Years from now, fans will still remember that the Giants won the 2012 World Series, but they may not remember that the Cardinals were painfully close to a successful defense of their 2011 title. Needing just one more win to clinch a World Series berth after Game 4 of the National League Championship Series, the Giants shut down the Cards' offense in three straight games, denying them a face-off against the American League champion Tigers.
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Now the Cardinals enter the 2013 season with essentially the same team from a year ago. Sure, first baseman Lance Berkman is gone, but knee injuries limited him to 32 games and a .444 slugging percentage last season. The biggest loss this offseason is actually the departure of free agent starting pitcher Kyle Lohse, who led the Cardinals' starters in innings, games started, ERA and WHIP. Chris Carpenter, who missed all but the last two weeks of the regular season due to thoracic outlet syndrome, was supposed to fill the vacancy left by Lohse. However, it appears that Carpenter's ongoing health struggles will keep him out for yet another season and possibly put an end to his career.
Adam Wainwright will return to head up the rotation, along with Jaime Garcia, Jake Westbrook and Lance Lynn. Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal and Joe Kelly will compete for the fifth starter's slot. While each of the projected top four starters, save for Westbrook, is draftable in standard mixed leagues, Wainwright could be especially valuable for Fantasy owners. Coming back from Tommy John surgery, he posted strikeout, walk and ground ball rates similar to those of his pre-surgery years, but an unusually low strand rate inflated his ERA to 3.94. Though last season's ERA doesn't hint at it, Wainwright would be a solid pick to be your staff ace if you miss out on the other top options. Jason Motte will return as St. Louis' closer, and like Wainwright, he could make substantial improvements to his ERA -- which at 2.75, wasn't so bad to begin with -- and match his total of 42 saves.
The lineup also remains intact, with Matt Holliday, Allen Craig, Carlos Beltran, Yadier Molina and David Freese all looming as potential power threats and run-producers. Either Jon Jay or Rafael Furcal is likely to assume the leadoff spot. Jay filled that role late last season, and if he reprises it, he could be a surprising source of runs and batting average. He could also help with stolen bases, as he collected 12 of them after the All-Star break.
The Cardinals won't put much young talent on display this season, but their collection of reliable veterans should keep them in contention for at least another year. Meanwhile, the organization has enough prospects in the farm system to not only keep the major league squad competitve for years to come, but also to continue as a fertile source of draftable Fantasy talent.
Injury-risk sleeper ... Jaime Garcia, starting pitcher
Garcia was shut down during the postseason with a rotator cuff strain and inflammation in his left shoulder, but because he opted to forego surgery, he could be ready for opening day. Though Garcia has insisted this offseason that his recovery is going well, owners will still take a risk in drafting him. That said, Garcia should be available late in standard mixed league drafts, and if he is healthy, he could be a tremendous value. His command has improved with each season, but last season's 3.92 ERA created the illusion of a downturn. As with Wainwright, if he can just strand a few more runners -- and Garcia has shown that he is capable of that -- owners should reap the reward of a lower ERA and higher overall Fantasy value.
Bust ... Carlos Beltran, outfielder
If owners focus on Beltran's 32 home runs and 97 RBI from a season ago, they may feel emboldened to draft him among the top 30 outfielders. In fact, I did this myself in our early Head-to-Head mock draft conducted in December. I knew Beltran's power numbers were pumped up by an unsustainably high home run per flyball rate over the season's first two months, but what I overlooked was the severe deterioration in his plate discipline. He continued a four-year trend of swinging at offerings outside the strike zone at an increasing rate. Last season's 124 strikeouts -- his highest total since 2002 -- were no accident, and if the trend continues he could pay the price with a sub-.260 average and depleted power and run production stats. Resist the urge to take Beltran until 40 or so outfielders have come off the board.
Impact prospect ... Shelby Miller, relief pitcher
Even before Carpenter's continued health issues came to light, Miller was a contender for a rotation spot, but with Carpenter likely to be out, the rookie's chances to break camp as a starter got a lot better. The 22-year-old's 4.74 ERA at Triple-A Memphis last season may make it look as if he is not quite ready for prime time, but that mark was inflated by a midseason eight-game stretch in which he allowed 12 home runs over 34 2/3 innings and posted an 8.57 ERA. Miller finished his minor league season strong and performed well during his September big league callup, in which he made five relief appearances and a start. It's not a lock that Miller will be on the opening day roster, but even in the event that he starts off in Triple-A, he should be rostered in most mixed leagues.
As if the Cardinals don't already have a potent lineup, they also have outfielder Oscar Taveras -- one of the top-hitting prospects in the minors -- as a potential midseason callup. The 20-year-old hits for power and average, and he will likely start the year at Triple-A Memphis. ... So, too, will Kolten Wong, though there is a more immediate opportunity for him to crack the Cardinals' lineup this season. Should Daniel Descalso flounder as an everyday second baseman, Wong could inherit the job. ... First baseman Matt Adams' bat may be major-league ready, but barring an injury, there's no room for him in St. Louis. He's still worth a look in deep long-term keeper leagues. ... Shelby Miller and Trevor Rosenthal both have ace potential and both could find themselves in the Cardinals' rotation sometime this year. If Rosenthal loses out in the fifth starter competition this spring, he could fill a setup or middle relief role, at least initially. ... Hard-throwing Carlos Martinez is at least another year away from the majors, and when he does arrive it could be either as a starter or reliever. ... Though he was drafted as the Cardinals' first-round pick just last summer, Michael Wacha isn't far behind, giving the organization yet another young arm with high upside.
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