When Matt Carpenter swung through a Koji Uehara splitter for the last out of the World Series, the St. Louis Cardinals’ season ended two victories shy of the club’s ultimate goal. Nonetheless, the 2013 season was a special one in Cardinaldom. The Redbirds notched 97 wins en route to a division championship and the 19th National League pennant in franchise history.
The Cardinals shed $44.95 million in salary during the 2013-14 offseason when a handful of veterans saw their contracts expire. Only two of those players -- reliever Edward Mujica and outfielder Carlos Beltran -- were on the World Series roster. Chris Carpenter ($12.5 million), Jake Westbrook ($8.75 million), and Rafael Furcal ($7.5 million) all watched October from the bench due to injury or ineffectiveness.
Neither Carpenter, Westbrook, nor Furcal were ever going to return as players to Cardinals in 2014. Furcal signed with the Marlins. Carpenter and Westbrook retired, with the former taking a front office job with the team. This left Mujica, the club’s closer last year until arm fatigue set in, and the graceful Beltran. With the Cardinals’ recent approach toward relievers being not to pay them all that much, it was no surprise that St. Louis let Mujica leave via free agency without much, if any, attempt to re-sign him. The organization has a deep stockpile of young right handers to fill the void left by the walk-averse Mujica, and at a fraction of the salary Boston will be paying him.
More surprising to some was the Cards’ halfhearted courtship of Beltran, a fan and clubhouse favorite, who was a key contributor on two clubs that made deep October runs. Then again, maybe it wasn’t all that surprising. Consider the following rate stats from 2013:
Player A: .284/.335/.503
Player B: .296/.339/.491
Player C: .315/.373/.457
Player A is rookie first baseman Matt Adams, Player B is Beltran, and Player C is first baseman/outfielder Allen Craig, whose slugging fell off last year from the .522 mark he rapped out in 2012. Because Adams will make a bit more than $500,000 in 2014 and Craig will earn $2.75 million with a good chance at approximating the aging Beltran’s production, it’s not so surprising that general manager John Mozeliak elected to extend Beltran a qualifying offer and then sit passively by while he inked a three-year, $45 million deal with the Yankees that will span his age-37 through -39 seasons. What’s more, if either Craig or Adams suffer from injury or a lack of production, the Cardinals can always call up outfielder Oscar Taveras, a consensus top-five prospect in all of baseball who has gained notoriety for the violence he inflicts on baseballs.
Allowing Beltran to leave and shuffling Craig to right field while installing Adams as the club’s primary first baseman was far from the biggest offseason change for the Cardinals. After the season, when Mozeliak looked at his club’s World Series roster, it had 23 of 25 players under club control for 2014. He could’ve easily decided that standing pat was the best option, with the Beltran-Adams-Craig shuffle being the only major change. Instead, Mozeliak opted for a quickly executed overhaul.
Mozeliak traded 2011 World Series hero David Freese and right-handed reliever Fernando Salas to the Angels in exchange for defensive center fielder extraordinaire Peter Bourjos and outfield prospect Randal Grichuk. The deal means that Carpenter, the NL’s best offensive second baseman last year, moves across the diamond and back to his natural position of third base. Top prospect Kolten Wong, who has steadily climbed the organizational ladder since his first-round selection in the 2011 amateur draft, is now set to take the reins as the Cards’ starting second baseman. Bourjos will challenge incumbent Jon Jay for the everyday job in center field. The trade elegantly injected speed and defense into a roster that was lacking in both areas a season ago.
Mozeliak wasn’t done. After finding the asking prices in the shortstop trade market prohibitive, Mozeliak addressed the Cardinals’ weakness at the position via free agency, inking former Tigers shortstop and Biogenesis suspension recipient Jhonny Peralta to a four-year deal worth $53 million. A career .268/.330/.425 batsman, Peralta is an immediate upgrade with the bat over last season’s starter Pete Kozma, who managed just a .217/.275/.273 line over 448 2013 plate appearances. While Peralta is not as adept a gloveman as Kozma, he has nonetheless evolved into an above-average defender according to various defensive metrics. So the batting upgrade over Kozma will likely more than make up for whatever hit the Cards take in terms of shortstop defense.
Mozeliak still wasn’t done. Rather than leave the Cardinals exposed at second base, dependent on the rookie Wong with no-hit, no-glove utility man Daniel Descalso behind him, Mozeliak signed former Dodgers second baseman Mark Ellis. The veteran is an excellent defender who also gets resounding praise for his qualities as a teammate. The right-handed batter is a perfect platoon partner for Wong, if not replacement. Manager Mike Matheny will have the luxury of deciding which to use on a daily basis.
The most striking aspect to Mozeliak’s offseason Cardinals makeover is the fact that he executed it without giving up a single young pitcher via trade. As a result, the Cardinals once again have a stockpile of pitching talent as they enter 2014. The Cards’ pitching is so deep, that the club will be relegating a would-be starter to the bullpen come opening day.
Kelly lost the battle for the No. 5 rotation spot during spring training a year ago. But after injuries to Westbrook and Garcia, the Cardinals plugged Kelly into the rotation. Despite a lower-than-average strikeout rate and higher-than-average walk rate, the sinkerballer managed a 2.69 ERA over 124 innings that resulted in Matheny starting Kelly in the playoffs over rookie Shelby Miller. This was apparently enough to ensure Kelly a rotation slot on opening day, as the Cards named him the fifth starter despite a spring-training ERA over 6.00.
Carlos Martinez, who lost the spring-training rotation derby to Kelly, has perhaps the most electric arsenal of any Cardinals pitcher. That and the body type he had when breaking into pro ball have garnered comparisons to another Martinez from the Dominican -- Pedro. While the right hander will be used as a reliever, his stuff is so sexy that the question of his ascendance to the rotation appears more one of when as opposed to if. For the time being, Matheny will deploy Martinez in the eighth inning, where he’ll make for a filthy late-inning appetizer to closer Trevor Rosenthal and his nasty assortment of pitches.
Mozeliak’s offseason maneuverings have added both skill and depth, leaving the Redbirds better on paper than they were at any point last year. The pitching depth is still the envy of the majors, and their young guns now have more experience of both the regular and postseason varieties. The outfield and infield likewise have more potential starters than lineup spots. Mozeliak’s revamp has made the Cardinals one of MLB’s most-talented clubs entering the 2014 season. It’s no wonder that anticipation for the coming season is so high among the Cardinals faithful.