St. Louis Cardinals 2012: Are Cards Still the Best Team in NL Central?

Clifton W. WilliamsContributor IIMarch 15, 2012

Missing pieces
Missing piecesJamie Squire/Getty Images

Based on last year's regular-season record, some will make the case that the St. Louis Cardinals weren’t the best team in the NL Central last year even though they won the World Series. They ended six games behind the Brewers, and it took an historic run at the end and the crazy, improbable last day to just get into the playoffs.

Look at what they overcame, though, and you will see more than just games behind. They lost their ace on day one. It didn’t end there. Last year, the Cardinals had so many injuries that they fielded a Triple-A team for awhile until they started to get healthy. They had a shortstop that couldn’t field and a closer that couldn’t close.

Ryan Franklin as the closer pitched 27 innings and gave up 27 runs. They lost their pitching coach for a while due to family obligations, and even the manager had to miss games due to an illness.

What got them through to the end was their hitting. They led the league in runs, RBIs, average, on-base percentage and OPS and had the fewest strikeouts of any team. A huge part of that was Albert Pujols. Take his number out of the equation and where will they be this year?

Well, if you plug in Carlos Beltran’s numbers from last year they still would have been at the top in every one of those categories. The seventh-place hitter last year was Molina, and all he did was hit .305 and slug 14 home runs.

Their starting pitching is as strong as any in the division. Milwaukee’s trio of Zack Greinke, Yovani Gallardo and Shaun Marcum are as good as it gets and yet, even though they started 28, 33 and 33 games, respectively, they were only one spot ahead of the Cardinals in the overall rankings for starting pitching in the National League.

The Cardinals get their ace back and so far he has looked terrific. Last year, they had to convert a reliever to take over for Adam Wainwright until the late-season trade was made for Edwin Jackson. This year they have Shelby Miller ready to take over a spot in the rotation if he is needed.

Looking at the bullpens, once again the best team in the division should be Milwaukee by a mile. With John Axford and Francisco Rodriguez at the back of the bullpen, they should win this category going away. However, just as with the starting pitching, the numbers tell another story. After the All-Star break, the Brewers had 23 saves. The Cardinals had 21 saves.

The Brewers and the Cardinals again look to be there at the end. The Reds seem to have a couple of pieces still missing. The Pirates are getting better but are not there yet. The Astros are really bad and the Cubs? Well, they’re the Cubs.

The one factor this year that can’t be measured yet is the loss of Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan. This team is pretty much the same as last year except for the loss of Pujols. A healthy Wainwright and the addition of Beltran should take most of the edge off of that.

La Russa steered this team though a lot of adversity and managed to not only get them to play as a team, but to somehow overachieve in almost every category. This has the possibility to be an even more talented team than last year. The only question is whether or not new manager Mike Matheny can get them to be the best.