The Cardinals eschewed obfuscation by identifying Jhonny Peralta as the guy they wanted to be their SS of the present, and they signed him to a 4 year, $53 million contract that dances with sugar plums in Stephen Drew's dreams. Peralta, fresh off a 2013 season that saw him suspended for 50 games for taking performance-enhancing drugs, will be asked to fill the offensive void left by the inimitable Pete Kozma, who will likely take his .543 OPS back to the minors with him this year.
Also gracing the Best Fans in Baseball with his presence for the first time will be OF Peter Bourjos, who was picked up from the Los Angeles Angels in a trade for former fan favorite David Freese. Bourjos is a burner on the basepaths (when he's not limited by injury), and he can cover some serious ground in CF. John Jay, who picked up over 500 PA each of the last three years, will likely be relegated to his previous role of bench bat and/or Ambassador to Spain, and Bourjos will slot somewhere near the end of the Cardinals batting order.
The Cardinals also added 2B Mark Ellis to their quiver, inking the steady veteran as infield insurance that the Los Angeles Dodgers likely wish they still had. Ellis, who may or may not actually be Mark Loretta and/or Mark Kotsay, will turn 37 this season, but he won't be asked to be much more than a pinch-hitter, occasional 2B with a slick glove, and gritty mentor in search of his first World Series title.
Carlos Beltran spent the last two seasons as the primary RF for the Cardinals and gave them a solid 6.2 WAR, .836 OPS, and 56 HR in exchange for $26 million total, a deal that worked well for both sides. Beltran signed a 3 year, $45 million deal with the New York Yankees this offseason, however.
Also gone is Freese, who was a solid producer at 3B - when healthy - for the Cardinals over the previous five seasons. He was flipped to the Angels in exchange for Bourjos and promising minor league OF Randall Grichuk.
John Axford was picked up for the Cardinals' stretch run last season, but he signed to be the Cleveland Indians closer.
Rafael Furcal, who missed the entirety of the 2013 season while on the DL, left the river city so he could spend the majority of 2014 on the Florida Marlins DL.
Edward Mujica, who was an All Star reliever for the Cardinals in 2013, signed on with the World Series champion Boston Red Sox for two years.
Finally, both Chris Carpenter and Jake Westbrook hung up their cleats for good following the 2013 season after both fighting arm issues throughout the year. I have no idea how Carpenter explained that to his son.
For a team that was as successful as the Cardinals were in 2013, it's rather surprising to see how much changing and shuffling they're doing with their core. Trades, position changes, and promotions of rookies abound in their 2014 plans, with only Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina expected to start the upcoming season in the same spots in which they spent the majority of the previous year.
Matt Carpenter was a revelation at the top of their lineup, and while he's still likely to leadoff, he's switching from 2B to 3B for the departed Freese. That opens up 2B for one of their top prospects, Kolten Wong, who will get first crack at being the everyday 2B (with Mark Ellis there as insurance.) Allen Craig, the primary 1B for the Cards when healthy in previous years, will move to RF for the start of the season in order to accommodate the big bat and big belly of Matt Adams at 1B. For the time being, Bourjos will be the primary CF between Holliday and Craig, but when uber prospect Oscar Taveras is fully healthy (which will likely be at some point early in the 2014 season), there's the potential for further lineup and positional shuffling.
On the pitching side of things, it's also pretty remarkable the level of turnover seen in the rotation in such a short time. Carpenter and Westbrook are now gone, Jaime Garcia is once again a question mark thanks to a shoulder issue, and the previous editions of the bullpen anchored by Mitchell Boggs, Mujica, and Jason Motte are a thing of the past. Insert young arms like Shelby Miller, Michael Wacha, and Joe Kelly in full-time rotation roles, Trevor Rosenthal and Carlos Martinez in the back of the bullpen, and you have a young but extremely talented core of arms that the Cardinals will be depending upon heavily.
Matt Carpenter - 3B
Kolten Wong - 2B
Matt Holliday - LF
Allen Craig - RF
Yadier Molina - C
Matt Adams - 1B
Jhonny Peralta - SS
Peter Bourjos - CF
Adam Wainwright - SP
Shelby Miller - SP
Michael Wacha - SP
Lance Lynn - SP
Joe Kelly - SP
Trevor Rosenthal - CL
Carlos Martinez - RH setup
Kevin Siegrist - LH setup
Seth Maness - RHP
Jason Motte - RHP (DL to start season)
Randy Choate - LOOGY
The Cardinals are good. They've got dangerous righty bats, powerful lefty bats, and about a million guys who can throw 99 mph. They've got top prospects waiting in the wings should an injury flare up, and they've got so many guys with positional versatility that there will always be a way to juggle things to get their best healthy bats into the lineup. There's an established ace in Wainwright, a lineup anchor in Holliday, and Molina behind the plate anchoring the team's defense.
To top it all off, they don't even have a contract on the books that could be considered "bad," damnit.
On paper, they're as good as it gets, but there are several scenarios that could see them fail to meet the lofty expectations that have been doted on them all offseason. Young pitching is often volatile, and with Wainwright having thrown over 250 innings last season (including the playoffs), there's a chance that there could be some late season issues in the rotation. On offense, I can categorically claim that this won't happen again regardless of which local Enquirer columnists and baseball commentators think otherwise. On defense, every metric available hated the Cardinals in 2013 (second to last in all of baseball in UZR/150, for instance), and there's a chance that their position changes further hurt that, too.
So, while the Cardinals may have to have a few more things go wrong to be bad than most teams in baseball, there's still the potential for them to falter a bit from their 97 win performance in 2013. Make no mistake about it, though: this team will be tough even if some things hit the fan.