It seems like the Cardinals have been in a youth movement for about the last five years, adding youngsters to the major league roster left and right.
So why is it, on the eve of a new season, that I am so worried about the impact of the sands of time on the 2015 edition of the Redbirds?
Sure, those kids will play a large role. Matt Adams has been penciled in as the starting first baseman. Across the diamond, home grown product Matt Carpenter is in his prime as the starting third sacker. In the starting rotation, Carlos Martinez has won the fifth starter job and in the bullpen, Trevor Rosenthal has established himself as the closer.
But Adam Wainwright, named by manager Mike Matheny as the opening day starter against the Chicago Cubs, will be 34 before the end of the season. The number wouldn't bother me so much if it weren't for the fact that last year ended on a down note. His elbow started to give him trouble at the end of the regular season and then caused him big trouble in the playoffs. He's already had a setback this spring that limited his action in Grapefruit League play. With his lack of time to tune up, he looked a little rough around the edges with 10 hits allowed in only 7 2/3 innings of work and a 4.70 earned run average.
In left field Matt Holliday's uniform says he's number 7. But his driver's license says he's 35.
Like Wainwright, Holliday is a guy who keeps himself in tip-top shape, a total professional who is willing to do whatever it takes to prepare. But, take it from me, there comes a certain time when muscles, joints and the eyes don't work as well as they used to. There's no way to eliminate those issues from being a factor when you're trying to hit a 98 mph fastball with a stick.
By the standards of most players, Holliday had a solid season in 2014. He hit .272 with 20 homers and 90 RBIs. But Holliday is a career .308 hitter who has averaged 28 homers and 108 runs batted in over the course of his 11 years in the big leagues. If you dismiss his statistics compiled with the Colorado Rockies as a product of hitter-friendly Coors Field, he was a .301 hitter who averaged 25 homers and 95 RBIs in his previous four seasons with St. Louis.
His .272 average was by far the lowest of Holliday's career. His RBI count was the lowest for any season in which he played at least 140 games, his slugging percentage was the lowest of his career and his on base percentage was his lowest since his second season in the majors.
Granted, offense was down. Maybe Holliday will bounce back in 2015. But it wouldn't be a surprise to see a player's eyes get a little worse and his bat getting a little slower at his age.
It seemed like yesterday that Yadier Molina was an up-and-coming kid. But, suddenly, he's 31 years old.
For most baseball players that would be the sweet spot of his prime. But catchers take more physical abuse than anyone else on the field. And Yadi has caught 1,302 games for St. Louis in his 11 seasons in the big leagues. He showed up for camp having shed 20 or more pounds, showing his resolve to stay at the top of his game. But we saw last season how different the pitching staff looked without Molina behind the plate because on an injury. It wasn't pretty.
Shortstop Jhonny Peralta, playing in a position that relies heavily upon the reflexes and speed of youth, will be 33 this season. Will he lose a step in the field? Will his bat, which led the Redbirds with 21 home runs in 2014 lose a tick of speed?
While the Cardinals have filled the supporting cast with younger players, there is no way to deny that the ace, the third hitter in the batting order and the best catcher in baseball -- with the gold and platinum gloves and championship rings to prove it -- are three vital parts St. Louis can't make do without.
Shortstop is right up there in importance. But, while the Cardinals could return former starting shortstop Pete Kozma to the starting role in a pinch, there is no way to replace any of the other three keystone players' production and leadership.
The biggest threat to the Redbirds' championship aspirations isn't the Chicago Cubs. It's not the Cincinnati Reds, the Milwaukee Brewers or the Pittsburgh Pirates. It's the health and productivity of it's three leaders.
It doesn't matter who the fifth starter is. It doesn't matter if Adams disappoints with the number of homers he hits. If Wainwright wins 18 or more games, Holliday hits .290ish with 25 homers and Molina is healthy enough to catch 145 or more games, it's hard to imagine that St. Louis will be stopped from another year in the post season.
But if Wainwright's elbow limits him, Holliday slips another points to become a .250 hitter and Molina spends an extended time on the disabled list, the Cardinals are going to have a hard time living up to the high expectations.