The last calendar year has been an eventful one for the St. Louis Cardinals.
This time last year, the Cardinals were being written off by many thanks to Adam Wainwright's elbow woes, which ultimately led to Tommy John surgery. The team ended up flying under the radar for much of the 2011 season, only to get hot in September, finally clinching a playoff berth on the final day of the regular season.
Then they won the World Series.
The euphoria was short-lived, though. Not long after the last out of the World Series was recorded, legendary manager Tony La Russa retired, and then the Cardinals lost superstar slugger Albert Pujols to free agency. He's with the Los Angeles Angels now, which still feels weird.
The absence of La Russa and Pujols is making a lot of people write the Cardinals off once again, but the truth is that this is still a very strong team. The Cardinals are not going to fade into irrelevance just because things are going to be a little different.
Here's a look at how things are shaping up for the Cardinals this season.
2011 Record: 90-72
Key Arrivals (courtesy of BaseballProspectus.com): LHP J.C. Romero (FA), LHP R.J. Swindle (FA), OF Eugenio Velez (FA), OF Carlos Beltran (FA).
Key Departures: 1B Albert Pujols (FA), SS Nick Punto (FA), SS Ryan Theriot (FA), C Gerald Laird (FA), RHP Octavio Dotel (FA), RHP Edwin Jackson (FA), LHP Arthur Rhodes (FA).
Projected Rotation (per official site)
- Chris Carpenter (11-9, 3.45 ERA, 1.26 WHIP)*
- Adam Wainwright (20-11, 2.42 1.05 in 2010; did not pitch in 2011)
- Kyle Lohse (14-8, 3.39, 1.17)
- Jaime Garcia (13-7, 3.56, 1.32)
- Jake Westbrook (12-9, 4.66, 1.53)
*Wainwright is listed as No. 1 starter on the Cardinals' website, but Joe Strauss of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has reported that Carpenter is penciled in for Opening Day.
UPDATE: March 21 at 11:22 a.m. EST
Bad news. Carpenter's neck injury has proven to be more serious than anybody anticipated. According to MLB.com, he has been shut down and has returned to St. Louis to undergo a series of tests. He is "almost surely" to begin the season on the disabled list, and there is presently no timetable for his return.
C: Yadier Molina (.305/.349/.465)
1B: Lance Berkman (.301/.412/.547)
2B: Tyler Greene (.212/.322/.288)
3B: David Freese (.297/.350/.441)
SS: Rafael Furcal (.231/.298/.348)
LF: Matt Holliday (.296/.388/.525)
CF: Jon Jay (.297/.344/.424)
RF: Carlos Beltran (.300/.385/.525)
Closer: Jason Motte (R) (5-2, 9 SV, 18 HLD, 4 BLSV, 2.25 ERA, 0.96 WHIP)
Fernando Salas (R) (5-6, 24 SV, 6 HLD, 6 BLSV, 2.28, 0.95)
Kyle McClellan (12-7, 4 HLD, 1 BLSV, 4.19, 1.31)
Mitchell Boggs (R) (2-3, 4 SV, 1 HLD, 4 BLSV, 3.56, 1.37)
Mark Rzepczynski (L) (2-6, 18 HLD, 4 BLSV, 3.34, 1.23)
J.C. Romero (L) (1-0, 3 HLD, 4.01, 1.74)
Eduardo Sanchez (R) (3-1, 5 SV, 7 HLD, 2 BLSV, 1.80, 1.00)
Lance Lynn (R) (1-1, 1 SV, 3 HLD, 1 BLSV, 3.12, 1.04)
Scouting the Starting Pitching
Cardinals starters were not elite in 2011. St. Louis' rotation managed just 86 quality starts all season, and it managed a relatively unspectacular 3.81 ERA.
One things Cardinals starters did do, however, was log innings. In the National League, only the Philadelphia Phillies and Arizona Diamondbacks saw their starting pitchers rack up more innings than Cardinals' starting pitchers. They logged exactly 999 innings.
Chris Carpenter had a lot to do with that. He led the National League with 237.1 innings pitched. His overall numbers—an 11-9 record, a 3.45 ERA and a 1.26 WHIP—weren't overly impressive, but this was largely because Carpenter got off to a very slow start. He didn't really get rolling until after the All-Star break.
After the break, Carpenter was outstanding. He pitched 108.2 innings and went 7-2 with an ERA of 2.98. He was particularly good in September, pitching two complete games and posting a 2.15 ERA. As everyone will well remember, Carpenter's complete game shutout on the final day of the regular season ultimately punched St. Louis' ticket to the postseason.
