In late August, the Cardinals were at various points 10.5 games behind both Milwaukee in the NL Central and Atlanta for the Wild Card. They were a complete afterthought. After an incredible run to sneak into the playoffs and somehow take the World Series away from Texas, the outlook is much better even without Albert Pujols. At the time I started writing this, they were in control of the NL Central and tied for the best record in the NL. To oversimplify their offseason, they lost Pujols in free agency but gained Carlos Beltran, and Adam Wainwright returned from injury. New manager Mike Matheny could’ve been a wild card as someone with no previous managerial experience, but he would have to be a real disaster to sink the roster.
Not only do they have a chance to repeat, maybe even if Carpenter can’t come back, but they could have an extended run of success if things break right. They have great depth everywhere; their lineup is relentless, their rotation is five deep even without Carpenter, and their bullpen is stocked with capable arms. Their present talent is really good, and most of the key pieces are 32 years old or younger. For the positions occupied by older players, they have a deep and frankly underrated farm system that could produce new, younger and cheaper talent. Their payroll is only $5 million higher than last year’s, so their flexibility isn’t bad. In fact, only three players, Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina and Jaime Garcia have guaranteed money coming to them after 2013. Let’s take a look at their present and future potential.
Present: Yadier Molina (29, signed through at least 2017)
Although there could be some concern about his declining caught stealing percentage, Molina is still one of the best behind the plate in the game. The staff obviously loves his game calling and leadership, and since last season he’s added a bit of offense too. Entering his physical prime, he’s seemingly now a .300 hitter with a bit of pop, and that makes him one of the best all-around catchers in the league.
Future: Yadier Molina (29, MLB St. Louis)
Molina just signed a contract extension that should keep him a Cardinal for life, so there’s really no need to look at their farm system for answers. The end of his contract could be a bit dicey, but they should still get plenty of quality seasons from Molina. It’s certainly possible he breaks down at some point with a lot of mileage behind the plate, but they have a while to draft and develop a potential replacement.
Present: Lance Berkman (36, signed through 2012)
Berkman experienced a resurgence with St. Louis in 2011, and he even managed to hold his own in right field when no one gave him a chance. On one hand, it was unusual to see a player of his age experience such a turnaround, but it’s also important to point out that he underwent knee surgery just before his down 2012 season. He’s missed much of this season with an injury, but when he’s been in he’s indicated that he’s going to keep on hitting this year. His middle of the order presence as the team moves into the post-Pujols era is invaluable.
Future: Matt Adams (23, AAA Memphis)
When a college draft pick at a corner position hits in the lower minors, the default response by anyone is to say, “he needs to keep hitting in the upper minors.” Adams did keep hitting, and he’s one of the exceptions to become a legitimate and very good prospect. He jumped from low-A to AA without skipping a beat in 2010, and he got off to a torrid start in AAA this season. He could probably stand to be a little more patient, but his ability to hit for average and power will look nice in the middle of their lineup, maybe as soon as next season.
Obviously this was started before Berkman’s season ended with a knee injury. Just pretend I have Matt Adams in both the present and future sections. If this is the end for Berkman, it’s a real shame for a classy player who’s one of the best hitters in recent years.
Present: Skip Schumaker (32, signed through 2013)
Schumaker, Tyler Greene and Daniel Descalso have been splitting time at this position, but after coming off the DL, Schumaker has played the best of the trio and has a lot of experience in the past. He should be more of a utility player, but for now he’s their best option. He’ll hit for a solid average (career .290 hitter), won’t strike out and gives them a lot of flexibility. He can hit at the bottom of the order with a lot of really good hitters in front of him. They probably want to try and develop Descalso who is only 25, but his ceiling is probably that of a bench player.
Future: Kolten Wong (21, AA Springfield)
There’s some debate about what Wong’s ultimate ceiling is, but there is no debate about how much he can hit. He has quick hands and can spray line drives to all fields, and he should be able to hit .300 as a major leaguer. With above average patience combined with his ability to make contact, he could hit leadoff or #2 for St. Louis, although he’s not particularly fast. He’s an okay defender with a good arm at second base, so while he wasn’t a sexy pick in the first round last year, he’s a good bet to become a solid Major Leaguer for the Cardinals.
