Grudgingly, perhaps, the St. Louis Cardinals give credit where credit is due.
In an era of supposed parity and expanded playoffs, the San Francisco Giants have won three of the last five World Series, an-every-other-year pattern that began in 2010.
The Giants shattered the Cardinals’ World Championship dreams in 2012 and 2014, both in painful fashion.
San Francisco erased a three games to one deficit in 2012, winning three straight to clinch the National League pennant. Last year, the Giants beat St. Louis four games to one, with the series ending on a dramatic three-run homer in the ninth by Travis Ishikawa against Michael Wacha.
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“They’ve done a good job,” Cardinals left fielder Matt Holliday said. “You give them credit. We’ll see if we face them again.”
First things first, however, as the Cardinals (90-72 last season) will try to navigate through an improved NL Central in which every team could remain in the postseason hunt for much of the season.
Here’s a quick look at the Cardinals’ division rivals:
(88-74 in 2014)
The Pirates finished second in the division last year after winning the title in 2013. Pittsburgh qualified for the playoffs for a second consecutive time, only to lose the wild-card game to the Giants. Pittsburgh could be the Cardinals main threat, thanks to a lineup that features 2013 Most Valuable Player Andrew McCutchen in center, Pedro Alvarez at first, MVP candidate Josh Harrison at third. Starling Marte has established himself in left and Gregory Polanco is a rising start in right. The keystone combination of Jordy Mercer at short and Neil Walker at second is solid. The rotation includes Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole and A.J. Burnett, who returns to the Pirates after spending last season with the Philadelphia Phillies. Closer Mark Melancon is coming off a 33-save season in 2014.
Chicago hired Joe Maddon as their third manager in three years and then signed the best starting pitcher on the market, left-hander Jon Lester, to a six-year, $155 million deal, and he joins a rotation that also has Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks, Jason Hammel and Travis Wood. The big variable for the Cubs will be whether their young position players mature. Third baseman Kris Bryant may not open the season with the team, but he will be promoted at some point during the year and is considered the No. 1 prospect in the game. Right fielder Jorge Soler and second baseman Javier Baez also are highly regarded and will join a lineup that has established players like first baseman Anthony Rizzo, shortstop Starlin Castro, catcher Miguel Montero, center fielder Dexter Fowler and left fielder Chris Coghlan. Closer Hector Rondon had 29 saves last season.
The Brewers faded in the second half last season after leading the Central by 6 1/2 games on July 1. They still were in first place Aug. 30, but fell out of contention by dropping 14 of 15 games. Milwaukee has basically the same team returning, led by center fielder Chris Gomez, left fielder Kris Davis, right fielder Ryan Braun, shortstop Jean Segura and catcher Jonathan Lucroy, one of the best players in the NL. Adam Lind was acquired from Toronto to play first base, and Scooter Gennett returns at second. Third baseman Aramis Ramirez is on his final journey, as he will retire at the end of the season. The rotation is so-so, led by Kyle Lohse, Matt Garza, Wily Peralta and Mike Fiers. Lebanon native Neal Cotts was signed to a free-agent contract to boost the bullpen from the left side.
The Reds held off the Cubs and captured fourth place in the division, and they return many of the same players. Is Cincinnati a team on the decline or is it capable of another run? First baseman Joey Votto is healthy again, and right fielder Jay Bruce, second baseman Brandon Phillips, third baseman Todd Frazier and catcher Devin Mesoraco are productive players. Center fielder Billy Hamilton stole 56 bases and won the NL Rookie of the Year award. Left fielder Marlon Byrd is with his sixth team in four seasons. The Reds love the upper half of their rotation, anchored by right-hander Johnny Cueto and filled out by Homer Bailey and Mike Leake, although Baily will start the season on the disabled list. Aroldis Chapman returns as the closer; he posted 36 saves and struck out 106 batters in just 54 innings last year.
