The season finished in disappointment for the St. Louis Cardinals as they lost the World Series to the Boston Red Sox. One has to wonder if things would have gone differently had the National League won the All-Star Game that decided home-field advantage for the World Series. The Cardinals split the first two in Boston before losing two out of three at home and eventually fell in Game Six at Fenway Park.
The Cardinals were the National League’s most consistent team in 2013. Over the six-month season, the Cardinals were .500 or better every month. They scored 4.96 runs per game in the first half and 4.65 runs per game in the second half and gave up 3.6 and 3.7 runs per game, respectively, in each half. They scored the most runs in the National League by 77 over Colorado and their enhanced offense due to Coors Field and had the fifth-best team ERA. This was an elite team that played at a tremendous level over the course of the season.
Their only Achilles’ heels were the American League and left-handed starting pitchers. Despite a +25 run differential against the AL during the regular season, the Cardinals only went 10-10. Adding in the team’s playoff record, the Cardinals were 12-14 against the American League and 94-59 against the National League. The Cardinals destroyed right-handed starters with a 78-42 mark, but just a 19-23 record against southpaws. The Cardinals ranked 26th in wOBA against lefties and had a wRC+ of just 88, 12 percent below league average.
The Cardinals were in first or second place every day of the season from April 6 on through the final game. Their home-field dominance continued with a 54-27 record. The last time the Cardinals had below 45 wins at home in a season was in 2007. St. Louis is a proud baseball city with a tremendously passionate fan base and the team has rewarded their loyalty over the last several seasons with playoff appearances, World Series titles, and great play at home.
Does 2014 hold yet another a playoff appearance and a third trip to the World Series in four years? Oddsmakers certainly think so, as the Cardinals are the overwhelming favorite in the NL Central, both in the futures market to win the division and in the win total lines. The Cardinals are grouped with the Tigers and Dodgers as the only teams with win totals of 90 or higher. The Cardinals win total is at 91.5 at 5Dimes.eu, BetOnline.ag, and BetDSI.eu with varying juice. Bovada.lv has the Cardinals at 90.5, but it will cost -140 to play the over.
Key additions: Jhonny Peralta, Peter Bourjos, Mark Ellis, Pat Neshek
Key losses: Carlos Beltran, David Freese, Ed Mujica, Rafael Furcal, John Axford
The Cardinals did all of their work early in the offseason. The last transaction listed on Baseball-Reference.com is the signing of Pat Neshek back on February 6. This is a front office that gets things done, develops homegrown talent extremely well, and fills holes when necessary. That’s exactly what happened this offseason.
Some people will automatically expect the Cardinals to be worse because of the names that they lost and the less-interesting names that have been added. Carlos Beltran left for Yankee Stadium, David Freese was traded in the Peter Bourjos deal with Anaheim, Ed Mujica was the team’s closer early in the season, Rafael Furcal has had a long Major League career, and John Axford was a former closer for the Brewers.
For the Cardinals, it was all about addressing weaknesses. Cardinals shortstops combined for a .226/.282/.314/.596 slash line and a wRC+ of 63. That’s incredibly bad production. Not only that, but the group was marginally above average defensively. That explains the signing of Jhonny Peralta, who has been a steady offensive contributor for most of his career and nowhere near as bad as his defensive reputation leads people to believe. Furcal was often injured and not very productive with the bat.
Cardinals outfielders produced a 121 wRC+ last season. They also finished 27th in stolen bases. While stolen bases aren’t necessary, playing defense is. The Cardinals ranked 24th in defensive runs saved among outfielders at -27. Peter Bourjos is an elite defensive center field with great speed and a skill set more conducive to the National League. Beltran’s offensive losses will have to be made up by somebody else, but Bourjos will have a big impact on the team’s defense.
Mark Ellis lost the second base job to Kolten Wong, but Ellis provides great veteran insurance if Wong is unable to hold on to the job. Second base was a position of strength for the Cardinals but Matt Carpenter is moving to third base to fill the void left by the trade of David Freese, so Ellis is a nice depth guy to have.
Pat Neshek and his wonky, sidearm-style delivery adds middle relief depth lost by the departures of Axford, Fernando Salas, and Mujica. All in all, the Cardinals shed some payroll and potentially improved the ballclub.
Why bet the over?
