Posted February 06, 2014

Winter Report Card: St. Louis Cardinals

St. Louis Cardinals, Winter report cards
Jhonny Peralta, Cardinals

There are off-field risks with Jhonny Peralta, but he provides a big upgrade at shortstop for St. Louis. (Carlos Osorio/AP)

With just a week remaining until pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we’re checking in on how each team has fared in conducting its offseason business while acknowledging that there’s still time for its prognosis to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2013. To see the report cards already published, click here.

St. Louis Cardinals

2013 results: 97-95 (.599), 1st place NL Central, lost World Series (Hot Stove Preview)
Key departures: RF Carlos Beltran, 3B David Freese, RHP John Axford, RHP Fernando Salas, RHP Jake Westbrook* (* = free agent, still unsigned)
Key arrivals: SS Jhonny Peralta, 2B Mark Ellis, CF Peter Bourjos

The Cardinals opened 2013 with the top-ranked farm system in baseball, according to Baseball America, and finished it as the National League champions. They won more games than any other team in baseball save the one that beat them in the World Series, the Red Sox, who also went 97-65 during the regular season. Heading into the offseason, their only major free agents were their 36-year-old rightfielder, two pitchers who had been displaced by rookies in the postseason and thus combined for just four innings pitched in October and two players who missed all of 2013 due to injury (that’s Carlos Beltran, Jake Westbrook, Edward Mujica, Rafael Furcal, and the since-retired Chris Carpenter, respectively). With 2013 rookies Matt Adams, Carlos Martinez, Trevor Rosenthal, Michael Wacha and Kolten Wong ready to take on significant roles in 2014, St. Louis didn’t have much work to do this offseason.

There was room for improvement, however, and general manager John Mozeliak wasted little time in bringing it about, getting the most significant work of his offseason out of the way in a pair of moves the weekend before Thanksgiving.  On Nov. 22, he traded third baseman David Freese and righty reliever Fernando Salas, both arbitration eligible, to the Angels for outfield depth in centerfielder Peter Bourjos, an elite defender, and Double A rightfielder Randall Grichuk. Two days later, Mozeliak signed shortstop Jhonny Peralta to a four-year, $53 million extension.

Salas saved 24 games for St. Louis in 2011 but had since posted a mere 87 ERA+ over two seasons and no longer had a place in a Cardinals bullpen packed with emerging young talent. Freese, the 2011 NLCS and World Series MVP, was made expendable in large part by the emergence of Matt Carpenter, a natural third baseman who shifted to second base in 2013 and became an MVP candidate, and second base prospect Wong, who made his major league debut in late 2013.

Freese’s own struggles played a role in his departure as well. Having suffered steep declines on both sides of the ball in his age-30 season, he was no better than a replacement-level player in 2013, making the decision to replace him with the 23-year-old Wong and return Carpenter to his natural position an easy one.

Freese signed a $5.05 million deal with the Angels for 2014. The Cardinals opted to instead to spend that money on a backup for Wong, signing slick-fielding veteran Mark Ellis for one-year and $5.25 million in December. Ellis, who will be 37 in June, is coming off two solid seasons as the Dodgers’ starting second baseman, having contributed 2.5 and 3.0 wins above replacement, respectively, in those two seasons.

Bourjos, who will be 27 in March, has had trouble staying healthy thus far in his major league career. That has made it difficult to get a good read on his likely level of production at the plate, but given his speed and outstanding play in the field, he could have value as a righthanded foil to Jon Jay in center, or simply as depth as the Cardinals try to break in top prospect Oscar Taveras at some point during the season. That process could prompt the team to shop Jay — who was arbitration-eligible for the first time this winter and will make $3.25 million in the coming season — at the trading deadline.

With Matt Adams (.284/.335/.503 in 319 plate appearances in 2013) effectively replacing Beltran (who hit .296/.339/.491 in 2013 and made $15 million) by pushing incumbent first baseman Allen Craig to rightfield, and Wong replacing Freese by pushing Carpenter to third, St. Louis has gotten younger at two positions while shedding roughly $12 million worth of payroll. That allowed the team to get older and more expensive at shortstop, the one significant hole in its 2013 lineup.

Last year, the Cardinals’ shortstops, primarily Pete Kozma and Daniel Descalso, hit .222/.280/.303. In his worst full major league season (2009), Peralta hit .254/.316/.375, and over the last three years, he has hit .278/.334/.438. An underrated fielder, Peralta has graded out as comfortably above average at shortstop over those last three seasons. There is certainly some concern, and some stigma, stemming from Peralta’s connection to the Biogenesis scandal, and if he fails a test for performance-enhancing drugs he’ll have to serve a 100-game suspension.

However, St. Louis felt this front-loaded four-year contract was a worthwhile gamble for the 31-year-old Peralta. He made a strong showing in the postseason with the Tigers after returning from his 50-game ban (.333/.353/.545 in an admittedly insignificant 34 plate appearances and the team had a desperate need for an upgrade at shortstop, where there were limited opportunities to do so.

Unfinished business: None

Here’s what I wrote about St. Louis’ offseason in November:

The Cardinals could let all of their free agents sign elsewhere and non-tender David Freese and still return to the postseason in 2014 with Adams at first base, Craig in right, Matt Carpenter moving to third and Wong taking over at second base. Meanwhile, their pitching staff is so well-stocked with young arms that starter Jaime Garcia and reliever Jason Motte will have to fight to get their old jobs back upon their returns from arm surgery in 2014.

