After setting a new staff record for strikeouts for the second straight year and leading the league in on-base percentage for the third straight, the St. Louis Cardinals are eager to defend their National League pennant. That’s because they spent an offseason solidifying those strengths, including the coming of age of their young pitchers.
If you were to go back in time to the end of the 2013 World Series, you likely couldn’t have outlined a better played offseason than what John Mozeliak and the rest of the Cardinal front office enjoyed over the last four months. Granted, they had already with wise prior planning put themselves in a position to succeed, but they made few, if any, mistakes this past winter and as as result the Cardinals are poised to be even better than they were a year ago.
The offseason to-do list wasn’t complicated: The team primarily needed to upgrade at shortstop, and secondarily at centerfield. Mozeliak checked both boxes, signing free agent Jhonny Peralta, perhaps the best shortstop on the market, and trading for defensive specialist Peter Bourjos. Other than that, the front office’s job was to strengthen and shore up the talent it already had waiting for 2014.
The only major loss was Carlos Beltran opting for free agency, but his replacement plan — some combination of Allen Craig and Oscar Taveras — was so apparent that the Cardinals never even seriously considered bidding for Beltran’s continued services (but not before cashing in on Beltran declining their qualifying offer, netting a sandwich pick in this year’s amateur draft). The team also bade farewell to (and cleared payroll in doing so) Chris Carpenter, Jake Westbrook, Edward Mujica, John Axford and Rafael Furcal, either through retirement or as unwanted free agents. The Cardinals accepted the purging of the dead wood as a naturally as if it were simply the ongoing cycle of a forest, focusing instead on the burgeoning young trees and saplings blossoming into the roster. The only departure that even registered a palpitation on the hearts of the Cardinal faithful was that of David Freese. Even then, the ensuing signing of Peralta and the foregone conclusion that Matt Carpenter would inherit third base — not to mention the sabermetrically-infused excitement about Bourjos, the main player obtained in the trade — rendered Freese’s westward move a non-issue.
Even in the small transactions, the club was spotless, avoiding arbitration with Daniel Descalso, Jon Jay and Bourjos. And as is Mozeliak’s wont, he didn’t rest on his laurels, even as the roster solidified into spring training. He recently bought out Carpenter through at least his first two free agent seasons, locking up the club’s best player last year. And as a coup de grace, the team even won the services of touted Cuban shortstop Aledmys Diaz as a final, triumphant punctuation of a winter in which they did most everything right.
So on the brink of the 2014 title defense, the Cardinals look every bit as talented as they did in 2013. The pitching staff is improved, with Whiff Kids Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha taking their rightful places in the rotation. They join fellow K-masters Adam Wainwright (7.7 K/9 career) and Lance Lynn (9.1), not to mention relief fireballers Trevor Rosenthal (12.2) and Kevin Siegrist (11.3).
As for the offense, the Cardinals essentially exchanged Carlos Beltrán, David Freese and Pete Kozma for Kolten Wong, Matt Adams and Jhonny Peralta. It’s a pretty sizable upgrade, given the average WAR projections for each of the 2014 players:
The 2013 trio totaled 2.2 WAR; the 2014 version figures to provide 6.4, or nearly three times their counterparts’ total. And considering that the Cardinals merely needed to replace Beltran, that’s pretty prolific.
And last, but certainly not least (as any number of sabermetricians will tell you), the defense is improved. The Cardinals and their fans’ irrational hatred of Jon Jay and Pete Kozma might be forgiven for their recency bias, after witnessing some poor glove work in the playoffs. In truth, though, the team’s fielding really wasn’t all that great for the full season (though it wasn’t as bad as it seemed in October): Whatever defensive metric you pick, it’s likely that the Cardinals were in the bottom of the majors in 2013. So their cautious winter did yield at least a part-time upgrade in centerfield in Bourjos, and the combo of Wong will almost assuredly be a better fielder at second base than Freese was at third (as worst in MLB in overall Defense, Freese was worse even than Miguel Cabrera).
With little competition from their division foes, who had trouble even replacing their lost players, the Cardinals enter 2014 as the clear pick in the Central Division, if not the league and majors. Their only enemy is themselves, but it appears that not even Mike Matheny‘s giving away outs via bad strategy can derail this juggernaut.