The Cardinals continue to draft and develop talent, fill holes through free agency, and are constantly in the mix in the National League playoff chase. This year shouldn’t be any different. The chief reason to love the Cardinals is their starting rotation. Adam Wainwright anchors a staff that should be among the league’s best once again. Wainwright has always been a frontline starter, but he took another big step forward last season. Wainwright issued 35 walks in 241.2 regular season innings and his FIP- was 70, meaning that he was 30 percent better than league average. In fact, since 2006, Wainwright has been at least 10 percent better than league average each season. In a “bad” year in 2012 after Wainwright missed all of 2011 recovering from Tommy John surgery, Wainwright had a 3.94 ERA but a 3.10 FIP and was 18 percent better than league average. He’s truly elite.
Michael Wacha became a media darling from his performance as a rookie that carried right on into the postseason. It was just a 64.2 inning sample size during the regular season, but Wacha showed the promise of a polished pitcher at 22 years old. The key going forward for Wacha will be his ability to miss the barrel of the bat. He got by with a low home run rate and a low line drive rate last season and that should continue with a mid-90s fastball and a true weapon of a changeup that can neutralize lefties. While Wacha may not be as good over the course of a long season as he was in last season’s small sample size, he should be worth somewhere around three wins for the Cards.
Lance Lynn and Shelby Miller will provide support in the middle of the rotation. Both guys have swing-and-miss fastballs with Lynn sitting in the 92-94 mph range, while Miller can run it up into the upper 90s when need be. Lynn has underperformed in each of the last three seasons per his FIP, so there’s reason to believe that 2014 could be his best season yet. When Miller missed his spot, the ball went a long way, but at 23, another year of experience and a big right arm could help him inch closer to dominance.
Joe Kelly has won the fifth spot in the rotation as the Cardinals have opted to use Carlos Martinez as a bridge to closer Trevor Rosenthal. Kelly will be the only Cardinals starter with a below average strikeout rate, but his ground ball split makes him valuable fifth starter. This is a rotation that will miss a lot of bats and has room for growth. With four above average starters and Kelly, it will be one of the National League’s top groups.
The ninth inning belongs to Trevor Rosenthal and his triple-digit fastball. The Cardinals had the luxury of moving Rosenthal to the back of the pen because of their ability to develop pitchers and Rosenthal thrived in a short-inning role. He struck out nearly 35 percent of the hitters he faced with a fastball that averaged 97.3 mph according to Baseball Info Solutions.
The aforementioned Carlos Martinez has two plus-pitches with a fastball that sits in the upper 90s and a tremendous curveball. The lack of a third pitch and questions about Martinez’s durability at 6’, 185 are why he’s in the bullpen, but he should be a tremendous setup man and a great bridge to Rosenthal.
Behind Martinez, wily veteran Randy Choate will be the primary matchup lefty. Kevin Siegrist struck out over 32 percent of the batters he faced. Extreme ground ball guy Seth Maness had a 68.4 percent ground ball rate, the second-highest of all pitchers with at least 60 IP. Also, keep an eye out for former Cardinals closer Jason Motte, who spent the 2013 season recovering from Tommy John. He could add depth to the bullpen in May.
The offense looks to be rather solid entering the upcoming season as well. There are above average contributors at every position. It’s difficult to find a catcher as impressive as Yadier Molina. Not only is he a great hitter at a very poor offensive position, but he is the field general for the pitching staff and the team’s results are a great reflection on his work from the crouch. Molina was the third-most valuable catcher by StatCorner.com’s pitch framing report, 19.8 runs above average. And, he’s thrown out a ridiculous number of baserunners in his career, gunning down 45 percent of attempted base stealers. League average is around 28 percent.
Matt Adams was tremendous in a half-season sample of 319 plate appearances and he will have the opportunity to see what he can do over the course of an entire season. Adams hit 17 HR and posted a .220 ISO in his first full season with the Cardinals. It would seem that he will have a huge upside. If you project his numbers over a 650 plate appearance season, he will hit 35 home runs and drive in somewhere around 110 runs. He’s a big boy at 6’3”, 260, so durability may be a concern, but a healthy Adams is a big time corner bat for the Cardinals.
Jhonny Peralta was a rather unsung signing this offseason. The knock on Peralta has always been his apparent laziness in the field and seemingly apathetic attitude. But, according to Fangraphs’s defensive value calculations, Peralta has actually been an above average defender each of the last six seasons. Add in above average offense in 2011 and 2013 and the Cardinals are getting a player that can truly help them both offensively and defensively in the middle of the field. With -0.3 fWAR from shortstops last season, Peralta could easily be a three-win improvement.
