2013 Cardinals: Why there’s a lot to like

Nelson Briles

Nelson Briles won two very big games – Game 2 of the ’67 World Series and Game 5 of the ’71 Series — and a lot of little ones as well. Briles won 129 games in his 14-year, five-team career and is best remembered for his two-hit shutout of the Orioles in the ’71 Series. Longtime Cardinal fans remember Briles, though, for his work in 1967, after Bob Gibson broke his leg. It was Briles who took Gibson’s rotation place, and after losing two of his first three starts, he won nine of the next 11 (the other two were no decisions), including a five-game stretch of 44 innings, four complete games and just two earned runs. Briles finished ’67 14-5 with a 2.43 ERA and started Game 2 of the Series. In ’68 Briles had his season-high 19 wins. He won 14 or more five times, including 48 in a three-year span for the Cards; ironically Briles only won eight for the 71 world champion Pirates. His career totals were 129 wins, 112 losses, a 3.44 ERA and a 20.6 WAR. Briles was 61 when he died in 2005.

I feel like I’m knocking on heaven’s door: Some teams have all the luck in player development. Or skill. If the Cardinals get off to a slow start, the clamoring will begin for outfielder Oscar Taveras. And it’s only that the Cards’ outfield is good — Matt Holliday, John Jay and Carlos Beltran — that it hasn’t already resounded. What’s not to like? Taveras is 20 and batted .321 with 23 homers, 42 walks and 10 steals in AA; he played center field last year but right field for much of 2011. He’ll start the season in AAA, no more than a Beltran muscle pull from a promotion. That shouldn’t take long.

What is this man doing here? It’s not hard to believe Jake Westbrook has been traded four times; it’s hard to fathom he’s been traded for so often, and signed by the Cardinals as a free agent. Want to know the definition of a replacement level starting pitcher? It’s Westbrook. Only better. In his 12-year career, Westbrook has kept his ERA less than 4.00 only three times, and two of them with the Cardinals. He has a career .278 batting average against and just 921 strikeouts in 1,631 innings. Kyle Lohse’s last two years in St. Louis were more than a run less than his career ERA. Cardinals fans can hope Westbrook does as much. With a 4.30 career ERA, it won’t be that hard.

What he said: Cards manager Mike Matheny: “I know people say, ‘I just want a ring.’ I want a legacy.” What he meant: “You think I want to be remembered for my .239 batting average?”

Outlook: It’s a good time to be a Cardinals fan. They’ve won two World Series in the last seven years, their farm system is the best in baseball and their front office makes decision borne of wisdom, not emotion (see Pujols, Albert, or Lohse, Kyle).

They’re not the only team for whom the next decade has promise — the Nats and Braves as well — but the Cardinals won’t be the Cubs anytime soon.

This year may not start like the best of years, and it’s been some time since the Cardinals opened the season with so many obvious weaknesses: the middle of the infield, with Rafael Furcal out for the year, is mediocre, the starting pitching is unproven and World Series hero David Freese is hurt.

The big question is if the farm system will arrive in time. Cardinals fans may be patient and easily sated, but even they can’t be expected to endure a full summer of Peter Kozma (.652 career minor-league OPS) at shortstop and Daniel Descalso (.654 major-league OPS) at second.

Kolten Wong is the hope there — he’s an Adam Kennedy type, and only 22, he could be better than that.

The pitching needs help the most. The Cardinals don’t have a starter who’s thrown 200 innings since 2010, and of their five projected starters, three — Lance Lynn, Jaime Garcia and rookie Shelby Miller — never have. Adam Wainwright has done so three times, but that was before he missed 2011 to injury; Jake Westbrook can do it, but devalues the feat for everyone.

Get a screen shot now of the Cardinals’ rotation, because it won’t last. It’s going to get better.

Miller could be very good, and his ascent has had a lot of parallels to A.J. Burnett’s: Southwest native, behavior and maturity issues, a disappointing minor-league season, a seemingly undeserved promotion which pays off. Burnett might be a whipping boy on talk radio in New York, but he’s won 137 games and led leagues in starts and strikeouts (well, wild pitches, too).

Trevor Rosenthal will be in the bullpen, but he’s fanned 293 in 285.1 minor-league innings; Carlos Martinez missed most of training camp because of visa issues — evidently if the Cards have a weak department, it’s the legal one — but he’ll soon be in AA with a leg up on AAA. Last year’s No. 1 draft pick, Michael Wacha, might pass him by then — Wacha fanned 40 in his first 21 minor-league innings, the last eight at AA.

And then there’s Taveras, too. That’s a lot of aid and comfort for an organization which has always seemed to develop hitters from unlikely sources (Allen Craig, Matt Carpenter and Matt Adams).

The Reds won the NL Central last year and are favored to do so again.

Not here they’re not.

Team song: Duke Ellington: East St. Louis Toodle-Oo

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