Present: Rafael Furcal (34, signed through 2013)
The oft-injured Furcal was sent to St. Louis at the trade deadline last year for Alex Castellanos, and even though Furcal’s not the player he used to be, as long as he’s on the field, he’s better than Ryan Theriot. The Cardinals liked what they saw and signed the veteran to a two year extension this offseason. This season, he’s started out on fire. He’s batting .370 with enough power, and his plate approach has been solid. As long as he keeps getting on base, his speed fits well at the top of their lineup. He’s still a decent defender at short with a strong arm.
Future: No clear answer
Furcal could very well retire when his current contract expires, and the Cardinals don’t have any obvious internal solutions. They haven’t had a long term solution at the position since Edgar Renteria, or if you really like him, David Eckstein. Whether that player could be Ryan Jackson is up for debate. He can play defense at an ML level which will be good enough to get him a spot on a roster at some point, but the million dollar question is will he hit enough to start? He doesn’t walk much, hit for power or run well, so all of his offensive value is tied into hitting singles and balls in the gap. If I had to guess, he will not accumulate three years as a Major League starting shortstop.
Present: David Freese (29, team control through 2016)
The Cardinals acquired Freese, the 2012 World Series hero, in 2007 when the Padres decided they needed a 37 year old Jim Edmonds. He was a top 30 prospect at the time, but as a 24 year old completing a season in high-A, his stock wasn’t exactly sky high. Now he’s a quality starting third baseman, when he’s on the field that is. When he’s not injured, Freese is a good contact hitter with power that seems to be developing. He’s not a good defender and offers zero athleticism, but there’s no doubt he’s a key complementary bat in the St. Louis lineup.
Future: Zack Cox (23, AAA Memphis)
Leading up to the draft and persisting until today, there’s a debate about just how good Cox really is. Those that believe in him point to his great hit tool that should allow him to be a .300 hitter in the majors. Those that don’t believe in him point to his questionable power and defense plus struggles against left handed pitchers. Right now though, the concern is that he’s not hitting anyone in AAA. He’s striking out way too much for the kind of player he’s supposed to be. If he turns it around, he could compete with Freese in coming seasons, but since Freese is still in his physical prime, he’s going to have to force the issue to unseat him.
Present: Matt Holliday (32, signed through at least 2016)
When it’s all said and done, Holliday could very well be one of the more underappreciated hitters of the late-00′s and early-10′s. He should’ve won an MVP, and he’s proven that he’s not just a product of Coors Field. He’s one of the active leaders in OPS and been a key contributor on two playoff teams. He has a few years left on his hefty contract, but he’s not ready to become an albatross quite yet. Unlike some of the recent free agent mega contracts, Holliday’s only runs through his age 36 season, so it’s possible the Cardinals get through it without regretting the deal at all.
Future: No clear answer
The Cardinals added a lot of depth to their outfield in the most recent draft, but all of those players profile better in center field rather than left. That’s probably actually a good thing because up the middle players always have more value, and sometimes it can be difficult for corner outfielders to reach the majors with just their bats. Since Holliday is still under contract for a while, there’s no rush to force someone into the role, and they have time to see how the current crop of outfielders shakes out.
Present: Jon Jay (27, team control through 2017)
Jay represents the success of the Cardinals farm system in recent years. He’s solid but not spectacular, and he complements the bigger bats in the lineup well. He’s not a power hitter and won’t be, but his high contact, put the ball in play approach helps him get on base at the top of the lineup. Jay’s a bit of a late bloomer, but his career hit a roadblock in the minors when he needed to change his hitting approach to have more success. Everyone expected Colby Rasmus to be in this spot a few years ago, but disagreements with management and stagnating development had him on the move to Toronto.