It’s hard to say that Matt Carpenter came out of nowhere last season after a rather impressive stint in 2012 with the Cardinals, but he wound up being one of the league’s most valuable players at a terrible offensive position last season. Carpenter’s 7.0 fWAR led all second basemen by a full win last season. By getting on base nearly 40 percent of the time, Carpenter led the league in runs scored with 126. He’s moving to third base this season, where his numbers won’t be as good compared to league average, but a major regression looks unlikely.
The outfield trio of Matt Holliday, Peter Bourjos, and Allen Craig has a nice combination of power, on-base ability, speed, and defense as Bourjos can cover a ton of ground in Busch Stadium’s spacious center field. Fourth outfielder Jon Jay will make for an interesting defensive replacement or a guy who can fill in for Holliday, Craig, or even Bourjos a couple times a week against a tough righty. It’s a rather complete package if Craig can stay healthy.
All in all, the Cardinals have very few, if any, weaknesses. Even Kolten Wong at second has some speed and some contact ability at second base, a good complement to this lineup. The Cardinals could be the first National League team since 2009 to score 800 runs, a feat accomplished by the Rockies and Phillies that season, with the caveat that both teams play in extreme hitter’s parks. The rotation may not be as dominant as some people believe, but with a pretty big margin for error from the offense, they won’t have to be.
Why bet the under?
Adam Wainwright threw over 270 innings last year including the postseason. Just two years removed from Tommy John surgery, the workload could truly take a toll on him. Also, his 3.7 percent walk rate is probably unsustainable, with a likely bump back towards his usual average of around six percent. Not that substantial, but with Michael Wacha likely to go through some growing pains in his first full season and potential regression for Lance Lynn, especially with his struggles against lefties, the Cardinals may need all the help that they can get to truly have an elite rotation. Will Shelby Miller become more of a pitcher this season, or will he remain a thrower that misses bats and also hits barrels from time to time.
Health could be a factor for the Cardinals as Matt Holliday starts his age-34 season, Allen Craig was sidelined with various ailments in 2013, and Yadier Molina isn’t getting any younger. The backup catcher options behind Molina aren’t particularly impressive and his defensive value cannot be replaced. Jhonny Peralta’s 2013 season was cut short by a PED suspension, leading some to wonder what his true production level is. The Cardinals are taking a gamble on him.
The Cardinals middle relief looks an area of weakness. The eighth and ninth innings are in good hands, but the middle relief leaves something to be desired. Seth Maness is a BABIP-driven pitcher with all the balls in play and that doesn’t fit the mold of a prototypical setup guy. Kevin Siegrist missed bats in his role, but there’s serious regression in his future with a 98.3 percent strand rate and questionable control.
Mike Matheny made some questionable decisions in his first season as manager of the Cardinals that left some people scratching their heads. The Cardinals finished four games worse than their Pythagorean Win-Loss record suggested, some of which could be attributed to Matheny.
Pick: Over 91.5 (-110, 5Dimes.eu)
The Cardinals have a tremendous chance at not only going over this win total, but winning 100 games. This is a team that could easily represent the National League in the World Series for the second straight season and third out of the last four. There are very few weaknesses on the ballclub overall, with some depth concerns in certain areas, but nothing too major. With the NL Central appearing a couple notches below where it was last season, as the Reds and Pirates are highly unlikely to repeat their 90+ win seasons from 2013, the Cardinals appear to be the biggest benefactors.
As mentioned above, the Cardinals could be the first NL team since 2009 to score 800 runs and it’s hard to see them allowing more than 615-620 runs with their pitching staff. A run differential of +185 from 800 runs scored and 615 runs allowed represents a Pythagorean Win-Loss record of 100-62, something that the Cardinals could achieve. The additions of Peralta and a full season from Adams could certainly add an extra four or more wins to a 97-win team from last season, which would more than account for the loss of Beltran.
It’s a big number to ask a team to win, but the Cardinals are built to win and that’s exactly what they’re going to do.
Adam Burke is a freelance writer and amateur handicapper with a knack for finding value through matchup analysis and a deep understanding of the sports betting market. His main area of expertise is baseball, with a background in sabermetrics and advanced statistics. He is the host of The Gridiron Gambling Report and our college football and college basketball BangTheBook.com podcasts on the BlogTalkRadio Network.