The Cardinals receive so much praise as a baseball organization that it’s difficult to remember that they actually lost the World Series in 2013. While the St. Louis organization may only be able to hang its hat on an NL Pennant (their second in three years), their homegrown roster was the envy of FOX postseason broadcasters and fans of other clubs as well. If Albert Pujols never stopped reminding people that there is a “Cardinals Way,” GM John Mozeliak ultimately proved that when he and the front office allowed Pujols to walk (and calmly collected two compensatory picks that turned into Michael Wacha and Stephen Piscotty). Perhaps the club’s biggest tests of outside money appear in Matt Holliday and Adam Wainwright, but if the club’s judgment on the Holliday deal is any indication, they might not have much to worry about Wainwright’s deal, either.
For all that kind talk, one gets the feeling that the 2014 Cardinals are the club’s dream-team of sorts. One veteran for hire (Jhonny Peralta) and another via trade (Peter Bourjos) will round out a squad that projects potential full seasons from Wacha, Matt Adams, and Kolten Wong. Allen Craig and Matt Carpenter may have found their permanent homes for the next half decade, as well, which also gives this roster a sense of finality. In a division that could become increasingly cramped if the Cubs rebuilding effort takes off and the Pirates effort hits its next level, the Cardinals have a roster in place that can potentially weather those developments. This only leaves one to ask, “What is the next step for the Senior Circuit’s elite class?”
Rebuilding Without “Rebuilding”
In case you missed it, Walt Jocketty was pushed out of St. Louis in 2008 for a conflict relating to the roles of Jeff Luhnow in the organization. If Brewers fans say one of Doug Melvin‘s best decisions was keeping Jack Zduriencik in the organization, the St. Louis Post Dispatch notes that one of Mozeliak’s praised accomplishments with the Cardinals was smoothing tensions within the organization during that transition. This allowed Mozeliak to work with ownership and Luhnow alike, in order to build an exceptional farm system. Within his first two drafts, Mozeliak already had Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller, Carpenter, and Adams within the organization. Oscar Taveras, one of the most highly touted prospects in baseball, also jumped aboard the Cardinals organization, perhaps as the face of Luhnow’s revamped Dominican Academy. The Cardinals quickly reshaped their organization.
It might not appear that the club has changed that much over the years, simply because baseball fans are so familiar with watching those bright red hats in the postseason. When we think of the Cardinals as a dominant organization, we do not necessarily think of the changes they made to sustain that success. Basically, while the club put together a World Series Championship in 2011 with faces from outside the organization, their next class of players was working their way into the fold. In fact, the Cardinals basically rebuilt their roster, although one wouldn’t necessarily call it that because “rebuilding” is not usually associated with “Winning World Series Championships.”
2011-2014 roster development:
|C||Y. Molina||Y. Molina||Y. Molina||Y. Molina|
|1B||A. Pujols||A. Craig||A. Craig||M. Adams|
|2B||S. Schumaker||D. Descalso||M. Carpenter||K. Wong|
|3B||D. Freese||D. Freese||D. Freese||M. Carpenter|
|SS||R. Theriot||R. Furcal||P. Kozma||J. Peralta|
|LF||M. Holliday||M. Holliday||M. Holliday||M. Holliday|
|CF||C. Rasmus||J. Jay||J. Jay||P. Bourjos|
|RF||L. Berkman||C. Beltran||C. Beltran||A. Craig|
|BN||J. Jay||M. Carpenter||D. Descalso||D. Descalso|
|BN||D. Descalso||S. Schumaker||M. Adams||P. Kozma|
|BN||A. Craig||J. Jay|
|BN||R. Furcal||T. Cruz|
|SP1||C. Carpenter||K. Lohse||A. Wainwright||M. Wacha|
|SP2||J. Garcia||L. Lynn||S. Miller||S. Miller|
|SP3||K. Lohse||A. Wainwright||L. Lynn||A. Wainwright|
|SP4||J. Westbrook||J. Westbrook||J. Westbrook||L. Lynn|
|SP5||K. McClellan||J. Kelly||J. Kelly||J. Garcia|
|SP6||E. Jackson||J. Garcia||M. Wacha||J. Kelly|
