The Mets welcome the St. Louis Cardinals to Citi Field beginning this evening, the first game of a four game set with the 2013 National League champions. Fresh off yet another World Series appearance, the Cardinals rid themselves of some familiar faces in the offseason. Their mostly homegrown lineup is supported by a staff of quality pitchers, an asset which the Cardinals seem to develop with regularity these days. To get some more info on the 2014 edition of the Redbirds, Aaron Finkel of Viva El Birdos and I traded questions. You can find my take on the Mets up over at Viva El Birdos.
Amazin' Avenue: The Cardinals acquisition of Peter Bourjos for David Freese in the offseason received pretty strong reviews but Bourjos is off to a slow start at the plate. What have you seen so far from Bourjos and do you think the offense, as constructed today, is better than it was last season?
Viva El Birdos: Bourjos doesn't look great at the plate, but he looks great on the basepaths and great in the field. I think by using him in situations where he's most likely to be able to contribute, namely when our flyball pitchers start and when the opposing pitcher is a lefty, centerfield will be stronger overall than last season (Bourjos hasn't had a platoon split so far in his career, but Jon Jay is superior against righties). I don't know that I'd love Bourjos as the sole starter, but I do love him as a complement to Jon Jay. As an aside, Randall Grichuk, the prospect who came to the Cardinals in the Freese trade, looks like a fastball power hitter with plus defense in the corners. He'll be a nice bench or trade piece.
As far as the overall picture on offense, it's probably slightly better than last season. I think Kolten Wong will contribute with his bat almost as much as David Freese did last season, and Jhonny Peralta is a massive upgrade over Pete Kozma, who was replacement level overall last year despite rating very well defensively. Carlos Beltran will be missed, but Matt Adams looks terrific, and Oscar Taveras or Stephen Piscotty will be able to fill in capably this season if Allen Craig misses time again.
AA: Shelby Miller has gotten off to a rough start and struggled late last season before being buried in the Cardinal bullpen during the playoffs. What do you think is up with Miller and can he get back on track?
VEB: This is the million dollar question. What happened to Shelby Miller in the 2nd half last season? Fatigue, a developing major injury, a minor injury, the league adjusting to his fastball, and just a string of random rough starts are all possibilities. I'm writing this Saturday, so yesterday's Sunday start hasn't happened yet, but there are some signs of improvement this season. VEB writer Craig Edwards took a look here I'd encourage you to read.
Everything revolves around the effectiveness of his four-seam fastball. I don't think he's hiding a major injury, and his arsenal should allow him to be a good pitcher, but it wouldn't shock me if he stays muddled in mediocrity or flames out. And for what it's worth, while I'm no mechanics expert, many of those on VEB who dabble in it are concerned that he's at high risk for injury.
AA: One of the Cardinals' weaknesses last season was their defense, which was rated poorly by most metrics. The acquisition of Bourjos should help out in center field but at shortstop, Jhonny Peralta is certainly not known for his athleticism. Do you think the Cardinals are a better or worse defensive team right now?
VEB: Better, though not because I think they're great now. They were just terrible last year. Last season, Yadi and Kozma were the only plus defenders on the team. This year, Matt Carpenter over at 3rd, Kolten Wong at 2nd and Peter Bourjos' days in center all should be above average, and all much, much better than who they replaced. Jon Jay is going to get some play in the corners, and Oscar will likely as well this season, and any time someone other than Allen Craig or Matt Holliday is out there, it's a plus. Beltran was terrible defensively last season as well.
AA: Stud outfield prospect Oscar Taveras is playing at AAA Memphis and is probably about big league ready after missing time at AAA last year with an injury. Seeing an already stocked Cardinals lineup, when do you think Taveras comes up from the minors and who do you think he ultimately replaces?
VEB: Assuming he has no setbacks with his health, I fully expect him up sooner than later. He's absolutely going to hit. However, there's no starting spot at the moment, and I think the Cardinals will be happy to let him accrue experience in the minors and avoid starting the arb clock as long as it remains reasonable to do so. A major injury to Allen Craig, Matt Holliday, or Matt Adams (Craig would move to 1st), would provide the opportunity, but short of that I don't think we'll see him until after the super-two date. There was room for Beltran, Adams, and Craig last year, and Oscar could recreate that trio. It's worth noting that while Oscar certainly is the better prospect overall, it's possible that the polished Stephen Piscotty would get the call-up if there's a 2-4 week injury sometime soon for one of the guys I mentioned above. He impressed in spring training and can help the team now.
Long-term, there's a roster crunch. Piscotty looks like he is going to be a starting-quality player as well. If I had to identify the player most likely to be moved, I'd guess Matt Adams, who could bring in a haul in a trade. It wouldn't shock me if Allen Craig was dealt if another team liked him enough for his contract. However, I don't expect anyone to get moved this season.
AA: It seems like the Cardinals churn out young stud pitchers at an unbelievable rate. Is the pipeline dry or are there more exciting pitchers to come through the system soon? And what do you expect the Cards to do with Carlos Martinez over the next year or so?
VEB: I don't know that I'd call Tim Cooney exciting, but the lefty control-artist with a plus curve looks like a good bet to help out in the majors in fairly short order. Deeper down there are indeed more exciting pitchers coming up in the system. Alex Reyes, a 19-year-old with good velocity and a nasty curve made it to Jason Parks' top 100 this spring and was singled out as someone likely to jump way up the list by next season. For more on him, check out this Rotographs feature. 2013 draftees Marco Gonzales and Rob Kaminsky are also exciting. The former is closer, and the latter has more upside and risk.
The short answer on Martinez: I think he'll be on the Michael Wacha plan this season, with his innings managed to be able to start late in the season and, hopefully, the playoffs. If the rest of the rotation continues to look good and if Jason Motte doesn't come back, there's a depressing chance he might stay in the pen this season. And now the long answer you didn't ask for: Including this year and next, I expect Carlos Martinez to establish himself as the best starting pitcher on the Cardinals not named Adam Wainwright. I suspect that those who don't watch him too closely got the wrong impression of him last year in the playoff bullpen. He's not going to strike a million guys out. He'll be able to go for the K when he needs to with his four-seam fastball that can reach the upper-90's or his tight slider that catches the plate after scaring the bejeesus out of righties, or his slurvy slider that dives six feet out of the zone after looking like a strike for most of its flight. But mostly he's going to throw his power sinker with heavy run. It's an exceptional pitch, and the Busch stadium groundskeepers will need to reseed the infield grass after his starts. Sorry if my prose was a little purple here, but the guy excites me. His arsenal isn't electric: it's electricity. That said, he'll need to tighten his command just a bit, and he's not a big guy, so some terrible people with terrible opinions worry about durability. Of all the young pitchers on the Redbirds, he might not be the surest bet, but he's easily the most fun to dream on.
Thanks again to Aaron Finkel of Viva El Birdos for giving us a great preview of the Cardinals! First pitch in tonight's series opener is scheduled for 7:10 PM at Citi Field. Jenrry Mejia matches up with Tyler Lyons.