“A Balanced Schedule” is my daily feature, sort of an around-the-league-in-30-days thing. I think it’s fun and enlightening to keep tabs on all 30 MLB clubs, but it’s too tough for most fans to do so on a daily basis, so I’m going to fly over each team at 5,000 feet or so, every month, and report back to base. Please enjoy.

It ended with a thud, but the 2013 season was a marvelous one for the St. Louis Cardinals. They reached their third straight National League Championship Series, and their second World Series in three years. They became, as the season wore on, the most envied, admired and (jealously) hated organization in baseball. They showed off their organizational depth, challenged sabermetric pillar principles and developed a (imaginary) superior baseball culture.

Now comes the hard part. The dirty little secret about the Cardinals is that their scouting is good, but their player development is the real key to their success. The thing about great development, though, is that it takes time, and that often, a player who has to be built from the ground up doesn’t become a productive big-league regular until he’s already well into his peak, on the verge of heading downward.

You don’t have to take my word for it. This is part prognosis, but also part diagnosis. Consider:

Jon Jay, Batting, 2010-13

Year

AVG

OBP

SLG

BB%

K%

2010

.300

.359

.422

7.6

15.5

2011

.297

.344

.424

5.7

16.1

2012

.305

.373

.400

6.9

14.1

2013

.276

.351

.370

8.4

16.4

 

David Freese, Batting, 2010-13

Year

AVG

OBP

SLG

BB%

K%

2010

.296

.361

.404

7.9

21.9

2011

.297

.350

.441

6.6

20.7

2012

.293

.372

.467

10.1

21.5

2013

.262

.340

.381

9.0

20.3

 

This season was Jay’s age-28 campaign, and Freese’s age-30. It’s not merely that each dropped off in 2013; it’s that they look poised to keep fading. The numbers they posted during the regular season are perfectly acceptable, but probably too rosy to stand as their projections for 2014, especially after good pitching exposed them badly during the postseason.

When your model for developing key players produces solid players only once they turn 25 (or in Allen Craig’s case, 26, or in Matt Carpenter’s case, 27), it’s not enough to produce a few stars, or even superstars. This model demands consistent, even constant maintenance, because to stay good, the team must produce at least one player in that vein every year. It also demands objective, thorough evaluation, and the willingness to move on from a player sooner than polite baseball society dictates, especially if the team is a winner.

It’s certainly possible that St. Louis will be able to do it. They do have solid depth within the organization. They certainly have the methodology and personnel in place to keep this up, even if they’ve lost one or two of the names who helped build this dynasty—Sig Mejdal and Jeff Luhnow, who are now in Houston, for instance. Still, it’s a tall order. Let’s take stock of what they have, what they need and what they can do this winter to defend their pennant.

How They Score Runs, and Will in the Future

The Cardinals aren’t a team with great power. That got exposed a bit during the Series, when the bottom fell out of the lineup and their trademark chains of big singles and doubles fell apart due to the surfeit of weak links. They scored a lower percentage of their runs with home runs this season than any other team in baseball. That can be a good thing, in that it makes a team relatively weather-proof; leaves them less vulnerable to a single injury or slump; and usually protects them from any particular matchup issues.

On the other hand, it puts pressure on a front office. A lineup lacking over-the-fence power has to be deeper than one that has it. Sequences have to come together, and that usually means having several high-OBP guys clustered in the batting order. Allen Craig, who’s a bit overrated anyway, would not be as useful a hitter in a lineup less adept at putting runners on base in front of him. Holes in the lineup become devastating, and in the NL, this is especially true, since the absence of the DH ensures an automatic out each time through the order, anyway.

Of the major offensive contributors, only Carlos Beltran might not be back. His presumptive replacement is in-house, in top outfield prospect Oscar Taveras. In addition to that change, though, the Cardinals need to address shortstop—where the scar that is Pete Kozma cost them dearly at times—and consider some minor tweaks at other spots.

Last December, the Cardinals signed Ty Wigginton, committing $10 million to him over two years. That deal seemed laughable, but the franchises’ street cred earned them brief benefit of the doubt. Wigginton eventually served, not as another example of the Cardinals’ redoubtable judgment, but as proof that no one is perfect. St. Louis released him in July, after 63 utterly fruitless plate appearances, getting nothing at all in return for that eight-figure investment.

The execution was terrible, but the thought process there was correct. The Cardinals need a utility player and a bench bat, just one much better than Wigginton. Jay should have a platoon partner in center field: He had a .306 OBP against lefties last season. (Shane Robinson, while a nice guy I’m sure, is not the guy I’m talking about.) David Freese, who had an atrocious defensive season in addition to the offensive backslide documented above, has alarmingly little power when facing right-handed hurlers. The Cardinals might be able to solve that problem by sliding Carpenter to third base and installing Kolten Wong as the everyday guy at second, but Freese isn’t a terribly versatile or useful bench player, himself. He’d profile an awful lot like Wigginton. St. Louis should be on the lookout for a steadier, more well-rounded player in Freese’s general mold. Freese himself might be a non-tender candidate.

