It’s A Wrap: The Top Stories of 2014

You’ve seen a few of these on the site today or around the UCB in general.  As we do at the end of every year, we take a look back at what the top stories were for the Cardinals over the past 12 months.  As Peter Quill put it, “Something good.  Something bad.  Bit of both.”  While the year in general falls into the good category, there’s no doubt there were some major stories that weren’t close to happiness.

1) The life and death of Oscar Taveras: There’s nothing else that could top this list.  Taveras’s arrival had been much anticipated and he didn’t disappoint in his May 31 debut, cracking a dramatic home run that will be remembered for years to come.  While he didn’t immediately make the impact that many expected–his usage by Mike Matheny was one of the reasons fans cited for that–he showed flashes of what he could be, including some postseason power off the bench.

All of that would put him on this list, but he’s at the top because of the tragic events of October 26.  That night, his car crashed in the Dominican Republic, killing himself and his girlfriend Edilia Arvelos.  It seemed like a senseless tragedy at the time, a young man taken by terrible roads and a rain storm.  Of course, later on we found out that alcohol was involved, as his blood alcohol level was five times the legal limit.

Some folks felt that didn’t change their perspective on the matter, that it was a tragedy no matter what.  There’s no doubt that was true, that it was a sad and terrible event, but the inclusion of alcohol to me did affect how I thought about the situation.  If it had been anyone else save a ballplayer, it would have been a drunk driving incident and folks would have been less hesitant to cast some blame on the driver.  For an instant, it seemed like a natural tragedy had befallen before we found out that it was the same sad story we’ve heard too many times.  It’s still a terrible thing and a moment that will have repercussions for years on Cardinal baseball.

2) Continuing the NLCS run: For the fourth straight year, the Cardinals played for a World Series berth.  You have to go back to the Atlanta Braves of the 1990s to find such an extended run.  While they bowed out to the Giants for the second time in three years, this team showed that October is where they are comfortable, twice beating Clayton Kershaw to get past the Dodgers.

This was also their second straight year to take the NL Central crown, something they’d not done since 2004-2006.  While it was a battle and it took a September kick to put it away, the Cardinals continued to show that they are one of the top organizations in baseball and that their window for success shouldn’t be closing any time soon.

3) In Mo We Trust Part I–Allen Craig and Joe Kelly traded for John Lackey: Even with the terrible season that Craig was having, I don’t think any of us really expected the Cardinals to part ways with him, especially since the return would seem to be less than his value given how 2014 was going.  However, with Taveras on the bench and Craig struggling like he’d never struggled before, John Mozeliak shook up the locker room by trading two well-liked players for a more crusty veteran.  While Lackey wasn’t the World Series-winning pitcher that the Cards faced in 2013, he still provided some solid outings down the stretch and is under contract for 2015 at a ridiculously low rate of $500,000, which played into Mozeliak’s thinking.  As for Craig and Kelly, neither of them were stellar as a Red Sox, with Craig scuffling even more than he did in St. Louis before spending time on the DL.  Kelly did win a major award in Boston, though, as his selfie with Derek Jeter got a lot of attention in MLB’s Social Media Awards.

4) In Mo We Trust Part II–Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins out, Jason Heyward and Jordan Walden in: Obviously the jury is still out on this one, as it’s been just over a month since this off-season deal was finalized.  There’s also no doubt this is the first of the ramifications from our first story above, as this move isn’t made if Taveras is still with us.  All that said, it looks like a bold and fairly savvy move for Mozeliak.  Miller seemed to find his feet the last six weeks of the season, but before that had been inconsistent and could be one of those folks that a change in scenery and coaching philosophy could do wonders for.  Heyward is a free agent after 2015 and if he doesn’t sign an extension, there are going to be folks that figure St. Louis lost this trade.  The Cards did move to extend Walden, who looks to be the eighth inning guy replacing Pat Neshek.

My opinion on this deal really hasn’t changed since it was announced in November.  I’m excited to see what Heyward brings to this lineup and I believe he can have a bit of a resurgence in a new place the year before free agency.  My gut feeling is he’ll sign long-term, but there’s a very viable scenario where he succeeds, goes to free agency, and the Cards get outbid.  It could happen, but I think the risk is worth it.  Heyward lengthens the lineup pretty considerably–you could have your 2014 team leader in homers (Jhonny Peralta) hitting sixth regularly–and I like his OBP and defense even if the power doesn’t come around.  The division is getting tougher, but the Cards still have to be the team to beat.

5) The offense goes into a tailspin: We knew that things would be different in 2014.  After all, when you set a record for highest batting average with runners in scoring position (and do so by a significant margin), there’s really no place to go but down.  We thought that maybe some power that was lacking in 2013 would make up for it, but there was little doubt the offense would slide.

However, nobody expected the Spanish Inquisition and nobody expected a return of 1968.  The Cardinals spent all year scratching for runs.  It was a good thing the starting pitching staff put up 23 shutouts, because there were a lot of games where the club was only going to get one run.  They wound up last in home runs in the National League, even behind a San Diego team playing in the biggest pitcher’s park in baseball.  They were in the middle of the pack in OPS.  They were 13th in extra-base hits.  They were just one steal from last in the NL.  Basically, it was a team that needed three hits to score and, so very often, those three hits didn’t come.

The stifled offense led to things like Kolten Wong being demoted (even while his backup, Mark Ellis, was hitting worse than he was) and Craig being traded because the club couldn’t afford to run him out there and absorb his struggles.  It’s why Jon Jay eventually won out over Peter Bourjos, because Bourjos struggled when everyone else did, opening the door for Jay (who, to be fair, struggled for a while also before taking off).

There were lots of honorable mentions for this list.  You have Neshek’s journey from non-roster invitee to All-Star in his home park.  You have Ballpark Village finally opening and quickly becoming an integral part of downtown.  You have Lance Lynn taking that next step and becoming a top-of-the-rotation pitcher.  You have the first class of Cardinal Hall of Famers being inducted.  You have Adam Wainwright in another Cy Young race and Wong being a finalist for Rookie of the Year.  So many noteworthy things happened this year, but that’s in the past.  On to 2015!

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