Carpenter is a rock, but the big question concerning St. Louis' rotation is how Adam Wainwright will bounce back after missing the entire 2011 season.
This is a question that nobody knows the answer to. The track record for pitchers in their first year after Tommy John surgery is shaky, so nobody should expect Wainwright to recapture the form he showed in 2009 and 2010 right away. He won a total of 39 games those two years, with an ERA of 2.53 and a WHIP of 1.13. He was remarkable.
The Cardinals are obviously going to play it safe with Wainwright. Assuming he stays healthy enough to keep pitching, it's safe to assume he's going to spend much of the season shaking off rust. If all goes well, Wainwright will be more like his old self in the second half of the season, just in time for an inevitable playoff push.
While Wainwright is shaking off rust, the Cardinals will need Jaime Garcia to be better than ever. I like Garcia as a pitcher, but he hasn't yet figured out a good balance on the mound. He did well to keep his strikeout rate steady from 2010 to 2011 while lowering his walk rate, but his improved control led to more hits. Batters hit .273 off Garcia in 2011, which is a little too high.
Garcia was at his worst after the break, posting a 4.07 ERA and allowing opponents to hit an even .300 against him.
On the bright side, Garcia's numbers could have been a lot worse given the way he struggled in 2011. And strangely enough, his FIP of 3.23 was actually lower than his 3.56 ERA.
This will be a big season for Garcia. He's been around the block twice now, and the Cardinals are counting on him to take the next step towards being an ace.
Behind Garcia is Kyle Lohse. I wouldn't trust him in a Game 7 situation, but there are much worse No. 4 starters out there. Lohse is a guy who isn't going to walk the ballpark, and he has a habit of pitching to contact very effectively.
Unfortunately, Lohse pitched to contact a little too effectively last season, posting a .269 BABIP despite the fact that Lohse's ground-ball rate dipped a little. I'm thinking he got lucky last season and his numbers will level out in 2012.
Still, I'd take Lohse over 90 percent of the No. 4 starters around the majors.
Jake Westbrook is penciled into the No. 5 spot in this rotation, and he's a serviceable starter as long as he's getting ground balls. He got plenty of those last year, but a lot of them found their way through the infield. Opposing batters hit .290 off Westbrook last season.
But just like I'd take Lohse over most No. 4 starters, I'd take Westbook over most No. 5 starters. At least the Cardinals can rely on him for innings.
As a whole, I like this rotation. There are some question marks, but there's not a whole lot to complain about either. In fact, I'm more worried about the absence of pitching coach Dave Duncan than I am about the pitchers themselves. That man is a wizard.
Nevertheless, these are Duncan's guys, and they had enough time with him to learn all his tricks. They'll be fine.
Scouting the Bullpen
St. Louis' bullpen was better than most people probably realize last season. Cardinals relievers may have posted an unspectacular 3.73 ERA, but their 2.48 K/BB ratio was one of the top marks in the National League.
Closing games was St. Louis' biggest problem last season, as the team finished with 26 blown saves. That's way too many.
However, last year's Cardinals team lacked a true closer, and that problem was solved late in the season and in the playoffs. Jason Motte proved he's the man for the job by saving five games in the postseason, all while posting an impressive 2.19 ERA and a microscopic 0.49 WHIP.
We know from his performance in the playoffs last year that Motte's ceiling as a closer is high, but it's not like we're talking about a fluky pitcher. Motte was fantastic in general last season, posting a 2.25 ERA and a 0.96 WHIP. He didn't walk guys, and hitters managed just a .202 average against him.
The Cardinals have a bunch of quality arms with which to form a bridge to Motte. Though he was a mediocre closer, Fernando Salas had an outstanding season in his own right in 2011. He'll be an asset setting up for Motte, and is a guy who can get both righties and lefties out.
The X-factor in this bullpen is Kyle McClellan. The Cardinals had to use him as a starter last season after they lost Wainwright, and the experiment didn't go so well. By the time McClellan was back in the bullpen, he was pretty much out of gas.
We know from McClellan's 2010 season that he's a much better reliever than he is a starter. He was fantastic in 2010, and he should be fantastic again in 2012, resulting in a much deeper pen.
Mike Matheny likely won't be able to mix and match like La Russa used to do, but that's not going to be an issue given the overall quality of his bullpen.
