The 2013 NL Champion Cardinals tied for the best record in baseball and set all-time records for clutch performance but failed to take the champion’s crown.
The organization many refer to as the best-run in baseball had another brilliant season in 2013. With their crop of homegrown, affordable players putting up the above-average numbers we’ve come to expect out of a Cardinals’ uniform. It was a year that’s become emblematic of the grey and red, as the team was carried to the postseason on the backs of an incredible amount of solid rookie debuts and a magnificent team-wide performance with runners in scoring position. The Cardinals young players lined the ball all over the yard at a league-leading 23.5% pace and threw smoke with the second highest average fastball velocity in baseball all the way to an NLCS title, knocking out the Dodgers in an exciting series to decide the league’s champion. The club finished 97-65, tied with Boston for the best record in the game, and with the youngest pitching staff in baseball, the team promises to sustain high levels of performance for years to come.
What Went Right?
The Cardinals set and challenged all-time records left and right all season this year. Their .330 batting average with runners in scoring position was the best the game has seen since 1950. Shelby Miller and Adam Wainwright went back to back on May 10th and 11th to set down forty straight Rockies’ batters, tying an all-time record. They set down 51 without allowing a base hit, making the feat even more incredible. Jon Jay, despite his failings, set and then ended an all-time NL errorless streak at 245 games, beating the mark that had stood since 1965. The Cardinals seemed like they were falling backward into making history throughout 2013.
The team’s established core was dominant throughout the year, even outside their phenomenal performance with runners in scoring position. They were led by the Sherpa of the Mountain of Catching in Yadier Molina, who hit .319/.359/.477 as his bat continues to rise to equal the monumental value he puts up in framing and defense, to say nothing of the immeasurable value of his game-calling skills; Cardinals’ pitchers are superstitious about shaking off his pitch choices, preferring never to do so. Molina’s immeasurable contributions to the Cardinal juggernaut earned him third place in the MVP voting. The man who threw the most of those pitches was Cards’ ace Adam Wainwright, leading all of baseball with his 241.2 innings pitched, and making the most of all of them with a 2.94 ERA that underlying stats like his 2.55 FIP say was him getting some bad luck. Matt Carpenter came out of nowhere after starting his career off the bench to lead second basemen with a .318 average along with a .392 OBP. He led the MLB in runs, hits and doubles and finished just behind Yadi in the MVP vote. Allen Craig followed last year’s breakout with 134 games of .315/.373/.457 offense, and his .454 average with RISP was the best mark since Tony Gwynn in ’97, although critics’ claims that last year’s power spike was unsustainable look correct and both UZR and DRS thought fairly lowly of his defense. Carlos Beltran hit .296/.339/.491 in what looks to have been his last year with the franchise. Lance Lynn continued being great with a 3.28 FIP and 8.84 K/9. And on, and on, and on.
The usual suspects all pulled their weight and more, sure, but the real headline of the Cardinals’ 2013 season is the year of the rookie. Shelby Miller, Michael Wacha, Trevor Rosenthal, Carlos Martinez, Joe Kelly and Matt Adams were all rookie eligible in 2013 and a bevy of incredible performances from the fruits of St. Louis’ fabled farm system propelled their well-oiled machine all the way to the world series. Miller had one of the best pitching debuts in recent memory with a 3.06 ERA and 8.78 strikeouts per nine innings in 173.1 innings, earning him third in the NL Rookie of the Year voting (overshadowed this very year by the Marlins’ Jose Fernandez, making for quite the show through the season.) Wacha appeared in 15 games and only 9 of them starts, but made them count to the tune of a 2.78 ERA. He was brilliant in 30.2 postseason innings, hammering out a 0.913 WHIP and a 2.78 ERA (including his ugly World Series numbers.) He was lights-out in the NLCS, earning MVP honors for the series. Carlos Martinez and Joe Kelly showed promise as valuable bullpen pieces that throw fire, and Matt Adams emerged off the bench to fill a hole created by an injury to Allen Craig‘s foot.
Overall, these incredible pieces all combined to produce a team that had the second lowest ERA in baseball and the third highest OBP. When you prevent runs and get on base, you’re playing the game the right way. Hitting line drives and throwing hard strikes seems like the most intuitive way to get there, and the Cards’ development staff deserves eternal credit for constantly churning out players who do just that.
What Went Wrong?
David Ortiz, basically.
Going into 2014 the Cardinals still figure to have a top-half farm system or close to it, even after graduating all the prospects mentioned above, and with top prospects Kolten Wong and Oscar Taveras likely to start 2014 in the Majors. Wong showed promise in his brief callup and the J-Honey Peralta signing allows them to surgically remove Pete Kozma from a starting role (one of the team’s few weak spots in 2013 was the soft underbelly of its shortstop position.) They are in a comfortable position heading into the winter meetings, with the only potential hole they faced being filled by their recent trade to acquire Peter Bourjos, and with their top prospect Taveras also appearing ready for a big-league job. It would seem strange to leave Taveras in the minors and sign a FA bat this offseason, but at this point I think we’d have to assume that the Cardinals know what they’re doing. Expect them to make some depth signings, or even a splash in the infield. Or maybe they’ll just stand around and laugh at the other organizations. That’s what I’d do, if I were the Cardinals.