Quiet Cardinals are still an NL power

By Anthony Castrovince
01/08/13 12:01 AM ET

That the Cardinals are good is a given. That they have been quiet this winter is not a surprise.
But in an improving National League Central, are the Cards, as currently constructed, good enough?
The Cardinals, despite their Wild Card status, were obviously good enough to advance deep into the postseason each of the last two years -- surviving in no fewer than four winner-take-all October environments (Game 5 of the 2011 NL Division Series against the Phillies, Game 7 of the '11 World Series against the Rangers and the NL Wild Card round against the Braves and Game 5 of the NLDS against the Nationals last year).
This is, ultimately, a credit to their depth, chemistry and experience.
Now, despite some notable subtractions from the 2011 World Series championship club over in the past 14 months -- a list that now includes newly signed Rangers DH Lance Berkman -- the Cardinals remain NL elite. And as Mike Matheny further matures into the managerial role, Adam Wainwright further distances himself from his 2011 Tommy John procedure and young guys like Joe Kelly, Trevor Rosenthal and Shelby Miller find their footing in a Major League setting, the possibility of the Cards remaining elite is a strong one.
But it wouldn't be the winter if we didn't read too much into the activity on the transaction wire, or lack thereof. And the Cards' quietness raises more questions than answers.
The quietness is largely borne out of the desire to keep the 2013 payroll somewhere in the vicinity of $115 million. Even with Berkman and Kyle Lohse off the books, the pending arbitration cases of David Freese and relievers Jason Motte, Mitchell Boggs, Ed Mujica and Marc Rzepczynski ensure the Cards will have some hefty payroll expenditures in the coming weeks. And so their only significant free-agent activity to date has involved the signings of bit players Randy Choate (lefty relief specialist) and Ty Wigginton (utility man).
General manager Jon Mozeliak is smart, well-respected and, overall, good at what he does. His ability to adequately fill the club's needs at each of the last two Trade Deadlines, as well as reeling in Carlos Beltran last winter as a satisfying production replacement when Albert Pujols bolted, proves as much. So Mozeliak deserves the benefit of the doubt when it comes to club construction.
The degree of difficulty in the NL Central, however, could increase in the coming year.
For one, Central clubs won't have the American League West-bound Astros to kick around. The Cards, specifically, went 11-4 against Houston last season. Suffice to say the 'Stros will be missed.
Then there's the outlook for the clubs remaining in the Central. It looks improved for the Reds, who ran away with the division last year with a nine-game lead on the Cards. They've added a legit leadoff man in Shin-Soo Choo, and they obviously hope to have a full season of Joey Votto. So you can make an argument that they'll be as strong as ever.
The outlook also looks improved for the Brewers, who have seemingly bettered their bullpen, addressing what was a sore spot in a frustrating first half in '12. The Brewers were one of the hottest teams in baseball for much of the second half, and their lineup is an elite run-producer.
Even the Cubs look better on paper. They've made some shrewd additions to their rotation in Scott Baker, Scott Feldman and Carlos Villanueva. And while I wouldn't go so far as to say they have the makings of a .500 club, they almost certainly stand to improve on last year's 61 wins.
And the Pirates ... well ... frankly, I don't see great improvements on the part of the Pirates, so let's leave them out of this.
The point is, the Cards' decision to basically stand pat has been a decision to embrace no shortage of concerned questions.
Start with the rotation, which has an immense amount of depth and potential and yet still manages to look slightly unsettled.
Chris Carpenter's unexpected return to the rotation late last season was a credit to his work ethic and mentality. But the way he unraveled in the NL Championship Series against the Giants was a reminder that he wasn't yet his old, sharp self. He'll obviously benefit from a full Spring Training this year, yet on some level you do have to wonder what a 38-year-old with his specific injury history can and will bring to the table.
Furthermore, how physically sound is Jaime Garcia's shoulder? Three doctors recommended surgery for Garcia after he lasted just two innings in an NLDS game last October, but the Cards ultimately opted for the rest-and-rehab route. Either way, shoulder injuries are known to be particularly problematic.
Injuries are an issue for every club, of course. And you have to love the Cards' overall starting depth, especially now that Rosenthal and Miller appear to be on the cusp of helping the big league rotation. The Cards could be assembling a terrific staff of young, power arms for the long-term future.
In the immediate, though, you figure they'll miss Lohse's innings-eating dependability, and this could be a substantial absence in 2013. I thought the Cards might make a play for Lohse, given his cool market and the fact that he wouldn't cost them the Draft pick compensation that has kept other clubs away. Just the other day, though, Lohse told KFNS-590 he hasn't talked to the Cards in months. C'est la vie.
The other primary point of concern for the Cardinals is the middle infield. At shortstop, Rafael Furcal is a fragile 35-year-old, and it's hard to know how much to read into Pete Kozma's sizzling September (or, for that matter, the rather quick return to Earth that followed). And at second base, with prospect Kolten Wong still waiting in the wings, it's either Matt Carpenter, who is learning the position, the light-hitting, defensive-minded Daniel Descalso.
You could see, then, where a little creativity could help the Cards a great deal. Count me among those who has advocated all winter a trade for the Indians' Asdrubal Cabrera, who could take over at either middle-infield position and add an impact bat from both sides. The Cards would seem to have the assemblage of arms in their farm system to sway the Tribe, should either side be so inclined.
On the whole, the Cards still have a lineup that produces at an AL-sized clip, and their bullpen looks legit after the late-season repair job last year. When the time comes for making predictions, it will be impossible to count the Cards out of the contention mix, even if they don't make another move this winter.
Yet, the relative lack of moves does not escape notice in what could be a more demanding division.