A thought-provoking article series ran recently at ESPN. The subject is windows of contention for each of the 30 major league teams. In other words, when will each club be in its best position to win the World Series – now or later on?
Since the articles are for ESPN Insiders, I am not going to go into specifics here other than to share the bottom line, already visible by all. The writer, Jason Martinez from MLB Depth Charts, concludes that the optimal year of contention for both the St. Louis Cardinals and National League Central Division defending champion Cincinnati Reds is here in 2013.
Given the Cardinals’ recent history of reloading on the fly, I had not seriously thought of their 2013 season as a potential peak before reading the ESPN series. The club has logged 12 winning records and nine post-season appearances in the last 13 seasons. After all, if it could continue in formation after losing Albert Pujols, Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan at once, my initial view was that the club should be able to weather anything else coming.
Inherent in Martinez’ assessment is that 2014 will be worse than 2013 for the Cardinals, so let’s step back and consider the possibilities for 2014. Other than everyone obviously being a year older, headlined by late-career Chris Carpenter, the key contracts coming due are Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, Rafael Furcal and Carlos Beltran.
My range of potential outlooks by major positional groupings follow.
Worst case: Chris Carpenter retires and Wainwright departs via free agency. Jaime Garcia’s shoulder continues to hamper him. Jake Westbrook drops off, leading the Cardinals to decline his option. The growth of young pitchers Shelby Miller and Trevor Rosenthal slows while prospects Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha indicate the need for more seasoning in the minors.
Jason Motte stumbles as closer. Though there are many young relief options, it takes time to sort them out. The most obvious choices are needed to try to shore up the depleted rotation.
Best case: Carpenter and Wainwright sign fair deals to stay and everyone is relatively healthy. The Cardinals have to struggle to find innings for their wealth of pitching and are in strong position to consider trades to improve other areas of the club.
Worst case: Injuries plague key starters Yadier Molina, Allen Craig and David Freese. At second, Kolten Wong is not ready for the majors and Matt Carpenter’s defense is not good enough for everyday play. No clear candidate emerges to replace Furcal, the only current infield starter not signed or under team control for at least the next three seasons.
Best case: The core infielders remain healthy and productive while Wong shows his readiness to take over. Already contributing off the bench, Matt Adams joins Matt Carpenter in a push for more playing time. A new shortstop emerges or is acquired via trade, potentially using some of the pitching surplus.
Worst case: Oscar Taveras stumbles in Triple-A and is not ready to take over for Beltran, whose contract ends after the 2013 season. Matt Holliday and Jon Jay miss time due to injury, thinning the bench.
Best case: Taveras slips in nicely for Beltran in right and serves as Jay’s back up in center. Holliday remains stronger through regular rest with Craig filling in at the corners for Holliday and Taveras, backed up by Adams and Matt Carpenter.
Along with increasing age and unexpected injury potential that every club faces, the 2014 Cardinals could experience problems with expiring contracts thinning the rotation, shortstop and right field.
Their farm system, considered by some to be the very best in baseball, has a number of candidates very close to the majors. Viable replacements to fill the possible pitching and outfield needs seem almost ready. Middle infield may be the only major nagging question and could be addressed via acquisition if required.
Given all that, do you agree with the ESPN assessment that the Cardinals’ best window to go all the way is in 2013 or do you see it differently?