After winning the NL pennant last year, the Cardinals never quite put it all together in 2014, fighting a series of injuries while struggling to integrate their top young players into the lineup. They surged past the Brewers in September, only to nearly lose the NL Central to the Pirates in the season's final week. Yet they're in a great position to go to the World Series for the third time in four seasons.
Not many teams trade their cleanup hitter at midseason and get better, but the Cards haven't missed Allen Craig. St. Louis increased its scoring from 3.7 to 4.1 runs per game and went 34--22 after the July 31 trade. The Cardinals enter the postseason fielding much the same team that won the NLCS in 2013, only better. Adam Wainwright fronts a rotation that includes Lance Lynn and his career-best 2.74 ERA; either Michael Wacha or Shelby Miller; and stabilizing righthander John Lackey, acquired from the Red Sox for Craig in July. The same deep bullpen that shortened games last year is back. The biggest hole from '13, the shortstop spot, has been filled well by Jhonny Peralta, whose durability, power and defense made him one of the 10 best players in the league this season.
In other words the 2014 Cardinals are the '13 Cardinals with a better shortstop and a deeper pitching staff. They'll take the last step they missed a year ago and win the World Series.
DAVID E. KLUTHO/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (WAINWRIGHT)