For a team with perennial pennant expectations, the defending National League champion St. Louis Cardinals didn't have a lot of work to do this offseason. So much so that it appears that they may have finished their offseason shopping in a single weekend with two simple moves that position them as an early favorite to win what would be their fifth pennant in 11 years next season.
Coming into the offseason, the Cards' only clear needs were an upgrade at shortstop and on the bench. On Friday, they traded non-tender candidate David Freese and extraneous reliever Fernando Salas to the Angels for outfield depth, and on Sunday they signed Jhonny Peralta, one of the top two free agent shortstops on the market, to a four-year deal worth $53 million. Done and done.
Of course, the real source of St. Louis' quick and easy success this offseason is their farm system. The Cardinals' shopping list was so short, and Freese, Salas and the now-clearly-departing free agent Carlos Beltran were so expendable because of the farm's success in restocking the club with cheap, team-controlled talent.
St. Louis has no need for pitching because its system has produced Shelby Miller, Michael Wacha, Trevor Rosenthal, Carlos Martinez, Kevin Siegrist and Seth Maness over the last season-plus. Freese was expendable because Matt Carpenter emerged as an MVP-quality player last year and Kolten Wong has arrived to push him back to his natural position of third base. Beltran can be let go heading into his age-37 season because the Cardinals have Matt Adams ready to hold down first base, Allen Craig capable of moving into rightfield and Oscar Taveras, the top hitting prospect in the minors, due to join their outfield in the coming season.
With Peralta taking over at shortstop, St. Louis has a projected 2014 infield that could boast an above-average hitter at every position as well as the flexibility to put Carpenter back at second and Peralta at third if Wong struggles, or to put Craig back at first if Adams does (or if Taveras and elite defensive centerfielder Peter Bourjos, acquired in the trade with the Angels, squeeze Craig out of the outfield). In the meantime Craig, Adams, Jon Jay, Bourjos and Taveras (who was just added to the 40-man roster in anticipation of the upcoming Rule 5 draft) give the Cardinals five potential starters for three positions (first base, centerfield and rightfield), the overflow from which will improve the team's depth.
Speaking of depth, 24-year-old shortstop Greg Garcia, who was Wong's double-play partner at the University of Hawaii at Manoa as well as at three minor league levels in the Cardinals system, was added to the 40-man along with Taveras. A career .281/.386/.403 hitter in the minors, Garcia could claim a spot in place of light-hitting incumbents Pete Kozma or Daniel Descalso. Righty-hitting corner outfielder Joey Butler, 28 in March, was claimed off waivers from the Rangers in early October and could balance the lefty Adams as a power source off the bench, having hit .300/.392/.468 in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League over the last three seasons.
Once Taveras arrives, a bench of Adams, Butler, Garcia, Bourjos or Jay, one of Kozma, Descalso or Shane Robinson, and a catcher would be a clear upgrade on what St. Louis brought to the postseason this October. Certainly further improvements to the team's depth, particularly at backup catcher and in the infield, are possible, and the Cardinals will invite a full slate of non-roster challengers to spring training, but they are hardly necessary.
As it is, the Redbirds' roster almost seems overstuffed. Beyond the potential logjam at first base, the potential battle in centerfield and Garcia being blocked at shortstop, the team expects to enter camp with six viable starting pitchers: Adam Wainwright, Shelby Miller, Michael Wacha, Joe Kelly, Lance Lynn and Jaime Garcia, the last expected to be fully recovered from his May 2013 surgery to repair the labrum in his pitching shoulder.
That list doesn't include sophomore relief aces Rosenthal and Martinez, both of whom started in the minors and would like to return to starting in the majors. Those two, meanwhile, could push former closer Jason Motte into middle relief upon his return from his May 2013 Tommy John surgery, which is expected in May of the coming season.