|CL||F. Salas||J. Motte||E. Mjuica||T. Rosenthal|
|RP||J. Motte||M. Boggs||T. Rosenthal||J. Motte|
|RP||M. Boggs||F. Salas||S. Maness||C. Martinez|
|RP||M. Rzepczynski||K. Siegrist|
|RP||V. Marte||S. Maness|
Just two full seasons removed from their last Championship, the Cardinals only have two of eight Championship starters remaining on their squad; only Jaime Garcia remains as a rotational option. Notably, the secondary players from the 2011 team feature three players that served prominent roles in either (or both) 2012 and 2013 campaigns; all three of those players remain with the 2014 Cardinals (with Allen Craig as a starter, this time around). Perhaps my favorite part of their roster, the Cardinals also employed completely different bullpen roles over the span of four years. Their rotation features almost completely fresh faces, with three of the 2014 starters representing Mozeliak draft picks; similarly, the Adams/Wong/Carpenter infield is all Mozeliak/Luhnow. Not only are the bulk of the Cardinals now homegrown players, a sizable portion of their key players are now results of the Mozeliak braintrust.
|Cardinals||RS / RA Against NL/Park|
|2011||+114 RS / +50 RA|
|2012||+94 RS / -15 RA|
|2013||+141 RS / -42 RA|
The transformation of the Cardinals is most evident in their pitching staff. While the club benefited from the return of Adam Wainwright after Tommy John surgery (and one “recovery season” in 2012), as well as the explosion of Kyle Lohse, Mozeliak’s trio of Lynn, Miller, and Joe Kelly pitched 782 innings and prevented 24 runs between 2012 and 2013. Now, the Cardinals are a club that not only have the bats to dominate, but they have a pitching staff that would be good enough to carry an average offense to at least 86 wins. Unfortunately for the rest of the NL, the Cardinals’ offense is good enough to win Championships even without a pitching staff (see 2011).
SideNote: Jeff Luhnow
Speaking of the Mozeliak/Luhnow connection, it’s worth taking a quick break from previewing the Cardinals to address Luhnow’s impact on two baseball farm systems: the Cardinals’ system, as well as his current Houston Astros’ farm. Luhnow became the Astros GM in late 2011, and has overseen two brutal rebuilding seasons (while also allowing the farm system to flourish). It seems the Astros have problems with everything from their cable carrier to their on-field performance, but the farm system is their exception. Yet, it is worth noting that some of Luhnow’s impact as an executive in St. Louis still resonates on the BaseballAmerica Top 100:
|BA Top 100||Jeff Luhnow Players|
|77||Lance McCullers Jr.|
This performance by Luhnow reminds me of those years the Brewers were absolutely stocked, just before they became a competitive squad. In 2005, here’s Jack Zduriencik’s impact on the Top 100 (well, and Doug Melvin’s, especially with the Dan Kolb trade):
|BA Top 100||Brewers Players|
Granted, looking at Mark Rogers and Jose Capellan, it’s worth noting that every one of Luhnow’s Top Prospects might not pan out in the MLB (On the other hand, if you’re thinking about criticizing Melvin for the Capellan trade, it’s worth remembering that the young righty was a highly regarded prospect. Sometimes they just don’t work out). It is worth noting that Luhnow has almost immediately stepped up and revamped the Astros’ system hardly five years after revitalizing the Cardinals’ system. While Zduriencik’s experience in Seattle makes it clear that not every excellent scouting executive makes it as a successful GM (here’s Zduriencik’s side), it is still hard not to notice Luhnow’s performance with prospects.
Depending on how you look at it, the Cardinals have six new faces on their MLB.com Depth Chart. Anyway, Yadier Molina and Matt Holliday are the only players slated to start in both 2012 and 2013 for the Cardinals at exactly the same position. In order to accommodate prospects Wong and Adams, the Cardinals are shifting Carpenter from 2B to 3B and Craig from 1B to RF. Meanwhile, Jhonny Peralta takes on SS for the Cardinals, and Bourjos will man CF. With Wong at 2B, and Adams at 1B, the six new positional faces are complete.