Scouting the Hitting
Scoring runs was never a big problem for the Cardinals last season. They scored 762 of them, good for most in the National League. They also led the NL with a .273 team batting average and a .341 team on-base percentage, and they tied for first with a .425 team slugging percentage.
The big question, of course, is how the Cardinals can be that good again without Albert Pujols' bat in the lineup.
A bounce-back season from Matt Holliday will help. He was outstanding for the Cardinals in 2009 and 2010, but he just couldn't catch a break in 2011. He had to have an emergency appendectomy in April, missed time when a moth got stuck in his ear in August and then he hurt his hand in September.
Despite his various mishaps, Holliday still managed to his .296 with 22 homers and he posted an OPS of .916. In retrospect, that's pretty impressive.
For all intents and purposes, Pujols' bat has been replaced by Carlos Beltran's bat. This is a downgrade, but not as much of one as people may think. Beltran showed in 2011 that he can still hit.
All told, Beltran posted a line of .300/.385/.525, which is not bad at all. The truly impressive part is that he was actually a better hitter with the Giants than he was with the Mets. I just didn't see that coming given the lack of protection in San Francisco's lineup and the ballpark the Giants play in.
If Beltran stays healthy (cross your fingers, Cardinals fans), he's going to make up for a good chunk of the production the Cardinals lost when Pujols bolted for Los Angeles.
Lance Berkman and David Freese will help make up for the rest. Berkman's power numbers took a dive after the All-Star break, but he was way better in 2011 than the Cardinals probably ever thought he would be. I don't think we're going to see him hit 30 homers again, but Berkman is going to get on base and hit for enough power to flirt with an OPS of .900 again. The Cardinals will gladly take that kind of production.
Freese is the guy to watch in this lineup. He showed with his torrid postseason that he has the ability to be a difference-maker with a bat in his hands, as Freese was by far St. Louis' best hitter in the World Series.
The knock on Freese is that he just can't stay healthy for a full season, and this is absolutely true. Freese has generally been very good when he has been able to play, but the Cardinals are going to need him to stay on the field this season more than he has in each of the last two years.
If Freese stays healthy, the middle of St. Louis' order is going to be stacked. Pitchers will not look forward to facing it.
And we haven't even talked about Yadier Molina yet. He had the best offensive season of his career last year, batting .305 with a career-high 14 home runs. The Cardinals would love to get that kind of production from Molina again, but the truth is that whatever offense Molina provides is a bonus given how excellent he is on defense.
There are some weak spots in St. Louis' lineup, but there's enough talent to make sure the team's offensive production doesn't slide too far from where it was last season. This lineup is going to score plenty of runs.
Make a list of all the things you look for in a true ace, and you'll find that Chris Carpenter satisfies most, if not all, of the requirements.
When Carpenter is healthy, he's a guy who will pile up innings, keep runs off the scoreboard, and generally do whatever it takes to give the Cardinals a chance to win any game he pitches. He was instrumental in the Cardinals' run to the World Series last year, and he ultimately won Game 7 of the World Series.
I mentioned above that Carpenter's season totals from 2011 don't tell the whole story, as he was at his best in the second half of the season when the Cardinals absolutely needed him to be. When the going got tough, Carpenter got going.
It becomes even more apparent that Carpenter really wasn't that bad last season when you take an closer look at his numbers. He actually upped his strikeout rate and decreased his walk rate, posting an impressive 3.47 K/BB. Among pitchers who logged at least 200 innings, that was good for eighth in the National League.
Because Carpenter's ground ball rate declined, you would think that he would have given up more long balls. He didn't. Only 7.5 percent of the fly balls he induced went over the fence, and opponents only slugged .360 off him.
The point is that Carpenter did not regress as much as his primary numbers suggest he did. His slightly subpar numbers were products of a slow start and a bit of bad luck. On balance, Carpenter still pitched like an ace last season.
This should come as no surprise. Carpenter is one of the top aces in baseball, and he has been for years.
I'm a pretty big fan of Matt Holliday. From where I'm sitting, he's one of the very best right-handed hitters in the game. At least when he's healthy, anyway.
The numbers support the idea. From 2007 to 2010, Holliday managed a line of .322/.399/.549. His average of .322 was the fifth-best mark among all hitters in that four-year span, his slugging percentage of .549 was tied for seventh-best and his OPS of .949 was right up there with Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder.
This is the Holliday that the Cardinals should expect to see in 2012, not the snakebit version of him that they got in 2011—although even that version was pretty good, as Holliday saw very little decline in his on-base percentage and slugging percentage between 2010 and 2011.
