Originally posted on Fox Sports Midwest  |  Last updated 3/29/12
The defending World Series Champions will embark on their title defense April 4 in Miami when they take center stage against the new-look Marlins. But the Cardinals have a different appearance to them as well with future Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa retired, pitching coach Dave Duncan on a leave of absence and slugger Albert Pujols gone to Anaheim. Pitcher Adam Wainwright returns from Tommy John surgery and veteran outfielder Carlos Beltran was added to the mix as the Cardinals look to make first-year manager Mike Matheny a winner in his debut season. With the new season set to begin, here's a closer look at the 2012 Cardinals. Three reasons to be excited: Adam Wainwright After missing the entire 2011 season due to Tommy John surgery last February, Wainwright has shown no signs of the injury this spring. He didn't allow a run until his fifth spring start and has appeared just as dominant as the pitcher who won 20 games in 2010. A healthy Wainwright brings a huge boost to the Cardinals rotation. Matt Holliday The outfielder hit safely in his first 13 games this spring and carries a batting average well over .400. He's been hitting rockets all over the field and looks ready to fill the No. 3 spot in the order previously held by Albert Pujols. After missing time for a variety of fluky injuries last year, a healthy Holliday could be in store for a huge year at the plate. Jake Westbrook The right-hander lost 25 pounds in the offseason and has looked like a different pitcher this spring. Combining his new appearance with a change in his delivery, Westbrook has been nearly unhittable in Grapefruit League play. After not even being on the NLCS roster last fall, Westbrook appears poised for a nice bounce-back year in 2012. Three reasons to worry: No Pujols He's arguably the game's best slugger but he's moved on, signing a mega deal with the Anaheim Angels in the offseason. Pujols was the face of the Cardinals franchise for the past 11 years and his presence in the No. 3 spot in the lineup was a comforting feeling for the club and its fans. Despite a down year in 2011, the departure of Pujols will leave a big void in the Cardinals lineup one the rest of the offense may or may not be able to make up for. Chris Carpenter The Cardinals ace was shut down last week due to nerve irritation that has led to weakness in his throwing shoulder. He will open the season on the disabled list and could miss a significant portion of the year. The Cardinals made the playoffs in five of the six seasons in which he made at least 28 starts but missed postseason play the two years he was hurt. A healthy Carpenter is usually the Cardinals' key to success. A lengthy absence in 2012 could spell problems. Inexperienced bench The Cardinals will rely on a largely young and inexperienced bench to start the year, a change from previous years. Dan Descalso, who played in 148 games as a rookie in 2011, figures to be the most veteran guy among the group. Rookies Matt Carpenter, Erik Komatsu and Shane Robinson will likely make the team, as will a backup catcher (likely to be Tony Cruz). The Cardinals lack a veteran presence on the bench and until Allen Craig returns, a power threat as well. Three question marks: Mike Matheny The first-year manager takes over for one of the greatest skippers in baseball history in Tony La Russa. The former catcher has no prior managing or coaching experience in professional baseball and his style for in-game decisions and strategies remain largely unknown. How he leads a club trying to defend a World Series title in his first year at the helm will be a big question. Tyler Greene The talented infielder will likely open the year as the starter at second base, but is he ready to handle the job for a full season? Greene has shown plenty of potential at Triple-A but has yet to produce at the big league level. The Cardinals hope consistent playing time will be what he needs to get going offensively, but whether or not he can be counted on every day remains to be seen. Overall health Nearly a fourth of the Cardinals roster (six players) will start the season in their mid-30s Rafael Furcal, Lance Berkman, Carlos Beltran, Scott Linebrink, J.C. Romero and Chris Carpenter. How these veteran players as well as previously injured players David Freese and Allen Craig can fair throughout the season will be a big key to the Cardinals success. The Cardinals lack depth at key areas, meaning a key injury could spell serious trouble. Three difference makers: Carlos Beltran The newcomer had a solid season in 2011, hitting .300 with 22 home runs and 84 RBI with the Mets and Giants. Signed to help replace the void left by Pujols, the switch-hitting Beltran provides the Cardinals with a solid No. 2 hitter in front of Holliday. An option in either center or right field, a healthy Beltran could go a long way in the Cardinals returning to the postseason in 2012. Jason Motte After a year in which they struggled to find any consistency at the back end of their bullpen, the Cardinals hope the hard-throwing Motte will be the answer. After taking over as closer in September, Motte was nearly unhittable in the postseason and was on the mound for the final out of both the NLCS and World Series. A dominant Motte instantly makes the Cardinals bullpen significantly better than a year ago. Jaime Garcia A decent Cardinals rotation becomes one of the best in the league should the lefty Garcia continue to progress at his current rate. Garcia thinks this could be the year he emerges as one of the top left-handed starters in the game. The lefty will be the No. 2 starter while Carpenter is out, something he struggled to do at times last year without Wainwright. A solid year from Garcia would go a long way in helping the Cardinals contend for another playoff spot. Three predictions: Stolen bases will increase The Cardinals have finished near the bottom of the league in stolen bases in each of the past several years, a trend that will end in 2012. New manager Mike Matheny pushed the envelope in spring training and appears set to have his players run more than former skipper Tony La Russa did. Consistent playing time for speedster Tyler Greene and the additions of Carlos Beltran and Rafael Furcal will help contribute to a noticeable increase in stolen bases this year. Freese will be an All-Star After his breakout postseason in which he took home both NLCS and World Series MVP honors, third baseman David Freese will continue to ride the momentum wave with a strong first half that will land him on the National League All-Star team. Another year removed from ankle and leg problems, a healthy Freese will continue to emerge as one of the better young players in the game in 2012. Lynn will impress Fill-in starter Lance Lynn will pitch better than expected, providing the Cardinals with a nice No. 5 starter while Carpenter is out. Lynn will make Cardinals fans stop talking about Roy Oswalt by continuing his strong performance from late last season. Despite moving to the rotation, Lynn will find success by pitching with the same attack mode and mentality that he used in the bullpen. Final take: It's been more than 30 years since a National League team repeated as World Series Champions. And while the Cardinals face a statistically uphill climb to win it all again, they should be good enough to win the Central Division. The starting rotation, bullpen and lineup are all solid enough to make the Cardinals legitimate contenders in 2012, assuming they can stay relatively healthy.
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