NL Central preview: Everyone’s chasing the St. Louis Cardinals

NL Central preview: Everyone’s chasing the St. Louis Cardinals
March 13, 2014, 8:15 pm
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Tony Andracki

“I don’t see this as a daunting task.”

That’s how Cubs manager Rick Renteria previewed the National League Central, taking over a last-place finisher in the first division in major-league history to send three teams to the playoffs.

Check back with Renteria this summer. But with Opening Day fast approaching, CSNChicago.com will be running down the other teams in the NL Central, where everyone is chasing the Cardinals.

[RELATED: For the Cubs, it all comes back to the Cardinals]

The Cardinals are the model franchise, not just in the division. They set the standard across baseball as one of the best-run teams in professional sports. They consistently produce playoff teams while also boasting one of the best farm systems in the game. The influx of young pitchers like Michael Wacha gave the Cardinals a huge boost during last season's run to the World Series.

The North Siders will have to find a way to consistently beat the Cardinals if they want to become a perennial contender.

Last season: 97-65, 1st place NL Central (Lost to Red Sox in World Series)
Manager: Mike Matheny (Record with Cardinals: 185-139)
New in 2014: OF Peter Bourjos, SS Jhonny Peralta, IF Mark Ellis
Gone from 2013: RHP John Axford, OF Carlos Beltran, RHP Chris Carpenter, 3B David Freese, SS Rafael Furcal, RHP Edward Mujica, RHP Fernando Salas, RHP Jake Westbrook

X-Factor: Kolten Wong

Will the 23-year-old hit enough to stick around? The former first-round pick is currently ranked as the No. 33 prospect in the game by Baseball Prospectus and carries a .301/.365/.446 slash line in the minor leagues. But he hit just .153 with a .363 OPS in 32 games with the Cardinals last year. With David Freese in L.A., Matt Carpenter moves to third base, leaving Wong as the primary second baseman. Ellis was signed for veteran depth, but the job is Wong's to run with if he can handle it.

[RELATED: Cubs prospects adjusting to life in the limelight]

Magic number: 73

2013 served as the Cardinals' 73rd winning season in franchise history. In the last five years, St. Louis has three NLCS appearances, two NL pennants and a championship in 2011. They've been above .500 for six straight seasons and have eight 90-win campaigns since 2000, exhibiting the sustained success Theo Epstein and the Cubs are searching for.

Farm system rankings: 6 (Baseball Prospectus), 8 (Baseball America), 12 (ESPN.com)

They said it: "Man, I can't wait to see you finish second in the Cy Young this year." - Adam Wainwright to Shelby Miller, quoted in St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Outlook: The Cardinals will miss Beltran in the lineup, but they may actually be a better team in 2014. Matt Adams, Wong, Bourjos, Peralta and top prospect Oscar Taveras should help absorb the loss of Beltran and Freese while the pitching staff will incorporate the pool of young arms, led by Wacha, Miller and Trevor Rosenthal.

As long as Yadier Molina is in the lineup, the Cardinals will compete for a title. Heading into 2014, they are the best team in the league and will only get better over time as the young players (Wong, Adams, Wacha, etc.) develop more experience and seasoning.