St. Louis Cardinals' Young Trio Look to Improve National League's Best Team

Superstars in the Making Set to Arrive in St. Louis for 2014 Season

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COMMENTARY | What makes a club the clear favorite?

Usually, the answer to that question is anything but clear. Is it the pennants and rings won in the postseason, or could it be a team's regular-season record that determines the greatness of a major-league team?

Fans and pundits have been split on the issue for years, but for a team that boasts both the National League Championship pennant and tied for league's best record at 97-65, the 2013 St. Louis Cardinals are content to let you take your pick.

For once, the math is clear.

The 2013 Cardinals were far and away the best team in the National League. And they're only getting better.

In 2014, the Redbirds will feature a trio of young stars sure to captivate fans on both sides of the Mississippi for years to come. Not since the days of Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen have fans expected so much from just three players in the St. Louis dugout.

These fresh faces with names already known to Cardinal Nation have played a total of 47 games at the MLB level. That number could climb as high as 380 by October.

But the NL's best team isn't blinking. With players like Michael Wacha, Kolten Wong, and perhaps Oscar Taveras on their roster, the Cardinals feel better than ever about their chances at yet another World Series appearance.

Michael Wacha

The St. Louis starting rotation already flaunts names like Adam Wainwright, Jaime Garcia, Shelby Miller, and 18-game winner and 2012 All-Star Lance Lynn. But with seven or more pitchers for five rotation slots, Michael Wacha's place in the starting five is already a lock.

Not a bad feather for a cap that's only seen 20 major-league games and 14 major-league starts in his career, including the postseason.

Perhaps even more impressive is the number 48. That's the number of professional games played by Michael Wacha in his entire career -- at all levels -- with only 31 of those games as a starting pitcher (17 of 31 in the minor leagues).

But make no mistake -- Wacha-mania is here to stay.

After posting a 2.78 ERA in 15 regular-season games in his rookie season, the starter from Texas A&M was nothing short of heroic in five postseason starts for the Cardinals.

Adam Wainwright may be the ace of the staff, but Michael Wacha is the future.

Kolten Wong

Moving David Freese to Los Angeles was surely no easy decision for general manager John Mozeliak. After his legendary performance in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, the hometown boy seemed to be a fixture in the Cardinals' lineup for years to come.

But then what looked to be a coming out party gradually became a career-defining moment -- the kind of moment that leaves no where to go but down for a third baseman posting out-of-this-world numbers during the most visible month in baseball.

It soon became apparent that David Freese -- The Iceman, The Big Chill -- would never measure up to his own mythos. And then came Matt Carpenter.

Carpenter rose through the ranks of the Cardinals' system rather quietly until a change in his approach at the plate saw immediate improvement in his power numbers. Suddenly, the young third baseman was pushing for a roster spot.

When the Redbirds needed someone at second base, his bat and work ethic made him a candidate. His selection to the All-Star team in 2013 and head-scratching on-base dominance made him an MVP candidate. It also created a problem.

Kolten Wong, from the University of Hawaii, carried the infamous title of "former No. 1 draft pick" in the Cardinals' system. Until recently, such a distinction came with unrealized potential and often-debated controversy for St. Louis. Not so with Wong.

His .301 batting average, .365 on-base percentage, 24 home runs, 50 stolen bases, and two championships in three seasons of minor league baseball made him the No. 1 draft pick that worked. And at every level, he flashed the kind of stellar defense the Cardinals expected to see when they called his name on draft day.

Just one problem -- he plays second base.

For those keeping track, that's one All-Star third baseman at third base (Freese), one third baseman playing an All-Star second base (Carpenter), and one imminent second baseman destined for All-Star status on the way in Wong.

Something had to give, and with Freese's recent struggles and the youth and promise of Carpenter and Wong, it had to be the hero of Game 6.

Look for Wong and Carpenter to set the table for the Cardinals for years to come.

Oscar Taveras

In just two seasons, Oscar Taveras has become the most heralded hitter in the Cardinals' system since Albert Pujols. John Mozeliak said as much when comparing the young outfielder to the former Cardinal. And ever since that statement, the expectations for Taveras have gone through the roof.

Perhaps it's unrealistic to expect so much from such a raw 21-year-old player, but that's never stopped fans before. If his minor league numbers are any indication, it won't stop Taveras, either.

In just more than 1,400 minor-league at-bats, Taveras has compiled a .320/.377/.518 slash line with a .895 OPS. Like Wong, he's also won two championships in three seasons with the Cardinals' farm system.

His impressive potential is perhaps best represented by one of those title-winning seasons -- the 2012 campaign spent in Double-A Springfield, Missouri.

In 477 at-bats, Taveras hit .321, slugged .572, compiled an on-base percentage of .380, and ended the year with a .953 OPS. Throw in 23 home runs and 94 RBIs, and it's easy to see why Cardinals management is hyperventilating over Oscar's arrival.

Of course, compiling All-Star-worthy numbers in Springfield's Hammons Field while playing in the Double-A Texas League is hardly the same thing as Busch Stadium. But maybe looking at another player's stat line in the same stadium and league can shed some light on Taveras' projections.

In 506 at-bats in 2008, this player hit 22 home runs, 85 RBIs, and posted a slash line of .304/.373/.494 with an OPS of .867. The player's name -- Allen Craig.

Taveras' 2014 arrival could be delayed a bit to get a jump start on at-bats in Triple-A Memphis -- his 2013 season in Memphis was cut short by an ankle injury that ultimately required surgery -- but don't expect Mozeliak to hold him back long. With the departure of Carlos Beltran, right field has Taveras' name written all over it.

Kevin Reynolds is the author of Stl Cards 'N Stuff and host of The State of the Nation Address podcast at Cards 'N Stuff. He's been writing and podcasting about the St. Louis Cardinals since 2007 and can be found chatting about baseball on Twitter (@deckacards).

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