BASEBALL PREVIEW: St. Louis Cardinals
March 29, 2012INDIANA SPORTS PAGE
For the first time since 1995 the St. Louis Cardinals will go into a season without either manager Tony La Russa or Albert Pujols in their dugout.
On the heels of the franchise's 11th World Series title, La Russa announced his retirement after 33 years as a manager. Now instead of having the majors' third winningest manager on its bench, the Cards will go into the 2012 campaign with a virtual unknown in Mike Matheny at the helm.
The loss that stung even more, though, was Pujols, who left St. Louis after 11 seasons to join the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim for a whopping 10-year, $240 million deal.
Despite all that, though, hopes are still high in St. Louis.
And why not. This is a team that last year used one of the all-time great comebacks down the stretch to even make the postseason after trailing the National League wild-card leading Braves by 10 1/2 games as late as August 25
After overtaking Atlanta on the last day of the regular season, St. Louis took on the role of underdog against the 102-win Phillies in the divisional round. When Chris Carpenter outdueled Roy Halladay in a deciding Game 5, the heavy- hitting Milwaukee Brewers were pegged as the favorites to end the storybook run.
The Cardinals, though, sent their division rivals packing before a thrilling seven-game World Series win over the Texas Rangers.
Sure Pujols is gone, but the team added Carlos Beltran with hopes he can keep the lineup somewhat stable and still be a force alongside Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman. The real optimism, however, comes in the starting rotation where perennial Cy Young candidate Adam Wainwright returns after missing all of the 2011 season recovering from elbow surgery.
There's no denying it's certainly a new era in St. Louis, but will be as successful as the one that just ended?
Below we take a capsule look at the 2012 edition of the St. Louis Cardinals, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2011 FINISH (90-72) Second Place (NL CENTRAL)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: Carlos Beltran (OF), Scott Linebrink (RHP), J.C. Romero (LHP), Alex COra (INF)
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: Albert Pujols (1B), Gerald Laird (C), Nick Punto (INF), Ryan Theriot (INF), Corey Patterson (OF), Ocatavio DOtel (RHP), Edwin Jackson (RHP), Arthur Rhodes (LHP)
PROJECTED LINEUP: Rafael Furcal (SS); Carlos Beltran (RF); Matt Holliday (LF); Lance Berkman (1B); David Freese (3B); Yadier Molina (C); John Jay (CF); Tyler Greene (2B)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Adam Wainwright (RHP); Chris Carpenter (RHP); Jaime Garcia (LHP); Kyle Lohse (RHP); Jake Westbrook (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Jason Motte (RHP)
MANAGER: Mike Matheny
IS ADAM WAINWRIGHT ALL THE WAY BACK?
Most people assumed the Cardinals' season was over before it even started last year when ace right-hander Adam Wainwright went down in spring training with an elbow injury that would require the dreaded Tommy John surgery.
But, Wainwright is back and ready to take his rightful spot atop this rotation and try to re-establish himself as one of the best pitchers in baseball. If the Grapefruit League is any indication, Wainwright has picked up right where he left off at the end of 2010, when he won 20 games.
"I don't think you can ever say a team's destiny lies with one guy's arm," Wainwright said. "Now, it certainly helps."
Even without Wainwright in the rotation, the Cardinals had a respectable 3.74 ERA and a manageable WHIP of 1.31. They return the bulk of that staff with righties Chris Carpenter, Kyle Lohse, Jake Westbrook and left-hander Jaime Garcia slated to slot in behind Wainwright.
Carpenter, though, was diagnosed with a bulging disc in his neck and has been limited this spring. Nobody seems overly concerned about the injury, but Carpenter will start the season on the disabled list and the team has decided to transition Lance Lynn from the bullpen to a starting role in case it becomes a bigger problem down the road.
CAN CARLOS BELTRAN REPLACE ALBERT PUJOLS' PRODUCTION?
Let's be clear here, nobody is expecting Carlos Beltran to match the production of three-time National League MVP ALbert Pujols. At age 34, Beltran just simply isn't that player anymore, but he may be the perfect fit for the situation the Cardinals now find themselves in.
Beltran split last season between the New York Mets and San Francisco Giants and batted .300 - higher than Pujols by the way - with 22 homers, 84 runs batted in and a .385 on-base percentage. Plus his 39 doubles were also more than Pujols.
Injuries have ravaged Beltran the past couple of seasons, but last year he appeared in 142 games. And as his numbers indicate, there is still something left in the tank.
For his career the switch hitter has a career .283 average with 302 home runs, 1,146 RBI and 293 stolen bases in 13-plus seasons for the Royals, Astros, Mets and Giants.
Beltran will likely hit in front of Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman, taking even less pressure off of him to knock in runs. Plus should he break down at some point the Cardinals will have a more than adequate replacement available in Allen Craig, once he returns from his own knee problems.
"He'll get playing time out there," general manager John Mozeliak said of Beltran. "Obviously I think early on, he'll see more playing time in right field. ... From a scouting standpoint, what our scouts saw last year gave us some confidence. But yes, there certainly had to be some effort reviewing his medicals. All of that gave us confidence that this was doable."
COULD THE CARDS MISS LA RUSSA MORE THAN PUJOLS?
While everyone continues to fret over the loss of Pujols, a bigger impact could be the loss of Tony La Russa, who was instrumental in managing this team to another World Series title.
La Russa, who had been the team's skipper since 1996, will be replaced by Mike Matheny, someone who never served as a full-time coach at any level, but has ties to the organization from his days as a catcher with the team.
He was hired for his leadership skills, but there will definitely be a learning curve this season as he grows into the role.
"I can't tell [Cardinals fans] how excited I am about this opportunity," Matheny said. "I know there is a high level of expectation, a high level of what has been known as the Cardinal way, and I plan to carry through with it."
X-FACTOR: LANCE BERKMAN: It was a tale of two seasons for Lance Berkman last season. After hitting a miserable .248 in 2010, Berkman played like the MVP of the National League in the first half, swatting 24 home runs and hitting .290. His production tailed off mightily in the second half, as he hit just seven home runs and drove in 31 runs, while dealing with injuries in the second half. Still, he was named the NL Comeback Player of the Year. But, what brought on the rejuvenation? Was it simply a bad year two seasons ago, or was having Pujols in the lineup the difference? The answer is probably a little bit of both. You know what you are going to get from him. Berkman will likely hit for average and draw his walks, making him a very valuable offensive player. But without Pujols in that lineup it's distinctly possible that he'll fall short of 30 homers in 2012. He, though, is now the centerpiece of this lineup.
Even without Pujols, expectations are high for the defending world champions. The offense should still be able to put up plenty of runs and as long as Carpenter and Wainwright stay healthy, the rotation has the potential to be very good. Jason Motte at the end is always shaky, but he was a horse for the team in the postseason last year, so the hope is that maybe he has turned a corner. Maybe the Beltran thing will prove to be a disaster. Luckily for the Cards they play in a weak National League Central, meaning they probably have the luxury of letting the season play out and identifying their needs before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. But if Wainwright isn't right, or the neck thing proves to be too much for Carpenter, Mozeliak will be shopping for a starter at the deadline. Either way this is a team that should contend for an NL Central title and at the very least the wild card.