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The Strike Zone

Winter Report Card: St. Louis Cardinals

Jhonny Peralta, Cardinals There are off-field risks with Jhonny Peralta, but he provides a big upgrade at shortstop for St. Louis. (Carlos Osorio/AP)

With just a week remaining until pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we're checking in on how each team has fared in conducting its offseason business while acknowledging that there's still time for its prognosis to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2013. To see the report cards already published, click here.

St. Louis Cardinals

2013 results: 97-95 (.599), 1st place NL Central, lost World Series (Hot Stove Preview)

Key departures: RF Carlos Beltran, 3B David Freese, RHP John Axford, RHP Fernando Salas, RHP Jake Westbrook* (* = free agent, still unsigned)

Key arrivals: SS Jhonny Peralta, 2B Mark Ellis, CF Peter Bourjos

The Cardinals opened 2013 with the top-ranked farm system in baseball, according to Baseball America, and finished it as the National League champions. They won more games than any other team in baseball save the one that beat them in the World Series, the Red Sox, who also went 97-65 during the regular season. Heading into the offseason, their only major free agents were their 36-year-old rightfielder, two pitchers who had been displaced by rookies in the postseason and thus combined for just four innings pitched in October and two players who missed all of 2013 due to injury (that's Carlos Beltran, Jake Westbrook, Edward Mujica, Rafael Furcal, and the since-retired Chris Carpenter, respectively). With 2013 rookies Matt Adams, Carlos Martinez, Trevor Rosenthal, Michael Wacha and Kolten Wong ready to take on significant roles in 2014, St. Louis didn't have much work to do this offseason.

There was room for improvement, however, and general manager John Mozeliak wasted little time in bringing it about, getting the most significant work of his offseason out of the way in a pair of moves the weekend before Thanksgiving.  On Nov. 22, he traded third baseman David Freese and righty reliever Fernando Salas, both arbitration eligible, to the Angels for outfield depth in centerfielder Peter Bourjos, an elite defender, and Double A rightfielder Randall Grichuk. Two days later, Mozeliak signed shortstop Jhonny Peralta to a four-year, $53 million extension.

Salas saved 24 games for St. Louis in 2011 but had since posted a mere 87 ERA+ over two seasons and no longer had a place in a Cardinals bullpen packed with emerging young talent. Freese, the 2011 NLCS and World Series MVP, was made expendable in large part by the emergence of Matt Carpenter, a natural third baseman who shifted to second base in 2013 and became an MVP candidate, and second base prospect Wong, who made his major league debut in late 2013.

Freese's own struggles played a role in his departure as well. Having suffered steep declines on both sides of the ball in his age-30 season, he was no better than a replacement-level player in 2013, making the decision to replace him with the 23-year-old Wong and return Carpenter to his natural position an easy one.

Freese signed a $5.05 million deal with the Angels for 2014. The Cardinals opted to instead to spend that money on a backup for Wong, signing slick-fielding veteran Mark Ellis for one-year and $5.25 million in December. Ellis, who will be 37 in June, is coming off two solid seasons as the Dodgers' starting second baseman, having contributed 2.5 and 3.0 wins above replacement, respectively, in those two seasons.

Bourjos, who will be 27 in March, has had trouble staying healthy thus far in his major league career. That has made it difficult to get a good read on his likely level of production at the plate, but given his speed and outstanding play in the field, he could have value as a righthanded foil to Jon Jay in center, or simply as depth as the Cardinals try to break in top prospect Oscar Taveras at some point during the season. That process could prompt the team to shop Jay -- who was arbitration-eligible for the first time this winter and will make $3.25 million in the coming season -- at the trading deadline.

With Matt Adams (.284/.335/.503 in 319 plate appearances in 2013) effectively replacing Beltran (who hit .296/.339/.491 in 2013 and made $15 million) by pushing incumbent first baseman Allen Craig to rightfield, and Wong replacing Freese by pushing Carpenter to third, St. Louis has gotten younger at two positions while shedding roughly $12 million worth of payroll. That allowed the team to get older and more expensive at shortstop, the one significant hole in its 2013 lineup.

Last year, the Cardinals' shortstops, primarily Pete Kozma and Daniel Descalso, hit .222/.280/.303. In his worst full major league season (2009), Peralta hit .254/.316/.375, and over the last three years, he has hit .278/.334/.438. An underrated fielder, Peralta has graded out as comfortably above average at shortstop over those last three seasons. There is certainly some concern, and some stigma, stemming from Peralta's connection to the Biogenesis scandal, and if he fails a test for performance-enhancing drugs he'll have to serve a 100-game suspension.

However, St. Louis felt this front-loaded four-year contract was a worthwhile gamble for the 31-year-old Peralta. He made a strong showing in the postseason with the Tigers after returning from his 50-game ban (.333/.353/.545 in an admittedly insignificant 34 plate appearances and the team had a desperate need for an upgrade at shortstop, where there were limited opportunities to do so.

Unfinished business: None

Here's what I wrote about St. Louis' offseason in November:

The Cardinals could let all of their free agents sign elsewhere and non-tender David Freese and still return to the postseason in 2014 with Adams at first base, Craig in right, Matt Carpenter moving to third and Wong taking over at second base. Meanwhile, their pitching staff is so well-stocked with young arms that starter Jaime Garcia and reliever Jason Motte will have to fight to get their old jobs back upon their returns from arm surgery in 2014.

Their only significant need was shortstop and they signed the best one on the market.

Preliminary grade: A+

The Cardinals did exactly what they needed to do, upgrading shortstop, making room for their young talent and adding depth in the outfield and behind Wong. Best of all, by losing Beltran's contract and signing Peralta, their moves had minimal impact on their bottom line. Credit for most of that goes to their player development, but their offseason moves at the major league level worked in perfect harmony with what their farm system has provided. The result is a St. Louis squad that, with just a week left before pitchers and catchers, projects as the best team in baseball in 2014.

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