COMMENTARY | The St. Louis Cardinals are a team that came within one game of their second consecutive World Series in 2012.
But that doesn't mean the team is a shoo-in for the postseason this year.
The Cardinals lost some major components from the 2011 and 2012 editions of the team. While young talent stands poised to move into the roster spots vacated by legendary players Lance Berkman and Chris Carpenter, it remains to be seen how well they'll make the transition from prospects to major-league ballplayers.
Players to watch during 2013 spring training:
- Shelby Miller was a surprise September call-up in 2012 after a mostly awful campaign in Class AAA Memphis. He was 11-10 with a 4.74 ERA at the top stop in the St. Louis farm system. A strong finish helped Miller push his ERA below 5.00 and punched his ticket to Busch Stadium. The 22-year-old Miller reminded Cardinals fans why he has been a top prospect for the last three years when he arrived in the big leagues to make six appearances, five in relief. He compiled a 1.32 ERA with nine hits and four walks allowed in 13 2/3 innings. Miller struck out an impressive 16 opponents. His lone start was a real gem. He pitched six innings of one-hit ball against Cincinnati on Oct. 3 with seven strikeouts and two walks. Miller is going to have a legitimate shot to earn the fifth spot in the rotation or a place in the bullpen. It's doubtful the Cardinals would have called him up in 2012 if they didn't think he was a contender for a big-league roster spot this year. Joe Kelly did a great job as a fill-in starter last season; he's Miller's biggest competition for the fifth slot in the rotation.
- Trevor Rosenthal was something of a sensation in 2012 when he was called to the major leagues and fans got a look at his 101-mph fastball. The question with Rosenthal is not if he fits into the major-league picture with the Cardinals -- it's where he fits. Rosenthal wants to be a starter. But he profiles well for the 2013 season as a middle-innings stopper who can get a strikeout to bail the starter out of jam in the sixth or seventh inning. Long term, Rosenthal might make more sense as a closer than a starter. Scouting reports I had read about Rosenthal before the 2012 season said he had an average fastball that topped out around 94 mph. When he was switched to the bullpen, Rosenthal gained six or seven mph on his heater, and he went from being a middling prospect to becoming a dynamic and effective reliever. Set-up man Mitchell Boggs used to be a mediocre starter. Then he was moved to the bullpen and his career took off because he could stop pacing himself and let it all hang out. I'd prefer to see fantastic results in short bursts than so-so results over six innings at a time. With a diminished rotation, the Redbirds would be a lot better off knowing that Rosenthal was out in the bullpen to pitch the sixth inning with Edward Mujica behind him for the seventh, Mitchell Boggs ready for the eighth, and Jason Motte set to close out the ninth.
- Oscar Taveras is the guy every Cardinals fan can't wait to see in St. Louis. But I think they're going to have to be patient at least for a few more months. Although Taveras was ranked by MLB.com as the third-best prospect in baseball, he's never played an inning above Class AA. And he's currently blocked in his most likely major-league position, right field, by Carlos Beltran. Unless Taveras hits .400 with power in spring training or there is a major injury to a starting outfielder, I don't believe it's likely that Taveras will break camp with the big-league club. It doesn't make sense for him to get a handful of at-bats in the majors behind Beltran. Nor does it make a lot of sense to park Beltran's $12 million contract on the bench. I look for Taveras to be called up midseason to give all three outfielders a breather as we hit the dog days of summer. That will give Taveras a chance to get himself acclimated to the majors before he is expected to become a regular contributor in 2014.
- Kolten Wong was a top performer in the Arizona Fall League after last season, and he may benefit from the fact that the Cardinals don't really have an entrenched second baseman. With an exceptional spring he might make the big-league club, and he could get steady playing time to provide solid defense -- as long as he hits well enough not to be a total liability. He hit .287 last season in Class AA Springfield and .335 in 2011 for Class A Quad Cities. Wong's biggest threat is Matt Carpenter, who spent the offseason trying to learn how to play second base. We know from his .294 batting average and .365 on-base percentage last year that Carpenter is a productive offensive player. If he can be an average defender the Birds would have a devastating offense from top to bottom, and they could use Daniel Descalso as a utility player -- which would give the club a lot of flexibility with substitutions.
- Matt Adams is a guy who is somewhat forgotten in the excitement of the young pitchers and Taveras. But MLB.com rates Adams as the second-best first base prospect in baseball and, with a little bit of time under his belt in St. Louis, he's the most major-league ready of this group of players. He's hit 72 homers over his last three seasons in the minors and has never hit less than .300 at any of his three minor-league stops. It seems there is certainly a place in the major leagues for Adams, and sooner rather than later because he's proved all he can in the bush leagues. But the question is whether the Cardinals will keep him in The Show as a power-hitting threat off the bench, or if they'll try to get value from him by trading him for an experienced starting pitcher or a shortstop. Adams doesn't have much flexibility because he can play only first base with any effectiveness. But if there is an injury, he could be a factor because Allen Craig could move to the outfield to make room at first.
No matter how well the young guys play, the Redbirds will clearly be unable to replace the veteran leadership of Berkman and Carpenter. Manager Mike Matheny is going to have a much tougher job this season holding things together.
But the bright side is that the Cardinals are capable of scoring runs and getting outs without Berkman and Carpenter. We know that because Berkman managed only a .259 batting average with two homers in 81 at-bats in 2012. Carpenter made three starts and was 0-2 in 17 innings pitched.
The most difficult guy the Redbirds must replace from 2012 is Kyle Lohse, a free agent starting pitcher who chalked up 16 wins last year. Carpenter was essentially going to replace Lohse's production before he suffered a recurrence of his shoulder problems. So St. Louis could easily solve its biggest problem by trying to sign the languishing Lohse to a short-term pillow contract.
To sum it up:
The two keys to the Cardinals' 2013 season are having enough starting pitching to be competitive every day, and to keep the aging core of the offense, anchored by left fielder Matt Holliday, 33, and right fielder Carlos Beltran, who will be 36 in April, healthy and productive.
If the Birds can keep pace and stay in the playoff hunt with what they have, they could easily deal from the major league's top-rated farm system to find a veteran front-end starter on a rental plan to position themselves better for October baseball. But the team has to make more of its opportunities than it did in 2012 when it scored 117 more runs than it surrendered but only won 88 games.
Scott Wuerz has been a reporter and columnist at the Belleville News-Democrat, located in suburban St. Louis, since 1998. During that time he has covered three St. Louis Cardinals World Series appearances, the 2009 Major League Baseball All-Star game and Mark McGwire's chase to break Roger Maris' home run record. He has penned the View From the Cheap Seats Cardinals fan blog for the News-Democrat since 2007.