Ten days after the Cardinals’ postseason run ended just shy of their intended destination, a tragedy stunned the organization and sent its future in an unplanned direction. The prospect the Cardinals intended to unleash in right field and one who could partially answer their offensive needs, Oscar Taveras, was killed with his girlfriend in a single-vehicle crash in the Dominican Republic. Taveras was 22. Within a month the Cardinals had moved swiftly to reshape the lineup, even at the expense of a valued starter. In a four-player trade, the Cardinals acquired Jason Heyward from Atlanta to play right field. At 25, Heyward is entering the final year of his contract, but the Cardinals believe he’ll star and then stay as the club’s next cornerstone.
Adding a jolt to the offense was essential after the Cardinals averaged a run less per game in 2014. The division-champ Cardinals’ wheezing bats burdened the pitching staff, as 47 of their 90 wins came by a margin of two runs or fewer.
While the front office reshaped the roster in the weeks after Taveras’ death, manager Mike Matheny became a unifying force for the club. He felt the Cardinals would find “strength in being a family.” The Cardinals may have a new look, a new face and, they hope, a renewed lineup, but they are still defined by familiar October aspirations.
Two trades cost the Cardinals two young members of their 2014 Opening Day rotation, Shelby Miller and Joe Kelly. Filling those spots is the least of the Cardinals’ pitching questions. Pillars of the rotation, ace Adam Wainwright and upstart Michael Wacha, are returning from ailments. Wainwright had an elbow cleanup after his second career 20-win season and expects to be at full strength for spring, something he rarely was last season despite success in the second half. Wacha missed several months with a stress reaction in his right shoulder — an unusual injury that has the Cardinals altering his workouts and budgeting his innings. Budding No. 2 Lance Lynn and veteran John Lackey offer required stability. Carlos Martinez and rookie Marco Gonzales will audition for the rotation’s vacancy, though the club has openly shown its eagerness to see how Martinez’s fastball allows him to sizzle as a starter.
The trade for Heyward also brought an arm that will add to the late-inning heat index. Righthander Jordan Walden, who signed a two-year extension, brings a hefty fastball and closing experience to the setup role. He, groundball guru Seth Maness and possibly Gonzales or a healthy Kevin Siegrist will build the bridge to closer Trevor Rosenthal and give Matheny the bullpen blueprint to maintain success like last year’s. Rosenthal overcame a heavy workload to fall just shy of being the Cardinals’ first 50-save closer. Adding multitasking veteran Matt Belisle to the bullpen frees up lefty Randy Choate for a specialist role and gives Matheny more flexibility to utilize Gonzales.
For eight consecutive seasons, a new Cardinals shortstop arrived like tax day, every April. Jhonny Peralta brought an end to the turnstile position as he emerged as the NL’s best all-around shortstop in 2014. The veteran topped the team with 21 home runs and led all big-league shortstops with a .779 OPS and a .443 slugging percentage to go with dependable defense. He was the club’s isolated power early last season, though he’ll get added support this season from his sidekick at second, Kolten Wong. The Hawaiian finished third in NL Rookie of the Year voting, punctuating his season with a superb October. A jubilant player, Wong is set to emerge at second with what Peralta provided at shortstop — only for years to come.
A third baseman for most of his life, Matt Carpenter was an All-Star in 2013, his first year as a second baseman. Asked whether he’d prefer to be an All-Star at second or an everyday player at his natural position, Carpenter grinned: “Why not an All-Star at third?” The move back to third in 2014 didn’t slow his ascent as a top leadoff hitter or keep him from a second All-Star invite. His next move could be in the order. Carpenter, who hit three homers in the NLDS, could see swings at No. 2 or 3. The thunder to hit behind Carpenter should come from first baseman Matt Adams. In 231 more at-bats in 2014, Adams hit two fewer home runs than in 2013. Vexed by defensive shifts, Adams seems to favor hitting for average over hitting for damage. He’s got the strength to hit over the shifts and will get the at-bats for a defining season.
A rut in the Cardinals’ offense was right field, where the club had a .326 slugging percentage (30th in the majors) and a .609 OPS (also 30th). At a traditional power position, the Cardinals got the equivalent of an average middle infielder. Enter Heyward. The left-handed-hitting outfielder says he altered his approach to be the leadoff hitter Atlanta required. The Cardinals will use him elsewhere in the lineup to ignite his offense. He averaged 20 homers in his first three seasons and a .447 slugging percentage — the boost the Cardinals crave. Matt Holliday, a fixture hitting No. 3, had a career-low slugging percentage. He’ll elevate the offense with health and an early start to his annual second-half surge. Jon Jay was the only regular to hit better than .300, and he returns as the stated starter in center for the first time in his career. Peter Bourjos, a defensively gifted speedster, had hip surgery that should increase his comfort at the plate and allow him to run away with some additional at-bats.
