The St. Louis Cardinals finished 2013 with the best record in baseball (tied with the Red Sox), winning 97 games and finishing in the top four in batting average (.269), runs scored (783) and doubles (322). And that offense actually upgraded (or at least treaded water) in the offseason, with the loss of Carlos Beltran offset by the addition of Jhonny Peralta and promotion of Matt Adams to full-time first baseman.
This roster is chock full of Fantasy goodness. Close your eyes and point to a player and you have a case for relevance in most standard Fantasy leagues. The Cardinals are especially fun in that they have a little something for everyone:
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Do you enjoy a power hitter fully capable of carrying a high average, with corner infield eligibility and the first name "Matt"? Then try Matt Holliday (.300 average, 22 home runs in 2013) or Matt Adams (.284 average, 17 home runs in just 296 at-bats)! Would you like a high batting average coupled with the hope of some power? Yadier Molina (.319 average in 2013) and Allen Craig (.315 average in 2013) could both fit neatly. Both players have their 20-plus home run seasons in 2012 sandwiched between home run seasons of 11 and 13 (in Craig's case) and 14 and 12 (Molina). Is the power real or an aberration? You'll have to wait until the end of this season to know for sure.
Kolten Wong is a top prospect who will get a crack at full-time at-bats. Matt Carpenter is a run-scoring machine. The winner of the Peter Bourjos/Jon Jay competition should offer some run production, steals (more for Bourjos than Jay) and decent average. And Peralta makes for an interesting Fantasy asset, with potential in average and power, but a huge question mark hanging over his head thanks to a 50-game Biogenesis-related suspension in 2013. Either Peralta becomes a tremendous value pick or a wasted shell of his former self. There's really very little precedent for this.
The rotation is one of the strongest in baseball, and may actually improve on the 3.42 team ERA from 2013 (which was fifth-best in the majors). Adam Wainwright is a borderline top five option at starting pitcher, while Shelby Miller (15 wins, 3.06 ERA, 8.8 K/9 in 2013) and Michael Wacha (2.78 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 9.0 K/9 over 64 2/3 innings last season) are young studs ready to take the next step in Fantasy value. After those three, though, things get interesting. Lance Lynn may be one of the game's most underappreciated starters (more on him later), while Joe Kelly put up better numbers last season than most people may realize (2.69 ERA and 10 wins over 124 innings). Jaime Garcia pitched just 55 1/3 innings in 2013 before shoulder surgery in May. He'll be in the mix for that last spot -- and is on track to be ready for spring training -- but is more of a late-round gamble in deeper (14-plus teams) mixed Roto leagues thanks to the unfortunate (for Garcia) one-two punch of injury uncertainty and several viable starting candidates.
The perfect segue to the bullpen outlook is Carlos Martinez. Although he has expressed his desire to be a starter, there may not be room for the 22-year old. He'll likely be in the starting mix early in spring training, but is probably slated for bullpen duty -- taking over the eighth-inning role manned last year by Trevor Rosenthal, who will now serve as closer. Rosenthal thrived in the bullpen last season, striking out 108 batters in 75 1/3 innings, with a 2.63 ERA and 1.10 WHIP. He'll likely be drafted among the first six or seven closers and should fall into the Kenley Jansen/Greg Holland category of high-strikeout, low-ratio elite options. And for Fantasy players in holds leagues, Martinez could be a tremendous sleeper.
The Cardinals are primed to make another run at the National League title, and have a ton of Fantasy value on the roster. And the risk -- outside of trying to figure out whether Molina/Craig will hit 15 home runs or 21 -- is relatively low. Even the younger players taking on significant roles carry less risk than those in similar situations in other leagues -- Wong was brought up at a nice pace, Adams has proven he can hit in the majors and Rosenthal is downright nasty as a reliever. St. Louis may not have that first- or second-round stud, but the following several rounds should be dotted with plenty of Cardinals.
