On Sunday afternoon the St. Louis Cardinals put the finishing touches on their 2013 campaign that saw them finish with a 97-65 record, good for best in the National League. For a team that spent most of the first half of the season in that position before floundering through the midsummer, it was a happy ending.
The team, however, will enter postseason play for the tenth time in the last fourteen seasons with about as many questions as answers. Here are three important questions that the team will need to find answers to if the franchise’s 12th World Series title is in the cards.
Who will be the postseason closer?
After the preseason injury to closer Jason Motte who led the league with 42 saves in 2012, the team began looking for a new one this spring. Last year’s setup man Mitchell Boggs was unable to settle into the role which opened up the competition. Then last year’s trade deadline acquisition and seventh inning man, Edward Mujica stepped into the role and made it his own, posting a 1.72 ERA, a 0.78 WHIP, and 35 saves in 37 chances from when he took over the position until the end of August. He even got an All Star nod of his own for his work.
But some late season struggles that included being shut down for a week in September for elbow fatigue has opened the door to questions about his health and who will close for the team. Mujica struggled to the finish in 2013 with an 11.05 ERA in his 7 1/3 innings of work and the league hitting over .500 against him.
Over the last season and a half, Rosenthal has established himself as one of the best, if not the best, eighth inning man in baseball with his 100 mph fastball. He threw just over 75 innings this year and posted a 2.63 ERA along with a 1.10 WHIP. With postseason experience from last season under his belt, he is the obvious choice to step into the role.
However Siegrist is the guy in the bullpen playing this year’s role of Rosenthal. A midseason call-up, Siegrist wasted no time in dominating major league hitters as reflected in his incredible stat line. Through almost 40 innings, Siegrist has a 0.88 WHIP and a 0.45 ERA to go along with an 11.3 K/9. He has quickly positioned himself as one of Matheny’s favorite and most reliable late innings guys. His pitch repertoire that includes a near 100 mph fastball is almost unheard of for a left handed pitcher.
But Matheny has proven himself loyal to players, many times almost to a fault. If Mujica feels healthy, he will likely get opportunities to pitch. Maybe not in the ninth inning, but perhaps earlier with the game still hanging in the balance. How will he handle a pitcher who has been mostly ineffective for the last month on a playoff roster? Especially if games end up going into extra innings where the odds increase that he may pitch.
How will the young pitchers do in the postseason?
The Cardinals relied on rookie pitchers for an incredible amount of innings in 2013, and for the most part got success in return. Shelby Miller started the season in the rotation, but contributions were made by Tyler Lyons, John Gast, Carlos Martinez, and culminated in Michael Wacha’s near no-hitter in the final week of the season.
Rookie pitchers for the Cardinals amassed 36 wins, the most since 1941.
But these are guys who are untested in the postseason and will now take on a bulk of the important work. Adam Wainwright will lead the rotation, his postseason resume is a known quantity. Behind him, however, there are question marks.
Each of the three have playoff experience, but have done it as a reliever. Joe Kelly and Shelby Miller combined to pitch 11 innings during last season’s postseason run for the Cardinals, allowing two earned runs each.
Meanwhile Lynn is no stranger to the postseason, but is more recognizable for his relief efforts than those in the rotation. In his two starts last season against the San Francisco Giants in games one and five of the National League Championship Series he failed to get through the fourth inning.
But it doesn’t stop there. Kevin Siegrist, Seth Maness, Michael Wacha, Tyler Lyons, and Carlos Martinez all seem poised to factor in the bullpen makeup for the team as well. So if those starters fail, the team will likely be turning to a rookie to stem the tide.
How these guys react in the playoffs will determine just how far the Cardinals can go. Will they succumb to the pressure or will they flourish? The guy leading the rotation, Wainwright, flourished in 2006 as a rookie closer as the Cardinals took home the World Series.
Can the team survive without Allen Craig?
You can list Matt Carpenter and Yadier Molina as potential MVP candidates for the Cardinals, but there may be nobody who plays a bigger, quieter role in the offense than Allen Craig. He is an instrumental cog and any lineup without him becomes shorter.
While the Cardinals set the Major League Baseball record for batting average with runners in scoring position (RISP) with their .330 average, it was Allen Craig that led the way with his .454 average. That .454 average, according to Baseball Reference’s Play Index tool, was the third best batting average with RISP among players with more than 100 plate appearances since 1916, just behind just George Brett in 1980 and Tony Gwynn in 1997.
His postseason record speaks for itself as well. In the 2011 World Series Craig drove in a run in five of the seven games, and he only started four of them. He had four go-ahead RBI and his solo home run in game seven put the Cardinals on top for good as the won the World Series.
The Cardinals’ number four hitter provided the steady bat in the core of the lineup that only seems to get better when the pressure was on. But a foot injury on September 4th has kept him out of the lineup since. Cardinals’ GM John Mozeliak isn’t optimistic that he will return this season, preferring to stay conservative. Even in a best case scenario it seems like he could only return for the World Series and play DH in an American League park.
In his place will be Matt Adams who hasn’t missed a beat since the injury, hitting .326 with 8 HR and 15 RBI since taking over the starting job. But while he has been able to put up quality numbers over the past month, he has struggled against playoff teams. In his appearances this year he has hit just .208 (15-for-72) with 6 HR against the four other NL Playoff teams.
Each of these questions will find answers over the next few weeks as the Cardinals await the winner of the NL Wild Card game. It will be an in-division foe, either the Pittsburgh Pirates or Cincinnati Reds. The Cardinals were 11-8 against the Reds this season and 9-10 against the Pirates. Either way, it will be a matchup between two teams that know each other well and will provide a great series.