I have good news and bad news for you Cardinals fans. The good news is your team is a legitimate contender to win the Nation League Central. The bad news is another world championship in 2012 is unrealistic. Im not saying that there is absolutely no way the Red Birds could pull it off (last year’s team is a prime example), but the 2011 squad was out of a playoff spot in the last week of the season, and it took a monumental collapse by the Atlanta Braves to get in. This year’s team, at least as it is constructed right now, is not as good.
The obvious reason, of course, is the loss of Albert Pujols. Although Pujols may be exiting his prime, the Cardinals do not have anyone to compensate for the career 162 game average of 42 HR, 126 RBI’s, .328 BA, and .420 OBP (baseball-reference.com). Both Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman put up very solid numbers last year, though loosing a star player, especially one like Pujols, and not gaining anything in return is going to hurt. Pitchers will work Holliday and Berkman a little differently: going after them a lot more, not having to worry about facing a man who has been widely considered the best hitter in baseball over the past decade. It will take a career year from the likes of either David Freese or the newly acquired Carlos Beltran to fill that gaping hole in the middle of the lineup.
Freese certainly did show a lot of potential with his MVP performance in the World Series last year, but no one knows as to whether or not he can play at that level over a full season. Beltran put up numbers similar to that of Holliday and Berkman last year, but all three of these sluggers are aging quickly. Holliday is the youngest of the trio at 32, and Beltran and Berkman will be 35 and 36, respectively.
Much of this season will also depend on the health of Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter. Both are very good “front of the rotation” starters, but Wainwright missed all of last season to undergo Tommy John surgery, and Carpenter was just placed on the 15-day disabled list.
Another question mark for the Cardinals will be new manger, and former catcher, Mike Matheny.
Tony LaRussa’s retirement came at just about the right time for St. Louis. His managerial skills were noticeably dwindling–i.e. forgetting how to use the bullpen phone–but he had enough left to capture one more world championship. Matheny comes in with big shoes to fill, and very little managerial/coaching experience, including none at the professional level. However, catchers do tend to make good mangers, and having a veteran roster with playoff experience should help ease him in to things.
It would not surprise me one bit if the Cardinals win the division this year, mainly because they play in a rather poor National League Central. The only real threat to their divisional dominance is the the Milwaukee Brewers, whom also lost a star player over the offseason in Prince Fielder. If Ryan Braun hadn’t won the appeal of his 50-game suspension, the Cards may have gone uncontested.
The Cincinnati Reds should also be a contender, although after an impressive run to win the central in 2010, they fell short of expectation in 2011.
No need to fret, though. Your St. Louis Cardinals will be competitive; they just won’t win it all. It’s likely that they will make the playoffs, especially with commissioner Bud Selig’s’ additional wild-card team, and once you get in, who knows what can happen. If they do make it though, all the way to the world series, that means they will face a team like the Yankees, the Tigers, or the Angels. Those guys, with stars like Verlander, Cabrera, Granderson, Teixiera, and, dare I say it, Pujols, they just have too much.