MLB In Full Bloom - Cardinals Preview - 3/10/2014

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22– Number of days until Opening Day

63,278 – Number of signatures at www.budweiser.com/openingday to make Opening Day a National Holiday

Key Additions: Jhonny Peralta, Peter Bourjos, Mark Ellis

Key Departures: Carlos Beltran, David Freese, Edward Mujica, Jake WestbrookJohn Axford

St. Louis Cardinals Preview

In an era filled with parity and unprecedented levels of roster turnover, the St. Louis Cardinals consistency is special. Since 2000, the Cardinals have made the playoffs 10 times, won seven division titles, and reached the World Series four times. The Cardinals came out of the 2013 World Series in a hurry to prepare for the team’s next shot. It was only a few weeks before Cardinals GM John Mozeliak made a pair of substantial moves addressing the team’s two most glaring needs from 2013—a shortstop and a center fielder.

OFFENSE: The Cardinals historic .330 batting average with runners in scoring position spurred the Cardinals to the National League lead in runs. Five Cardinals finished among the majors’ top-10 averages with runners in scoring position, led by Allen Craig's major-league best .454. While a repeat of  this production can’t be expected this year, the lineup remains stocked with productive hitters. The signing of shortstop Jhonny Peralta gives the Cardinals five regulars who hit .300. The Cardinals will miss their leading home run hitter Carlos Beltran, but I believe first baseman Matt Adams can help fill their power void. This lineup is deep and will score runs.

STARTING PITCHING: Despite having only three pitchers start 20 games or more, the Cardinals' rotation posted the second lowest ERA in the National league in 2013. Adam Wainwright had one of the best seasons of his career, posting a 2.94 ERA. He led the league in innings pitched, complete games, and shutouts, but finished a distant second to Clayton Kershaw in the Cy Young race. The often overlooked Lance Lynn put up the first 200 inning season of his career, but struggled to find consistency. Shelby Miller was the early season favorite to win the NL Rookie of the Year award thanks to an 8-4 record and 2.08 ERA through his first 14 starts. Joe Kelly posted a 2.69 ERA in 37 appearances, and was 9-3 with a 2.28 ERA as a starter. The most impressive aspect of this rotation is their depth; after listing four names, I still have not mentioned Michael Wacha or setup-man-turned-starter Carlos Martinez, both of whom will get varying amounts of starts in 2014. The Cardinals rotation is deep and have enough depth in the organization to fill the gaps if needed.
BULLPEN: The Cardinals' bullpen seemed to be a very average unit in 2013. But, they finished seventh in the National League in both ERA and save percentage, and their 20 blown saves were the fifth-most in the league. Closer Trevor Rosenthal led the way with 108 strikeouts and 20 walks in 75 1/3 innings. Kevin Siegrist allowed as many earned runs in the postseason as he did in the entire regular season. He probably will not repeat last year's 0.45 regular season ERA. Jamie Garcia is sidelined with a shoulder injury and his absence could leave the bullpen with some undefined roles. But that doesn’t mean it will be any less effective than it was in the playoffs last year, when Cardinals relievers turned in a 1.82 ERA.

2014 PREDICTION: The Cardinals won it all in 2011 and have been close to winning championships in both 2012 and 2013. The entire organization has made a seamless transition from the Tony LaRussa and Albert Pujols days to this new era of seemingly endless homegrown talent. The Cardinals are hands down the class of the NL Central, and possibly the National League. If their pitching stays healthy and effective, the only real question may be whether they can surpass the 100-win mark.

Final Record: 98-64 (First Place in NL Central)

MLB In Full Bloom - Padres Preview - 3/7//2014

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25– Number of days until Opening Day

 58,682 – Number of signatures at www.budweiser.com/openingday to make Opening Day a National Holiday

San Diego Padres Preview

Key Additions: Seth Smith, Josh Johnson, Joaquin Benoit

Key Departures: Luke Gregerson, Jason Marquis, Clayton Richard

The NL West was terrible last season. How bad was it? In mid-June, the Padres were one game out of first place. But San Diego eventually finished 16 games behind the Dodgers, only two ahead of the last-place Rockies. It's possible the division could end up with the same results this year, though almost every team made improvements. The Padres made a couple of key additions that could pay off nicely. But above all, the Padres must get through the season relatively injury-free and PED suspension would be ideal.

OFFENSE: The Padres were a below average offensive team in 2013. They finished in the lowest third of the National League in runs scored, batting average, and on-base percentage. Chase Headley's drop-off in the middle of the lineup did not help matters, but the Padres also lost Yasmani Grandal and Everth Cabrera for 50 games for PED suspensions.  In addition to the PED suspension, Grandal is recovering from a late season ACL tear (and subsequent surgery) last year, but should be ready to go early in the season. The Padres need him to produce 2012 type numbers offensively and a bounce back year from Headley will boost the Padres offense. Second baseman Jedd Gyorko flew under the radar in 2013 with 23 home runs and had a solid rookie campaign.  Like many Padres, Carlos Quentin dealt with at least one injury, while serving an eight-game suspension for his role in the bench clearing brawl with Zack Greinke in the first two weeks of the season. Despite a bad knee and a strained left shoulder, Quentin still managed to hit 13 home runs last year and can still be productive. This offense needs another productive lefty bat and they are hoping Seth Smith can fill that need for them.

STARTING PITCHING: Left-hander Eric Stults was the only Padres starter to log over 200 innings in 2013. Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross are the other two returning starters, though Ross may continue to be used as a swingman. Rounding out the rotation will be Ian Kennedy and Josh Johnson. Kennedy is quickly distancing himself from his excellent 2011 season after having posted two consecutive years with an ERA above 4.00. Both his walk and home run rates have risen in each of the past two years. Johnson is also a rebound hopeful candidate, but has a few more factors working in his favor. His 2013 season was awful on the surface, but he still struck out a batter per inning. Getting him out of Toronto and into a pitcher's park could result in a return to his productive days with the Marlins.

BULLPEN: Despite losing Luke Gregerson, the Padres' bullpen looks like it could be an above average unit in 2014. Huston Street will be joined by former Tiger Joaquin Benoit to form one of the more experienced setup-closer combos in baseball. Street posted a 2.70 ERA and 33 saves in 2013. Alex Torres and Nick Vincent will also make up a bullpen that should be solid this year.

2014 PREDICTION: The Diamondbacks have created some distance between them and the Padres with their additions this offseason. The Padres could compete with the Diamondbacks and the Giants for second place in the NL West seems if their veterans produce as expected and injuries don't become a major obstacle. A .500 season might be the best this team can hope for, but that could be enough to challenge for the league's second wild-card bid if many things go right.

Final Record: 81-81 (4th Place NL West)

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