One might ask, with all this shifting for the Cardinals, whether the club will be able to maintain their exceptional runs scored totals. However, the Cardinals seemed to have strengthened their fielding enough to help out their pitchers even further, and their projected improvement at SS could be crucial. Even if questions exist about whether Wong and Adams can produce at the MLB level, the roster is still in good condition, for Carpenter stands to improve 3B by a notable number of runs. By comparing the Cardinals’ 2013 ratios of R and RBI at each position to their 2014 counterparts, the Cardinals stand to improve at 3B and SS, and basically stay put at RF and CF; “merely average” seasons from Wong and Adams would be mostly offset by Carpenter and Peralta:
|Position||PA Estimate||Improvement / Decline|
Of course, there are a lot of questions here. Adams and Wong could explode, or they could fail to produce this year. Carpenter and Craig could fall back to earth, or Peralta could age quickly (unfortunately for him, a “natural” age decline could make the headline writers and pundits very happy, after his Biogenesis suspension).
One of the problems with the chart I posted is that it looks like the Cardinals offense might come to earth. However, based on their R and RBI production in 2013, the Cardinals were pretty much average or better at every position:
Ultimately, losing 15 runs (or so) by shuffling players around the diamond will not hurt the Cardinals. Frankly, the club could probably score 40 fewer runs and decline to an average pitching staff and still win 90 games. One of the season’s potential storylines, however, could be the dynamic within this new batting order. The Cardinals have generally remained patient with their youngsters, and one might not expect them to act rashly with Wong and Adams. However, if any struggles on the south side of the diamond persist, the Cardinals will have to address the pressure of competing against the pressure of nurturing and building their organizational guys.
Newcomers: Adams, Wong, Peralta, Bourjos
The Cardinals batting order will feature four players making their full-season debut in St. Louis. These four players will round out the Cardinals’ contact tendencies, giving them different tools to use throughout their order.
Around the web, there are some analysts and writers raising questions about Wong’s slow start in spring training. Of course, it’s impossible to judge Wong on his MLB performance thus far, especially in spring training. But, given his minor league development, it appears clear that Wong will provide the Cardinals with a contact-oriented bat. Wong’s success will dictate whether his contact bat is employed in the #2 spot, or whether he will work toward the end of the order. Even in the 7th or 8th spot, Wong could be the type of batter that helps the Cardinals consistently turn over their batting card and clear the pitcher’s spot out of an inning.
The MLB veterans that St. Louis acquired via free agency and trade give the Cardinals moderate contact approaches. Neither Peralta nor Bourjos has an extreme approach, although Peralta’s profile is more well-rounded than Bourjos’s approach. Yet, there is a sense that Bourjos has not had a true opportunity to showcase his abilities, and he should have that chance in St. Louis.
Finally, while Adams may have had a moderate contact approach in the high minors, his extreme home run approach has required more strike outs in the National League (thus far). Adams may need to improve his walk rate if he’s going to be the type of high-strike out / high-home run total player that his profile suggests. On the other hand, if he continues to hit home runs at such a high rate, it won’t necessarily matter how well he hits in other categories. Adams could be the type of 6th or 7th batter that “cleans up” after the top batters, and at best, he could eventually land that mid-order clean up role for the Cardinals.