Future: Charlie Tilson (19, extended spring)
When it comes to the three high school outfielders the Cardinals selected in last year’s draft, Tilson is the head of the class. However, he’s going to miss the entire season with shoulder surgery, and this is a big problem. He’s obviously missing a lot of time, and he was already one of the older hitters in his draft class. He’s a true center fielder with plus or better speed, and while he really won’t develop much power, he should spray line drives to all fields and hit a lot of doubles. C.J. McElroy and Lance Jeffries are the other two high school outfielders drafted and signed by the Cardinals in 2011, and they both offer similar packages; they’re great athletes that can play center and have a chance to make a lot of contact at the plate.
Present: Carlos Beltran (35, signed through 2013)
Beltran was a great signed for the Cardinals after losing Albert Pujols. They didn’t overpay, the contract isn’t too long, and in 2010 he showed that he can still play at an All-Star level. He’s off to a torrid start in 2012, and the Cardinals haven’t skipped a beat in scoring runs. Injuries have taken a toll on his speed and defense, but he’s still a smart baserunner and adequate in right field. He gives the Cardinals a nice mix of hard contact, patience and power, and if he starts to decline, his contract won’t be a burden for a long time.
Future: Oscar Taveras (20, AA Springfield)
Taveras’ prospect stock is on helium, and I’m happy I was a bit ahead of the curve in my top 100 prospect list with him at #37. His aggressive swing allows him hit to make hard contact to all fields at all times. Recently, Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus even said that he’s hearing some 80 grades from scouts on his hit tool, which means if he reaches his ceiling or comes close to it, he could hit well over .300 annually. There were previously questions about his power, but he’s already hit 10 home runs this year, and it’s becoming clear he should develop above average power. He’s not much of an athlete, but he can handle right field.
Top of the Rotation Starters
Present: Chris Carpenter (37, signed through 2013), Adam Wainwright (30, signed through 2013)
Carpenter’s inclusion here is questionable because he hasn’t pitched this season, but he’s shown over the last three years after coming back from elbow troubles that he can still be a dominant starter. The Cardinals are hopeful that he’ll be over his shoulder problems by the All-Star break and ready to return to the rotation. He’s shown impressive durability in recent years despite his advanced age, and if he can come back from this shoulder injury, he should be able to pitch effectively through the end of his contract.
Wainwright’s inclusion is probably also questionable because of how he’s pitched this season after missing the entire 2011 season, but he should return to his old self down the road. His command isn’t quite as sharp which is to be expected, but his strikeout rate remains the same. His hit rate has skyrocketed, so maybe his struggles are a matter of bad BABIP luck. His first four seasons as a starter were very good, especially in 2009-10 when his strikeout rate improved to over eight per nine innings.
Jenkins is still very raw and far away, but his potential is enormous. He has the ideal frame for a projectable pitcher at 6’4 and 180 pounds. His fastball already has above average velocity, and he should be able to improve it as he gets stronger. His curveball and changeup have plenty of potential as well, but they’re inconsistent right now. His command wavers, but as he gets more innings under his belt, he should show improvement. Jenkins is a tremendous athlete, and that will aid him down the road as he learns to repeat his delivery.
Miller has struggled so far this season at AAA, but it’s probably not a bad thing that he gets to slow down and take a breath after pitching at two levels last season and jumping up to AAA this year after only 16 AA starts. He has great stuff, maybe not ace level stuff, but he has the potential for three plus pitches, led by his mid 90′s fastball and curveball. His changeup is a work in progress, but it does show nice movement and will help him against lefties in the future. One of his weaknesses is hanging pitches high in the strike zone, and it’s hurt him this year in the hitter-friendly PCL.
Present: Jaime Garcia (25, signed through at least 2015), Lance Lynn (25, team control through 2018)
Garcia’s strikeout rate has dipped so far this year, but he still slots in nicely in the middle of the St. Louis rotation. He throws plenty of strikes and generates groundballs, and as long as he stays healthy, he’ll be a fixture in the rotation for years. His cutter and changeup are really effective for him, and that fits into the Cardinals approach of being able to retire batters quickly by putting the ball in play.
