Mar 13, 2014; Jupiter, FL, USA; The St. Louis Cardinals celebrate their victory over the Atlanta Braves at Roger Dean Stadium. The Cardinals defeated the Braves 11-0. Mandatory Credit: Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

Season Preview: St. Louis Cardinals

It has become a near-tradition in the National League of late. Either the San Francisco Giants or the St. Louis Cardinals seem destined to represent the league in the Fall Classic each year.

Since 2010, only these two teams have battled the best in the American League in October and with the Cardinals’ plethora of pitching depth and up-and-coming young talent, it would come to no surprise to see St. Louis back in the postseason in 2014.

Key additions Arguably the biggest move of the Cardinals’ offseason came early on, when the front office pulled the trigger on former Detroit Tigers infielder Jhonny Peralta. St. Louis inked Peralta to a four-year, $53 million deal, despite his PED suspension last year.

A solid all-around middle infielder, Peralta will give the Cardinals a desperately-needed upgrade at the shortstop position in terms of offensive production, where the club’s tandem of Pete Kozma and Daniel Descalso batted just .226/.282/.314 last year. Last season, Peralta hit 11 home runs and 30 doubles in just 107 games for Detroit with an .815 OPS – good enough to net him his second All-Star Game appearance of his big league career. Given Detroit didn’t make a qualifying offer, St. Louis won’t forfeit a draft pick, which has been one of its most valuable assets in creating a perennial winner in recent years.

The club also pulled off a trade with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, sending hometown hero David Freese and reliever Fernando Salas west in exchange for center fielder Peter Bourjos and outfield prospect Randal Grichuk. When healthy, Bourjos is one of the best defensive center fielders in the game, and with three years of team control, gives St. Louis added roster depth for the next several seasons.

With one of the best pitching staffs in the game today, the team added veteran second baseman Mark Ellis to provide defensive depth in the infield this season. He gives manager Mike Matheny a reputable veteran behind rookie Kolten Wong, should the Cardinals’ prospect struggle in his adjustment to the big leagues in 2014.

Key Departures The loss of Freese is the most notable change to the Cardinals’ roster heading into 2014. That being said, after his breakout 2011 campaign that ended with his well-documented postseason heroics, Freese hasn’t been the same player, seeing his average drop 30 points from 2012 to 2013 and leaving much to be desired in terms of his glove work at third. In all, St. Louis returns the key pieces it will need to make a run at another National League pennant, especially with the noted acquisitions that only enhance the make-up of this roster.

Payroll The Cardinals head into 2014 with a payroll just north of $104 million – almost $4 million lower than the league average. 64 percent of that amount is locked up in four players – Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday and Peralta. The bulk of the club’s prime talent is still young enough that they haven’t demanded the top financial resources of the organization – yet.

Player to Watch It seems like every year, Yadier Molina gets better. However, the game has shown us that eventually, the physical rigors of catching as many games as he has will catch up with him. Although nothing in particular indicates that 2014 will be that year, Molina is arguably the biggest piece of the Cardinals’ puzzle, given his supreme game-calling talents as well as his ability to lead the offense. If Molina is healthy and performs as he has in recent years, there is little to worry about in Redbird Country. But if the backstop is sidelined by injuries, that leaves a major hole behind the dish, with the bulk of the catching duties falling to Tony Cruz.

X-Factor In several fantasy leagues, people have drafted Michael Wacha in the early rounds – based solely on his postseason accolades from last season. The right-hander won’t turn 23 until the middle of this season, but already has established himself as one of the top starting pitchers in the National League Central.

Last season, Wacha went 4-1 with a 2.78 earned run average in 15 appearances, including nine starts, for St. Louis. He continued his dominance in the postseason, going 4-1 with a 2.64 ERA – including two scoreless starts in the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers, when he allowed just seven hits in 13 2/3 innings of work. Wacha will have all eyes on him this season. Can he establish himself as the next ace of the St. Louis Cardinals?

Player Likely to Regress Matt Carpenter has to be the player most likely to take at least some type of step backward in 2014, given that his performance last year was – simply put – unbelievable. He batted .318/.392/.481 in 157 games for St. Louis, racking up a staggering 55 doubles en route to an All-Star nod, a Silver Slugger and a fourth-place finish in MVP balloting. It’s not that Carpenter will take a major step backward, or even that he has diminishing abilities. Neither of those things are the case. It would simply take a lot for him to repeat the performance he had in 2013. That being said, if he defies the odds and puts it all together, the Cardinals will be unstoppable.

Biggest Question The transition from Hall of Fame manager Tony LaRussa to former catcher Mike Matheny has been seamless. St. Louis has emerged as as close to a dynasty as any team baseball has seen in the National League over the past quarter-century. Can Adam Wainwright repeat his dominant 2013? Will the other young pitchers perform to the same degree as last year? If the blend of veteran faces and touted talent in the lineup can put runs on the board, it’s pretty easy to see this team back in the Fall Classic come October.

Tags: NL Central St Louis Cardinals

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