Their only significant need was shortstop and they signed the best one on the market.

Preliminary grade: A+

The Cardinals did exactly what they needed to do, upgrading shortstop, making room for their young talent and adding depth in the outfield and behind Wong. Best of all, by losing Beltran’s contract and signing Peralta, their moves had minimal impact on their bottom line. Credit for most of that goes to their player development, but their offseason moves at the major league level worked in perfect harmony with what their farm system has provided. The result is a St. Louis squad that, with just a week left before pitchers and catchers, projects as the best team in baseball in 2014.

17 comments
MikeNolte
MikeNolte

As  a Giants fan  it is growing abundantly clear that B. Sabean is praying for a good outcome.


 It is as everyone has said a thousand times ... if the pitching staff stays healthy and we get good years from the top of the lineup then we will be OK>   however,  the idea of staying healthy looks like a storm on the horizon because the Giants have no depth in the rotation or in the pen.    


Likewise the Gmen are counting on Morse to button up the bottom of the order and hit 6th or 7th with some authority ... which means not only with power but with an average that does not suck.   Unfortunately,  As a Giants fan it has become necessary to savor the suck>

BlowPop852
BlowPop852

I say they are going to slam the beef up the skank but holes of the NL central yet again. Cubs fans must be used to looking at taint all season long. Pirates are a laughing stock now that they choked on Cardinal beef steak hardcore in their only competitive season in 10 years. What a joke.

Wiems35
Wiems35

MattRagusa, still crying about the 2011 NLDS?  

GeorgeAnderson
GeorgeAnderson

Great article & analysis. Unbelievable this comment's can't read, let alone understand the analysis of a team.

katmandu27
katmandu27

Still top dogs? "Still"? Umm....who won the Series? Maybe a better title to this otherwise ok article would have been "Could be Top Dogs Next Season"

MattRagusa
MattRagusa

Yeah, keep feeding their already bloated and smug ego. As if the baseball world needs more of these annoying pricks. They're just as mortal as anyone else, and that will hopefully be a painful lesson they learn.

AnthonyP5500
AnthonyP5500

I still think on paper the Dodgers are the best team in the National League right now--mostly because their players have proven track records, but of course that's why their payroll is double the Cards.  To me (trying to put aside my homerism as much as possible) the Cardinals are the only team that could be better.  The thing is we just don't know what the ceiling is on Adams, Miller, Wacha, Martinez (I leave Rosenthal out because, well, I'm pretty darn sure he's just freaking awesome at this point).  We don't know if Wong will loosen up and play better at the major league level, or what impact if any Taveras is going to have.  If just a couple of those young guys hit their projected potential this season . . . watch out baseball.  The Memphis Redbirds are coming for you.

Dave C
Dave C

The best team and organization in baseball, bar none!


RamsTime4Change
RamsTime4Change

If everyone stay's health this could be one of the best Cards teams we've seen in a long time.  I would be concerned with Allen Craig since he has trouble putting together an entire season.  And Matt Adams has to learn to hit anything other than a fastball.  That being said, they have options if either of those two stumble.

RayIsBipolar
RayIsBipolar

Cards are filthy, anyone who argues different doesn't watch baseball. As is for any team, health of the big boys (Holliday, Molina, and Wainwright) will be crucial. You have to respect the way the Cards built this perennial winner. I wish they would've let someone else reward Peralta after his failed test but you can't argue that they upgraded over a sorry Kozma.


This is the team to beat in NL and probably in all of MLB. 

FreeseyFries
FreeseyFries

@Wiems35LOL Chris Carpenter pitching the game of his life.

Butthurt Phillies fan says: "I just want STL to lose. Hate those pricks more than I hate the Yankees."

katmandu27
katmandu27

@GeorgeAnderson If you find my comment unbelievable read it again with a  dictionary at your side. Not Google translate. My comment refers to the Front page of the MLB section of SI which read(s) "Still Top Dogs". Clicking on that article lead one to the Winter Report Card.

1) "still" means more or less "continue to be"  while "top dogs" means the best team

"Still Top Dogs" clearly means the Cards were number and 1 last season and will be this season. That is wrong and weirdly revisionist if you get right down to it. The Cards did not win the Series. Nor did they have a better record over the course of the season. They can't be "Top Dog" and you certainly can't modify it with the adverbial "Stil"

2) In my comment I said "otherwise ok article" - meaning, yeah, the meat of the article - the analysis - was ok. My comment was solely in regards the title, as ought to be clear to users of English.

3) Since there are fantasy statements going in on both the title of the article as it appears on the front page of the MLB section, and in your "this comment's can't read" (which I find very hard to understand - what really do you mean by that? Clearly I can read as I commented on a written text) I will have to assume I am once again in the cloud coockoo  land of people who create meaning from whole cloth based on the unknowable motivations of their darker interiors. Or maybe you just read too fast. Who knows?


Best of luck next season with your most excellent but "Not Top Dog Yet" ballclub.



learntoswim40
learntoswim40

@katmandu27  I feel sad for pathetic little children like you who feel the need to nitpick just to draw some attention to yourself. Well good job, it worked. Here's some attention for you katmandu27: You're a completely worthless moron. #GFY