St. Louis Cardinals v Philadelphia Phillies

2012 Record: 88-74, 2nd NL Central
2012 Pythagorean Record: 93-69
Impact Player: C Yadier Molina
Impact Pitcher: RHP Adam Wainwright
Top Prospect: RF Oscar Taveras 

Significant Acquisitions: CP Ty Wigginton, LHP Randy Choate

Significant Departures: 1B Lance Berkman, RHP Kyle Lohse, 2B/OF Skip Schumaker, RHP Kyle McClellan

The St. Louis Cardinals have been arguably the most successful franchise in baseball over the last ten years or so. Two world titles and numerous playoff appearances have been the result of one of the most thoroughly homegrown rosters in baseball. With the help of former farm director and current Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow and an otherwise terrific scouting and development staff, GM John Mozeliak and his crew have assembled a team that should be contending year in, year out for the foreseeable future.

In the first year of the post-LaRussa/post-Pujols era, new field manager Mike Matheny guided the team to another playoff spot as the team won 88 games and captured the second wildcard spot. They beat the BARVES in the wild card play-in game, improbably beat the Nationals, and finally took the Giants to the brink before squandering a 3-1 series lead in the NLCS.

St. Louis decided to stay pat this offseason and allow their nearly unrivalled farm system to fill in the gaps on the Major League roster. The only truly significant departure is starting pitcher Kyle Lohse, for which there are several in-house candidates that will likely provide more value than the still-unemployed pitcher would have.

Pitching
Even without Lohse and Chris Carpenter—whose career looks to be over—the Cardinals have a lot of depth in their starting rotation. Adam Wainwright came back from Tommy John’s surgery and threw nearly 200 innings posting a 3.94 ERA although his peripherals suggest he was actually much better than that. He’ll be another year removed from his injury and is poised to reassume his role as a legitimate ace.

The next two spots will go to a pair of 26-year-olds in lefty Jaime Garcia and right-hander Lance Lynn. Lynn had a breakout year in 2012 striking out more than a batter-per-inning while keeping his walk-rate respectable. 2013 will be the first year that he starts and finishes the year in the rotation—barring injury of course. Garcia, meanwhile, made only 20 starts last season and wasn’t healthy for much of the middle part of the season. He never really got healthy and made only one post-season start before once again succumbing to the same shoulder injury that gave him trouble all year. If he’s healthy, he’s a solid two or three starter, but the shoulder has to be worrisome.

Speaking of injury risks, Jake Westbrook is back, although his injury troubles appear to be behind him. He hasn’t had any arm troubles for two seasons now although an abdomen injury kept him from pitching in the last month and playoffs in 2012.

The final spot will probably go to top pitching prospect Shelby Miller who should finally get the opportunity to make good on his lofty potential. Miller struggled in AAA last season but looked excellent in a late-season call-up and earned a spot on the post-season roster pitching out of the bullpen. He still has top-of-the-rotation stuff and should give a huge boost to the Cards rotation this season. He’ll be competing with Joe Kelly who was excellent in 107 innings last season pitching out of both the rotation and the bullpen. With the inherent injury risks in Garcia and Westbrook, both pitchers will like see significant time this year.

Another highly-touted prospect with electric stuff, Trevor Rosenthal, was going to be tried out as a starter as well after dominating in the bullpen late last year, but the Cardinals gave decided he will work as a setup man for this season. Rosenthal might be the best reliever on the team.

The closer will be Jason Motte who posted an excellent 5.05 K/BB ratio last season and he’ll be joined by Mitchell Boggs at the back-end as well. Boggs doesn’t have the stuff that Motte and Rosenthal do, but he’s still excellent.

The Cards most significant acquisition this offseason was lefty-specialist Randy Choate who’ll be paired with Marc Rzepczynski from the left-side. Edward Mujica and Fernando Salas are expected to fill out what looks to be a talented bullpen while Sam Freeman, Victor Marte and Eduardo Sanchez will provide depth.

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Lineup
Only the Brewers scored more runs in the National League than the Cardinals last season and they’re returning nearly the same group for 2013. Shortstop and leadoff hitter Rafael Furcal could miss the whole year having just undergone Tommy John surgery and his replacement, Pete Kozma, is a pretty significant step down. The team released Ronny Cedeno so they appear content with Kozma and Daniel Descalso in that role—for some reason. Centerfielder Jon Jay has improbably become an excellent everyday player and should take over the leadoff spot.

The core of the lineup is as good as anyone in the game with rightfielder Carlos Beltran, leftfielder Matt Holliday, first baseman Allen Craig, catcher Yadier Molina, and third baseman David Freese expected to hit in the two-through-six spots. The five combined for a 133 wRC+ last season with Beltran posting the worst season of all of them offensively. Craig emerged in the absence of Lance Berkman and posted a .307/.354/.522 with 22 home runs in only 119 games and Holliday continues to fly under the radar and post numbers that put him among the very best in the game.

Considering his defensive acumen at a high-demand position, Molina’s newfound offensive success makes him one of the very best players in baseball. After spending the first part of his career as a below-average hitter, he’s hit an unreal .311/.362/.483 over the last two seasons.

Freese, meanwhile, managed to stay healthy for a full season for the first time in his career and put up the kind of numbers he’s always been capable of. He hit 20 home runs and had a .293/.372/.467 slash line in 567 plate appearances. Should he relapse on the injury front, Descalso or veteran Ty Wigginton could step in.

Matt Carpenter is being given every opportunity to stick at second base as the Cards are trying to convert him from third. His bat will play anywhere. Prospect Kolten Wong could make his debut at some point in 2013 as well and could step in if Carpenter can’t hold the position.

With Cedeno’s release, the Cardinals have made room for backup first baseman Matt Adams who struggled in 91 plate appearances last season but has nothing more to prove in the minors. He could be a nice option to spell Craig once in a while at first or give a day off to Beltran in right if the team decides they can play Craig out there from time to time.

Kozma put up insane numbers in 82 plate appearances last year, but that is the epitome of small-sample-size bias. He’s only 25, but there’s very little ceiling and the Cardinals would be smart to shop for an upgrade if they can.

Defense
The Cardinals were not an especially good defensive team last season and figure to be slightly worse with the loss of Furcal; neither Kozma nor Descalso are considered good short stops. The rest of the infield defense could also be a problem with Carpenter—a converted third baseman—at second and Freese not being overly well-regarded at third. The metrics loved Jay in center and Beltran is still capable in right, but Holliday is a well-below-average fielder in left. Obviously, the Cardinals have no problems defensively with Molina who’s probably the best defensive catcher since Pudge Rodriguez and backup Tony Cruz is also solid behind the plate.

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2013 Outlook
Not only do the Cardinals draft and develop as well as any team in baseball, but they also have shown a knack for cultivating late bloomers such as Freese, Jay, Craig, and Carpenter into useful players. With a strong core of players and more on the way in 2013 such as uber hitting prospect Oscar Taveras and Wong at second base, the Cardinals have the depth and talent to hang with anyone in the NL. They have some stiff competition in the Reds, but they should be right there come October.
2013 Prediction: 91-71, 2nd NL Central 

For a detailed depth chart with statistics, click here. Stats obtained from FanGraphs (St. Louis’ team page here) and Baseball Prospectus. Depth chart info provided by MLB Depth Charts.