What Could Keep The Cardinals From Winning The NL Central?

It’s a good week ahead, right? Spring training games begin on Friday — just the final step before real baseball games — and the outlook is good for the talented and deep 2014 St. Louis Cardinals.

united-cardinal-bloggers-lgYet yesterday morning, I couldn’t help but feel pessimistic as I thought about what to ask my fellow United Cardinal Bloggers members for our spring training roundtables. Blame it on Monday, blame it on the post I’d just finished at the time, blame it on the rain (for those of you who’ve even heard of Milli Vanilli …)

My question to them: what could keep the Cardinals from winning the NL Central in 2014?

Here are the responses.

Daniel Shoptaw, C70 At The Bat

Your post this morning pointed out the main possibility — Yadier Molina missing a significant portion of the season. Most anything else I think the Cards can survive, but Molina going down would be rough.

Bill Ivie, I-70 Baseball

I’m taking two shots … Health and inexperience …

The Cardinals have depth, but it is young and unproven at a lot of spots. An injury to a key player with little depth behind him could disrupt this team fairly quickly. An injury to a veteran starter and the young arms that have yet to pitch a full season are suddenly going to have to shoulder (pun intended) a lot of the inning load.

The team has the depth in various places to sustain an injury. But young players will have to play up to expectations for the Cards to be able to chug along without a key component. The pitching looks great on paper, but I wonder how hard they will push the young bucks. Time will tell.

Daniel Solzman, Redbird Rants

Only the Cardinals will keep the Cardinals from winning the NL Central in 2014.

The simple answer is that none of the other teams in the NL Central improved during the offseason. The Chicago Cubs have several top prospects — even former baseball scout Bernie Pleskoff named four of them in his all-NL prospect dream team — but they are still a few years away from being seen as a potential contender in the division. The Reds are under new management and Billy Hamilton’s numbers might not translate from the minors aside from his speed.

Corey Rudd, STL Sports Minute

The bullpen, the bullpen and the bullpen.

Sure, the bully showed flashes of brilliance during the post season, but we are not far removed from the problems of April and May in 2013 and the Cardinals are relying on several young guys to get the job done late in games, which could be a recipe for disaster.

About the only guy I am not worried about is Rosy. He is nails.

But can they bridge the gap to get him the ball?

With the injury to Garcia, they are already very likely to rob either Kelly or CMart from the late inning brigade.

Will Siegrist be able to repeat his 2013 and toss and post a full season ERA that hovered around 1.00?

How long until Jason Motte is 100 percent?

Is Pat Neshek, a righty specialist, really the answer after nobody was interested and signed a minor league deal?

Will the youngsters be able to hold up over a long season while spelling a starting pitching staff that is young and has several candidates where six innings is a full day’s work?

I think the bullpen needs a veteran presence and is the cog that could hold the Birds back. It has huge upside, but the risks are high as well.

Ben Chambers, The View From Here

I agree with Daniel Soltzman in that the Cardinals are the only team in the NL Central that has improved in the offseason, and that might give the Cardinals a little cushion instead of being in a three-way race all the way up to the end of the season.

That said, I think that an injury to Wainwright could be nearly as bad as an injury to Yadi. Leaving the rotation with the senior member being a guy who’s been in the league three years is not exactly “veteran leadership.” Losing Carpenter for the last couple of years was easier, since Waino was there. With Wainwright, Carpenter, and probably Garcia gone (at least for now), it could be bad.

That, or the fact that some of the young guys can’t match last year’s numbers. I think that a lot of those guys may have had career years in 2013. If all those guys bounce back to reality at the same time, then there could at least be a large rough patch in the season.

Kevin Reynolds, Stl Cards ‘N Stuff

Yadier Molina is the clear answer, and the bullpen/starting rotation have proven to be vulnerable no matter how much depth you have — as is true for every MLB team — but I’ll be pessimistic for a moment and go a bit of a different direction. Let’s go with … mass failure on the infield!

Think of it this way:

1. We have a young third baseman recently transferred to second base now being transferred back to third base — and we hope he can somewhat duplicate what he did last year offensively, even though it was his first season at this level playing every day. That’s a gamble based on just one season where any one of a number of things could go wrong.

