MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

Cardinals' strength came from within

Cardinals' strength came from within

Cardinals' strength came from within

We're taking a tour of October as the playoffs approach, with an in-depth look at those who are postseason-bound.

Having already explored the American League East champion Red Sox, the National League West champion Dodgers, the NL East-winning Braves, the AL West champion A's and the AL Central champion Tigers, we continue now with the Cardinals.

In the first round, with the 19th overall pick, they took prep right-hander Shelby Miller.

In the third round, with the 98th overall pick, they plucked righty Joe Kelly out of UC-Riverside.

In the 13th round, at 399th overall, it was Texas Christian infielder Matt Carpenter.

In the 21st round, at No. 639 overall, it was flame-throwing right-hander Trevor Rosenthal, out of Cowley Community College.

And in the 23rd round, at No. 699, it was power-hitting first baseman Matt Adams, from Slippery Rock University.

You want to know why the St. Louis Cardinals are on the verge of their third straight postseason appearance, their Major League-best 10th postseason appearance since 2000 and possibly their seventh NL Central title since '00?

It's because they're always restocking the shelf, and nowhere is that more evident than a look back at a 2009 First-Year Player Draft haul that paid enormous dividends here in '13.

The Cardinals, whose magic number for clinching the NL Central is down to one, are like any other team in that they've been tested considerably by injury this season. Unlike many other clubs, however, they've had such an impressive stash of arms and bats that the wheel has always continued spinning.

Losing Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia and seeing injury-aided regression from Jake Westbrook could have caused the rotation to burst at the seams. Instead, that rotation has been steady and at times spectacular, thanks not only to the tone set by ace Adam Wainwright, but also the emergence of youngsters Miller and Michael Wacha, who came within inches of a no-hitter Tuesday night.

The lineup has been as clutch as they come, thanks not only to the established talents of Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran, but also to what Matt Carpenter has done all season in his first genuine shot at an everyday job and what Adams has done in the wake of what could have been a crippling late-season injury to Allen Craig (who was having a pretty awesome year, in his own right).

Remember all that fretting about what would happen to the Cardinals once Albert Pujols and Tony La Russa left? Seems laughable now, doesn't it? Under Mike Matheny, the Cards have kept churning, reaching the postseason via the second NL Wild Card last year and advancing all the way to Game 7 of the NL Championship Series against the Giants. This year, they've followed that up with an even stronger season that currently has them out ahead of the Pirates and Reds in what has been a daunting (and endlessly entertaining) division race.

No NL franchise has a better winning percentage than the Cardinals since the start of 2000, and none has played in and won as many postseason games, either. The Cards' organization, under owner Bill DeWitt Jr., is the envy of so many others, because it drafts well, scouts well, prepares well and executes well.

More than anything, it is armed against the threat of injury or underperformance as well or better than any other club, and that's why St. Louis will once again live to see October, with a realistic hope of seeing World Series title No. 12 here in 2013.

The bats: Sabermetricians will tell you that past performance in the clutch is no indication of future performance in the clutch and that these numbers have a way of evening out. And historical data would tend to agree. But there's also no denying that the Cardinals, with a .329 average with runners in scoring position that is the best in baseball over the past 40 years, have shown a calm pulse under pressure this season that could suit them well come October. Nobody has been better in those situations than Craig (.454 with RISP), which is why his continued absence with an ankle injury is such a concern. But by and large, the Cards have a deep lineup with October experience and a good heartbeat. They lead the NL with 4.82 runs per game.

The arms: The Cardinals' 3.47 staff ERA is the sixth best, and their 3.46 starters' ERA trails only that of the Dodgers (3.12) and Reds (3.36). Even more encouraging are the recent results, as the Cards entered Wednesday with MLB's best rotation ERA (2.64) this month. What's not as encouraging is the state of the bullpen, given the recent struggles of Edward Mujica that have resulted in the Redbirds going with a closer-by-committee approach. The good news there is that St. Louis is accustomed to a moving target in the 'pen, and it has some good options in Rosenthal, Kevin Siegrist and John Axford.

The MVP: Anecdotally, Molina is the clear-cut MVP of this squad, and the work he does with the pitchers, combined with his performance at the plate, is indeed instrumental. It's telling that the Cardinals went 6-8 during his time on the DL in early August and 10-3 immediately after his return. Statistically, though, you can also make a really good argument for Carpenter as this particular season's MVP. He's been a capable defender at second while making major contributions from the leadoff spot, hitting .321/.394/.487 for the season. Baseball-Reference gives him a team-high 6.7 WAR mark.

The ace: It's Wainwright (18-9, 3.01 ERA) all the way here. After some of the expected growing pains that come with the return from Tommy John surgery last year, he's amassed an MLB-leading 236 1/3 innings with five complete games and two shutouts. He hit a rough patch with two brutal starts on Aug. 28 and Sept. 2, but he's recovered nicely with a 2.12 ERA in the four starts since. He'll be ready for the next stage.

The unsung hero(es): Listen, Wainwright's the ace. But would the Cards be where they are without Kelly? Doubtful. He began the season in the bullpen and asserted himself in the rotation when a need arose. And among NL starters, Kelly's 2.06 ERA since the All-Star break trails only that of Jose Fernandez (1.32), Clayton Kershaw (1.70) and Zack Greinke (1.87). Special nod here also goes to Siegrist, whose 0.47 ERA is the lowest ever for a reliever with at least 35 innings pitched.

The pressing question: Will Craig come back, and at what level? The Cardinals seemingly dodged a bullet when they found out his foot injury was a sprain and not a fracture. But three weeks later, Craig is still in a walking boot and needs more X-rays. Adams has stepped up in Craig's absence, but he's dealt with some elbow issues of his own. St. Louis is obviously at its best -- particularly against left-handed pitching -- if Craig is part of the picture. But he might not be.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.