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
Bullpen: Jason Motte (closer), Mitchell Boggs, Trevor Rosenthal, Mark Rzepczynski, Randy Choate, Fernando Salas, Edward Mujica
? What sort of expectations does Allen Craig carry this season?Craig forced his way into the Cardinals' plans as a 27-year-old back in 2011 and ended up hitting .315/.362/.555 with 11 homers and 40 RBI in just 219 plate appearances. Injuries and a loaded roster held him to 119 games last year, but he made them all count, hitting .307/.354/.522 with 22 homers and 92 RBI. There's no doubt that he's the team's starting first baseman this year, and the only thing that can keep him from getting a full complement of at-bats is his health. Not only will he post his best counting stats to date, there's reason to believe he'll sustain the near-.900 OPS that stands out on the back of his baseball card.
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.
? Can Matt Carpenter flash enough leather to stay in the lineup? There's no doubt that if the Cardinals wanted to put their best offensive lineup on the field, Carpenter would be out there. He hit .294/.365/.463 with six homers, 22 doubles and 46 RBI in just 340 plate appearances last year. However, Daniel Descalso is a superior defender, and the Cardinals aren't exactly hurting for bats.
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.
? Can Shelby Miller hold down the fifth spot in the rotation? We've been hearing about Miller ever since the Cardinals made him the 19th overall pick in the 2009 amateur draft, and with good reason. As a 21-year-old at Triple-A Memphis last year, Miller went 11-10 with a 4.74 ERA, 4.48 FIP, 1.38 WHIP and 160 strikeouts against 50 walks in 136.2 innings. He'll be given every chance to be St. Louis' fifth starter this year, and he deserves your attention, even if you're in a shallow league. When you're filling out your rotation, everyone has pockmarks. That's why it's best to shoot for a guy with high upside, and Miller fits that profile.
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.
Jon Jay: With Furcal on the shelf, Jay will likely get the first chance to lead off for this team, which can be a very lucrative spot in any lineup, even more so in one as potent as St. Louis'. He doesn't offer much in the way of power, but he has a career .300/.359/.414 slash in 1,328 plate appearances, and he set career highs in batting average (.305) and OBP (.373) last year. Moreover, he swiped 19 bags in 119 games. Whoever ends up leading off for this team will have a chance to be among the league leaders in runs scored. Jay very well could be that guy.
Yadier Molina: Let me preface this by saying that Molina is undoubtedly one of the best real-life catchers in the league and was a legitimate MVP candidate last season. Having said that, he turns 31 in July and takes a beating behind the plate. His current draft status is contingent on him being a 20-homer threat again, and I'm not sure I buy that. His home run/fly ball ratio spiked last year, reaching 13.8 percent, besting his previous career high by nearly five percentage points. I'm just not ready to believe that he all of a sudden became a consistent power threat on the wrong side of 30.
Allen Craig: I made my argument for Craig earlier, but just so there isn't any confusion, I will not equivocate: Craig will end the year as a top-five first baseman.
NL-only guys to know
Pete Kozma: Kozma takes over as the Cardinals' starting shortstop in Furcal's stead. He hit .333/.383/.569 with two homers and two steals in limited duty last season. It should be noted that he struggled mightily at Triple-A Memphis most of the year.
Trevor Rosenthal: Rosenthal threw 22.2 lights-out innings in the majors last year, striking out 25 batters while walking seven. He could get a shot to start, and he'll be a major contributor to ERA, WHIP and strikeouts, no matter his role with the Cardinals.