Much like it’s counterpart in the American League, the NL Central promises to be one of the most competitive divisions in all of baseball this year.
The St. Louis Cardinals are the reigning division champs, and they will have their eyes set on the pennant again in 2015 after adding Jason Heyward to man right field, and righty Jordan Walden to lock down the eighth inning in the trade that sent righty Shelby Miller and prospect Tyrell Jenkins to the Atlanta Braves.
Any casual baseball fan can tell you that the Cardinals are a good team. It doesn’t take an expert to realize that. It also doesn’t take an expert to see that, compared to 2013, the Cardinals struggled mightily in 2014, despite finishing a few games away from the World Series.
Some of that was due to injuries to players like Michael Wacha (stress reaction in shoulder) Jaime Garcia, Yadier Molina (torn thumb ligaments) and Matt Adams (oblique strain), and some of it was due to the offensive struggles from guys like Allen Craig and Matt Carpenter, as well as Oscar Taveras not having busted onto the scene like many expected him to.
However, that is all in the past now, as Wacha has a full offseason to rest that shoulder, and Jason Heyward can give a boost to the offense come opening day. The shipping off of Shelby Miller (3.74 ERA in 183 IP in 2014) and Joe Kelly (3.41 ERA over 3 seasons) is surprising, and leaves the rotation with some question marks. Lance Lynn will be around, which is a good thing as he really showed in 2014 what he is capable of. Last season Lynn had a 2.74 ERA, lowest of his career, while going only 15-10. That shows you how much the offense struggled last year.
Besides Lynn, the Cardinals rotation has question marks. Ace Adam Wainwright just had surgery in October to “trim” cartilage in his right (throwing) elbow. While Wainwright’s recovery timetable was only six weeks, (which have since passed), it is appropriate to wonder if that “trim” will affect Wainwright in any way. Obviously Cardinals fans are hoping that Wainwright returns to that 20-9, 2.38 ERA form that got him 8th in MVP, and 3rd in Cy Young voting, but it probably won’t happen immediately.
Also, John Lackey was good last year for the Cards, actually he was better than good, but with only one year left and being 36 years old, it is appropriate to wonder how GM John Mozeliak will address that problem come season’s end. But for 2015, as long as Lackey can give the Cardinals that reliability he has given the Red Sox the last few years, the Cards’ rotation may be stable. John Mozeliak has talked with John Lackey’s agent on a two-year deal, versus the remaining year on John’s contract at the major league minimum.
Now, will Michael Wacha be able to bounce back from a season that saw him miss more than two months due to a stress reaction in his shoulder.? While his MRI in October did come back clean, a stress reaction is a problem that can come back, and it will be a situation to watch in 2015.
With the absences of Joe Kelly and Shelby Miller, it seems Carlos Martinez will get first shot at the 5th rotation spot during Spring Training. Cardinal management has been high on Martinez for a while now, and there is a lot to like, given his pitch arsenal as well as how hard he throws. In 7 starts last year, Martinez pitched 32.1 innings and had an ugly 4.45 ERA. The innings durability will come, and on the flip side, Martinez did have a 3.46 FIP and a ground-ball rate of over 50%. The kid has talent, and at only 23 years old, he has room to grow. If Martinez struggles, however, Marco Gonzalez (4-2 4.15 ERA) will have the next shot at the 5th spot.
If Wainwright, Wacha, and Martinez all have strong showings in the spring, the only thing left to address would be offense, which has already been improved with the addition of Jason Heyward. In 2014 Heyward batted .271, stole 20 bags, and was worth an eye-popping 6.3 WAR. Allen Craig was worth negative WAR, so that’s a big upgrade. If Heyward will get his power swing back, he will be able to provide 20+ homers in 2015. 2015 will be a bounce back year for the Redbirds, despite them almost making it to the World Series. Maybe in 2015, they will win it.