2. We have a new shortstop with serious defensive questions about ability and physical makeup who was signed for his offense and yet has a track record of offensive inconsistency — and was recently caught for PEDs. We honestly have no idea which Peralta will show up. It’s not encouraging that the idea of moving him to third base at some point during his contract has already been discussed, before he’s even played a single game at SS under his new contract!

3. We have a literal rookie expected to play second base every day with the hopes he can put it all together and be the hitter/defender we hope he can be … but the possibility of slow development or flat-out failure is so real that we spent $5 million just to sign his back-up!!!

4. We have an Opening Day first baseman with a history of elbow problems two years in a row that has really only been addressed with a big-ass brace and rest. Plus, he hasn’t shown an ability to consistently punish lefties and has yet to turn in more than a couple months as a starter at this level … not to mention he was extremely rattled by the extreme shift that EVERY team will employ against him this season until he shows he can succeed despite it. And our back-up plan depends on a right fielder fresh off ankle surgery, not yet cleared to run full speed and has yet to play a single game above Triple-A (or even complete a season at Triple-A) in Taveras so Craig could return to first if Adams doesn’t work or goes down.

So … in other words, every single infield position is vulnerable to very real and possible issues and all could go down at some point in the season. Even if we have depth, we don’t have enough depth to replace the contributions of a Matt Carpenter, Matt Adams, Johnny Peralta and Kolten Wong if most or all fail/fall.

But that’s just the pessimistic side of things. :) I fully believe we’ll be fine.

Mary Clausen, MLB Voice

We need to stay humble, but our Cards are in very, very good shape this season. Not too much competition.

We need to stay healthy and do our job. A positive clubhouse is essential (I think that’s taken care of). Time will tell! Keep that good karma going! :)

Dan Buffa, Dose of Buffa

The bullpen is the only reason this team self destructs and lets a weaker team pass them by in 2014. In fact, this would be an epic fail given the Cards winter additions and depth. I don’t care what the Pirates did in 2013 because they have a young team that now has expectations crawling over their shoulders and they don’t have Burnett, Byrd or Morneau. And the Reds lost their leadoff man, innings eater and don’t have the offense to back it up. The other teams are laughable but thank goodness stay on the schedule for us. So the Cards failing in 2014 would be epic. Only way it happens is via a bullpen meltdown.

Jason Motte is a question mark. His recovery from TJS is still in motion and there is no timetable for his first appearance in front of hitters or even a date where “formidable Motte” may return. Rosenthal is money in the bank but outside of him there are questions. If Carlos Martinez goes into the rotation in place of Garcia, Joe Kelly is your long arm and will his luck run out in 2014? He has done such a good job of bouncing between the bullpen and rotation, but he could hit a wall this year. Kevin Siegrist was fantastic until the last couple rounds of the playoffs where he seemed to be worn down. Can he be the effective arm versus righties and lefties and thus replace Martinez in the bullpen? Pat Neshek was good with the A’s but why did NO ONE want him this past offseason. What’s his deal? Can Sam Freeman move from raw arm to consistently capable reliever? Does the Choate (that guy who was awesome in the season but apparently couldn’t face Ortiz in the World Series) work his magic again? Will Tyler Lyons appear in this bullpen?

Let me ask this question. WHO IS THE SETUP GUY? Mujica and Axford are gone. Siegrist could do it but that puts pressure on Freeman. Does Keith Butler become somebody in 2014? Will the Cards continue to supplement their bullpen with future starters? Will Tim Cooney see a role down there this year? Anything is possible. The setup role is in flux until Motte regains some resemblance of his old form.

The bullpen nearly collapsed last year before Edward Mujica came into the picture. The good thing about this season is Rosenthal provides you with stability in the ninth inning? He is a horse and the problems from 2013 began with Mitchell Boggs’ inability to do his job as a closer. However, the game just get to the big righthander. If not, problems will surface and threaten to tarnish the rotation. Can the bullpen supply the innings required to keep a rotation full of young arms from bending over backwards? That is the biggest concern in 2014. The infield does have question marks but more proven depth waiting behind it. Easier fixes. The bullpen could get interesting very early.

