The St. Louis Cardinals win total currently offered for the 2015 season sits at 88.5 on MLB odds. They never have one of the highest payrolls but seem to always make the playoffs. Will that continue this season?
Cards' Front Office One of Best
Really all you need to know about how well-run the Cardinals are is that the team let one of the greatest players in franchise history, future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols, walk away after winning the World Series in the 2011 season. How smart does that look now? Pujols was still a dominant force that year, hitting .299 with 37 homers, but it was a small decline from previous years. So instead of wrecking their payroll for a decade by giving Pujols $250 million or so, the Cards bid him adieu. Now the Los Angeles Angels are stuck paying Pujols through 2021, when he will earn $30 million. It's probably the worst current contract in baseball as Pujols is nowhere near the same player he was in his prime.
St. Louis hasn't won the World Series since Pujols left but has reached at least the NLCS each of the past three season and won the National League Central the past two. The Cards were ousted in the 2014 NLCS by the San Francisco Giants in five games as the Cards couldn't solve Giants ace Madison Bumgarner, losing to him in Games 1 and 5 as he was named NLCS MVP before going on to win World Series MVP honors.
Looking Toward 2015
St. Louis rarely gets involved on big-time free agents and that was the case this offseason even though the team reportedly did kick the tires on pitchers Jon Lester (who signed with the Chicago Cubs) and Max Scherzer (Nationals). St. Louis also looked into possible trades for the Tigers' David Price and Phillies' Cole Hamels, with Hamels remaining a possibility.
The Cardinals' biggest move this offseason was trading excellent young starting pitcher Shelby Miller to Atlanta for outfielder Jason Heyward, who can become a free agent after this season. Heyward has unlimited potential and is one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball. His bat has been moderately disappointing as Heyward hit just .271 with 11 homers and 58 RBIs in 149 games last year with 20 steals. If right, he could be a 30-30 guy, and he's still only 25. St. Louis felt it needed a big outfield bat after the tragic death of top prospect Oscar Taveras during the World Series. He was killed in a car crash in the Dominican Republic. Miller went 10-9 with a 3.74 for the Cardinals in 2014 after going 15-9 with a 3.06 ERA as a rookie in 2013. St. Louis also got a good reliever, Jordan Walden, in the deal.
Presumably taking Miller's place in the rotation will be youngster Carlos Martinez. The right-hander pitched in 57 games last year, starting seven, and was 2-4 with a 4.03 ERA. It should be a fine rotation as long as everyone stays healthy with Adam Wainwright (20-9, 2.38 ERA) at the top, followed in some order by Lance Lynn (15-10, 2.74), John Lackey (3-3, 4.30 in 10 starts after being traded from Boston) and Michael Wacha (5-6, 3.20). Wacha's stuff is as nasty as anyone's in baseball, but he missed several months with a scapular stress injury in his shoulder, which is a pretty rare injury for a pitcher. That's something to monitor. If Wacha breaks down again, the Cardinals are going to have to address the rotation. Wainwright also had some offseason work on his elbow, so keep that in mind too. The bullpen should be very solid as Walden adds depth ahead of closer Trevor Rosenthal.
Other than Heyward, who is likely to hit second, the lineup should be the same. Catcher Yadier Molina is the best defensive player at his position in MLB, but he might be breaking down a bit, playing only 110 games last season and seeing his average drop to .282. He remains the team's most important positional player. At first base, new addition Mark Reynolds likely will start for Matt Adams when lefties are on the mound as Adams can't hit southpaws.
MLB Free Picks: At full health, this is still the team to beat in the NL Central. I'm just not sure I trust guys like Wainwright, Wacha and Molina to stay off the disabled list. The Pirates are right on the Cards' heels and the Cubs are much, much better. I'd place my MLB pick 'over' the 88.5 wins but don't believe this club wins the pennant. The Nationals and Dodgers are both better on paper.