bench allowances, I'll spend my lottery money elsewhere.

Q: What happened to Shelby Miller in the playoffs?

After a brilliant first half (2.92/1.12, 112 strikeouts), Miller had a notable second-half fade in every key area. Not a collapse, mind you - a 3.28 ERA and 1.34 WHIP will play in most formats. Nonetheless, he wasn't as effective - and then he was shockingly ignored (just one inning) in the playoffs.

The Cardinals kept the story under wraps, but you could put two and two together. In late December, the public word came out - Miller had a tired shoulder down the stretch. Given the 23-year-old threw 173.1 innings, a shutdown probably made sense.

Miller's early ADP is in a reasonable pocket (No. 28 among pitchers in the NFBC). Recency bias is a powerful thing. And early drafters have something else distracting them in St. Louis - another young right-handed pitching stud. Michael Wacha (nine months younger than Miller) was terrific during 64.2 debut innings (2.78/1.10, a strikeout per inning) and he had even better numbers in the playoffs (30.2 IP, 16 H, 9 ER, 12 BB, 33 K). Wacha's flying off the board 2-3 rounds ahead of Miller in the early drafts, but I don't see a tangible difference between the pair (the Yahoo consensus slots Miller higher). Take what the room gives you.

Cardinal Clips: There's not much new to say about the preferred battery here: Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina remain Top 5 options at their respective positions. Molina has logged between 136-140 games in every season since 2009 and it hasn't affected his game much (though he did lose some category juice last year, dropping 10 homers and nine steals). He's been at .305 or better for three straight years, and no catcher in the league can touch his defense . . . Wainwright's game is a joy to watch, a strike-throwing machine who whiffs around eight batters per nine and hardly walks anyone (last year's rate was silly, 1.30 BB/9). At 6-foot-7 and 235 pounds, he should be able to handle the extensive workload; Wainwright collected a league-best 241.2 innings last year, then added 35 frames in October . . . Trevor Rosenthal wants to be a starter, but for now the Cards will use the pellet-throwing righty as their closer (Edward Mujica tired down the stretch, and he's now in Boston). Rosenthal's Age-23 stats jump off the page: 75.1 innings, 2.63 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 20 walks, 108 delicious strikeouts. Having a strikeout-dominant option in your bullpen is a godsend, especially if your league uses an innings cap . . . Carlos Martinez is another fire-breathing dragon who might be rotation-blocked for now. The 22-year old whiffed 35 batters in 41 innings last year, playoffs included, and he was dynamite in 16 Triple-A starts (2.49/1.17, 2.57 K/BB). Perhaps he'll get a chance if lefty Jaime Garcia can't return from his shoulder woes, though the Cardinals are saying all the right things there. The Redbirds also have Lance Lynn (3.97/1.31, 198 strikeouts) in the mix, with Joe Kelly as insurance. Too much pitching, the ultimate First World Problem.