Hey, weren’t the St. Louis Cardinals supposed to win the division last year? Even after Cincinnati showed that they were for real and were going to compete, the entire baseball world waited for the Cardinals to seize control of the division and it just never happened as they ended up on the outside looking in during the playoffs. An 86-76 season staring a full 5 games up at the Reds left an empty feeling in STL this past offseason.
Certainly not all was lost in 2010. Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter combined to win 36 games and were supported by a tremendous season from rookie Jaime Garcia. Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday are pretty good too. Colby Rasmus, in flashes, showed what type of a player he can be. David Freese looked like the real deal as well before being lost to injury. The bullpen, led by Ryan Franklin, Jason Motte, Kyle McClellan, and company were pretty impressive too.
Once you get past the elite members of the Cardinals however, there was a lot left to be desired. Ryan Ludwick’s season was a waste and now he’s gone, and the infield, aside from Pujols, was a weak-hitting unit. Consider that Pujols out-homered the entire remainder of the Cardinals’ infield, starters and backups included, in 2010. Perhaps a full season of Freese will help rectify that, although he is not known for pounding the ball out of the yard. The Cards are going to need more than just a strong middle of the order to convince the Reds and Brewers that they are a team to be reckoned with.
A quick look at some positives and negatives should help clarify the direction of this team.
Best case scenario for 2011
First place, of course. The Cardinals have enough front line talent both on offense, in the rotation, and the pen to contend for a divisional crown, even with Adam Wainwright cozying up to his new buddy Tommy John. Pujols will push his way toward another MVP trophy, with or without a contract dispute, and if some of the new cast of characters can add a little fire to the offense, this team should be able to hang from an offensive standpoint. Without Wainwright, the starting rotation is weakened but still has talent. Chris Carpenter has “ace” ability and he should get plenty of help from Jaime Garcia and Jake Westbrook. What they get from the other 2 starters will go a long way in determining this team’s ultimate success.
Most Valuable Cardinals
Not many teams boast a legitimate MVP and two Cy Young candidates year in and year out but the Cardinals can do so with confidence in Albert Pujols, Adam Wainwright, and Chris Carpenter. It would be a farce to even consider any other players as more valuable than these three. With Albert, you get a guaranteed 35 homers, 120 RBI’s, and well above .300 batting average, validated by a 10-year track record. With Wainwright out of the mix in 2011 due to impending elbow surgery, Chris Carpenter will take center stage. Carp has the ability to carry a pitching staff much like Wainwright. If he can repeat his health and success of the last 2 years, it should be enough to keep STL above water.
Potential Breakout Players
Nope, it’s not Gerald Laird! Offensively, Colby Rasmus, fresh off of a 23-home run, 66 RBI season is ready to become a star. For stretches last year, he could get as hot as anyone in baseball. If he can bring some consistency to the ballpark on a daily basis, the ceiling is very high for the dynamic centerfielder. He’ll probably hit behind two of the better hitters in the NL, if Tony LaRussa slots him 5th with a declaration of confidence, and has the ability to go .285, 30 HR, 90 RBI’s in this lineup. From a pitching standpoint, Jake Westbrook has to be the breakout candidate, if he hasn’t broken out already. Coming over in a trade deadline deal from a no-win situation in Cleveland, Westbrook instantly found his groove in Dave Duncan’s pitching staff. In Cleveland, he had a 4.65 ERA, as a Cardinal he posted a 3.48 mark in 12 starts. St. Louis is a good fit for Westbrook.
Worst case scenario for 2011
From a record standpoint, anything other than a 1st place finish is basically St. Louis’ worst-case scenario. This team gears up for a postseason run like I gear up for chili fries at lunch time, religiously. The NL Central has some tough teams at the top, namely the defending champion Reds and the vastly improved (on paper at least) Brewers. Milwaukee’s revamped rotation can match the Cardinals start for start and Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder are the equalizers to Pujols-Holliday. The Reds showed the baseball world what they can do in 2010 and certainly haven’t gotten any worse this offseason. To say that the Cardinals are the divisional favorite wouldn’t be outlandish, but it might also be a reach. And with Adam Wainwright lost for the year, it is a reach. From a personnel standpoint, losing Wainwright is the pitching equivalent of the offense losing Pujols. LaRussa will be forced to find a replacement along the lines of an Ian Snell, Lance Lynn, P.J. Walters, or a bullpen convert like Kyle McClellan. Any 2 of these guys couldn’t carry Wainwright’s luggage on their best day and the team will undoubetdly suffer dramatically from his loss.
Biggest areas of concern
With the Cardinals and Dave Duncan, you never get too concerned about pitching; the issue has to be whether Pujols-Holliday-Rasmus have enough of a supporting cast in the lineup to compete with Milwaukee and Cincy’s bats. The outfield of Holliday, Rasmus, and Lance Berkman/Jon Jay should be good enough but the infield is cause for concern. Defensive whiz Brendan Ryan is gone and Ryan Theriot is in. Lining up next to Pujols will be various combinations of Freese, Nick Punto (when he returns from injury), Skip Schumaker, Aaron Miles, and Theriot. This group of unsexy names will need to find a way to produce for LaRussa in 2011 or St. Louis will fall behind the pack yet again.
Who needs to rebound from a rough 2010
If Kyle Lohse is expected to be the 4th starter now, then a rebound season from him would be a huge lift to the pitching staff. He seems to be losing his effectiveness with each passing start. After a Dave Duncan-induced renaissance in 2008, Lohse has battled injury and a balky ERA the past 2 years (4.74 and 6.55). If he comes out soft in 2011, he won’t hold his job for long. Offensively, the Cards put a big chunk faith in former division-rival Lance Berkman. At $8.5M/year, nobody seems to know what to expect from the former All-Star anymore. He managed just 14 homers in 404 at-bats in 2010 with a career worst .248 average (not counting his cup of coffee in 1999). If LaRussa sticks him in front of Pujols in the 2nd spot in the order, he just might see enough good pitches to resurrect his rapidly fading career.
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