Editor’s note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the offseason of every MLB team before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues with the St. Louis Cardinals.
2012 record: 88-74
Finish: Second place, NL Central
2012 final payroll: $115.4 million
Estimated 2013 opening day payroll: $114 million
Yahoo! Sports offseason rank: 9th
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There is no panic in St. Louis, none of the requisite worries that accompany a team that thrice whiffed when staring at a spot in the World Series. Something that close being yanked away demands something – a trade, a signing, a splash of some manner or variety – but then the St. Louis Cardinals run themselves with an admirable amount of discipline, happy to guide themselves via internal temperature rather than external heat.
Thus, an offseason in which they lose their best pitcher from last season and sign three guys – one of whom is a backup, another a backup forced into playing time because of injury and the third a professional one-out reliever. The 2013 Cardinals, then, are pretty much the 2012 Cardinals.
And there is nothing wrong with that, not when Adam Wainwright is a full year off Tommy John surgery and ready to reclaim his role from the departed Kyle Lohse as No. 1 starter, and not when the slick-fielding Ronny Cedeno arrives to hold over the Cardinals at shortstop until Rafael Furcal returns from an elbow injury, and not when Ty Wigginton gives an already-versatile team another Leatherman, and not when the left-handed chasm in the bullpen finds itself filled with Randy Choate, the best LOOGY since Keith Hernandez's expectorate turned magical.
Payroll flexibility always is among the Cardinals' priorities. Eschewing Albert Pujols last offseason allowed them to extend Yadier Molina, and free-agents-to-be Carlos Beltran, Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, Jake Westbrook, Edward Mujica, Furcal and Cedeno will make at least $58.1 million this season, leaving GM John Mozeliak a world of options.
St. Louis would like to re-sign Wainwright, and the feelings are mutual, so that should get done. Beyond that, they're in among the best positions in baseball: just two big contracts (Matt Holliday and Molina) and a ton of young, cheap talent around which to build. With more potentially elite players on the way (Oscar Taveras, Shelby Miller) and Mozeliak's deft hands on the yoke, the Cardinals' offseason need not be a worry, even if the NL Central-favored Reds filled their top-of-the-order-bat hole with Shin-Soo Choo aplomb.
The largest possible criticism of the Cardinals centers on their starting pitching, and an eight-deep rotation often takes care of attrition and underachievement. Still, each of the Cardinals' starters comes with a question.
Wainwright, Carpenter and Jaime Garcia: Is he healthy?
Lance Lynn: Can he do it a whole season?
Jake Westbrook: Can he even be league average with so few strikeouts?
Trevor Rosenthal: Is he a starter or reliever?
Joe Kelly: Is the stuff we saw in the postseason translatable to the rotation?
Shelby Miller: Is he the flameout of the first half or stud of the second?
Some of these questions are more pertinent than others. Especially Garcia's, with a left shoulder that looked destined for surgery until a rehab program delayed what's almost always the inevitable, and Lynn's, after going from All-Star as a starter to reliever in a matter of months.
The bullpen that looked so awful – seriously, Victor Marte for 48 games? – now is a strength, with Jason Motte, Mitchell Boggs, Mujica, Choate and whatever combination of guys doesn't crack the rotation. Rosenthal's average postseason fastball exceeded 100 mph. Kelly's sinker moves like a nomad. There is an embarrassment of good stuff in that bullpen, the sort that shortens games for those nights Garcia takes 100 pitches to go five innings.
Scoring runs should take care of itself. While Beltran and Molina produced more than expected last season, the growth of Allen Craig and Jon Jay, the steady play of David Freese and the rock of the team, Matt Holliday, provide more than enough to buttress any regression. And don't forget Matt Carpenter, who could see a lot of time at second base.
Then there is Taveras, considered by many scouts the best hitter in the minor leagues. Signed for just $145,000, he owns a violent swing, the sort that is jelly to strikeouts' peanut butter. And yet he struck out just 56 times in 531 at-bats last season, half of which he spent as a 19-year-old in Double-A. He could hit the big leagues as a 20-year-old, and while full-time duty won't beckon until next season, Taveras is the sort of linchpin around which the Cardinals plan on building.
Sometimes maligned, sometimes heralded, always a mystery, Mike Matheny spent his first season as Cardinals manager a work-in-progress. He was not, certainly, his predecessor, Tony La Russa, one of the game's great strategists. Nor, on the flip side, was he La Russa at his brusque and caustic worst. The bad with Matheny was always canceled by the good, and now he's got a clubhouse of players who know him, love him and want to play for him. That unifying force in the middle may not mean a lot, but it will matter at some point in the season. And when it does, the Cardinals will take solace in the fact their risk bore quite the reward.
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