Breakout: RHP Rotation
With the departure of Lohse after 2012 and Jake Westbrook after 2013, the young gang of righthanders are set to run the Cardinals rotation. Certainly, Wainwright and Jaime Garcia will have their say, too, but 2014 is the first chance at a Wacha, Miller, Lynn, and Kelly show. The traits of these pitchers are rather similar: high strike outs (save for the sinkerballing Kelly), low-to-moderate HR, and absolutely wicked fastball speeds.
|Pitcher||Batters Faced||K%||BB%||HR%||Primary Pitch|
|Miller||776||23.8||7.9||2.6||93-94 MPH Riding Fastball (71%)|
|Wacha||260||25.0||7.3||1.9||93-94 MPH Rising Fastball (64%)|
|Kelly||989||15.6||8.1||2.0||94-95 MPH Sinker (59%)|
|Lynn||1736||24.1||8.7||1.9||93 MPH Riding Fastball (51.7%)|
Whether their primary pitches are standard rising fastballs, sinkers, or riding fastballs that fall somewhere in between, each of these pitchers runs it up at 93 to 95 MPH. But, these are more colloquial baseball terms; a riding fastball might not have as much spin as a true “rising fastball,” or the pitcher might want it to break/move in against righties more than a standard four-seamer. Using Wacha, Lynn/Miller, and Kelly, here are some horizontal and vertical movement outlines for three different types of fastballs:
|Fastball||pfx HMove||pfx VMove|
Here, “negative” horizontal movement from righties means that these pitches are “breaking” or “spinning” in on right handed batters. Meanwhile, a “rising” fastball doesn’t actually rise; rather, it simply does not “drop” as one might expect (compared to a spinless pitch at the same speed. Spin really makes a particular fastball do its job). This means that when a pitcher “spins” a rising fastball, they may not be looking for horizontal break from their fastball; on the other hand, a right-handed pitcher throwing a “riding” or “sinking” fastball will sacrifice some of that hard-rising backspin in order to bust fastballs in on right-handed batters’ hands. I am wrtiting this in colloquial terms to show that traditional baseball vocabularies can indeed correspond with statistical development; now, we can actually use pitch f/x resources to say whether a pitcher is throwing a rising, riding, sinking, or cut fastball.
Whatever you want to call these pitchers, they are poised to carve up right-handers. One might question whether the Cardinals are giving too many similar looks in their rotation, but the righties have enough room for error in their hard pitches. Miller and Wacha exaggerate that hard-throwing trait even further: one need not expect terribly many off-speed pitches when facing those hurlers. If it seems lazy to pick all four of these pitchers for breakout campaigns, there is a sense the the Cardinals have not yet reached their rotational goals. After the Cardinals rotation allowed 36 more runs than average in 2011, Lohse was almost entirely responsible for the rotation’s 22 runs above average performance in 2012; similarly, Wainwright was the leader of the club’s 20 runs better than average rotation in 2013. The club has yet to receive a 20+ runs prevented season from one of their own organizational starters, and 2014 is one of their best chances to do so.
Best Case Scenario
Not only do the Cardinals claim one of the NL Central’s best big league clubs, they also have a claim to their best “rebuilding” process, as well. The entire outfit seems unfair — while Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, and now Chicago suffered losing years to complete their rebuilding years, St. Louis fans were treated to competitive, Championship seasons while their organization restocked. The outcome is one of the top franchises in the Majors, operating the type of strategy that will likely be mimicked elsewhere.
It’s never easy to provide a best-case scenario for the Cardinals. Will fans be happy with a growing pains season involving their young rotation and new faces in the field? In one sense, the Cardinals’ development wouldn’t suffer a fatal blow if they experienced the type of growing pains similar to those of the 2006 and 2007 Brewers, or the 2011 and 2012 Pirates. However, with a pedigree of three consecutive NL Championship appearances, the Cardinals will be looking well beyond moral victories within their organization. Furthermore, their run differential and roster composition allows the club a 100-run decline in order to fall to 90 wins. With the greatest distance to fall to 90-wins among any NL Central club, even a worst-case scenario could get the Cardinals into Wild Card contention. The Cardinals would need to tank by 200 runs to fall to a .500 season — that suggests an “everything goes wrong” campaign, which really isn’t good analysis (any MLB club can post .500 or worse seasons if everything goes wrong). Cardinals fans simply need to wonder about how many wins within 90 their club will reach.
The only question is whether Mozeliak’s likeness will earn a Championship in their first year as his dream roster, or whether the Cardinals’ organizational showcase will need to wait another year for another Championship.
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