Breakout... Trevor Rosenthal, relief pitcher
There's an argument to be made Rosenthal broke out last season, with a 2.63 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and 108 strikeouts over 75 1/3 innings. But Rosenthal recorded just three saves in 2013 -- with all of them coming in what was essentially emergency duty in September, as Edward Mujica dealt with late-season soreness. With Mujica now gone (to Boston), the closer role falls to Rosenthal -- a converted starter who has excelled in a bullpen role. Rosenthal finished last season with the 20th-highest K/9 in the majors, but that includes several pitchers who barely threw a total inning all year. If you whittle that list down to those who threw 50 or more innings, Rosenthal had the sixth-highest K/9. And the five pitchers ahead of him were all elite closers. When the dust settles on the 2014 season, Rosenthal should end up having firmly placed himself in the top tier of closers. If you approach his value in the context of what he did last season -- and then add 40-plus saves -- Rosenthal may end up being one of the season's best Fantasy bargains.
Underappreciated... Lance Lynn, starting pitcher
Lance Lynn has a 3.88 ERA and 33 wins over the last two seasons. In 2013, Lynn pitched 201 2/3 innings, striking out 198 batters. On any other team, a pitcher who can go 200 innings with a sub-3.75 ERA (his BABIP was high, his xFIP was low and just his general progression as a pitcher suggests he should drop below that line in 2014) and a strikeout per inning would be a third -- possibly second -- starter. But the Cardinals have several options for the back end of the rotation, and Lynn isn't guaranteed a spot. I'll be approaching Lynn as if he's entering 2014 as the team's No. 4, with a projected Fantasy finish among the top 50 starters. But this idea that Lynn will work out of the bullpen should send his value on a death spiral, meaning Lynn's stats could be had for pennies on the dollar. If/when he's announced as a starter, the discount will disappear. But for drafts that happen before Lynn has a spot officially locked up, there's a tremendous bargain to be had here and it only requires a tiny bit of faith and finger-crossing.
Impact prospect... Kolten Wong, second base
In 59 at-bats last season, Kolten Wong hit .153, with three steals and a double. This was a far cry from what Wong had done in the minors -- a .301 batting average over 1,120 at-bats, with two seasons (out of three) with 20 or more steals. The Cardinals brought him along at a patient pace -- Wong spent a season in Class-A, another in Double-A and then played 107 games at Triple-A in 2012, before the callup. This winter, St. Louis traded David Freese to the Angels, allowing Matt Carpenter to move to third, opening up second base for Wong. Mark Ellis is on the roster as a backup, but this job is Wong's to lose, essentially. And he's looking like he could be Carpenter-esque (solid average, good doubles total, not a ton of power), with more speed, but without the huge runs scored numbers that Carpenter got from batting leadoff. If anything, Wong's numbers last year should help push his draft position down far enough to make him a nice mid-to-late round value pick on Draft Day.
For as good as Wong is, the top prospect in the Cardinals' system is 21-year-old Oscar Taveras, who has a .320 career minor league average and .895 OPS, but is coming off a season cut short by an ankle injury (and eventual surgery). He can play any of the three outfield positions (although should eventually settle in as a centerfielder), and may force his way onto the Cardinals' roster by June -- an arrival that could be hastened if injury strikes any of the regulars. He's worth a bench spot in deeper mixed Roto formats. ... Stephen Piscotty has played two seasons in the minors after being selected in the first round of the 2012 draft, and has hit .295 in each. He hit 15 home runs and stole 11 bases in 112 games between Class A and Double-A last season. The outfielder is still a couple years away, but is worth a dynasty league selection. ... Xavier Scruggs won't hit for average, but he has a huge power bat, with four straight seasons of 20-plus home runs. Unfortunately, he plays the same position as Matt Adams, so there's currently no spot in the majors for him. But expect Scruggs -- who had a career high 82 walks last season -- to at least level up to Triple-A in 2014, where he could see 30-plus homers in the hitter-friendly PCL. ... If the minor leagues weren't labyrinthine and confusing enough, the Cardinals' system -- which, up until a few years ago, featured a promising pitcher named Marco Gonzalez -- now features a promising pitcher named Marco Gonzales. The soon-to-be 22-year-old was taken in the first round of the 2013 draft and finished the season with a 2.70 ERA and 1.11 WHIP over 23 1/3 innings. Having pitched three years in college, Gonzales -- who won the John Olerud Award for his stellar play on offense and as a pitcher -- could pull a Michael Wacha and make an appearance in the majors this season, although probably not with anywhere near the impact of Wacha.
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