What the experts are saying about the St. Louis Cardinals as they head into their season opener April 5 at Wrigley Field in Chicago:
Concerns about the Cardinals’ rotation depth fizzled this spring, as the club managed to get through spring training relatively unscathed and fostered a robust competition for the fifth starter’s job. Having a healthy Jaime Garcia could be a wild card for this team. But while the rotation looks formidable, there remain questions about the offense. Jason Heyward projects to fill the No. 2 spot in the order, but it’s a bit of a mystery as to how he’ll profile as a hitter. The Cardinals ranked last in the National League in homers last season and don’t appear poised to make a big climb in this department given their personnel. They have depth to their lineup, but will that translate into run production? The Cardinals open the season as favorites to defend their consecutive division titles, but the NL Central sets up to be a tight race with Pittsburgh still hungry, the Cubs improving, the Reds healthy and Milwaukee looking to finish what it couldn’t a year ago.
Fox Sports Midwest
The window remains wide open for the Cardinals. A healthy Michael Wacha makes the rotation the strongest in the division and the addition of Jason Heyward improves both the offense and the defense. And if a hole develops during the season, they have the “financial muscle,” as GM John Mozeliak calls it, to attack it. But to be really, really good, as in 95 wins good, here’s three things that need to happen: 1. Carlos Martinez needs to pitch up to his stuff. Well, considering his stuff is the best on the staff, he doesn’t even need to pitch all the way up to it. If Martinez can get to 170 innings, his first season in the rotation should be a strong one; 2. Matt Adams needs to hit 25 homers. Or Matt Holliday. Or Jason Heyward. Or somebody. The Cardinals have to find a way to hit more than 105 homers because their chances of winning the division again with a plus-16 run differential are not good; 3. Jason Heyward needs to be as good as advertised. It will be hard for Heyward not to give the team more than it got last season from right field, which was as little as any team in the National League. But if he could go for 20 homers, 20 stolen bases and a .350 on-base percentage, he could make a big difference.
I’m picking the Cardinals to finish second in the NL Central, behind the Pirates, and to make the playoffs as a wild-card team. Overall, it’s a deep team, with the defense that started to improve last year and will be even better this year with Jason Heyward, who is one of the great shutdown outfielders. Kolten Wong seems like he’s ready for a breakout type of season, and being around the Cardinals in spring training, you get the sense that he and Matt Adams will take a step forward. Generally, though, I think there’s a chance the offense is erratic, given some of Heyward’s struggles and the age of Yadier Molina and Matt Holliday. The pitching has depth, but more consistency and strike efficiency is needed out of Trevor Rosenthal, and the health of Adam Wainwright is crucial.
To me, it comes down to pitching. If the Cardinals have a healthy Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha rolling through the 2015 season, it’s going to be very difficult for anyone in the NL Central to catch them. Lance Lynn might be the most underrated starter in the league. John Lackey brings experience and won’t back down an inch. If Jaime Garcia can recapture his form, forget about it. And even if Garcia can’t, Marco Gonzales is more than capable of being the lefty in the rotation. Carlos Martinez could be the most valuable pitcher of all. He could appear anywhere in agame – starter, middle relief, closer – and make an impact with his electric stuff. Stay tuned.
Fox Sports Midwest
I see a lot of promise with this team and I think it’s still the team to beat in the Central Division. I don’t think there’s any question about that. The pitching has been deep. A lot of teams are looking for a fifth starter because they don’t have five. I think the Cardinals are looking for a fifth starter because they have a few options. It will be interesting to see where Carlos Martinez ends up. Jaime Garcia has been really good. And you like the way the bench is coming together, too. I like the thought of having the pop of Mark Reynolds and Randal Grichuk off the bench. One of the biggest surprises I’ve seen in terms of, ‘Wow, this guy looks good,’ is Pete Kozma. He’s swinging the bat well and has played a lot of different positions. Jason Heyward is fitting well with this team. It seems like he belongs here. It’s going to be a terrific race. I’m mostly concerned about the Pirates. They’ve got a really good lineup.