2014 Cardinals preview: Pieces in place for NL champs to repeat

Coming off his suspension, how will Jhonny Peralta fare in the NL?

Steve Mitchell/Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS

Offense: A historic .330 batting average with runners in scoring position spurred the Cardinals to the NL lead in runs. Five Cardinals finished among the majors’ top-10 averages with runners in scoring position (RISP), led by Allen Craig’s major-league best .454. While a repeat of such success can’t be expected, the lineup remains stocked with productive hitters. The signing of shortstop Peralta gives the Cardinals five regulars who hit .300 with a .350 OBP last year. The Cardinals will miss their leading home run hitter from last year in right fielder Beltran, but believe first baseman Matt Adams can help fill their power void. 

Rotation: They have the ideal No. 1 starter in Adam Wainwright, who finished second in Cy Young voting after leading the majors in innings and finishing with a sub-3.00 ERA for the third time in his past four seasons. The strength of the staff, which finished with the second-best rotation ERA in the NL, is its depth. Lance Lynn won 15 games and topped 200 innings last season but isn’t assured of a rotation spot this year. He’s competing with a group that included two hard-throwing right-handers coming off strong rookie seasons, Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha. After lefty Jaime Garcia was sidelined early in camp, the club still could turn to Joe Kelly, who went 9-3 with a 2.28 ERA last year, and hotshot 22-year-old Carlos Martinez.

Bullpen: Garcia’s absence could leave the bullpen with some undefined roles. But that doesn’t mean it will be any less effective than it was in the playoffs last year, when Cardinals relievers turned in a 1.82 ERA. The dominance starts with hard-throwing right-hander Trevor Rosenthal, who took over the closer’s job late last season. Seth Maness led NL relievers by inducing 16 ground-ball double plays. Lefty Kevin Siegrist finished the regular season with an 0.88 ERA. Lefty specialist Randy Choate held lefty hitters to a .176 batting average and just four extra-base hits in 64 appearances. 

AROUND THE HORN

Player to watch: Bourjos. Acquired in a trade that sent hometown hero Freese to the Angels, Bourjos brings a speed element not seen on the Cardinals in years. He is expected to provide Gold Glove-caliber defense in center field, but what he does on offense will determine how much he plays. Bourjos was hitting .333/.392/.457 before he was hit by a pitch last season and never quite regained full health. Bourjos says he is looking to steal 40 bases, a feat not accomplished by a Cardinals player since 1993, when Gregg Jefferies stole 46.

Why they will win: The lineup is deep, the defense improved and, after reaching the NLCS three consecutive seasons, the roster is stocked with players experienced in reaching the postseason. Still, the strength of the club is a pitching staff that is deep and full of power arms. At least seven pitchers projected on the Opening Day staff throw 95-mph fastballs.

Why they will lose: After finishing with the second-fewest homers in the NL and losing their home run leader in Beltran, the Cardinals could have trouble scoring runs. They can’t be expected to hit 59 points better than the rest of the league with RISP again. If the offense slips, so does the team’s margin for error in the competitive NL Central.

2014 MLB PREVIEWS

Jon Paul Morosi’s outlook: The Cardinals win with a reliable blend of star power and grit, and there’s every reason to expect they will continue doing so in 2014. Peralta will receive a lot of attention early – largely because of his PED suspension, but also because the career American Leaguer will be held to a high standard at a demanding defensive position. Newly signed second baseman Ellis is a quintessential Cardinal, and the rest of the lineup returns mostly intact. The Cardinals’ pitching staff is a dream – on paper, at least – with young, inexpensive arms and enough depth to withstand injuries. Wacha’s first full season should be a pleasure to watch after his star turn in the postseason. Outfield prospect Oscar Taveras, slowed by injuries last year, could force his way into the everyday lineup by midseason.