Rounding Third: NL Outlook: Cards still the team to beat in NL

Philadelphia, PA ( - 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.

Barring another injury, Taveras should contribute at some point this season.

With Beltran gone, this is now Matt Carpenter's team. 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).

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 home runs, 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.

it is really hard to find a flaw on this team.

Regardless, the Cardinals might be the best team in baseball from top-to- bottom.

For an insight into the season, here's a brief synopsis and a look at some of the teams which will try to stop the Cards from repeating as NL champs in power poll form:

2. WASHINGTON: The biggest threat to the Cardinals this season could come from the Washington Nationals. No team in all of baseball has a better rotation than the Nats, who boast Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and the recently acquired Doug Fister. Plus this could be the year Bryce Harper walks away with an MVP award. For that to happen, though, he is going to need to stay on the field for more than the 118 games he played last season. If St. Louis is No.1, the Nats are 1A.

3. LOS ANGELES: It's World Series or bust for this Dodgers team. On paper, they may have the best team and are one of a handful of teams that could win a championship. But, you could have said the same thing about last year's squad, which got off to a horrendous start thanks to some health issues. This team is deeper, though. Let's face it, a lot of teams would like to have the problem of finding a spot for Andre Ethier to play. Yasiel Puig continues to be a lightning rod and how he progresses will go a long way in determining how far this team goes. Hopefully, this nagging back issue of Clayton Kershaw's is not a sign of things to come.

4. PITTSBURGH: There was no better story in baseball last season than the Pittsburgh Pirates returning to the postseason. Now they will try to build upon that behind reigning NL MVP Andrew McCutchen. Left-hander Francisco Liriano was a big reason for the team's success last season and he'll have to be up to the task again if the Pirates are going to return to the playoffs. Regardless, righty Gerrit Cole should only get better and another young arm, Jameson Taillon, is waiting in the wings. Also remember this name: Gregory Polanco. He should be up at some point to form one of the better young outfields in the game with Starling Marte and McCutchen.

5. CINCINNATI: The Cincinnati Reds season has an entirely different feel following the injury to closer Aroldis Chapman. Luckily, it looks as if the Reds' flamethrower will be back by June, but there's no telling what lingering effects there will be after the scary incident. Still, the Reds have largely the same makeup as they did when winning the NL's Central Division by nine games in 2012, and they'll have their ace starter, Johnny Cueto, back this season after he made just 11 starts for a team that won 90 games in 2013. When he was healthy in 2012, the Reds won 97 times, so it's no stretch to think approaching that number and concentrating on playoff improvement - assuming the bullpen stays solid - is a legitimate expectation for this time around.

6. ATLANTA: No team was bitten by the injury bug worse this spring than the Atlanta Braves, who lost not one but two starting pitchers for the season. They did add Ervin Santana and play in perhaps the worst division in all of baseball, so it's not crazy to think they could make a run at a wild card. A lot of things are going to have to go their way, though, for that to happen.

7. SAN FRANCISCO: The Giants are certainly not as bad as they were a year ago when they lost 86 games. The lineup is strong, the bullpen is deep, and Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain form one of the better one-two rotation punches in the game, provided that the latter reverts back to form. Yes, this is essentially the same team that finished 14 games out of a playoff spot last season, but it's also the same team that won a championship in 2012.

8. ARIZONA: Arizona addressed its two glaring needs this offseason. The Diamondbacks should have more pop with Mark Trumbo in the lineup, as well as a bounce-back year from Miguel Montero. Arizona's bullpen also should be improved with the addition of Addison Reed. Plus, it will be interesting to see if Paul Goldschmidt can build on his near-MVP campaign from a year ago. Some, though, are not sold on the fact that manager Kirk Gibson is the man to get the Diamondbacks over the hump.

