Let’s be honest – we are a spoiled baseball town.
Since the 2000 season, the Birds on the Bat have made it to the World Series the same number of times they have missed the playoffs (4), and have made the playoffs three times more often than they missed the playoffs. In that time frame, we have exactly one losing season. In other words, this whole “Cardinal Way” thing is working out pretty well for us.
Now, here is the catch: People are starting to hate us for it.
So is 2015 the year that all the success starts to get away from us? Is it the year we break down a bit and get overtaken by our spunky division rival Pirates or rejuvenated Cubs? Ummm … no.
From all outward appearances, 2015 should just be another notch in the Cardinals’ Championship belt.
Remember that 90-win team from a year ago? They actually had a lot of question marks coming into the season. However, the 2015 team returns remarkably intact and, at least on paper, each of the few changes we have made has been a significant upgrade from the 2014 team. Imagine that, a 90-win team has been able to largely hold itself together and still make significant upgrades where needed. The Cardinal Way, indeed.
The 2014 Cardinals did have one position last year that significantly underperformed relative to the rest of the league: right field. So in 2015, enter Jason Heyward.
Heyward is the best defensive right fielder in the game and is a consistent, if unspectacular, offensive producer. He can field, run, hit for average, get on base and throw. He has not hit for a ton of power since his rookie season, but last year the Cardinals’ right fielders only combined for a total of nine home runs, and Heyward will likely double that number on his own.
When the Redbirds acquired Heyward (by dealing promising starter Shelby Miller), they also acquired a significant bullpen piece in Jordan Walden.
Walden is likely to take over the setup man role for the Cardinals and brings along a high 90s fastball and devastating slider. Walden had 32 saves for the Anaheim Angels as recently as 2011.
The bullpen has been further bolstered by the addition of Matt Belisle.
Belisle does not blow you away with statistics, but he has been pitching in the thin air of Colorado for the last half dozen years, so the simple fact that he survived that trauma is a testament to his internal fortitude. Belisle projects as a solid middle inning option.
At the end of the 2014 season, the Cardinals expressed a desire to add some “right handed power” off their bench. If you Google “right handed power best deployed from the bench,” a picture of Mark Reynolds appears, so that is who the Cardinals signed. Reynolds has a ton of pop, when he makes contact, and provides a nice complement to Matt Adams at first base or as a late-inning pinch hitter.
The 2014 Cardinals traded away a couple of fan favorites in the middle of last season, Joe Kelly and Allen Craig, in an effort to energize their lackluster team. The moves worked.
Mark Ellis, signed last year as insurance for rookie Kolten Wong, has retired.
An important piece of the 2014 Cardinals bullpen, Pat Neshek, became another in a long list of St. Louis reclamation projects who were able to parlay their bounce-back season here into a lucrative contract somewhere else. Neshek signed a two-year, $12.5 million deal with the lowly Houston Astros.
The single largest departure was used as a trade piece for our single largest acquisition – Miller for Heyward.
Miller was a highly touted prospect who had become good, but not great. There is a wonderful line in the movie “The Contender,” where the president tells an ambitious senator “you are the future of the Democratic Party, and you always will be.” That line best describes Miller; he was always the future but never quite became the present.
This section of our 2014 Cardinals preview opened with: “Despite the organizational depth within the Cardinals system, there is one player who simply cannot be replaced: Yadier Molina.” Here is the line we would like to use this year: “Ditto.”
Due to injury in 2014, Molina played in his fewest numbers of games (110) since 2007, and his absence was noticeable to say the least. He single-handedly elevates the entire pitching staff like no other catcher of his generation.
Tony Cruz is a serviceable backup, but he is not Yadi.
On the other end of the spectrum, the 2015 Cardinals need a couple of their non-superstars to have solid performances to reach the promised land this season.
Matt Adams has exceptional raw power, but that needs to translate into increased production in 2015. Last year as a team, the Cardinals had their fewest total home runs since 1992. Only two players, Matt Holliday and Jhonny Peralta, eclipsed the 20-home-run mark. Adams needs to make sure he becomes the third this year.
John Lackey, a veteran starter acquired last year for Craig and Kelly, needs to have a solid 2015 as well.
Lackey should be the third starter in the Cardinals rotation this year, and while he has been a consistent and durable starter over his career, 2015 will mark his 13th Major League season. Lackey effectively replaces Miller among Cardinals starters, and it is critical he remain the consistent performer that Miller never blossomed into.
The last key piece for the 2015 Cardinals to achieve the success we are getting so used to is not a single player, but a segment of the roster: the bench.
This is one aspect of the roster that seems to be under constant makeover by General Manager John Mozeliak. This year, he will look to the likes of Pete Kozma, Mark Reynolds, Peter Bourjos, and Randal Grichuk to spell the aging Cardinals core of players. Grichuk and Reynolds have the possibility to be huge power contributors, and Bourjos and Kozma excel defensively. The bench can be the toughest set of players to put together in baseball, but when they do come together they can propel a team to new heights.
Oh, and by the way, this is a difficult key contribution, but we are predicting that Jaime Garcia starts the year healthy and gets traded away at some point to fill a need for the big league club.