With Pujols out of the Cardinals' lineup, they're going to need Holliday to get back to being the hitter he was from 2007 to 2010. As long as Holliday stays healthy, there's not a doubt in my mind that he's going to oblige the Cardinals.
The Cardinals have a lot of guys who could go here, particularly David Freese, Allen Craig or Rafael Furcal.
But no one player is as important for the Cardinals this season than Adam Wainwright. It's not even close.
The Cardinals probably aren't going to get the 2009-2010 version of Wainwright. That Wainwright won 39 games, pitched 463.1 innings, had a 3.48 K/BB, a 2.53 ERA and a 1.13 WHIP. He was one of the very best starting pitchers in the majors.
Like I mentioned above, it's just not reasonable at all to expect Wainwright to pick up where he left off in 2010. He's going to need some time to shake the rust off, and odds are it's going to be a pretty tough process.
Once that rust comes off, though, the Cardinals are going to have a two-headed monster at the top of their rotation that few other teams around the league will be able to match. When healthy, the Carpenter-Wainwright tandem is right up there with Halladay-Lee and Lincecum-Cain.
If the Carpenter-Wainwright tandem is anywhere near as effective as it was before Wainwright got hurt, the Cardinals are going to run away with the NL Central.
Prospect to Watch
There's only one guy who can go here, and that's Shelby Miller.
Miller is widely recognized as one of the top prospects in baseball. Keith Law of ESPN.com has him ranked No. 5 overall, and Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus has him ranked No. 10 overall. What everyone agrees on is that Miller has outstanding stuff and that he's going to be ready for the show very soon.
It helps that Miller made huge strides in 2011, posting a 2.77 ERA between Single-A and Double-A. He struck out 170 hitters in 139.2 innings, which is ridiculous.
Kary Booher of the Springfield News-Leader reported recently that Miller will have to show this spring he deserves to start the season in Triple-A. Given the fact he's only started 16 games at Double-A, that makes sense.
My hunch is that Miller will start the season in Triple-A. If he is successful there too, you have to think the Cardinals are going to be very tempted to call him up if they need starting pitching help.
So here's a bold prediction: we will see Miller in the majors this season.
What the Cardinals Will Do Well
If you think Pujols' departure is going to result in a team-wide offensive slump, think again. He was the biggest bat in this lineup last season (and the season before that, etc.), but the Cardinals can rest easy knowing that there is still enough depth and talent in their lineup to make it formidable.
Before you ask, I don't think the Cardinals are going to be the top offensive team in the NL again. Pujols' exit won't be that invisible. But the Cardinals will score plenty of runs. Count on it.
Pitching-wise, I'll be surprised if the Cardinals aren't better than they were in 2011. Wainwright's return will help in the long run, and I anticipate Garcia continuing to improve. The bullpen will rally around Motte and be much more reliable as a result.
What the Cardinals Won’t Do Well
Nobody should accuse the Cardinals of being an elite defensive team. They really struggled on defense last season, and it's worth noting that they lost their best defensive player when Pujols left for LA.
Even on paper the Cardinals' defense is cringe-worthy. They've got some old-timers in some key spots, and they have a few other guys who simply don't have a whole lot of range.
On the bright side, at least the Cardinals still have the best defensive catcher in the game. It's just too bad Molina can't field ground balls and catch fly balls.
Where will the Cardinals finish in the NL Central in 2012?
The question concerning the 2012 Cardinals is whether they can be as good or better than they were in 2011.
They've lost La Russa, they've lost Pujols and they're not going to have Dave Duncan, but I think the answer is yes.
Here's the way I look at it. The Cardinals were never really strong on paper last season, and they had to deal with more injuries and other mishaps than most other teams in the league. By all rights, they should have had an awful season. Instead, they won 90 games and won the World Series.
This Cardinals team does look strong on paper. If they can avoid the bad luck that plagued them last season, I see no reason why they won't win at least 90 games and go to the playoffs once again.
Projected Record: 93-69, first in NL Central.
National League Central
American League Central
National League West
American League West
Zachary D. Rymer is a lifelong baseball junkie with an impressive collection of Nomar Garciaparra rookie cards and a knuckleball that is coming along. He loves the Red Sox and hates the Yankees, but he has a huge man-crush on Derek Jeter and would like nothing more than to have a few beers with Nick Swisher. He's always down to talk some baseball, so feel free to hit him up on Twitter: