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No. 1 Cardinals: Piles of pitching and an improved lineup

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports
MLB: World Series-St. Louis Cardinals at Boston Red Sox
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Michael Wacha might be the best of St. Louis' talented young pitchers. (USA TODAY Sports)

Editor’s note: Yahoo Sports ranked every team in Major League Baseball from 30th to 1st. Our series wraps up with the St. Louis Cardinals.

2013 record: 97-65
Finish: First, NL Central
2013 payroll: $119.6 million (11th of 30)
Estimated 2014 opening day payroll: $131.8 million (11th of 30)
Yahoo Sports offseason ranking: 1
Cardinals in six words: Only need three: Wacha, Wacha, Wacha.

OFFSEASON ACTION
The faces, those we saw well into October, aren’t all that different. Though Carlos Beltran moved to New York and David Freese went off to Anaheim, and Jhonny Peralta was brought in to lend a bat barrel to one of the least productive positions on the field, the Cardinals are mostly still the Cardinals. Except they’re not exactly where we left them.

By opening day, Yadier Molina will be behind the plate and Matt Holliday will be in left. The rest? Apparently the music stopped in St. Louis (though perhaps not on the party deck at Mike Shannon’s place).

With as sturdy a pitching staff as there is, the Cardinals’ emphasis seemed to be to put players where they belong, or where their gloves might play the best, or to push the offensive side of things. Anything to push the advantage of an organization that does an awful lot well.

So, yes, there’s Peralta (for $53 million over four years) at shortstop and some Peter Bourjos (from the Angels for Freese) in center field. Those are the new guys.

[Related: No. 2 Dodgers: They have major star power, but a couple of holes ]

Beyond that, Allen Craig, he of the .454 batting average with runners in scoring position and gimpy October, moves from first base to right field. Matt Adams goes to first. The rookie Kolten Wong (or veteran Mark Ellis) goes to second. Matt Carpenter, who led the NL in hits, runs and doubles and was fourth in the MVP vote, returns to his native third base. Jon Jay likely finds himself in a center field platoon with Bourjos. Pete Kozma, who played 139 games at shortstop, becomes a utility player, or a minor leaguer, assuming Peralta, a big man and going on 32 years old, remains a somewhat capable defender.

Of course, Oscar Taveras could show up ready to play, and that could change some things, too. And the Cardinals would be OK with that.

REALITY CHECK

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Yadier Molina remains the Cardinals' most important player. (USA TODAY Sports)

Everybody – well, most everybody – drafts big, strong guys who throw hard. The Cardinals do. The difference is, the Cardinals’ big, strong guys seem to arrive sooner, with more polish, with greater confidence and better results. Something happens between draft day and debut day – it’s the coaching, the mentoring, the Molina factor, sure – that separates the Cardinals from the rest.

That means 15 wins from Shelby Miller, and Trevor Rosenthal taking over the ninth inning when it was most critical, and Kevin Siegrist posting a 0.45 ERA over 45 appearances, and Carlos Martinez testing radar guns in October, and Seth Maness locking down the seventh innings. And Michael Wacha winning four games in October, 16 months after he was drafted.

The Cardinals enter camp as the best team in baseball for a handful of reasons, chief among them a pitching staff that matches stuff with savvy, and veteran sensibilities with youthful elasticity, and a catcher that seems to operate from inside their heads.

However it plays out, the rotation will rival those in Washington and Los Angeles for the best in the National League. That’s Adam Wainwright, Jaime Garcia, Lance Lynn, Miller, Wacha, Joe Kelly, Carlos Martinez and Tyler Lyons. That’s eight, which is too many, and that’s why the Cardinals should repeat in the Central.

Then, even if they don’t hit .330 with runners in scoring position again – still an unfathomable number – the Cardinals return plenty of offense. They have upgraded at shortstop and third base. With any improvement against left-handed pitching, Adams can be very productive. If Wong isn’t quite ready at second, Ellis is more than capable and exactly the kind of guy you want in your clubhouse. Bourjos has had trouble staying on the field, and his speed hasn’t translated to stolen bases, but his lone full season (2011) saw him bat .271, hit 12 home runs and lead the league in triples. He also could be the best defensive center fielder in the game.

SAVIOR
Yadier Molina is the most indispensible player in the game. Granted, that’s subjective.

But, for who the Cardinals are, what they do, and how they do it, it’s Molina.

That he’s hit .313 over the past three seasons (and OPSed .842) is very nearly incidental, but he does that too, and he has a neck tattoo.

HAIKU
If we rank Cards first,
They can’t say in October,
Nobody believed.

Previous teams
No. 2 Dodgers
No. 3 Rangers
No. 4 Red Sox
No. 5 A's
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No. 11 Yankees
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No. 30 Astros

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