By Marc Normandin
There are many people -- none of them from St. Louis -- who are tired of the Cardinals. The organization has been incredibly successful, both historically and currently, so that Cards fatigue is understandable. They've produced a winning record in 13 of the last 14 seasons, making it to the World Series three times (winning twice), and reached four additional National League Championship Series on top of that.
If you're hoping that eventually the players that power the Cardinals' core will get old and vanish, well, that can certainly happen. Matt Holliday won't be around forever, Carlos Beltran is a free agent after this year, and we've already possibly seen the end of Chris Carpenter. The thing is, though, that St. Louis isn't going anywhere, because the pieces of the next core, the pieces that will form the next great Cardinals team, are already in place, and, in many cases, already in the playoffs.
You're likely already familiar with some of them, as they've been key pieces in this season's push for the best record in baseball. Rookie Shelby Miller stepped into the rotation out of the gate, and all the 22-year-old did was post a 119 ERA+ in 173 innings and 31 starts in his first sustained bout of major league starting. Miller struck out three times as many batters as he walked, had the second-best ERA on the club among regular starters, and finished third on the Cardinals in innings. While there's work to be done -- he's weaker against opponents on the road, as well as lefties -- you can't ask for much more from someone with his youth at this stage. Miller came into the year as the sixth-best prospect in the game per Baseball America, and his performance in his first full season did nothing to discredit that ranking.
He's also not the only pitching prospect the Cardinals relied on in 2013. Michael Wacha, at the tender age of 21, made six relief appearances and nine starts for St. Louis down the stretch, one of which nearly resulted in a no-hitter. In his 64 2/3 innings, the 6-foot-6 right-hander punched out 65 batters against just 19 walks, all while limiting opponents to a 2.78 ERA, or 131 ERA+. He was just the Baseball America's #76 prospect at the start of the season, but a dominating minor-league campaign in which he struck out nearly four times as many batters as he walked at Triple-A while posting a 2.65 ERA led to his mid-season ranking jumping all the way to #12. Yes, that does mean what you think it does: the Cardinals entered the year with a pitcher in the top 10, had him graduate off the list, then essentially replaced him upon promotion with one in the top 12.
Miller is in the playoff rotation, but Wacha might be on the outside looking in, at least at first, since St. Louis only needs four starters in October. This means that another 21-year-old, Carlos Martinez, won't even sniff the playoff rotation. While he didn't prove himself to be as major-league ready as his prospect counterparts, Martinez jumped from #38 to #24 on Baseball America's prospect list by mid-season, and finished up a year he began in Double-A in the majors after posting a 2.49 ERA in nearly 80 minor-league frames across two levels. It's actually fine that he's maybe not ready for the majors yet, as there is nowhere to put him in 2014 as of now, not unless the Cardinals make some moves. Embarrassment of riches doesn't even begin to cover it.
That might be part of the reason that Trevor Rosenthal, who came into the year one spot behind Martinez on the prospect lists, is currently the Cardinals' closer. He spent the entire year in relief, striking out almost 13 batters per nine in 75 frames, while sporting 108 punchouts against just 20 walks. Rosenthal had a bright future as a starter, but he's basically unfair in relief, where he can ratchet up the velocity and focus on his best offerings over a short stretch. If the Cardinals had a need for starters, he could likely be converted back, but let's remember we're talking about the organization that can just send Carlos Martinez back to Triple-A because there's nowhere for one of the best pitching prospects in the game to go in the bigs.
While they aren't nearly as hyped as the above -- nor should they be -- the Cardinals have the rest of the makings of a young, inexpensive, and productive bullpen on hand in 24-year-old Seth Maness and 23-year-old Kevin Siegrist. Maness possesses ridiculous command and control, which does mean he walks a fine line with each plate appearance, but he walked only 18 batters in 247 minor-league innings -- no, that's not a typo -- and then managed to limit free passes to fewer than two per nine in the bigs. If he can keep the walks to a minimum as he has, it won't matter that he strikes out batters at a 1950s clip. Then there's Siegrist, who misses quite a few more bats -- he struck out 50 in 39 innings with St. Louis this year. The 2008 41st-round draft pick hides the ball very well and throws 95 miles per hour, and it's led to some flat-out silly numbers in both the minors and majors. He finished the regular season with a 0.45 ERA, and while that's obviously not repeatable, his FIP was all of 2.29. Combined with Rosenthal, this is a pretty filthy -- and cheap -- back-end of the bullpen in the making.
Don't think the Cardinals only have pitching figured out. Matt Adams is basically the new Allen Craig in some ways, as he's got legitimate power, but doesn't have the obvious open position or the playing time to do much with it just yet. Still, he's all of 24, and hit .284/.335/.503 when he did make it on to the diamond. While he wasn't a heralded prospect like some of his teammates, there's a lot to like here, once he gets a chance to show it off.
Speaking of the prospects, second baseman Kolten Wong made it to the majors when rosters expanded in September. The 22-year-old mostly scuffled in his brief 62 plate appearances in St. Louis, but he had a significant year at Triple-A, where he hit .302/.369/.466 with 20 steals in 21 chances along with 39 extra-base hits. He struck out only 13 percent of the time, so once he figures out what big-league pitchers are trying to do to him, he should put the ball in play plenty.
He's not even their top position prospect, either, as that's Oscar Taveras. The 21-year-old Taveras entered 2013 as the third-best prospect in all the land, and while he dealt with ankle issues that eventually led to late-season surgery, he still managed to hit .306/.341/.462 in his first taste of Triple-A. It was the PCL, so that's possibly inflated a bit, but given the injury and his youth, a lot can be forgiven.
It's pretty obvious the Cardinals have more prospects than they might even know what to do with, but there is also plenty of relative youth on the big-league squad already. The aforementioned Craig signed an extension that will have him in town through at least his age-32 season in 2017. Matt Carpenter is just 27, and hit .318/.392/.481 while leading the NL in hits (199) and doubles (55) -- here's your reminder that Busch Stadium leans pitcher-friendly, and that Carpenter won't be a free agent until 2018 at the earliest. There's also some youth on the pitching side, as Lance Lynn is just 26, and while he's more of an average-ish starter than anything, he crossed the 200-inning threshold in 2013, and won't even see arbitration until 2015. That sort of thing has value all on its own, whether it's on St. Louis' roster or in a trade with someone who needs pitching more than the Cardinals.
You might be tired of the Cardinals already, but prepare yourself to be even more fatigued in the future. They're loaded with prospects and soon-to-be sophomore players, and the whole bunch is either going to complement the current key pieces like Craig, Carpenter, Yadier Molina, and Adam Wainwright -- in town through 2018 as well -- or become the new keys themselves. Either way, things are looking good for the Cardinals, regardless of what happens in this, yet another playoff series for St. Louis.