(SportsNetwork.com) - Two teams with huge expectations kick off their season on Monday when the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds open a three-game series at Great American Ball Park.
The Cards proved once again in 2013 that they are indeed the symbol of excellence in Major League Baseball. They may have come up short in the World Series to the Boston Red Sox, but is there a team more set up for the future than Mike Matheny's club?
Even though Carlos Beltran left as a free agent, the Cards were more than prepared to move on, as Allen Craig will seamlessly slide into right field duties, while 21-year-old super prospect Oscar Taveras gets a little more seasoning at the Triple-A level.
In an effort to fill the power void left by Beltran, the Cardinals signed shortstop Jhonny Peralta, who, of course, was part of the Biogenesis scandal last season. Before his 50-game ban, though, he was hitting .303 with 11 homers, 30 doubles and 55 RBI for the Detroit Tigers.
Peralta will no doubt help a shortstop position that last year was 27th in the league with a .596 OPS.
This team is just dripping with young talent, specifically in the pitching department, as starters Michael Wacha and Shelby Miller, as well as relievers Trevor Rosenthal, Carlos Martinez, Seth Maness and Kevin Siegrist all had significant contributions in their rookie seasons.
They will have a veteran on the hill Monday, though, in 32-year-old righty Adam Wainwright, who went 19-9 last year with a 2.94 ERA and finished second to Los Angeles' Clayton Kershaw in NL Cy Young voting. He also posted career- highs in innings (241 2/3), strikeouts (219), complete games (five) and shutouts (two).
The Reds, though, gave him trouble, as he went 1-3 with a 7.77 ERA in four starts against them.
It will be the third Opening Day start of Wainwright's career and the second since returning from Tommy John surgery.
Up until a March 19 spring game with the Kansas City Royals, Cincinnati was perceived consistently among the cognoscenti: solid team, a few All-Star caliber players, but one - after two straight impotent playoff appearances in 2012 and 2013 - that needed to hold all talking until October.
In the immediate aftermath of that exhibition with the Royals, however, the consensus that another postseason re-do is an automatic has been significantly impacted.
When closer Aroldis Chapman was drilled by a comebacker after Kansas City's Salvador Perez turned on a 99 mph fastball and left him in a writhing heap on the Arizona mound, the immediate question marks about Chapman's health and long-term prospects became significant items on the Reds priority list and the team's out-of-the-gate ability to do without him became instantly magnified.
Initial diagnoses veered from facial lacerations and contusions all the way to bone fractures, which, in either case, will put the bullpen on the spot to finish games until his return.
Elsewhere on the field, the pieces seem a little more certain for first-year manager Bryan Price, who was elevated from pitching coach upon the exit of veteran skipper Dusty Baker.
Perennial MVP candidate Joey Votto is back at first base after hitting .305 with 24 home runs and 75 runs batted in last season, in which he played 162 games after being held to only 111 a season earlier. He was the National League's MVP in 2010 and has been among the top-15 vote-getters for the award in every season since, including a sixth-place standing after 2013.
Slugging right fielder Jay Bruce got some MVP love of his own, finishing 10th in the voting, after reaching the 30-homer plateau for the third straight season and driving in a career-best 109 runs. He'll presumably be helped by the full-time return of left fielder Ryan Ludwick, who played just 38 games last season after a banner 2012 in which he hit 26 homers and drove in 80 runs.
Center field is finally the domain of minor-league base-stealing sensation Billy Hamilton after Shin-Soo Choo signed as a free agent with the Texas Rangers. The youngster swiped 13 bases in 13 games with the Reds last season and had 395 steals in 502 games across six stops in the minors. If he hits - he batted .368 in the brief audition last summer - the Reds won't miss Choo nearly as much.
Heading to the hill on Monday will be lefty Johnny Cueto, who, after winning 19 games in 2012, was only able to make 11 starts last season because of injury. Still, he was 5-2 with a 2.82 ERA in those appearances.
"I'm not worried about it at all," said Cueto, who will be making his third straight Opening Day start. "Those are last year's injuries and I'm prepared and ready to go. It was a difficult year for me because I wasn't able to help the team. That's the toughest part. Everyone goes through injuries, unfortunately."
St. Louis was 11-8 against the Reds last season.