It's nearly impossible to question the way the St. Louis Cardinals have handled the winter.
Maybe some fans would like to see them spend more money for the sake of spending money. But the kids played so well last year that there is no way to justify not giving them a larger role in 2014. So, in a way, the Redbirds have their hands tied. They can't use their stockpiled financial resources to buy their way to a better team. It wouldn't make any sense to try to do so.
But that's what makes me nervous. Can the Cardinals reasonably expect all of their kids, who played so much greater than they were expected to perform, to only get better? Someone is going to have a sophomore slump, an injury or a plain old bad year, aren't they?
Kolten Wong is a prime suspect. He has been touted by the Cardinals -- and by prospect raters -- for a couple of years. After a big year in Class AAA Memphis last season he was promoted to St. Louis late in the year. With the handicap of limited and inconsistent use, he didn't hit a lick. Wong looked completely over-matched at the plate and couldn't be a contributor. So was it smart to trade David Freese to move Matt Carpenter from second base to third to make room for Wong? While this is the Cards' biggest risk, it's also the place where they have the biggest insurance policy. The signing of Mark Ellis makes me feel a lot better about second base.
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Michael Wacha is figured by some to have already emerged as the Cardinals co-ace alongside Adam Wainwright. I am high on Wacha. However, the brilliance we saw from him down the stretch was a very small sample size of his abilities. If it is unfair for us to be skeptical of Wong for producing so little in limited opportunities, is it fair to expect so much from Wacha based on a similar amount of playing time? It's tough to think of Wacha pitching like Bob Gibson in 1968 when we remember that Gibby was 6-11 with a 4.55 ERA in his first two seasons in the big leagues.
Shelby Miller didn't suffer similar growing pains. He won 15 games his rookie year and had a 3.06 ERA. But let's not consider him to be firmly established at the big league level until he can reproduce the results consistently. He was 11-10 with a 4.74 ERA at Class AAA in 2012. He's not that far removed from some very troubling times. Couple that with the fact that he made a major life change over the offseason when he got married and that he knows he was the subject of trade rumors all winter. It will be interesting to see if he can retain the same sort of focus he had in '13.
Matt Carpenter had a breakout season with a .318 average and a team-record 55 doubles. But he was disturbingly incapable the last few days of the season and then throughout the playoffs. Was that a fluke or did pitchers figure him out? How will it affect Carpenter to switch positions? Although Carpenter is considered to be a "natural" third baseman because that's where he played before he made it to the majors, he's only had half as many chances there as he has had in the majors at first base and only a quarter as many chances as he has had at second. Third base is also considered to be a power hitter position. Carpenter has averaged about 8 1/2 homers a season in the big leagues. Will he alter his stroke and sacrifice average and on-base percentage in a futile effort to hit home runs?
Kevin Siegrist and Seth Maness had statistically ridiculous seasons that seem very improbably to be repeated. Siegrist had a record-setting 2013 season with a 0.45 ERA... But then he was ripped in the playoffs at times and had a more realistic 3.00 ERA. Maness had more pedestrian baseball card statistics with 65 hits allowed in 62 innings of work and the highest average of walks and hits per innings pitched (1.26) among regular Cardinals relievers. But his magic bullet was producing timely double play balls. Can he be expected to be so efficient (read: lucky) for a second year?
Couple those question marks with the ridiculous production lately from the Redbirds' veteran catcher.
Yadier Molina has easily had his best three seasons in the majors from 2011-13. Can he keep it up? Prior to 2011 he was a .268 hitter who averaged six homers a season. Since then, he's a .313 hitter with 16 homers per year to his credit. But Yadi is past 30 years old and he plays the most physically demanding position on the field.