When Albert Pujols signed with the Angels last year, thus ending a legendary 11-year run in St. Louis, the Cardinals' offense was supposed to take a serious hit. No one would argue that the Cardinals became a better offensive team without Pujols last year, but they didn't miss a beat without him, either. Behind Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina, Allen Craig and David Freese, the Cardinals were in the top 10 in the league in runs scored (765, fifth), batting average (.271, fourth), OBP (.338, first), slugging (.421, ninth) and OPS (.759, sixth). That offense returns largely intact, and could be the National League's best this season.
Adam Wainwright is back to lead what remains an underappreciated pitching staff, both in real life and fantasy circles. Jaime Garcia and Lance Lynn round out a formidable trio at the top of the staff, and Jake Westbrook's ground-ball wizardry gives the Cardinals a reliable No. 4. With Chris Carpenter likely to miss the entire season with a career-threatening nerve issue, oft-celebrated prospect Shelby Miller will round out the rotation.
And that's not everything. Top prospect Oscar Taveras, an outfielder, will be up in St. Louis at some point this season. Should any of the starting pitchers falter or get hurt, Trevor Rosenthal, who is already an integral part of the bullpen, can slide right into the rotation. And that's before we even delve into all the pitching talent in the pipeline. It's looking to be another great year for baseball in St. Louis, and another year in which fantasy owners can profit from all the talent on this roster.
1. Jon Jay, CF 2. David Freese, 3B 3. Carlos Beltran, RF 4. Matt Holliday, LF 5. Allen Craig, 1B 6. Yadier Molina, C 7. Matt Carpenter, 2B 8. Pete Kozma, SS
1. Adam Wainwright 2. Jaime Garcia 3. Lance Lynn 4. Jake Westbrook 5. Shelby Miller
First of all, I'm not concerned that his high .334 BABIP signals too much good luck. Going back to his days with Triple-A Memphis, Craig has been a guy who routinely racks up seemingly lucky BABIPs. In 2009, it was .353; in 2010, it was .351. In his 44-game stint in the majors in 2011, Craig had a .344 BABIP. At this point, we'd be foolish to call it anything but a trend. Meanwhile, many of Craig's other advanced stats moved in the right direction last year, exactly what you'd hope for out of a guy building on a strong rookie campaign. His line-drive rate rose to 22.7 percent from 19.1 percent. According to Fangraphs' plate discipline stats, he swung at fewer balls outside the strike zone (28.6 percent vs. 29.2 percent), increased his contact rate to 83.9 percent from 82.1 percent and cut his swinging-strike rate to 6.9 percent from 8.1 percent. His walk rate crept up narrowly to 7.2 percent, and he trimmed a full percentage point off his strikeout rate, getting it down to 17.3 percent. His home run/fly ball ratio edged down, but was still a robust 17.1 percent. All of these numbers portend of a huge breakout in 2013.
Still, we have to believe Mike Matheny will get Carpenter enough burn to make him worthy of fantasy attention. Not only will Carpenter at the very least split time with Descalso, he'll back up David Freese at third and can also play in the outfield. That makes him an intriguing target at second base. He knocked out line drives at a rate near 24 percent last year and posted a 10-percent walk rate. With Rafael Furcal out for the entire season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, the top of this lineup is very much in flux. If Carpenter can win over Matheny and entrench himself in the leadoff spot, he's a lock to score 100 runs.
First of all, don't get too hung up on Miller's surface stats. As we've touched on in this space before, the Pacific Coast League, in which the Memphis Redbirds play, is one of the friendliest hitter's leagues on the planet. Albuquerque's John Ely (Dodgers organization) led the league with a 3.20 ERA. Miller's 4.74 was good for 17th. More importantly, his 160 strikeouts were the second most in the league, trailing only Ely. Miller will experience growing pains, and you might have to play matchups with him, but he's a lottery ticket who will, at worst, be a solid backend option in a fantasy rotation.
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