It's going to be a interesting off-season for the St. Louis Cardinals, as they try to get back to the World Series in 2015. The St. Louis Cardinals fell just short in 2014, of the ultimate goal, as they lost to the eventual world champion San Francisco Giants in the NLCS. The pitching was the glaring need in that series, and will be the focus in the MLB Hot Stove season.
St. Louis picked up the option on John Lackey which was a big part of the July trade. Lackey, because of a clause in his contract, returns at league minimum because of his season-long injury earlier in the contract. Lackey is honoring that, so it will save St. Louis a ton and might help bolster the rest of the staff.
The Cardinals should be back to full strength in their rotation come Spring Training. 2013's wonder-kid, Michael Wacha will be back to contribute and Adam Wainwright's arm issues will be a thing of the past when pitchers and catchers report. Lance Lynn and Shelby Miller will round out the rotation.
The Cardinals focus, on pitching, will be to bolster the bullpen. Trevor Rosenthal, St. Louis's closer, struggled with command all year. The flame thrower, even while saving games, was inconsistent in the strike zone into October.
The starting eight is pretty much set, except for the tragic loss of Oscar Tavares. Tavares died in a terrible car accident during the World Series. He was visiting home, the Dominican Republic, when he and his girlfriend were killed.
As callous as it sounds, the Cardinal organization must move forward and find a starter in right field. There will be a lot of options, once the owners' meetings begin on November 17th. St. Louis will shop around, but history shows they won't empty the bank on costless agency. Catcher Yadier Molina returning after October injury will be a welcomed boost. His absence in the NLCS cost St. Louis the series. It's not just his timely hitting, Molina's command of the staff and plate control is unparalleled.
First-baseman Matt "Big-City" Adams is becoming the cornerstone of power in the lineup. He was big time in the playoffs, and as he matures, is making Cardinal Nation miss Albert Pujols less-and-less.
24 year-old Kolten Wong is starting to excel at second-base. His solid defensive play is key to the Cardinals way of ground ball pitching. Wong also came up big in several moments this past post-season. Wong is only getting better, and that means the Cardinals are too.
At shortstop, the Cardinals may make a change. Johnny Peralta did not live up to expectations this year. They may stay put, but an upgrade would be a great step in the right direction.
Matt Carpenter is becoming one of the best in the game. Not only is he solid with the glove, but Carp is also showing he has ice water in his veins. Time after time he came up with huge hits this season and even bigger in the playoffs. Going forward, the St. Louis offense will look for Matt Carpenter to be the consistent leader David Freese never was.
Matt Holliday and Jon Jay are set to patrol Left and Center, respectively. Peter Bourjous mat be shopped, but expect him to return as a solid platoon/speed option. The rest of the reserves may he shuffled, but nothing that will turn heads nationally.
Right field is where heavy hearts will look on in disbelief. The sadness of Tavares's death will loom, ad well as the 'what-ifs'. Oscar Tavares was going to be a star that we have rarely seen. A five-tool star on the rise is tough to replace. Twenty three year old Randal Grichuk will try his best.
Grichuk played very well in the NLCS and looks the part. Very athletic and a natural feel for the game, he'll get every chance to shine in right. Randal Grichuk just doesn't have the pop that they were expecting from Tavares.
The bullpen is where the big decisions must be made. Pat Neshek had a breakout 2014 season. Neshek was 7-2 with a 1.87 era in 71 appearances. He will command big money that St. Louis will most likely not part with. Look for Carlos Martinez to become the set-up man for the Cards. Randy Choate should stay put as a lefty specialist, but they will look to upgrade. These winter meetings will be huge for the Cards and their bullpen make up.
Mike Matheny in the St. Louis Cardinals organization must prioritize their targets this winter. Though a little more offense will be desired, bullpen stability is the main necessity. The Chicago Cubs are looking to retool, and fast. The rest of the division Pittsburgh, Milwaukee and Cincinnati will also be tough to deal with. Arguably, the NL Central is the toughest division, top-to-bottom, in all of MLB.
There will be a lot of prognosticators that will be bucking the trend and picking anybody but St. Louis in 2015. Chicago will become the media's darling in the spring once again. Well to all those baseball prophets: To be the best, you got to beat the best. We'll know more in about a month, but St. Louis will still be the NL Central team to beat in 2015.