St. Louis will open 2013 with a lineup that looks nearly identical to the group that dropped Game 7 of the NLCS last October ... and that seems perfectly OK. Last year's team was excellent.
The Cardinals won 88 games in 2012, posting the NL's second-best run differential, then edged Atlanta in the wild card play-in game (thanks in part to a ridiculous, rally-killing ruling that went against the Braves). There have been a few off-season personnel losses, but nothing devastating. Lance Berkman is gone, though he barely played last year. Kyle Lohse is out of the picture, too, a free agent linked to several teams. The Cards will have little trouble replacing Puma's production — Allen Craig takes over at first base — but Lohse's 200-plus innings are another matter. The veteran is coming off a career year: 16-3, 2.86 ERA, 1.09 WHIP. And it sounds like Chris Carpenter won't pitch this season, his career in jeopardy due to persistent arm issues.
Still, it's not as if the Cards will be completely without pitching in 2013. Adam Wainwright is entering a contract year, now two seasons removed from Tommy John surgery. Lance Lynn is coming off an 18-win campaign, Jaime Garcia is presumably healthy, and Jake Westbrook is still lurking. Shelby Miller, Joe Kelly and Trevor Rosenthal are in the mix, too.
And then there's this nugget: St. Louis has the best farm system in baseball, according to pretty much everyone who rates such things. Here's Sickels, here's Law, here's BA. The Cardinals are well-positioned for success over multiple seasons.
This team may not have any top-of-draft fantasy assets on the roster, but Rounds 3-9 will be loaded with Birds, probably selected in the following order: Matt Holliday, Craig, Yadier Molina, Wainwright, Jason Motte, Carlos Beltran, David Freese.
That's an impressive collection of names, enough to keep the Cards in contention for another playoff berth. Most of those dudes are well-established fantasy commodities with few pressing questions attached, but one deserves special attention in today's PQs...
Q: Is this the year that Allen Craig finally gives us 500 at-bats? If so, what's the projection?
A: As the Craig zealots already know, this player has dealt with knee and hamstring injuries over the past two seasons (the knee being the more serious issue), limiting him to just 194 games and 733 plate appearances. He's made the most of his playing time during that stretch, however, hitting .309/.357/.532 with 33 homers, 109 runs scored, 132 RBIs, and seven steals in eight attempts. He's now entering his age-28 season, he'll be the Cards' everyday first baseman in 2013, and, as far as we know, he's perfectly healthy.
Throughout his minor league career, Craig was a high-average hitter (.320 in 223 games at Triple-A) who typically delivered a homer total in the mid-20s. So far, that's exactly the sort of player he's been in the big leagues, too. If we get 145 games from Craig this season, a reasonable projection would look something like this: 82 R, 26 HR, 101 RBIs, 4 SB, .303 AVG.
Seem fair? Let's remember that we're not talking about an emerging young hitter here, where the range of outcomes is uncommonly wide — this isn't Rizzo or Freeman or Hosmer we're discussing. I don't actually think Craig's ceiling is exceptional, at least not by the standards of his position. (Craig is not eligible at second base this season. He qualifies at OF and 1B, that's it). In 2012, the average top-20 fantasy first basemen delivered these stats: 79.6 R, 28.0 HR, 95.1 RBIs, 4.0 SB, .288 AVG.
So I think a healthy Craig can certainly help you, but I don't think he'll crush his position averages. Thus, I can't endorse his draft position in early mocks (37.26 at MDC). I've got him at No. 71 in my overall ranks right now, which probably means I'll never own him.
I should also mention that if/when Craig hits the DL, the team can cover his absence with 27-year-old Matt Carpenter (.828 OPS last season) or 24-year-old Matt Adams (.986 OPS at Triple-A Memphis) or million-year-old Ty Wigginton. It's nice to have roster depth and positional flexibility.
Q: So Carpenter is really cooked? That's a shame. And what's the latest on Garcia? Is he worth considering, or is he on the do-not-draft list?
A: Yeah, the Carpenter news has been nothin' but bad. Here's a bummer of a blurb from Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
General manager John Mozeliak, who had been called by Carpenter last Friday when the latter was experiencing considerable discomfort after throwing some bullpen sessions, said during a press conference that he didn’t expect Carpenter to be pitching for the Cardinals this season, or pitching any more at all, actually.
With a 95-44 regular-season record with the Cardinals and 10-4 in the postseason, Carpenter, in effect, is done.
Good luck finding a ray of hope in that excerpt. You're not drafting Carpenter in any format.
Garcia is a different story, and it's not like he carries any great risk at the draft table (ADP 312.27). Shoulder issues limited him to 20 starts last season, then he exited an NLDS start against the Nats after pitching just two innings. It appeared he was headed for off-season surgery, but no less an authority than Dr. Andrews advised against it. After a few months of rest and rehab, Garcia hopes to be good to go in 2013. You'll want to keep a close eye on his spring performance.