9. MILWAUKEE: There are things to like about this Brewers team. Their rotation is as deep as anyone's in the NL and there is some potential on offense to suggest this team could be real good. Unfortunately, they might be in the best division in baseball, so they probably won't be contending for the postseason. It will be very interesting to see how Ryan Braun handles his return from the 65-game suspension. The reality is that the Brewers are probably still another key piece or two away from being able to make noise in the NL Central.

10. SAN DIEGO: Although San Diego was plagued by injuries a year ago, it still managed to finish third in the NL West and record 76 wins. Before the Padres can start thinking about competing for the postseason, though, there are several questions that need answering: Is Andrew Cashner an ace and can Chase Headley make the jump to being one of the best players in NL? If this team doesn't finish .500, manager Bud Black could be looking for work after the season.

11. NEW YORK METS: Mets general manager Sandy Alderson said that his team could win 90 games. And that was after he knew Matt Harvey probably wouldn't pitch this coming year. Now Alderson does seem to have the Mets going in the right direction, as they have as much young pitching talent as anyone in baseball. And adding Curtis Granderson to the lineup will help. But they are still a year or two, and probably a bat or two, away from really making any noise. At best the Mets should expect a .500 season, but a sixth straight losing campaign is a more reasonable expectation.

12. PHILADELPHIA: The days of the Phillies dominating the NL East are long gone, even if the front office won't admit it. The aging club has fallen way behind the pace of the surging Nationals and even the injury-riddled Braves. This is a team that will need a number of things to break right just to compete for .500. Don't be surprised if there are some familiar names on the trading block come July, as this team starts to rebuild.

13. MIAMI: Things may get better for the Marlins in 2014, but the club is still a long way from competing for any kind of playoff spot. In fact, given that the Marlins finished 34 games out of first place last season, even a solid improvement could still land the Fish in last place for a fourth consecutive season. Still, they do have two of the best young players in the game in Jose Fernandez and Giancarlo Stanton. That alone should make them an interesting team to watch.

14. COLORADO: In a perfect world, Carlos Gonzalez, Troy Tulowitzki, Jorge De La Rosa and Brett Anderson will all stay healthy and the Rockies will win over 90 games. Unfortunately, we all know that just isn't going to happen. All are likely going to miss time at some point and the Rockies' season will veer off course from there. They have finished in the cellar of the NL West in each of the last two seasons and that seems to be their destiny again this season.

15. CHICAGO: Some of the Cubs' young stars (Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro) took a big step backward in 2013, perhaps delaying the rebuilding plan. Baseball czar Theo Epstein still insists his plan is on schedule. They'll get what is essentially a blank slate in terms of payroll in 2015, and a lot of talent in the pipeline to boot. Don't tell it to tortured Cubs fans, but better days surely do lie ahead. After all, how much worse can things get in Wrigleyville?


BREAKOUT PLAYER - JASON HEYWARD, OF, ATLANTA: It's hard to believe that Heyward will be starting his fifth season this year. He entered the league with such fanfare at the age of 20 back in 2010 and didn't temper expectations with a pair of monster home runs in his debut. But he's struggled with injuries for a lot of his career and is just a .259 hitter over 532 games. He has shown stretches of greatness, though. And he is still only 24. He has looked great this spring and this could be the year when he starts to live up to that monster potential.

PLAYER MOST LIKELY TRADED AT DEADLINE: CLIFF LEE, SP, PHILADELPHIA: Philadelphia general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. seems to think he can win with a core of older players. He is under the impression that this is a win-now team judging by his offseason additions of 36-year-old outfielder Marlon Byrd, 36- year-old backup catcher Wil Nieves and 37-year-old starter A.J. Burnett. Come July, it should be even more apparent this is a team that needs to start their rebuild. And what better way to do that, then deal their ace. Lee is going to be a difference maker this season. It just won't be for the Phillies.

FIRST MANAGER FIRED - KIRK GIBSON, ARIZONA: The Diamondbacks probably won't be that bad, but a lot of people blamed Gibson for their struggles down the stretch last season. The Corbin injury probably gives Gibson a pass this season, but if someone is going to be fired midseason it's going to be him.