It may sound obvious to you that a team that has won 27 playoff games in the past three years is the heavy favorite to repeat as National League Central champions in 2014. But what the Cardinals have done in the past 4 years is nothing short of managerial and front office wizardry.
The Cardinals enter 2014 with only two returning starters to the same positions they ended 2013. Catcher Yadier Molina and left fielder Matt Holliday are staying put. Matt Adams is set to take over first base from Allen Craig who is moving to right field taking over the vacancy created by Carlos Beltran moving to the Bronx. Rookie Kolten Wong is penciled in as the starting second baseman with Matt Carpenter moving from second back to his natural position of third base, a vacancy created when general manager John Mozeliak traded David Freese to Anaheim for new center fielder Peter Bourjos. Mozeliak made his biggest gamble of all when he signed shortstop Jhonny Peralta to a 4-year $53 million dollar contract this offseason.
That may seem like a lot of turnover for a team that nearly won it all last year. To Mozeliak’s credit he’s not satisfied with leaving things status quo. As a team that plays in a mid-sized market the Cardinals don’t have the luxury of expanding their payroll past the $100-110 million range and must rely on a budding farm system to remain competitive. Baseball America ranked the Cardinals farm system number 1 in all of baseball in 2013. This year they’ve dropped down to seventh. What at first glance may seem like a drop in talent is actually just a reflection of how many prospects the Cardinals are using and are being counted on to produce for the big league team.
The aforementioned Kolten Wong and Matt Adams are exactly what prospects should be, cheap, inexpensive and unproven. But when it comes to pitching prospects the Cardinals really have an embarrassment of riches. 23 year old Shelby Miller finished his rookie season with 15 wins and a 3.06 ERA. 21 year old Michael Wacha only made 9 stars in the regular season but finished with 4 wins, a near no-hitter vs. Washington in his last start of the season and another near no-no against Pittsburgh in the NLDS and was the darling of the playoffs. “Veteran” Lance Lynn at 26 only has a league leading 33 wins over his first 2 full seasons. 23 year old Trevor Rosenthal and 21 year old Carlos Martinez – both starting pitchers in the minors – lit up the post-season in 2013 as the Cardinals closer and 8th inning set up man, respectively.
But there’s more. The franchise’s number 1 prospect, outfielder Oscar Taveras hasn’t even seen any major league time yet. The hits just keep on coming. As the pipeline keeps producing replacements, the Cardinals seem poised to continue their National League dominance for years to come.