A Look Back: Top 5 Stories of 2013

Every year, the United Cardinal Bloggers set aside time in the last couple of days of December to take a look back at the biggest stories of the past twelve months.  Many of the stories will be the same, but there are differences here and there and I encourage you to check out the rest of the links over at the official site.

For my part, here are the top five stories in my mind for 2013, in reverse order of importance:

5) The trade of David Freese.  It’s not just that the Cards traded a 20-homer third baseman to shore up their defense.  Divorced from any imbued meaning, the trade on the face of it is a relatively sedate deal, one that wouldn’t be out of place in many organizations.

Obviously, though, you can’t take away what David Freese actually stood for in St. Louis.  He’s the proverbial hometown-boy-makes-good.  He’s the symbol of those refuse-to-lose Cardinal teams, the man who snatched World Series victory from the jaws of defeat.  A man who could have coasted through his career in St. Louis and never been booed, never had the fan base turn against him.

To some degree, John Mozeliak had to be thinking to himself, “I’m taking an awful risk, Vader.  This had better work.”  He could have had a fan uprising on his hands, shipping Freese off to join Albert Pujols in the sunny climes of Anaheim.  Instead, a majority of the fan base tipped their cap to Freese and moved on, because In Mo We Trust.  I’m not sure that would have happened everywhere.  I’m not sure it would have happened here had Mozeliak not built up that reservoir of good will with his many moves.

Basically, it was the organization affirming that the system works, not necessarily the players in it.  They won’t be held hostage by sentiment or hope–if they have to move someone with local cache, they’ll do it.  We pretty much knew that after the Pujols situation, but this was just another data point on that side of the scale.

4) A youth movement on the mound.  It’s one thing when a team brings up a young hurler to fill the gap a veteran has left.  It’s another when those pitchers basically take over the staff and the bullpen and, on occasion, fill a gap that another young pitcher left due to injuries.  It got to the point where you wondered if there was something in the water in Memphis and Springfield that primed these guys for their time in the big leagues.

Of course, the club had Shelby Miller on the mound all year long (well, save for October….) and he turned in a performance that got him a lot of attention for Rookie of the Year, including an almost-perfecto against the Rockies.  You had Seth Maness, the Human Double Play Machine, Kevin Siegrist, the man nobody could touch, and Trevor Rosenthal playing key roles in the bullpen.  John Gast and Tyler Lyons both contributed in the rotation and in the pen, though not to the dominating levels we saw out of most everyone else on the staff.  Carlos Martinez showed why he looks to be a dominating force in whatever role he may be put into going forward.

Then there was Michael Wacha.  All he did was come within a no-hitter in his last start, throw seven no-hit innings in his first playoff outing, win the NLCS MVP award for his work against the Dodgers, then keep the Red Sox at bay in his first World Series start.  He finally hit the wall in Game 6 of the Series, but he’d done all he could reasonably be expected to do–and then some–to keep the title hopes alive.  Wacha became a national celebrity and while the expectations for him and the rest of the youngsters will be high next season, there’s no reason they can’t approach those levels again.

3) Matt Carpenter is the team’s MVM: Most Valuable Matt.  There’s a strong case that you could change that last letter to P, but Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright might have an argument.  There’s no doubt, though, that Carpenter came a long way from the person fans were hoping would be able to hit a little bit and play second base adequately enough to be an asset instead of a liability.

Many thought that Carpenter was just keeping the spot warm for Kolten Wong, but he grabbed the role and wouldn’t let go, especially when he moved into the leadoff slot.  Carpenter didn’t just have a solid season, he had one for the ages.  Anytime you take over one of The Man’s records, even if it’s a more esoteric one (doubles by a Cardinal left-hander), you’ve done good.

Carpenter finished fourth in the NL MVP voting, behind his teammate Molina, which was miles above what anyone thought he’d do when spring training opened.  It was enough to send Freese out of town and move Carpenter back to third, which (as we noted above) is impressive in its own right.  Carpenter has probably had his career season, but the future is still bright for some great years to come.

2) Cards RISP to their Series invitation.  St. Louis took a lot of pieces and mixed them together to turn them into a stellar 2013 season.  We’ve talked about the young arms and Carpenter, but there was Molina’s MVP-like season, the consistency of Matt Holliday, Wainwright being Wainwright again in his second season after Tommy John surgery (and coming in second again in the Cy Young race), Edward Mujica filling in for the injured Jason Motte (until he stumbled and Rosenthal took over), and an offense that was one of the top ones in the National League, even though they ranked near the bottom in home runs.  Add it all up and it got them 97 wins, tied with the Red Sox for the most in baseball.

The reason that they were able to be so successful without the long ball was a record batting average with runners in scoring position.  All year long, experts said that they weren’t going to be able to continue to hit for such a high mark when runners were on second and third.  All year long, the Cardinals continued to do so anyway.  They wound up with a .330 mark in those situations, well above any other team in baseball and a new MLB mark.

Granted, that seemed to evaporate somewhat in the postseason, as the Cardinals advanced past Pittsburgh and Los Angeles more on the basis on extraordinary pitching and a couple of timely hits (or defensive plays, per Carlos Beltran).  The big hit seemed to be lacking against Boston as well, but the Cardinals came within two games of being crowned champions once again.  There’s no way to frame that as anything less than a success.

1) We say goodbye to Stan.  The biggest story of the year was also the earliest, as the greatest Cardinal of them all, Stan Musial, passed away on January 19 at 92 years of age.  We had known Stan was in poor health and the news didn’t surprise or shock anyone, but it brought with it some profound sadness.

I wrote about it on the night of his passing, but baseball’s perfect knight was such an appropriate title for him.  He had the on-the-field numbers to ensure immortality, but the off-the-field demeanor of humility and grace that made sure he was a legend in his own time.

Obviously, the loss of Stan cast a shadow over the entire season, but not necessarily in a negative way.  There were many more opportunities to celebrate what Stan had meant to this organization and to the city that it calls home.  The patch worn on the uniform, a classy tribute for a classy man, brought #6 to the ballpark every day.  Though they won’t wear them next season, it seems very possible that the design on the outfield wall will remain.

We saw the outpouring of love and respect from the baseball community in the days after his death, giving Musial some of the publicity and acknowledgement in death that he didn’t fully receive in life.  It was great to hear the stories of Stan the man, not just Stan The Man.  How he helped those that could never repay, how he never really slipped from that pedestal because he know how important it was for folks that he stayed there.

To me, there could be no greater story than the passing of a true legend.

There were other stories that didn’t make the cut, of course.  Injuries played a huge role this season, with players like Motte, Gast, and Jaime Garcia going down.  The youth movement spread to the hitters as well, with Matt Adams and Wong making their contributions (though sadly Wong’s lasting memory of 2013 will be of getting picked off to end a Series game).  Lance Lynn looked good, until he didn’t.  Allen Craig just kept hitting, especially in clutch situations.  And, of course, this was the year when it became fashionable to hate on Cardinal fans.

2013 was another shining season in a history full of them.  There seems to be no reason why 2014 can’t be the same!

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