Opening Day Prospects for the Cardinals

Opening day of the baseball season has just about arrived. There is nothing like it. Full of hope, opportunity and anticipation.

The Cardinals will open the season against their long-time rivals, the Chicago Cubs, in historic Wrigley Field, with the added drama and excitement of an ESPN national televised game Sunday evening, April 5.

How do the Cardinals stack up for 2015?  What are their chances of repeating as the Central Division Champs? Regardless of the outcome of the BIG Sunday night game, baseball is a 162-game marathon with so many factors on and off the field that will affect a team’s chances to play in October. The Cardinals have made some strategic upgrades to their Central Division Championship team.

Additions/upgrades:

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The most significant upgrade is the acquisition of Jason Heyward, who was acquired in a trade for pitcher Shelby Miller. Heyward is considered by many the best right fielder in baseball. A Gold Glove winner, Heyward combines speed, range and a great arm that will give the Cards defense an instant upgrade. Last season we started an ailing Allen Craig in right field. Craig could not get his season on track and was traded along with Joe Kelly to the Boston Red Sox. Heyward’s value is not limited to his defense. He is a good hitter capable of fitting into any of the first there slots of the lineup. Matheny has penciled him to bat second between Matt Carpenter and Matt Holliday. This should also be a plus for both of those teammates. Heyward is capable of hitting for average and power. His speed on the bases also provides a desperately needed dimension to the Cardinals offense.

Another improvement  made in the off-season is a revamped bench. Lacking in pinch-hitting power last year, the Cardinals have added free agent Mark Reynolds and may possibly include Randal Grichuk from their own farm system. Both of these hitters can put fear in a relief pitcher at a crucial moment in a game; both are capable of playing in our outfield; Reynolds can also fill in at first and third base. Both offer a right-handed alternative to a very lefty -saturated starting lineup.

The third encouraging upgrade over last season is the starting pitching. If healthy, the Cardinals are deep. If not healthy, they have options. Even with the trade of starter Shelby Miller, the Cardinals  have a number of capable arms to build a starting rotation: Adam Wainwright, John Lackey. Lance Lynn, Michael Wacha, Jaime Garcia, Carlos Martinez and Marco Gonzales. Wow! That’s seven potential starters supported by a deep and experienced bullpen.

Potential liabilities: Mark Reynolds is the NL strikeout king. He will need frequent at bats to be effective. The health of Wainwright, Wacha and Garcia –the latter of whom has already suffered a late March setback on his timing– is a nagging concern. They will need pampering and pitch counts. To be watched closely.

The Addition of relief pitcher Jordan Walden compensates for the loss of Pat Neshek in the bullpen.

Cardinals have some emerging stars: outfielder Grichuk, pitcher Marco Gonzales, who may well begin the year at AAA Memphis, and a more mature and confident second baseman Kolten Wong.

Everything considered. the Cardinals have a great mix of proven veterans and young talent. They have the elements needed to repeat in a much more competitive Central Division race.

It seems to me that Major League Baseball teams are either “re-building for the future” or “playing to win now”. in recent years the Cardinals organization have proven their ability to accomplish both. Health will be a key factor.

Pre-season prediction: Unless the Cubs succeed in their efforts to develop nuclear weapons, we will again finish ahead of the Cubbies. I predict a divison title or wild-card berth.