It is obvious that Yadier Molina is the most important player on the St. Louis Cardinals roster. The way he leads the team and controls the pitching staff is remarkable. His defense is unmatched. Yadi has also become one of the premier hitters in the National League. So, of course, if something were to happen to him the Cardinals season would be in serious jeopardy. That being said, who would be the next most important player on the team? Some may suggest the ace of the staff, the highest paid position player, the lead off hitter, or maybe a power hitter. While all of those roles are important, for the Cardinals the most important player is none of those.
The Cardinals ace, Adam Wainwright, is no doubt a key contributor to the team. His leadership on and off the field is second-to-none. You can expect 18-20 wins per season from him. He is always mentioned in the National League Cy Young debate. And, his competitive demeanor makes him the kind of guy you always want on your team. However, as the Cardinals experienced in 2011, losing him to injury was not extremely detrimental to the team. Now, I am not saying he is expendable by any means, but the Cardinals have enough depth in their pitching staff to recover from losing a pitcher as significant as Wainwright.
The highest paid position player on the Cardinals is Matt Holliday. He would also fit the category of power hitter. Holliday has always been a consistent threat at the plate averaging 28 HRs and 109 RBI. He is also a career .311 hitter with an OPS of .918, and is a perennial All-Star. Definitely a valuable piece of the Cardinals offense. However, his defense has never been overly impressive. Sure, losing him to injury, trade, or free agency would hurt the Cardinals offense. But the amount of young outfield talent the Cardinals have (Oscar Taveras, Jon Jay, Shane Robinson, Stephen Piscotty, Randal Grichuk, etc.) should be able to fill the void to some extent. Adding in the excellent pitching the Cardinals have, runs are not a premium for this team. Keep in mind Holliday plays exclusively in left field.
Matt Carpenter is the lead off hitter for the Cardinals. Having a player that can consistently reach base ahead of the power hitting RBI machines is obviously a benefit to any team. Carpenter did a great job of this last season. He led the league in runs, hits, and doubles on his way to winning his first Silver Slugger Award. He also provided very good defense, turning more double plays than anyone else in the league. A lot can be said about that since Carpenter is a natural third baseman, and 2013 was his first season at second base. In 2014 he will be moving back to third base. While I would love to see continued success from him in the lead off spot, odds are his numbers will dip a bit this season. This should not have a major impact on the Cardinals though. Keep in mind in 2012 Jon Jay tackled most of the lead off hitting duties, and his numbers were nowhere close to Carpenters.
In my opinion, the most important player on the team needs to be someone that is a leader, a guy who hustles on every play, contributes a high number of RBI, plays solid defense, is known for getting those timely/high pressure hits, and can field several positions. That man is Allen Craig. He can play either corner outfield spot, plays a very good first base, and is an RBI machine. If he goes down to injury, the Cardinals will have to rely on a very young Oscar Taveras to play right field, and a young (and so far inconsistent) Matt Adams to play first base. Having Craig in the lineup means only one of those positions will be fielded by a youngster. Sure, Craig’s numbers don’t match up to Holliday’s, but keep in mind how young Craig is. His numbers are trending upwards, so I expect him to put up Holliday-like figures in the coming seasons. He already has a .306 career average that should be higher if you eliminate his first season (114 AB). Doing that bumps his career average to.312 (Holliday is at .311). Another reason he is so important to this team is because he is young. Being young means two things: he has plenty of time to mature in to a great player (already showing a lot of potential), and he is very inexpensive for the Cardinals. He could have demanded more money when he was eligible for arbitration, but his desire to win and to play on a winning team outweighed that money in his opinion. That desire and hunger to win championships, and that belief in the Cardinals system is yet another reason why Allen Craig is so important to this club. He can pass that mentality on to the young and new talent rising in the system, just as Yadi and Wainwright and Holliday do.