Heading into September, it didn't look like the St Louis Cardinals would be playing October baseball. But the stars aligned for St Louis in September. They went on a crazy run and stole the NL's wild card slot away from the Atlanta Braves, who collapsed in horrific fashion over the season's final month. In the playoffs, the Cardinals dispatched the team with the best record in baseball (Philadelphia) in the NLDS, the team that beat them for the division title (Milwaukee) in the NLCS, and won a thrilling a seven game World Series against the two-time AL champions (Texas). Then, it all went to hell in the offseason when Albert Pujols, the face of the franchise, left down. But this Cardinals team is still damn good on paper, and is one of three early favorites in the NL Central.
Depth Chart (as of 3/26)
C: Yadier Molina
1B: Lance Berkman
2B: Tyler Greene
SS: Rafael Furcal
3B: David Freese
LF: Matt Holliday
CF: Jon Jay
RF: Carlos Beltran
SP: Adam Wainwright
SP: Jaime Garcia
SP: Kyle Lohse
SP: Jake Westbrook
SP: Lance Lynn
CL: Jason Motte
The Cardinals landed one of the premiere free agents this offseason in right fielder Carlos Beltran. His signing allowed Lance Berkman to move to first base, where he won't sap the life out of the team defensively. Starter Adam Wainwright will be making his return from Tommy John surgery last spring. After the retirement of manager Tony La Russa, the Cardinals have a new manager in their former catcher, Mike Matheny. That's really all the new faces for St Louis, who are filling roles with young prospects as opposed to veterans, a distinct change from the Tony La Russa way of doing things.
Franchise icon Pujols left town to sign with the Angels, crushing the spirits of Cardinals fans everywhere. Manager Tony La Russa called it a career after winning the World Series, a fitting way to go out. The team also lost starter Edwin Jackson, acquired midseason last year to be a key cog in the rotation. Everyone else St Louis lost was either a bench bat of varying importance (Nick Punto, Gerald Laird, Ryan Theriot, Corey Patterson), or a reliever (Octavio Dotel, Arthur Rhodes).
It's really all about the bench for the Cardinals. Their five man bench is comprised of all young players, including Rule 5 pick Erik Komatsu, catcher Tony Cruz, corner infielder and masher Matt Carpenter, and a pair of players who had an impact on last season's team: outfielder Shane Robinson, and infielder Daniel Descalso. Prospect Lance Lynn, who got relief innings with the big club last season, is slated for the Opening Day rotation due to injuries. The Cardinals have a host of young pitching that could help out later in the year as well, highlighted by top prospect Shelby Miller, who will probably wind up in the rotation at some point during the season.
Tyler Greene is currently the Opening Day starter at second base due to a strained oblique suffered by former starter Skip Schumaker. Greene's upside is vastly higher than Schumaker's, and it'll be interesting to see if St Louis sticks with him once Schumaker is healthy. It will also be interesting to see who will be bumped from the rotation when (or is it if?) Chris Carpenter is healthy again. Smart money points to the young Lynn, but Jake Westbrook was pretty mediocre last year.
Carpenter is out indefinitely with a bulging disc in his neck, which is leading to nerve irritation in his shoulder. That is really, really not good for the Cardinals, but I'm preaching to the choir here. World Series hero (and tortoise owner) Allen Craig may not be ready until June after offseason knee surgery. He just looks like a fourth outfielder on this team due to the presence of stars at the positions he's able to play. Schumaker is also probably a no-go for Opening Day due to his oblique injury, and due to his history of pithy offense, getting his starting spot back could be a challenge.
Can a rotation headed by Adam Wainwright returning from injury still be one of the top staffs in the National League, even if Chris Carpenter misses an extended period of time?
Carpenter comes back sometime in April, Wainwright's return goes swimmingly, and the offense doesn't miss a beat after (essentially) replacing Pujols with Beltran as the Cardinals win the NL Central.
Wainwright takes half the season to get back to an acceptable form. Carpenter makes less than 20 starts, and is less than effective when pitching. Beltran is never healthy, and the team struggles offensively as they fall to fourth place in the division.
Health is more of an issue for the Cardinals than many other teams. Their two best pitchers are either returning from major surgery, or sidelined indefinitely. That's not a good thing. Also, the big bat that they signed to replace a franchise icon has battled injury concerns in the past. My gut tells me that I'm more concerned about Carpenter than Wainwright or Beltran though, and if they have two of the three healthy this year, the Cardinals will be competing for a division title.
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