Series 30 Preview: Cubs vs. Cardinals

Beltran

Carlos Beltran is having an MVP-caliber season. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

There may be no injury or in-season development big enough to bring down the high-flying Cardinals. No matter what fate has thrown at them, the Birds have turned to one talented rookie after another to plug the holes—all while piling up wins and establishing themselves as one of baseball’s best. Ten of St. Louis’ 13 position players are homegrown, more than one-third of their starts have been made by rookies, and the additions of freshmen Trevor Rosenthal and Seth Maness have helped stabilize a bullpen racked by injuries and ineffectiveness. But none of this should really come as a surprise by now. These are the benefits of having baseball’s best player development team and part of the reason why the Cardinals may rule the roost in the NL Central for years to come.

HITTING: 5.0 Runs Scored a Game (1st in NL)
The Cardinals’ offense grinds pitchers down with its depth, largely because there are no easy outs in the order. The bats deliver a good amount of walks and power while leading the league in on-base percentage via a high team batting average. First baseman Allen Craig, who is in the RBI race as a function of his reliable execution, might be the best reflection of a lineup stacked with effective contact hitters who can provide line-drive power. While most of the Cards’ talent is homegrown, their two big-ticket free agents—Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday—continue to provide pop from the outfield corners. If there’s a disappointment, it’s third baseman David Freese’s power numbers. The 2011 postseason hero has seen his slugging percentage drop below .400. But if he gets hot along with the weather, the Cardinals’ league-leading offense could get even better.

PITCHING: 3.6 Runs Allowed a Game (3rd in NL)
Losing Jaime Garcia for the year and Friday’s starter Jake Westbrook for more than a month would have crippled most contenders, but nothing seems to faze the powerhouse Cardinals. They simply used these setbacks as an opportunity to test out 2012 first-rounder Michael Wacha—who has had success despite bouncing between the minors and the bigs. He could join Rookie of the Year favorite Shelby Miller and sophomore workhorse Lance Lynn as the core of this young rotation’s future. The Cubs will miss Miller but are expected to see Lynn on Saturday. And it’s tough to ignore Sunday’s starter Adam Wainwright, one of the game’s elite pitchers with a 12-5 record and a 2.30 ERA. Getting quality starts almost two-thirds of the time with the league’s best offense creates a ton of winnable ballgames, but it’s the improvement in the ’pen since a disastrous first couple of weeks that has helped the Cardinals convert winnable games to actual wins. Unconventional closer Edward Mujica might owe some of his success to his forkball coming right after the blistering heat of Rosenthal and Maness.

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