Games are not played on paper, but in early January the only thing we have to analyze teams is what is listed on paper. With that caveat in mind, the 2014 Cardinals, on paper, currently look like a much better squad than the team that made it all the way to Game 6 of the World Series in 2013. A combination of trades, acquisitions, and growth of prospects is poised to make 2014 a special year for the Cardinals. Here are six ways next year’s team could improve on the 97 win total from last year.
Improvement #1: Team Defense
The 2013 Cardinals committed the fewest errors in baseball, but this statistic was not a true reflection of the quality of the team’s defense. The 2013 Cardinals caught the balls hit at them, but if balls were not hit at them the team faired very poorly. The 2013 Cardinals had very limited range in right field, left field, third base, and first base. The only strong arm in the outfield was Carlos Beltran, and the only exceptional arm in the infield was Yadier Molina.
Taken together the 2013 Cardinals had a -49.4 UZR, a more accurate defensive measurement which records how many balls within a fielder’s zone are fielded appropriately. That UZR rating ranked 27th in the MLB last year.
The 2014 Cardinals defense will be improved in three ways.
First and foremost, the acquisition of Peter Bourjos promises to greatly improved the defense in centerfield. The Cardinals will lose something by replacing Carlos Beltran with Allen Craig in right field, but Bourjos can help make up for this loss with his exceptional range and instincts. Bourjos had a 40.1 UZR over the last four seasons he played in center field.
Second, the Cardinals will likely get better at third base by replacing David Freese with Matt Carpenter. Carpenter did an admirable job at second base last year, but his range and instincts will be better served at third base.
Third, at second base Carpenter will be replaced by Kolten Wong and Mark Ellis. Reports on Wong’s defense have been very positive, and Wong’s speed should give the team more range at second. Ellis has been one of the better second baseman over the last five years when it comes to UZR.
Improvement #2: Team Speed
The 2013 Cardinals were one of the slowest teams in baseball with just 45 stolen bases over the year. Only the Detroit Tigers stole fewer bases. The team still scored many runs because of their exception hitting with runners in scoring position, but if the team did experience droughts when the bats turned cold and they could not find other ways to advance on the bases.
The 2014 squad promises to be better in this category in multiple ways. As documented above, Peter Bourjos is one of the fastest outfielders in baseball, and that skill will also be on display on the base paths next year. Kolten Wong stole 20 bases in 21 attempts at AAA last year, so he should also speed up a previously plodding lineup. Finally, as explained below the Cardinals 2014 bench should also have more speed next year.
Improvement # 3: Shortstop
The weakest link the 2013 Cardinals was undoubtedly the shortstop position. The team decided to let Pete Kozma try to fill the position after his magical run in September of 2012. However, Kozma regressed to offensive production which closer mirrored his minor league career, which was below average at best and horrible at worst. At the end of last year Kozma was resorting to bunting in a desperate attempt to reach first base. Power at shortstop was non-existent, and Kozma's defense also started to falter toward the end of the year. Altogether, Kozma provided 0.0 WAR at the position in 2013. In other words, Kozma provided no boost over an "average" replacement level player at the Major League level. Shortstop was the only position where the Cardinals did not have a positive WAR.
In 2014 the team will replace Kozma with free agent acquisition Jhonny Peralta. Over the last five years Peralta has been one of the better offensive shortstops in baseball, with a .815 OPS. Peralta’s defense is not great, but it is certainly adequate with a 3.5 UZR last year. Finally, Peralta will add tremendously more power at the position. Overall, Peralta had a 3.6 WAR last year, which theoretically means he should give the 2014 Cardinals at least three more wins in 2014.
Improvement # 4: A Younger, Deeper, More Experience Rotation
In 2013 what appeared to be a deep rotation started to unravel with injuries to Chris Carpenter, Jamie Garcia, and Jake Westbrook. The Cardinals soon found themselves calling up John Gast and then Tyler Lyons when Gast went down with a shoulder injury.
Anything can happen in 2014, but the team will begin the year with six legitimate starters in AdamWainwright, Shelby Miller, Michael Wacha, Lance Lynn, Jamie Garcia, and Carlos Martinez. That list does not include Kevin Siegrist, Seth Manness, and Trevor Rosenthal – all of whom could be tried as starters if necessary. Wacha and Miller will enter the year having completed their first full year in professional baseball, and could be even better with experience. All of these factors should make the 2014 rotation even better than the 2013 rotation which ranked 2nd in the National League with a 3.42 ERA.
Improvement #5: The Bullpen
The 2013 Cardinals’ bullpen ended strong in the postseason with Trevor Rosenthal as closer and Kevin Siegrist and Carlos Martinez as setup men. However, during the regular season there were two periods of time where the bullpen struggled mightily.
At the beginning of the 2013 the team did not adjust well to the loss of Jason Motte to an arm injury. Mitchell Boggs proved incapable of filling Motte’s shoes, and manager Mike Matheny arguably stuck with Boggs for far too long, costing the Cardinals multiple games. Toward the end of the year closer Edward Mujica also fell of a cliff statistically, eventually necessitating the switch to Rosenthal.
In 2014 the Cardinals will start the year with two qualified closers in Rosenthal and Motte. Rosenthal proved himself in high pressure situation during the postseason last year, when he earned 4 saves with a 0.00 ERA and 18 strikeouts over 11.2 innings. Behind Rosenthal and Motte will be Kevin Siegrist, Randy Choate, and Seth Maness, all of whom performed very well last year. If Carlos Martinez fails to make the starting rotation, which is more than a slight possibility, then the bullpen will be even deeper. Finally, waiting in the wings are minor league hurlers Sam Freeman and Lee Stoppelman, both of whom had excellent years in the minors and come in with positive scouting reports. Anything can happen, but it is hard to see the same sort of bullpen collapses happening in the 2014 regular season.
Improvement #6: The Bench
Last year the Cardinals began the year with the Ty Wigginton experiment, which quickly ended after Wigginton sported a .431 OPS over 63 plate appearances. The only power to be seen on the Cardinals bench was Matt Adams when he was not filling in for an injured Allen Craig or serving as the team’s designated hitter. Shane Robinson did a serviceable job as the backup outfielder, but he and Daniel Descalso certainly did not strike fear in the eyes of opposing managers.
In 2014 the bench will be improved with the free agent acquisition of Mark Ellis, who served as a starter at second base for most of last season for the Los Angeles Dodgers providing a respectable 1.8 WAR at second base. The team could also add prospects Oscar Taveras and/or Stephen Piscotty to the bench at some point during the season. Both provide better offensive potential than Robinson did last year.