The soul of the team and the shepherd of its rotation, Yadier Molina is entering the phase of his career where the Cardinals intend to be more proactive with time off. Molina, 32, remains a force behind the plate and strives to lead the majors in innings caught, a feat that knee soreness has interrupted in recent seasons. To keep him fresh and productive at the plate, the Cardinals want to script rest, preserving his strength for a late-season push. Tony Cruz remains the valued backup who models his game-calling after Molina’s.
Corner infielder Mark Reynolds is the right-handed complement at first base and brings seven consecutive seasons with at least 20 homers to a part-time role. His reputation and Randal Grichuk’s budding talent give the Cardinals pinch-hit pop that’s been lacking. Pete Kozma or newcomers Dean Anna and Ty Kelly offer the versatility required of infielders by Matheny.
A nurturing defender of his players and gifted motivator, Matheny acknowledges that having never managed at any level means some of his learning is coming while contending. The club sees the questions of October adding to his answers going forward. A general manager who treasured the team’s young pitching depth has dipped into it twice for short-term and necessary moves. The Cardinals have “payroll muscle” they can flex in coming seasons, and John Mozeliak has used talent and financial wherewithal to stay ahead of the market. He calls it “pre-emptive.” It comes with a trace of urgency because the “sustained success” ownership seeks implies winning now and later.
The Cardinals reached the NLCS for a fourth consecutive year but ended their season with a three-game losing streak for the third consecutive year. A 12th World Series title has eluded them, as an aging core and pitching depth thinned by trades now put the Cardinals at a pivot in this era, one of the most successful in franchise history. Changes may be afoot — forced upon them by tragedy or invited by them to address flaws — but one thing in St. Louis remains the same: championship expectations.
2015 Prediction: 1st in NL Central
3B Matt Carpenter (L) Since he moved to No. 1, no leadoff hitter in the NL has a higher on-base percentage than Carpenter’s .384.
RF Jason Heyward (L) Credited with 32 runs saved by Baseball Info Solutions, among the highest at any position.
LF Matt Holliday (R) Second-half surges the past three seasons have seen his SLG spike from .451 before the break to .509 after.
1B Matt Adams (L) Averaged a homer every 17.4 at-bats in 2013. At that pace as the starter in 2014, Adams would have hit 30.
SS Jhonny Peralta (R) Sure-handed fielder warmed to NL with 75 RBIs, the most by a Cards SS since Edgar Renteria’s 100 in 2003.
C Yadier Molina (R) Injury kept him from catching 1,000 innings for seventh straight year. Pitchers had a 3.38 ERA in his innings.
CF Jon Jay (L) A .295 hitter, Jay enters 2015 designated — for the first time in his career — as the planned starter in center.
2B Kolten Wong (L) First Cardinal in a decade with at least 10 homers and 20 stolen bases.
CF Peter Bourjos (R) Hip surgery should correct issue that slowed the speedster and had him unsteady at the plate.
INF Mark Reynolds (R) Will get chance to be right-handed-hitting complement at first and a power implement off the bench.
OF Randal Grichuk (R) Athletic outfielder hinted at his potent power with two homers in October as he seized starting job.
INF Pete Kozma (R) Two years removed from his turn as everyday shortstop, Kozma either makes team or must clear waivers.
C Tony Cruz (R) Entering his fourth season as Molina’s trusted backup and scouting voice.
RH Adam Wainwright Cardinals ace has finished second or third in Cy Young Award voting four times in the past six seasons.
RH Lance Lynn His 48 wins since joining the rotation in 2012 trail only four other pitchers, including Wainwright.
RH John Lackey Had 2,202.2 innings in the AL before throwing his first pitch in the NL after trade to Cardinals.
RH Michael Wacha In 33 starts in two seasons (including playoffs), intriguing dynamo has 3.11 ERA, 13 wins in 202.2 IP.
RH Carlos Martinez Opportunity to start will give electric, lithe righty the role he wants and a stage to flaunt his 96 mph sinker.
RH Trevor Rosenthal (Closer) No closer threw as many pitches (1,263) or innings (70.1) as Rosenthal did on his way to 45 saves.
RH Jordan Walden Power righty Walden signed a two-year, $6.6-million extension to be setup man for Cardinals.
RH Seth Maness Sinkerballer will take a strong second half (2.76 ERA) into larger late-inning role.
RH Matt Belisle Cardinals targeted the versatile veteran reliever to fill several roles to free others for specialized jobs.