Again, St. Louis definitely has enough pitching depth to cover an injury or two. Miller, 22, is probably the replacement option with the greatest upside. He's a former first-rounder who struck out 160 batters over 136.2 innings at Triple-A last season. He wasn't anything special in the first half for Memphis (6.17 ERA), but he was terrific in 10 starts after the break: 7-2, 2.88 ERA, 59.1 IP, 70 Ks, 7 BB. Miller also delivered solid late-season numbers for the Cards in September and October, working mostly in relief (13.2 IP, 9 H, 2 R, 16 Ks, 4 BB). Kelly made 16 starts for St. Louis last year, coaxed a bunch of grounders (1.88 GB/FB), and finished with acceptable numbers (3.53 ERA, 4.03 xFIP, 6.31 K/9). He's not nearly as interesting as Miller, though he's occasionally stream-worthy, depending on the match-up.
Rosenthal, 22, was excellent in a relief role for the Cards last season, leaning mostly (but not exclusively) on a fastball that often reached triple digits (97.9 mph). The right-hander struck out 25 batters over 22.2 innings for St. Louis during the regular season, delivering a 0.93 WHIP, then he piled up another 15 Ks in 8.2 scoreless postseason frames. Rosenthal worked as a starter in the minors last year, going 8-6 with a 2.97 ERA across two levels, striking out 104 hitters over 109.0 innings. He's a pitcher of interest for fantasy owners in 2013, regardless of his role.
Q: Any chance we'll see Oscar Taveras this season?
A: Sure. Yeah. Let's hope.
Over the winter, Taveras further solidified his standing as one of the elite prospects in baseball by starring in the Dominican League. The 20-year-old outfielder hit .316/.379/.507 in 39 games with 12 doubles and five homers, scoring 27 runs, driving in 17. Those numbers more or less matched his performance in the Double-A Texas League last season, where he hit .321/.380/.572 with 37 doubles, 23 bombs, 94 RBIs and 10 steals in 11 attempts. He struck out just 56 times in 477 at-bats, too. This kid has been young for his level at every minor league stop, yet he's never really struggled. He won the Midwest League batting title in 2011, hitting .386/.444/.584. There's little doubt that in Taveras' prime, he has the potential to be a fantasy first-rounder, one of the most dangerous hitters in baseball.
If you ask me, it's [expletive] that the same fan base that just enjoyed Albert Pujols' best years will soon get to root for Oscar Taveras. But we can all own the kid in fantasy, so that's somethin'.
Taveras will presumably open the 2013 season at Triple-A Memphis, but I'd expect him to finish in St. Louis. He's an impact bat, a player to target in all fantasy formats. Every time Carlos Beltran tweaks something, the Taveras alert system will be activated. Oscar is the gem in a tremendous prospect mine.
Q: If this team's minor league system is so great, why is St. Louis' starting middle infield so icky?
A: Yeah, I can't make much of a case to own either Rafael Furcal or Daniel Descalso. Both players are coming off low average seasons, delivering very little power and only modest speed. There's nothing much to see here. Avoid these guys if you can. Shouldn't be too tough. (As commenter Shwin notes below, Carpenter has been putting in time at second base, too. Before assuming he'll get regular time at second, we'll need some positive spring results).
Eventually, we may see the double-play combo from last year's Springfield Cardinals advance to the big leagues. Second baseman Kolten Wong, 22, and shortstop Greg Garcia, 23, are each coming off decent campaigns at Double-A. Wong hit .287/.348/.405 with nine homers and 21 steals, while Garcia managed a .284/.408/.420 line with 10 dingers and 10 stolen bases. These dudes were actually teammates at Hawaii for two collegiate seasons, so it's nice to see them advancing through the minors together.
The St. Louis system is so rich in talent that we can easily end up overlooking several quality names, kids who would receive more attention if Taveras and Miller didn't draw the spotlight. RHP Carlos Martinez, 21, has top-of-the-rotation ability, and he excelled at two levels in 2012 (6-5, 2.93 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 92 Ks in 104.1 IP). Michael Wacha, another impressive 21-year-old, struck out 40 batters over 21.0 innings last year, issuing only four walks. RHP Tyrell Jenkins has a live fastball and a high ceiling, OF Anthony Garcia is coming off a 34-double, 19-homer season in the Midwest League, and 18-year-old 3B Carson Kelly has clear power potential. There's an awful lot to like in this system, beyond the well-known prospects.
Q: Anything else to add, guru?
A: Just this: If David Freese's eventual price is gonna be anything like what we've seen in recent mocks (ADP 173.99), I'll own that guy in all leagues, everywhere. He's a virtual lock to hit .290-plus, and he just gave us a 20-homer campaign. Freese is looking like a nice value play at a deep position. If you whiff on the top-tier at third, there's no risk in waiting.