After the St. Louis Cardinals' season ended with three consecutive October losses for the third consecutive year under manager Mike Matheny's leadership, general manager John Mozeliak sat alongside his field general for a press conference on the season that was and the offseason ahead. The plan articulated could understandably have been described as boring. At the time, the Cardinals had 23 of the 25 players on their NLCS roster under contractual control for 2015, including all four starting pitchers (along with multiple candidates for the fifth spot in the 2015 rotation) and all eight starting position players.
The only players not under contract were veterans A.J. Pierzynski and Pat Neshek. The club had no plan to re-sign Pierzynski, who was not on the club's NLDS roster and was added as the third catcher for the NLCS, or Neshek. The sidewinding righty, who St. Louis signed to a minor-league deal with a spring-training invitation before the season, had pitched extremely well and was set to score a free-agent payday too rich for Mozeliak's philosophy on bullpen construction. The Cardinals brass said flame-throwing Carlos Martinez was earmarked to replace Neshek.
The only real question was who would start in right field.
Mozeliak and Matheny told reporters that there would be a spring-training competition between youngsters Oscar Taveras, Randal Grichuk (both of whom struggled at the plate during their 2014 major-league debuts), and top prospect Stephen Piscotty. The Cardinals had given Taveras, a former top-five prospect in all of baseball, a list of things to work on in the offseason. He would have to show development in spring and elbow out Grichuk, who started every game in right during the Cardinals' NLCS run, and Piscotty in order to win the job in 2015.
Shortly after Mozeliak and Matheny's post-NLCS press conference, tragedy struck. Taveras wrecked his car while driving drunk in his native Dominican Republic, killing himself and his 18-year-old girlfriend, Edilia Arvelo. The crash left the Cardinals without their preferred right fielder for 2015 and beyond.
Rather than go into spring with Grichuk and Piscotty competing for the starting job, Mozeliak made a monumental trade. The Cardinals sent pitching prospect Tyrell Jenkins and starting pitcher Shelby Miller to the Atlanta Braves in exchange for right fielder Jason Heyward and righthanded reliever Jordan Walden. The move at once remade the St. Louis starting rotation and the Redbirds' outfield.
The trade of Miller left an opening in the starting rotation. Mozeliak said would be filled by either Martinez or Marco Gonzales. But the club's clear preference is to finally find out exactly what they have in Martinez and his thermonuclear repertoire. That's no small factor in the acquisition of Walden in the trade, a righty who will step into the setup role the club had fitted for Martinez before Taveras's death necessitated the trade.
In 2014, St. Louis right fielders combined to hit .237/.283/.326. Their abysmal .609 OPS was the worst in the National League, 23 points behind the second-worst Padres. Heyward hit for a .271 BA (+33 points), .351 OBP (+68 points), and .384 SLG (+58 points). His .735 OPS was 116 points higher than the Cardinals' right fielders posted a season ago. Even if Heyward's power-hitting doesn't return in 2015 (his career SLG is .429), Heyward represents a significant offensive upgrade than what the Cardinals received a year ago.
But Heyward isn't just an upgrade at the plate.
Heyward is the type of all-around player that Cardinals fans love. He is the best defensive right fielder in the game today, a skilled base-runner, and a solid hitter. Heyward's total package, combined with the horrible hitting, base-running, and fielding the Cardinals received in right field last season from Allen Craig and Taveras, makes him perhaps the biggest upgrade at any single position made by any team during the offseason.
Wins Above Replacement (WAR), a catch-all stat meant to measure a player's overall contribution combined at the plate, on the base paths, and in the field is by no means perfect. Nonetheless, WAR gives us an idea of the gap in right the 2014 Cardinals had and how Heyward fills it. Last season, according to Fangraphs, the Cardinals' right fielders collectively produced -1.0 Fangraphs WAR (fWAR) in 2014 to Heyward's 5.1. Even if Heyward is not as good in 2015 as he was a year ago—and the projection systems forecast him falling back down to earth a bit—he'll still likely represent an upgrade in the neighborhood of 4.5 WAR over the 2014 St. Louis right fielders. That is a tremendous upgrade for a team that came three wins shy of winning the pennant last October.
It's not hard to squint and see potential upgrades elsewhere on the St. Louis—though they come from improvement, either in terms of health or performance, for incumbent players.
Kolten Wong immediately comes to mind. With St. Louis in 2014, Wong managed a .249/.292.360 batting line that was a good deal worse than the .305/.367/.451 line he posted as a minor-leaguer. While a .300+ BA, .360+ OBP, and .450+ SLG are likely beyond Wong's major-league capabilities, his minor-league stats are nonetheless indicative of a batting skill set that is better than his rookie line reflects.
First baseman Matt Adams is another potential upgrade just by growth and maturation. Last season was his first as an everyday big-league position player for Adams, after the slugger spent 2013 as a bench complement to Craig and Carlos Beltran. Adams hit .284/.335/.503 over 319 plate appearances as a part-timer and saw his production fall to .288/.321/.457 as the primary first baseman last season. Thus, it appears that Adams might have in him a bit more patience at the bat and a fair amount more of power.
Wong and Adams are the hitters most likely to grow into something better in 2015 than they were in 2014, but the Cardinals can also hold out hope for bounce-back seasons from an established veteran. Catcher Yadier Molina, who saw his hitting fall to its lowest levels since 2010 during a season in which he lost 40 games to the DL thanks to a thumb injury, corrective surgery, and rehabilitation. A healthy and productive Molina represents a significant upgrade for the Pierzynski-Tony Cruz tandem the Cards used in his stead last season.
Molina is not the only player on the wrong side of 30 that the Cardinals are counting on this season. Shortstop Jhonny Peralta (age 33) and left fielder Matt Holliday (35) were the club's top two offensive producers a season ago. The Cardinals will need both to maintain their offensive production in defiance of the decline so often induced by Father Time when a player reaches his mid-30s.
If healthy, the rotation shapes up to be good if not great. But therein lies the rub. Adam Wainwright suffered an injury last season that ultimately resulted in offseason surgery to shave cartilage off the back of his throwing elbow—the same one that had its ulnar collateral ligament replaced in 2011. 2013 NLCS MVP Michael Wacha missed two months last season due to a rare shoulder injury. Thus, the co-aces of April and May 2014 are injury question marks entering 2015.
In addition to health concerns, there are the unknowns of youth. Martinez has perhaps the best stuff on the staff, but has never thrown more than 108 innings in a regular season. His primary fifth starter competition is lefty Marco Gonzales, who threw a career-high 146 2/3 regular-season innings last year. Neither pitcher has spent a full season as part of a major-league rotation. Combined, they have 13 major-league starts between them.
The surest bet in the 2015 rotation is Lance Lynn, and he suffered a strained hip flexor in his spring debut.
Even with the aging offensive core that includes Holliday, Peralta, and Molina along with the health and inexperience concerns in the rotation, the Cardinals are a good team. While the NL Central is a competitive division, the Cards appear best positioned at present to win it (for the third straight season) and qualify for the postseason (for the fifth consecutive year). This golden age of Cardinals baseball appears likely to continue in 2015.
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