Michael Wacha burst onto the national stage with his brilliant playoff performances. (Jeff Roberson/AP)
2013 Record and Finish: 97-65, first place in NL Central (second overall); lost World Series to Boston
2014 Projected Record: 96-66, first place in NL Central
The Case For
Already having established themselves as one of the game's model franchises, the NL pennant winners shored up their two most glaring weaknesses in the offseason, signing shortstop Jhonny Peralta to a four-year, $53 million deal to replace light-hitting Pete Kozma and trading for glove whiz Peter Bourjos to replace Jon Jay in an outfield defense that rated as one of the majors' worst according to multiple fielding metrics. When you combine that with larger contributions from 2013 rookie sensations Shelby Miller, Michael Wacha, Trevor Rosenthal, Carlos Martinez and Matt Adams, it appears that the team is set not only for 2014, but also for years to come.
The Case Against
The departure of Carlos Beltran leaves a sizable void in the lineup, one unlikely to be filled by top prospect Oscar Taveras, who missed most of last season due to a high ankle sprain and has battled hamstring troubles this spring. For as much youth as the team has, it's naive to expect that every player — including prospective second baseman Kolten Wong — will keep improving without setback; if there's one thing we know about young pitchers, it's that s--t happens. Plus it's not as though Peralta, Bourjos or holdovers like Allen Craig don't have question marks attached.
X-Factor: Peter Bourjos
The trade that sent David Freese to Anaheim did two things: Opened up a lineup spot for Wong by triggering Matt Carpenter's shift to third base and brought back a glove whiz to help shore up an outfield defense that ranked in the majors' bottom seven in both Defensive Runs Saved (-27 runs) and Ultimate Zone Rating (-30 runs). Bourjos, who turns 27 on March 31, is slated to replace Jon Jay (-10 DRS, −7 UZR in 2013) in centerfield; he prorates to +15 DRS and +20 UZR per 150 games for his career, but due to injuries and the presence of Mike Trout, he's played just 347 major league games over four seasons. He's not as good a hitter as Jay (.276/.351/.370 in 2013), though with fewer than 400 plate appearances in 2011-12 due to hamstring and wrist maladies, it's been difficult to gauge his progress with the bat following a strong 2011 (.271/.327/.438 in 552 plate appearances). Whether he'll supply as significant a boost as advertised via full-time play or struggle to remain in the lineup and wind up getting lost among a glut of outfielders remains to be seen.
Number To Know: 25-and-under
When baseball people talk about young talent, it's generally the 25-and-under age bracket to which they refer. That grouping covers just about every player worth considering as a prospect as well as major leaguers who, in all likelihood, have not yet reached the expensive portion of their careers. They're generally presumed to be on the upswing of their careers; most aren't even eligible for arbitration. A wealth of talent in this area is testament to a booming player development system and a key to keeping payroll manageable; a dearth of it means that most reinforcements have to come from outside the organization, often at an exorbitant cost.
Earlier this month, Baseball Prospectus ranked the Cardinals first among the 30 teams in 25-and-under talent. Seven of their top 10 players in that age bracket are already lined up for major roles on the 2014 roster, three in the rotation (Miller, Wacha and Joe Kelly), two in the bullpen (Martinez and Rosenthal), and two in the lineup (Adams and Wong). The top guy on BP's list, Taveras, merely ranks as the No. 3 prospect in all of the minors; if he can get past his injuries, he could be a factor later this season. None of those players will make anywhere close to $1 million this year, and the earliest any of them will be arb-eligible is 2016. That has allowed the team to tie up Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina, Carpenter and Craig with long-term deals while keeping the team's payroll in the $100 million range, out of the top-10.
Most overrated: No one
"I've got almost 100 names here and I can't find one. They're a low-key group. They're Midwest; they don't make a lot of headlines, so to speak. It's a young team, too, so it's not like they've got a bunch of old guys here. Most of the time, 'overrated' is a guy who hasn't fulfilled a contract or a prospect that they've hyped for so long that just flops. They definitely haven't had that happen."
Most underrated: Matt Carpenter
"He just signed that big new contract, but Matt Carpenter is the most underrated player in the game. He's a blue-collar guy that fits perfectly with the way the Cardinals do things. The league's seen him now, so he's got to make adjustments, but that's the big leagues. They're going to pay a lot more attention to him this year; he's not going to get lost in the shuffle. He's going to see more breaking balls when he's ahead in the count, and they're going to pay special attention, especially with runners on base."
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