Many expected the 2013 Nationals to roll through the National League East and contend for a World Series. Some even suggested they had potential to win 100 games. The Nationals ended up winning 86 games and losing the division by ten games amidst injuries and poor production. The 2014 Cardinals begin Spring Training with similarly high expectations. They just won the Nationals League pennant and by most accounts, had a great off season. But just like the Nationals of last year, the Cardinals are not without their flaws and susceptibilities. I concede that the Cardinals are far more likely to have a great season than not. They are probably one of the five best teams in all of baseball. But for the fun of it, let’s consider the factors that could make 2014 a challenging year for Cardinals’ fans.
The Cardinals famously hit .330 with runners in scoring position (RISP) in 2013. It was the highest RISP average in baseball history topping the 2007 Tigers (.311). The Cardinals had a number of above average to excellent hitters, so we would expect them to hit well in these situations. But .330? When the Cardinals won the World Series in 2011, they led the league in hitting with RISP with a .290 average, 40 points off their 2013 mark. The 2012 team hit .264 with RISP. The Cardinals are likely to return to earth and hit somewhere between their 2011 and 2012 versions. This drop in hitting with RISP will probably reduce their run totals.
Matt Carpenter is how good, again?
I can’t believe my eyes every time I look. Matt Carpenter accumulated 7.0 WAR last year? I know he was good. I know he was VERY good. But is Matt Carpenter a superstar type player? He very well may be. We would be foolish to rule it out. But Carpenter may also turn out to be a 3-4 WAR player with one monster year. He was poor defensively in 2012 (-7.8 Def) but solid in 2013 (1.3 Def). We still don’t know what kind of defender he really is, and he is moving back to third base this year. Carpenter hits extremely well but .318/.392/.481 are difficult numbers to duplicate. The Cardinals probably aren’t counting on Carpenter to put up those numbers again, but they need to make up that lost WAR somewhere.
Young guys not ready
The Cardinals will likely give a large number of at bats to Kolten Wong and super prospect Oscar Taveras. By all accounts Taveras has star potential, but young players often struggle to adjust to the Major Leagues. Even Mike Trout struggled to a .220/.281/.390 in his first 135 plate appearances as a 19 year old. Taveras is a couple years older than Trout was at that point, but he is also replacing Carlos Beltran. Beltran is a poor defender at this point, but he still hit well in 2013 with a .296/.339/.491 slash line. Taveras may become a star one day, but in 2014, he may not be an upgrade over last season.
Kolten Wong has the inside track to play second base every day. He hit well in the minors but struggled mightily in his short stint in the big leagues. While we can’t make predictions based on 62 plate appearances, Wong did nothing to inspire confidence with a .153/.194/.169 slash line and 4.8% walk rate. He won’t be that bad, but the Cardinals must have some concerns about his ability to hit every day at the Major League level.
Old guys declining
Yadier Molina and Matt Holliday combined for 10.1 WAR in 2013. They will be 32 and 34 during the 2014 season, respectively. Neither player is ancient, but they are both due for some decline soon. Holliday has remained steady the last three years as a 4.5-5 WAR player. His defense has been poor the last two years and won’t get much better. He derives his value from his bat. In the last two years, Holliday’s ISO has dropped from .229 in 2011 to .190 in 2013. Holliday’s numbers may not fall off a cliff, but he certainly may regress some.
Molina had an excellent year in 2013. He recorded a career high .319 batting average. His defense is impeccable and probably better than we can quantify at this point. BUT, his batting average was a result of a career high .338 BABIP, 32 points higher than his previous high. His ISO also dropped from .186 in 2012, to .159 in 2013. Molina had an ISO of under .100 for four straight years from 2007-2010. As he gets older, his ISO could drop back into that range. Catcher is a tough defensive position and Molina’s offensive decline may be accelerated due to the strain of catching every day. Molina and Holliday will likely both be good players in 2014. However, producing over 10 WAR again will be difficult.
Good (but not great) pitching
This factor is the hardest one for me to see. The Cardinals certainly have plenty of talent. Nonetheless, Adam Wainwright turns 33 this season and had a career year in 2013, something he isn’t likely to replicate. Jaime Garcia is coming off shoulder surgery on his pitching arm. Michael Wacha was impressive in a small sample size, but he has started only 26 regular season games as a pro and 17 of those were in the minor leagues. The league hasn’t had time to adjust to Wacha yet. These factors could cause problems for the Cardinals pitching staff in 2014.
Are all these things likely to happen? No. But any combination between these things and bad injury luck could cause a fate similar to the 2013 Washington Nationals. The Nationals 2013 season proved once again that any team is vulnerable regardless of perceived talent and/or expectations. The Cardinals are no exception.
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