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Winning - A St. Louis Cardinals preview

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A look ahead at baseball's top team

I've never heard of this "Scruggs" character, but it's the Cardinals, so he's probably playing really well.
I've never heard of this "Scruggs" character, but it's the Cardinals, so he's probably playing really well.
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

"Winning is not a sometime thing, it's an all the time thing. You don't win once in a while, you don't do things right once in a while, you do them right all the time. Winning is habit." -- Vince Lombardi

From time to time, a fan of a struggling baseball team will ask, "Why can't we have nice things?" One possible valid response to this question is: "Because the St. Louis Cardinals took them all."

The St. Louis Cardinals are an absolute machine of a baseball franchise that just seem to get it right at every stage of the game. The major league team is seemingly perpetually good, with 2007 representing their only below-.500 season since the Clinton administration. They've been to the playoffs 11 times in their last 15 chances, with a couple rings to show for it. Success is business as usual for the Cardinals.

That success comes from excellent decision-making from top-to-bottom in their organization. They make shrewd trades and their free agent signings perform admirably. They draft well and develop players even better. Guys coming up through the Cardinals' system just seem to pan out, a perception fueled by just how many guys the Cardinals have had in their system with realistic prospects of becoming usable major leaguers. To wit, last season they dealt away outfielder James Ramsey, a 2012 first round pick slashing .300/.389/.527 at Double-A Springfield, in part because their Triple-A outfield was too crowded with better prospects. Ramsey was expendable enough for the Cardinals that they could afford to give him up for two months of Justin Masterson, who stinks. This is what they call "an embarrassment of riches".

"Everybody loves success, but they hate successful people." - John McEnroe

The Midas touch of a Cardinals uniform is nothing short of infuriating for fans of other teams around the league. Stuff like getting almost 30 innings of 2.43 ERA pitching in the postseason out of awful Jeff Weaver is business as usual in St. Louis, and their more recent imports have been no exception. Currently injured Matt Holliday was signed to a 7-year, $120 million contract before the 2010 season, as the Cardinals bet hard that he'd hold up as he trucked on into his mid-30s. That contract stands as one of the best bargains on a long-term deal in recent memory, as Holliday continues to post high on-base percentages even as the power fades. Shortstop Jhonny Peralta has had a hit-or-miss track record, but since landing in St. Louis, it's been all hit. The list of 33-year-old shortstops that have regularly batted cleanup for baseball's best team (at least record-wise) must be short.

It isn't that the Cardinals haven't had their fair share of setbacks, either. Ace starter Adam Wainwright is out for the season with a torn Achilles and slugging first baseman Matt Adams had possibly season-ending surgery on his quad. Other key members of the rotation and bullpen have also missed time. It's just when guys go down, a pleasant surprise performance from someone else makes up for it. Take Kolten Wong for instance. The lefty-hitting second baseman is in the midst of a breakout season as all of his triple-slash stats have improved, resulting in about two WAR thus far this year. Or, we could look at Carlos Martinez, the 23-year-old Dominican fireballer who has pitched like an ace (save for some control issues) thanks to further development of a changeup. With the Cardinals, the story never changes -- just the names and faces.

The Cardinals draw ire not only because of the team's seemingly unfair success rate, but also because the St. Louis faithful insist that they have the #BestFansInBaseball. Hell, Forbes even kinda validated that. Discarding how difficult it must be to stay loyal and passionate about something that never fails, this flurry of fervent fandom frustrates followers of other franchises. As if it wasn't enough for Cardinals Nation to win on the field, they have to invent a way to win off the field, too.

"One should always play fairly when one has the winning cards" - Oscar Wilde

If the Cardinals weren't maddening enough already, they added a scandal to their profile in mid-June. It was revealed that the organization was under investigation by the FBI for breaching an internal network of the Houston Astros that stores information about players. Though the ultimate consequences of the situation are unclear as of yet, the whole mess is a stain on the integrity of baseball's model franchise.

"Boom, crush. Night, losers. Winning, duh." - Charlie Sheen

Of course, for the actual players on the field, vitriol hurled at the organization for (poorly-named) #HackGate and unusually heavy disdain from opposing fan bases don't change a damn thing. The Cardinals own baseball's best record, and it's not close. Not only do they have one of baseball's top defenses, their pitching has been just as excellent. I touched on Martinez above, but he's been far from the only hero. Lance Lynn has continued his stupefying three-year trend as a fly ball pitcher that just doesn't allow many home runs. Michael Wacha is just really tough to hit, as his high fastball backspin makes him difficult to square up and keeps opposing BABIPs low.

Oft-injured groundballer Jaime Garcia has returned from thoracic outlet surgery at his very groundballiest (67.2 percent through seven starts). He doesn't walk many guys either, and opponents' runs have been scarce. John Lackey is just the latest pitcher to don Cardinal red to fight the aging process, as the 36-year-old has managed to keep the ball in the park in the face of declining strikeout rates by relying more heavily on his sinker. At 3.35, Lackey's is the highest ERA of the Cardinals' current five starters. They should be missing Adam Wainwright, but they aren't.

The Cardinal offense has been no slouch, either. Matt Carpenter is still an on-base machine at the top of the order, and while Jason Heyward hasn't been himself from an OBP standpoint, he's stepped it up a bit in the power department. Yadier Molina is no longer even a modest power threat, but he still has very good contact skills and remains an asset behind the plate even at 32 years of age. In classic Cardinals fashion, Randal Grichuk has stepped in to provide some legitimate thunder in the absence of Holliday. If there's complaints, it's that Cardinal Dust hasn't helped Mark Reynolds much, and Jon Jay has been utterly terrible.

_______

Whether you ultimately love or hate the Cardinals is up to you, but there's no denying their impressive run. When the greatest front office executives in the game are discussed, the names that typically surface are guys like Billy Beane, Theo Epstein, and even Andrew Friedman. Given the success of the Cardinals during John Mozeliak's seven-plus seasons at the helm, it feels like he never quite gets his due. Sure, he's had a lot of help, as one could point to former scouting director Dan Kantrovitz, former Vice President of Scouting and Player Development Jeff Luhnow, and even former pitching coach Dave Duncan as reasons that the Cardinals have had such an incredibly successful run. But at some point, kudos need to be given to the guy in charge; Mozeliak is at the helm of baseball's gold standard for an organization.

It'd sure be fun to beat these guys.

Predicted Record and Finish: 96-66, first place NL Central

Probable Pitching Matchups

  • Tuesday June 30: Chris Sale vs. Lance Lynn
  • Wednesday July 1: Jose Quintana vs. John Lackey

Probable Lineup

Pitching

1. Kolten Wong - 2B

SP1. John Lackey - RHP

2. Matt Carpenter - 3B

SP2. Michael Wacha - RHP

3. Jhonny Peralta - SS

SP3. Carlos Martinez - RHP

4. Mark Reynolds - 1B

SP4. Lance Lynn - RHP

5. Jason Heyward - RF

SP5. Jaime Garcia - LHP

6. Yadier Molina - C

CL. Trevor Rosenthal - RHP

7. Randall Grichuk - LF

RP1. Kevin Siegrist - LHP

8. Jon Jay - CF

RP2. Seth Maness - RHP

RP3. Matt Belisle - RHP