The St. Louis Cardinals won the National League pennant in 2013 but came up short in the World Series.
While some teams splurge on free agents to try to make it over the top, the Redbirds had a quiet off-season. Their only major purchase was shortstop Jhonny Peralta who was signed after general manager John Mozeliak found the price too high for shortstops too high on the trade market.
Besides that, the Cardinals are continuing the youth movement that saw tons of young talent emerge last season and waved goodbye to one of their best players in the clubhouse as well as on the field, slugging outfielder Carlos Beltran. They also let starting pitcher Jake Westbrook, infielder Rafael Furcal and reliever John Axford, acquired mid-season in trade, walk as a free agent. Former ace starting pitcher Chris Carpenter retired after spending all of last year on the disabled list.
Here's a look at how the 2014 Cardinals compare to the previous edition:
In 2013 the Redbirds relied on a starting rotation of Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, Jaime Garcia, Westbrook and Shelby Miller.
Garcia got off to a good start with a 5-2 record and a 3.62 earned run average. But a recurrence of shoulder trouble ended his season in May. He was supposed to be healthy at the start of spring training. But a setback related to his shoulder surgery has made Garcia's status uncertain. The only thing that is for sure is that the Redbirds can't count on him as a contributor in 2013. In the short term Joe Kelly will fill Garcia's hole.
That worked out well last season. After a variety of other options were tried, Kelly was given a chance and was exceptionally good with a 9-3 record and a 2.28 ERA as a starting pitcher. But Kelly was handily out-pitched by Carlos Martinez in spring training this season. So if Kelly falters, manager Mike Matheny is likely to be quick with the hook.
Jake Westbrook was generally terrible last season. He was 7-8 with a 4.63 ERA for the season and he was especially bad in the second half. Westbrook was 5-4 with a 2.88 ERA at the midpoint of the season. After that he was 2-4 with a 7.78 ERA. Westbrook's slot in the rotation might be the biggest individual area of improvement on the Cardinals roster. It will be filled by wonder rookie Michael Wacha who was 4-1 with a 2.78 ERA in 2013. Wacha could suffer quite a few growing pains and still be a lot better contributor than the sub .500 Westbrook.
Adam Wainwright has another year under his belt after Tommy John surgery and, by all indications, he appears to be back at 100 percent. I'd be shocked if, barring injury, he's not a top five Cy Young candidate.
That leaves Shelby Miller and Lance Lynn who combined to win 30 games in 2013. That's going to be the toughest thing to repeat. Miller was spectacular last season but couldn't seem to find a groove in spring training. He's the most suspect candidate because of the possibility of a sophomore slump. Besides Wainwright, he's the most key figure in the starting rotation.
Starting lineup: In 2013 the Cardinals fielded Yadier Molina (C), Allen Craig (1B), Matt Carpenter (2B), David Freese (3B), Pete Kozma (SS), Matt Holliday (LF), Jon Jay (CF) and Beltran (RF).
Besides Beltran and Freese, who was traded to the Anaheim Angels for outfielder Peter Bourjos and prospect Randal Grichuk, the cast will be back in 2014. But some of the actors will be playing different roles.
Craig is expected to spend the bulk of his playing time in right field in place of Beltran while Matt Adams will find more playing time at first base. Matt Carpenter will move to third base, his original position, to fill in for Freese and make space for prospect Kolten Wong at second. Pete Kozma remains in the organization -- for now -- but looks like he'll either be tabbed for a utility role or else he'll start the season in Class AAA Memphis while Peralta takes over at short. Bourjos will compete for playing time with Jon Jay in centerfield. But both players could handle any outfield position and they're likely to move around.
And then there is the Oscar Taveras situation. The top Cardinals prospect has been slowed by the ankle problem that cut his 2013 season short. If he doesn't arrive at some point in the upcoming season, it is going to be cause for great concern.
On balance, the Cardinals offense seems that it could be less powerful but just as prolific in comparison to 2013. Beltran's power will be missed. But Craig had a surprisingly down year in home runs last season and should be due for a rebound. Even without the power, the Birds are likely to score a lot of runs because Bourjos and Wong will add an element of speed the team hasn't enjoyed in more than a decade. They ought to be better at manufacturing runs this season and should be more balanced from top to bottom than last season when they had a dead bottom third of the order for a while with Jay slumping, Kozma not hitting and the pitcher's spot in the order.
The bench last season had Adams providing the power and Tony Cruz as the reserve catcher. Daniel Descalso was the utilityman and Shane Robinson was the fourth outfielder. Ty Wigginton was supposed to be the backup at the corners. But he washed out and was released early in the season.
Descalso and Cruz will be holdovers and Robinson should have a role on the big league club -- at least until Taveras or Stephen Piscotty arrive on the season. The big addition is Mark Ellis, an infielder from the Dodgers who not only provides insurance for Wong. He can play third base and shortstop in a pinch, too, to give the Birds a right-handed alternative to Descalso.
The bench is going to player a major role for the club in 2014. The Cardinals have a ton of versatility on the roster and St. Louis fans might not see the same line-up two days in a row.
Bullpen: Jason Motte was lost at the end of spring training and Mitchell Boggs was expected to take over as closer. Edward Mujica, Randy Choate, Marc Rzepczynski, Trevor Rosenthal and Kelly rounded out the bullpen.
Boggs blew up in his increased role and was replaced by Mujica as closer. Both are gone with Boggs being sent to the Rockies and Mujica leaving as a free agent after a disturbing bout of ineffectiveness at the end of last season. The Cardinals added John Axford at the trade deadline and he was let go as a free agent as well. Rzepczynski, part of the 2011 midseason bullpen overhaul, fell victim to the 2013 version.
The Cardinals went with a youth movement and, eventually, Rosenthal became the closer, a role he settled into, if somewhat reluctantly. Seth Maness and Kevin Siegrist became valued role players. It is tough to imagine they can repeat their success of 2013. Siegrist had record-setting numbers for a lefty reliever with an 0.45 ERA in 39 2/3 innings of work and Maness seemed to always be able to come up with a double play ground ball when he needed it most. Some of that success has to be chalked up to plain old good luck.
On the upside, Martinez will reprise his role as eighth inning set-up man in place of Mujica --- at least until Motte returns. The former closer is just a year removed from Tommy John surgery. But his recovery is going well and a May or June return seems reasonable.