Whatever qualms I may have about the bottom of the order, though, this is still a strong offensive unit. Matt Holliday and Carpenter are the team’s top hitters, and probably two of the 10 best in the NL, but even Craig and Yadier Molina are top-quartile hitters among big-league regulars. Assuming Taveras steps in and hits as he’s capable of hitting, the top five in the order in 2014 will still be one of the league’s strongest.

How They Prevent Runs, and Will in the Future

The favored paradigm for preventing runs these days seems to be a team approach. It’s cost-efficient, easier than once thought and a pretty charming shtick. Defensive shifting is taking over baseball. All-bat guys are losing jobs to all-glove guys seemingly every spring.

The Cardinals don’t play that game. Their defense was poor in 2013, and though it could be much better next season, it also could not be. The only elite defensive player on the roster this year was Molina, although catcher is a pretty good spot to have one’s only great defender. Freese, Holliday and Craig are bad defenders you put up with because of how well they hit (which is why Freese might not be secure in his role as a regular). Jay and Kozma are average defenders on their best days, and have fairly few best days. Taveras is, frankly, an unknown. Only extreme defensive reputations and projections carry any weight if a player hasn’t played in the big leagues yet, and Taveras doesn’t have that.

The Cardinals stop opponents from scoring with really good pitching. That’s how they do it. Nor are they losing anyone they need to keep doing it. Their rotation for 2014 could easily be Adam Wainwright, Shelby Miller, Michael Wacha, Lance Lynn, Joe Kelly, Trevor Rosenthal and Carlos Martinez. (Okay, actually, that wouldn’t be easy at all, because it’s awfully tough to sell guys on pitching just once every seven days, but you see the point.)

Jaime Garcia went down with a shoulder injury and missed the season. The Cardinals had no problem. Jason Motte, the incumbent closer, had Tommy John surgery. The Cardinals shrugged it off. It doesn’t seem like this team has any shortage of pitching talent for the next year or three, even allowing for injuries. Now, we would have said the same thing about the Atlanta Braves seven months ago, and they ended up down Tim Hudson, Brandon Beachy, Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty, with Paul Maholm mostly healthy but unusable in October. Still, St. Louis seems secure in terms of pitching depth.

What They Need to Do, Exactly

Stephen Drew wouldn’t be the worst addition in the world for this team. In fact, I’m not sure any other free agent-to-be could impact the team more. Drew strikes out pretty often, and his fielding, while graceful and sure-handed and a delight to watch, is less than elite. Still, he would be an upgrade over Kozma that no direct replacement could match. Maybe if Robinson Cano could bump Carpenter to third and Freese out of the picture, he’d be higher-impact, but it’s a close call, even then. Kozma is that bad.

Even more intriguing that notion, though, could be this one: The Cardinals appear to be sniffing around Starlin Castro, and the Chicago Cubs might just be willing to deal him.

(I have to add, though I mean no disrespect to author Tom Loxas, that I can’t vouch for the validity of this report. I just don’t have a strong enough sense of from where Loxas gets his info, if indeed he does. He doesn’t have a track record of accurate insight, at least so far as I know, and he doesn’t work for the sort of prominent news organization that lends automatic credibility. He seems to have the respect of other people who know their way around Cubs Internet rumors. That brings his reportage to the level at which I feel comfortable mentioning it; I just don’t want to presume that he’s right, without better knowledge of his sources or his bona fides.)

Castro will be just 24 next season, and may yet develop into the dynamic threat at the plate—with premium positional value—that he seemed destined to be prior to his disastrous 2013. The Cardinals, with their knack for getting the most out of talent, would be almost sure to get him back on track. It would all come down to what the Cubs demanded in return, but that’s a rumor that feels both very real and very interesting.

Things to Watch

I figure Carlos Beltran is a lock to get a qualifying offer, but is ultimately unlikely to come back to St. Louis. Keep an eye on that situation. It’ll also be interesting to hear whether Shelby Miller really, truly is okay, and whether, in fact, he’s still playing professional baseball. His disuse during the postseason was stark, costly and strange, and if he isn’t hurt, then it seems he was effectively shut down, the way Stephen Strasburg was last season for the Nationals. St. Louis just did it much, much more quietly. That’s to their credit, but the strategy itself was silly and self-defeating, especially since they still used playoff roster spots on him.

Craig and Matt Adams aren’t so insanely good on their individual merits as to force a trade, but it would be no shock if one of them were to get thrown into a deal for a big-name player who could help ensure the club’s spot atop the NL Central. It’s nearly the same situation with Carpenter and Wong at second, although Carpenter does have that option of sliding to third base.

The Cardinals are really good. They’re not as good as they looked at times this postseason, because neither Michael Wacha nor Carlos Martinez is the guy Joe Buck wants you to think they are, and again, the offense doesn’t quite run the way a normal elite offense runs. Still, they should and (likely) will be favorites to win their division going into 2014, and this offseason should be anxciting time of consolidating some talent and aligning themselves to sustain this long run of success.

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