The first couple weeks of series always end up reading more like reviews of the previous offseason anyway, so I'm going to devote the bulk of this preview to talking about the changes that the Cardinals have made to the team that came within a game of reaching the World Series for the second straight year:
- They signed Ty Wigginton, presumably on purpose, for 2 years, $5 million.
- Starting shortstop Rafael Furcal is out for the season with a shoulder injury, so postseason hero Pete Kozma will be the full-time shortstop (this counts as a roster move, right?).
- In the same vein, top pitching prospect Shelby Miller will be replacing part-time ace and full-time scowler Chris Carpenter, who's out for the year as well.
- Hold on...I dropped my notes...I'm sure there must be something else...
- Please stop staring at me.
So yeah, the Cardinals are pretty much trotting out the same team that they had last year, barring a couple of significant injuries.
And yet, I come not to bury the Cardinals, but to praise them, because that team not only came within a game of the World Series last year, but also underperformed their Pythagorean record by five games. So there's a decent chance that they're due to improve a bit without doing much of anything. And if not, I guess they'll just have to tap into their top-ranked farm system.
They probably aren't the favorite, either in the NL or their own division, but they have a good chance to be in the conversation until the end. Just like last year. And the year before that. And more or less every year since, uh...1999? This is a roundabout way of saying that while the Cardinals might not have the best front office in baseball, they may well have the most underrated one.
What the Stats Say:
All numbers from 2012
Only seven out the 30 MLB teams posted an wRC+ above 100 last year. And of those seven teams, the Cardinals have the third-highest, behind two teams from the AL, who can rely on designated hitters like savages. So basically what I'm getting at is that the Cardinals do this offense thing pretty well. They don't do one thing better than everyone, they simply do everything better than most, ranking near the top of the NL in Batting Average, Walk Rate, and Slugging Percentage.
Few teams had a larger gap between the performance of their starters and their bullpen than the Cardinals in 2012. While the rotation had a strong season, finishing fourth in baseball in FIP-, the bullpen, uh, didn't. The highest home run rate in the NL left the Cards' bullpen near the bottom of most categories. And other than stapling an undead Randy Choate (!) to the bullpen, the team is mostly counting on improvement from within.
Starting (Defensive) Lineups:
Other than Holliday and Beltran, it's not a lineup bursting with star power. Everyone had pretty much accepted Yadier Molina as a sterling defensive catcher without much of a bat through his first seven seasons in the majors. But since then, he's felt the need to go and put an OPS+ of 131 over his last two seasons, making himself into one of the better players in the NL in the process. If not for Buster Posey, this transformation probably would have garnered a bit more attention.
The Cardinals have found hitters in some other surprising places as well. Whether it's overlooked minor league infielders who get asked to replace the greatest living first baseman in baseball (Allen Craig- OPS+ of 137 in 2012), fourth outfielders who outperform expectations once the starting center field gets traded (Jon Jay-OPS+ of 113), or 35-year-old free agents who everyone assumed were in the middle of a steep decline (Beltran-OPS+ of 128), the Cardinals' scouting department deserves mad props here. They've built the best offense in the league out of Matt Holliday, Molina, and a bunch of guys other teams were iffy on.
One thing to keep in mind is that starting 3B David Freese is out for the series, which has forced the Cards to rejigger their infield a bit. Carpenter was originally supposed to get a crack at second base, while Descalso got a crack at the bench, but injuries have a way of changing things. Alfredo Marte knows what I'm talking about, amirite?
Insightful Commentary: For all intents and purposes, Kennedy's K-rate and Walk Rate in 2012 were identical to their marks in 2011, when he was one of the best pitchers in the NL. The difference between the two seasons pretty much comes down to home runs, where he gave up relatively few (for a flyball pitcher, at least) in '11, and rather more in '12. Some of that's probably regression, because Chase Field's gonna Chase Field, but a fair amount of that could be solved by making better pitches in crucial situations. Overall, I'm pretty optimistic about IPK for 2013.
With Carpenter out for the season, this becomes Wainwright's rotation if it wasn't already. His ERA jumped up by a run and a half in his first year back from surgery, which looks fairly concerning on the surface. His peripherals were generally fine however, and he pitched much better in the second half of the season (3.28 ERA) than the first (4.56). Thus, I'm inclined to think he'll look more like the unquestioned ace from 2009 and 2010.
Insightful Commentary: I'm not going to lie, I'm pretty excited about Cahill for 2012. First of all, in between being yelled out for having the audacity to not be Jarrod Parker, Cahill put together a pretty impressive season last year, as he was probably the best non-Miley starter on the team. In addition, this is what his K-rate has done over the course of his career, and based on his raw stuff, I don't see any reason why that can't keep improving. Add in the fact that the team's infield defense has gotten markedly better, and he's in the best shape of his life (TM), and I think this could be a breakout year.
Shoulder problems held Garcia to 20 starts last year, but when he was healthy, he remained a solid front-line starter. His strikeout rate has been right around league-average since he arrived on the scene in 2010, but his Walk Rate his improved dramatically over the last two season, with a BB/9 of around 2.25 since his rookie year. Assuming his shoulder problems are behind him (he's a pitcher, so that's never a terribly safe assumption), we should see more of the same in 2013.
Insightful Commentary: As we all know by this point, performance is only part of the story with McCarthy. He's been in the majors since 2005, and he's pitched more than 20 games exactly twice in that span, due primarily to injuries. When he's healthy though, McCarthy has pinpoint control, with a BB/9 below 2 in his last two seasons.
Chris Carpenter was broken last year as well, and Lance Lynn was the poor rookie tabbed to fill his spot in the rotation. He had a debut that would make Barry Enright jealous, as he went 8-1 in his first ten starts, with a 2.54 ERA. He fell back to earth somewhat from there, but his overall numbers are nothing to sneeze at (unless you're literally allergic to numbers, in which case I'm truly sorry that you've read this far). Of particular note is his 9.3 K/9, which suggests more good things to come from the young right hander.
I'm 86-ing the prediction portion of these previews, because trying to predict the events of individual series is sort of an absurd exercise. In lieu of that, take a minute to read this 44-page preview that the St. Louis Post-Dispatch put together for the team. It renders everything I wrote completely superfluous, but in a good way!
Enemy Blog of Record: Viva El Birdos
And as a special, first series of the season bonus, here's the first thing that Youtube gave me when I searched "Cardinals": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A2bxQZfWvSY
(All numbers via Baseball-Reference or Fangraphs unless otherwise specified.)