(SportsNetwork.com) - The Los Angeles Dodgers may have all the style, but if you are searching for the substance in the National League, look no further than the St. Louis Cardinals.
The Cards proved once again in 2013 that they are indeed the symbol of excellence in Major League Baseball. Sure, they may have come up short in the World Series to the Boston Red Sox, but is there a team more set up for the future than Mike Matheny's club?
Even though Carlos Beltran left as a free agent, the Cards were more than prepared to move on, as Allen Craig will seamlessly slide into right field duties, while 21-year-old super prospect Oscar Taveras gets a little more seasoning at the Triple-A level.
This team is just dripping with young talent, specifically in the pitching department, as starters Michael Wacha and Shelby Miller, as well as relievers Trevor Rosenthal, Carlos Martinez, Seth Maness and Kevin Siegrist all had significant contributions in their rookie seasons.
In an effort to fill the power void left by Beltran, the Cardinals signed shortstop Jhonny Peralta, who, of course, was part of the Biogenesis scandal last season. Before his 50-game ban, though, he was hitting .303 with 11 homers, 30 doubles and 55 RBI for the Detroit Tigers.
Peralta will no doubt help a shortstop position that last year was 27th in the league with a .596 OPS.
The Cards also shored up their outfield defense when they picked up speedy center fielder Peter Bourjos from the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Not only will Bourjos give the Cards a Gold Glove threat in the field, but he will add a different dynamic to the top of the lineup, as he has been successful on 76 percent of his stolen base attempts.
Don't be surprised, though, if Bourjos starts the season down near the bottom of the lineup, as he has gotten on base just over 30 percent of the time in his career.
Regardless, the Cardinals might be the best team in baseball from top-to- bottom.
2013 FINISH (97-65) - First Place (NL Central)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: Jhonny Peralta (SS), Peter Bourjos (OF), Mark Ellis (2B)
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: Carlos Beltran (OF), David Freese (3B), Edward Mujica (RHP), Jake Westbrook (RHP), John Axford (RHP)
PROJECTED LINEUP: Matt Carpenter (3B); Peter Bourjos (CF); Matt Holliday (LF)); Allen Craig (RF); Matt Adams (1B); Yadier Molina (C); Jhonny Peralta (SS); Kolten Wong (2B)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Adam Wainwright (RHP); Shelby Miller (RHP); Michael Wacha (RHP); Lance Lynn (RHP); Joe Kelly (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Trevor Rosenthal (RHP)
MANAGER: Mike Matheny
CAN MATT CARPENTER CARRY THIS TEAM?
Matt Carpenter was nearly the National League MVP last season. Now with Carlos Beltran gone and a new 6-year, $52 million extension in tow, this offense will rest on his shoulders.
Carpenter, who will be moving from second to his natural third base position, will again leadoff for the Cardinals after a breakout 2013 season that saw him bat .318 while leading the NL in hits (199), doubles (55) and runs scored (126).
A 13th-round draft choice out of TCU in 2009, Carpenter had it easy last season, as the Cardinals hit 59 points better than the rest of the league with runners in scoring position.
It would be almost impossible for the Cardinals to duplicate those numbers this year, but Carpenter and Peter Bourjos should provide Matt Holliday and Allen Craig plenty of RBI opportunities.
IS MICHAEL WACHA READY TO BE A STAR?
There are few players more intriguing heading into this season than Cardinals right-hander Michael Wacha, who burst on the scene during last year's postseason, as he came within an eyelash of a no-hitter in the NLDS and pitched to a 2.64 ERA in the postseason.
Combining the postseason and the regular season, Wacha threw 95 1/3 innings, made 14 starts, won eight games, struck out 98 batters (9.3 K/9), and perhaps most impressively, recorded a WHIP of 1.04 which would have qualified him for the seventh best mark in baseball in that regard.
The Cardinals have said there will be no innings restriction on him or fellow second-year righty Shelby Miller.
Wacha may have looked like an ace in October, but luckily the 22-year-old won't be asked to be one this season, as righty Adam Wainwright still tops this rotation. Two years removed from Tommy John surgery, Wainwright may need a little more help this year after his 276 2/3 innings workload from a year ago.
CAN THE BULLPEN BE DOMINANT?
There really isn't a unit on this team not to be excited about.
Wacha may have gotten most of the headlines late in the season, but nothing allowed the Cardinals to overtake the Pittsburgh Pirates in the NL Central more than the emergence of the young bullpen, particularly rookie closer Trevor Rosenthal.
Rosenthal is the poster child for all the hard-throwing young pitching talent the organization has amassed and thrived after becoming the team's closer late in the 2013 season.
There was no better bullpen in the postseason, as the Cards young hurlers turned in a 1.82 ERA.
Rosenthal will be joined by righty Seth Maness, who led NL relievers by inducing 16 ground-ball double plays and lefty Kevin Siegrist, who finished the regular season with an 0.88 ERA.
Lefty specialist Randy Choate held lefty hitters to a .176 batting average and just four extra-base hits in 64 appearances.
Of course, the hope is that 22-year-old righty Carlos Martinez will be Rosenthal's main setup man, but he wants to be in the rotation. Jaime Garcia's shoulder injury may open the door for that to happen. But, the Cards should have enough starting pitching depth to avoid having to rob from Peter to pay Paul.
X-FACTOR: OSCAR TAVERAS
How long have we heard Oscar Taveras' name? It seems like every year the Cardinals say this is the year he is going to break through. Perhaps it's a testament to just how good they are, but here we are in 2014 and we are still waiting. Still, he's only going to be 22 in June and this, finally, is the year that he should make an impact. Unfortunately, though, he suffered an ankle injury early in spring training and won't be heading north with the team. Considering he played just 46 games at Triple A a year ago, it's probably not the worst thing in the world. The hope has always been that he would be ready to replace Beltran this season. Well, it may take a little longer than expected, but it should happen. And sooner rather than later. So, if you are looking for an NL Rookie of the Year candidate, give Taveras a look.
The Cardinals are still one of the best teams in the National League, as there was very little turnover from last year's pennant winning squad. They won't hit as well with runners in scoring position as they did a year ago, but there is still a lot to like in the lineup, even without Carlos Beltran. Peralta will help fill that power void, but this was a team that won despite the fact that they hit the second-fewest homers in the NL in 2013. Pitching is still what wins in this league and the Cardinals have a ton of it. Wainwright is always a threat to win a Cy Young and Wacha showed flashes in the postseason that he may be headed down that road, too. Not to mention the bullpen is insanely young and talented. Hitting, pitching, and a deep farm system. The Cardinals have it all. Anything less than a deep run in October would be a disappointment.