John Nagel, Cardinals Farm

Like many have said, an internal issue would likely cause the Cardinals to collapse this season. The two main issues I could see developing are injuries and the bullpen.

I dont think one injury, Waino or Molina included, would cause the team to fall out of first, but a multiple of injuries.

Jay Simons, McGee Triples

The starting rotation. While there are a lot of options for the rotation — there are just as many questions. Waino is getting to an age where we can expect some decline. Who knows what Wacha can do over 162? Miller is also very young. Garcia probably won’t pitch effectively or maybe at all in 2014. Kelly is not very good. Martinez — can he throw enough strikes?

Mark Sherrard, Cardinals Fan in Cubs Land

The recent (or recurring) Jaime Garcia shoulder issues have me concerned about the bullpen. Yes, we have starting pitching depth — either Joe Kelly or Carlos Martinez could step into Garcia’s starting spot and do a good job. However, both of them were likely slated for the bullpen, with Martinez likely holding down the eighth inning role and Kelly working as either a long-reliever or middle reliever.

If one of those two move to the rotation, it puts the bullpen back in the same state of flux that we saw early last year when Motte went down with his injury. Rosenthal is still the closer, but we will have to sort out the other spots again. Does Maness move up to the eighth inning? Do the Cardinals have the internal pieces to fill their bullpen or do the need to go outside?

At least have a little time to sort things out before the season begins.

Dan Buffa, Dose of Buffa

Another big question in the bullpen is relying on Seth Maness to throw all those DP sinkers. Not sure that happens again.

Mark Tomasik, RetroSimba

An injury to Yadier Molina that would keep him sidelined for most of the season. He is the player the Cardinals can least afford to lose and they don’t have anything close to a backup of his caliber.

Rodney Knuppel, Saint Louis Sports

I agree with a couple others. Yadier Molina is the guy this team cannot stand to lose. Molina is too valuable behind the plate, leading the young staff.

Dathan Brooks, Go Crazy, Big Boy

Obviously, Molina is the cornerstone of this club. But as has been pointed out, this is the Cards division to lose. An awful lot would have to go wrong for the Cards, and even more things would have to go right for another club in the NLC, for the Redbirds to lose this division. I suppose Cincinnati would be the closest thing to a threat that’s out there. But if the Cards can stay out of their own way, there shouldn’t be much reason why another successful season isn’t to be expected in ’14.

Pip, Fungoes

A lot of smart-money answers here already, so I’ll try a different tack: offense. The Cardinals may’ve lost more offense than they realize with Carlos Beltran’s departure, and Jhonny Peralta is only one year removed from a .305 OBP. Peter Bourjos may wind up getting more playing time than Jon Jay for defensive reasons, but he has a career OBP of only .306. If Matheny gives him too many plate appearances, especially at the top of the lineup, and gives up too many outs via “small ball” from other players who should be swinging away, the offensive juggernaut could turn into an also-ran.

I’m not betting on it, mind you.

My Thoughts

Losing Yadier Molina for a substantial period of time to injury is obviously one thing that could keep the Cardinals from winning the Central — writing about that yesterday started this. And reading through everyone else’s comments certainly has me seeing many ways the Cardinals could be challenged this season, even just by themselves.

I’m not as quick as everyone else to dismiss other Central teams, though. A year ago, no one would have predicted the Pirates would battle the Cards for the division up until the very end. Not sure they will this year, but it’s hard to tell. Same with the Reds, now that Dusty Baker is gone. Sure, both teams have lost pieces and not really replaced them. But I just keep thinking — and I am not by nature a pessimistic person — how a year ago all the talk about the National League was that the Nationals were just going to dominate. Seeing all the praise heaped upon the Cards by the national media in particular makes me a little nervous. Not that they’re not a strong and deep team, but 162 games is a long time and we know a lot can happen.

2 thoughts on “What Could Keep The Cardinals From Winning The NL Central?

  1. Pingback: Step back from the ledge. « The view from here.

  2. Pingback: February Project: Spring Training Roundtable — United Cardinal Bloggers

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