It might sound a little weird to call the defending World Series Champions a dark horse, but with odds of 25-to-1, that is exactly what they are.
There are several factors in play that have caused this drastic undervaluation.
The first being the departure of El Hom—er, I mean Albert Pujols. Yes Albert Pujols is the greatest player of his generation and one of the greatest players in the history of the game.
His career numbers are dazzling and miniaturize many of his colleagues. The fact that his statistics have been compiled during the steroid era, without even so much as a sniff of wrongdoing on his part, is nothing short of astounding.
The second and third factors in this gross miscalculation are the departures of long-time manager Tony LaRussa and pitching coach Dave Duncan.
I would argue that the loss of Duncan outweighs that of LaRussa. Duncan has made a career out of transforming pitchers into stars.
His near-mystical ability in developing pitchers has been well documented over the course of his lengthy major-league career.
However, don't let these three changes fool you into thinking this is a rebuilding year for the Cards.
They return every other starter from last year's World Series. In fact, they are sliding Lance Berkman from his spot in right field to first base and implanting 2011 All-Star Carlos Beltran into Berkman's vacant right field position.
Will Pujols' leadership and productivity be missed?
However, this is a very strong offensive squad led by Matt Holliday, as well as the aforementioned Berkman and Beltran.
David Freese, last season's NLCS and World Series MVP, will be manning the hot corner on a daily basis for the Cards. I'm not one to get too excited over a minimal body of work, but what Freese accomplished on the grandest of stages last year, combined with his production from the regular season that saw him hit .297 with 10 home runs in 97 games, makes me believe that he has arrived as a major-league force.
Much like the other teams on this list, the Cardinals have a pretty deep starting pitching rotation. Led by Chris Carpenter, the Cardinals pitching staff as a whole was just good enough last season to get the job done.
While the organization didn't make any moves this offseason to the rotation, that doesn't mean that the Cards aren't adding an impact pitcher.
That's right, Adam Wainwright, who was arguably the Cards' best pitcher entering last season, is expected back for the start of the 2012 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery last February and missing the entire 2011 season.
If Wainwright can rebound strong and return to the form that he had prior to his injury, the Cardinals staff becomes exponentially better.
I'll leave you with Jaime Garcia. The young lefty has terrific ability and I believe is poised to have his breakout season after having two very good seasons to begin his major league career. If Garcia can have that truly breakout season, of which I believe he is capable, he very well may find himself as the coveted X-factor that is able to propel the Cardinals back into elite status.
All in all, value like this might just be too hard to pass up.