LH Randy Choate Held lefties to a .093 average with 28 strikeouts and seven hits allowed.
LH Kevin Siegrist Power lefty must show recovery from muscle tears in his left hand to reclaim shutdown reputation.
LH Marco Gonzales Polished prospect will be ticketed for prominence in bullpen if he’s not in the rotation.
Beyond the Box Score
Remembering Oscar While the Cardinals considered ways to memorialize Oscar Taveras after his death in October, his boyhood friend and closest teammate Carlos Martinez already had one. He wanted to wear Taveras’ No. 18 and approached the Cardinals with his idea. The process is more intricate than simple approval because of jersey merchandising. Martinez received permission, and a friend said he was “really moved” by the chance to wear 18 in 2015.
Curious clause John Lackey made a promise to the Cardinals when they traded for him in July that he hadn’t made in Boston: He would honor his 2015 contract, as odd as it is. Lackey, a 12-year veteran, will play this season for the minimum salary, $507,500. Lackey’s alternative was to retire. The reason for the unusual salary is an option on his five-year, $82.5-million contract with the Red Sox that triggered when he missed a year to injury.
Gold standard Although he missed a month with a thumb injury, Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina still won his seventh consecutive Gold Glove. Among catchers, only Ivan Rodriguez (13) and Johnny Bench (10) have more than Molina’s seven career Gold Gloves. They are the brightest ornaments on a career that Bench suggests could lead to Cooperstown. “If he stays healthy,” the Hall of Famer says, “call me in 10 years.”
Hitter homecoming St. Louis-area native Bill Mueller had never put on the hometown jersey until this spring. Displeased with his situation in Chicago, Mueller resigned as Cubs hitting coach and later accepted an assistant hitting coach role with the Cardinals. The former batting champ says he found the situation he wanted, and it was closer to his home. “It’s familiar, St. Louis,” Mueller says. “You can turn any corner and run into a friend.”
Going international The Cardinals expanded their international interests in 2014, signing a Cuban infielder and bidding on a Korean shortstop. GM John Mozeliak wanted the club to start acting on years of scouting and be more active in “emerging markets.” In March the Cardinals signed infielder Aledmys Diaz, but they failed in December to have the highest bid for Jung-Ho Kang. Diaz would be a top prospect if not for injuries interrupting his 2014.
2014 Top Draft Pick
Luke Weaver, RHP
The Cardinals revisited a familiar well with the 27th overall pick in the draft, selecting a refined starting pitcher from a major Division I college program. Less likely to zoom to the majors than Michael Wacha and Marco Gonzales before him, Weaver has some similar traits: an athletic delivery, potential velocity sizzle, and a strong changeup. As Florida State’s ace last spring, Weaver worked with an 88-92 mph fastball that scouts saw tickle 96 mph. Weaver has a wiry 6'2" frame that should add strength as he matures. He had a humbling start to his pro career — eight earned runs in 3.1 innings at High-A — but that’s barely a hiccup in his development. The Cardinals wanted to control his innings and will continue to do so in 2015 as they look for him to start in a Class A rotation and see where his stuff takes him.
Top 10 Prospects
1. Marco Gonzales, LHP (23) Former Gonzaga standout has poise and a wily changeup. Future is in the rotation, but his present assignment will be a multitasking and late-inning reliever in the majors.
2. Stephen Piscotty, OF (24) A high-average batter who sports a strong arm from right field. His tools should get him to the majors this summer.
4. Alexander Reyes, RHP (20) Has blossomed as a power pitcher who has used 98 mph fastball to record 205 strikeouts in 167.1 pro innings.
4. Randal Grichuk, OF (23) Known as the player the Angels drafted before Mike Trout; made a name for himself with slick fielding and a livewire bat.
5. Rob Kaminsky, LHP (20) Kaminsky flips a biting curve, and with a plus fastball, scouts believes he has burgeoning combo that will excel in relief.
6. Jack Flaherty, RHP (19) Flaherty’s $2 million bonus was the Cardinals’ second largest in 12 years. Young, strapping righty has four quality pitches, including a popping fastball.
7. Luke Weaver, RHP (21) The Cards’ top pick in the 2014 draft boasts a fastball that sits in the low 90s and an effective changeup.
8. Tim Cooney, LHP (24) Closest Cardinals pitching prospect to the majors who hasn’t already thrown a pitch there. Has a safecracker’s feel for his fastball, a good changeup and elite command.
9. Sam Tuivailala, RHP (22) Former infielder hits 100 mph on his fastball and has more strikeouts (170) than walks and hits (151) in the minors.
10. Charlie Tilson, OF (22) A strong 2014 allowed the high-energy center fielder to regain pace as a prospect after losing a season to injury.