Lynn has been somewhat of a revelation in the rotation this year filling in for Carpenter. His fastball and curveball combination are still playing well in the rotation after relieving late in the season for the Cardinals last year. His fastball averages a little over 92 with sink, and he can dial it up a little more when necessary. His changeup is improving every start, and just like Garcia, he’s able to get quick outs. If Carpenter is able to come back, the Cardinals will have a tough decision to make with Lynn as long as Jake Westbrook and Kyle Lohse continue pitching well.
Future: Trevor Rosenthal (22, AA Springfield)
Rosenthal burst onto radars with a strong 2011 season at Quad Cities, and like nearly every Cardinals prospect recently, seamlessly skipped over Palm Beach right to Springfield. His fastball can get into the mid 90′s with life, and his slider has really good movement. His strikeout numbers are impressive once again, but one area he’s slipped in a bit is his command. His athleticism should allow him to develop consistent mechanics and spot his pitches, but it hasn’t been happening this year. If he starts throwing more strikes again, he’ll be close to realizing his potential.
Present: Jason Motte (30, team control through 2015)
Motte has been pitching since 2008, but he really burst onto the scene late last season in the Cardinals’ magic run to the World Series. He had a great season but wasn’t installed into the role until late in the season, and he flourished. He’s almost essentially a one pitch pitcher, but it works for him since he throws a lot of strikes. As of writing, he’s struck out exactly one batter per inning in his career and has a WHIP below 1.00 over the last two years. His fastball sits in the mid to high 90′s, and he’ll occasionally mix in a cutter. It’s almost surprising that he has this much success with such a shallow arsenal, but there’s no reason to remove him unless he shows he can’t do the job anymore.
Future: Carlos Martinez (20, A+ Palm Beach)
Martinez is currently on the DL with a shoulder injury, and of course that’s never good to hear for a pitcher. His delivery is considered mechanically sound, but he’s pretty small and carries durability questions. It’s easy to pencil him into the future rotation next to Jenkins and Miller, but ultimately he could end up in the bullpen. His great fastball and curveball combo could play up in the bullpen and become a very dangerous late inning reliever. However, it would be best for the Cardinals to keep him in the rotation until it becomes very problematic.
Present: Fernando Salas (27, team control through 2017)
Salas actually had more saves than everyone else on St. Louis combined last year, but it was Motte that got the glory when it was all said and done. The Cardinals probably could’ve won the World Series with Salas finishing games, but it’s nice to have a pitcher as good as him available in other situations. His 2012 season has been tough so far, but his fastball/slider combo should help him turn it around. He doesn’t have premium velocity, but he’s typically thrown strikes in his career, and his slider is an out pitch.
Future: John Gast (23, AAA Memphis), Eduardo Sanchez (23, team control through 2016)
Gast may be a better fit at the back of their rotation, but the Cardinals need lefty help in the bullpen, and it seems likely that he’ll break into the big leagues in a relief role. His fastball could play up to plus velocity in short bursts, and his changeup would remain his best pitch. His curveball lags behind, and if that doesn’t develop further, he could find himself in the bullpen anyway. He was just recently promoted to AAA after a great start at Springfield.
Sanchez made a great impression last year in St. Louis although a shoulder injury really limited his season. His fastball has great mid 90′s velocity with movement, and he commands it well. His slider is another plus pitch with movement, and he could have closer stuff. However, he’s going to have to prove he can throw strikes more consistently. It’s been an issue over recent seasons, and teams tend to shy away from wild pitchers in the closer role. He’s still very young though and has time to work those issues out.
It’s clear that St. Louis has a great roster now and plenty of youth to replenish the depth very soon. Not only that, they have two extra draft picks in the first round this year after losing Pujols in free agency. If they can add some more infield and pitching depth, they could have one of the best farm systems in all of baseball. Not only could they use that depth to add young, cheap talent to their own roster, but it gives them plenty of flexibility in trades to bolster the roster for a stretch run.