Are the 2012 St. Louis Cardinals better than the 2011 team? Well, the 2011 Cardinals won the World Series and it's difficult to finish the season with a better result than that.
In 2012, the Cards also finished with a lesser record (88-74) than the 2011 club (90-72). But last year, St. Louis had to go 18-8 in September while the Atlanta Braves collapsed with a 9-18 record to win the NL Wild Card.
This season, the Cardinals didn't need a late-season surge to qualify for the postseason but were the beneficiary of the NL's extra wild-card spot. Yet St. Louis also had to win the one-game Wild Card playoff on the road against a Braves team with a better record to advance to the NLDS versus the Washington Nationals.
The 2012 edition of the Cardinals is also missing Albert Pujols, one of MLB's best hitters, from the lineup, along with one of the best managers in baseball history in Tony La Russa. Yet this team did make the playoffs and could return to the World Series in an NL playoff field in which no clear favorite has emerged. (The Cincinnati Reds might disagree with that.)
Though it remains to be seen whether or not the 2012 Cardinals can match the accomplishments of the 2011 team and win a second consecutive World Series championship, it could be argued that this year's squad features a more complete roster of pitchers and position players.
The Lineup is Deeper
While the lineup did lose Pujols, the Cardinals arguably replaced him with several players this year.
Lance Berkman took over for Pujols at first base, coming off a resurgent season in which he hit 31 home runs with 94 RBI and a .959 OPS. Assorted injuries kept Berkman from making much of a contribution this season, but his move to first base created an opening in right field, allowing the Cardinals to sign Carlos Beltran.
Berkman's injury also provided Allen Craig with more playing time. Craig posted strong numbers as a reserve in the regular season and postseason last year, batting .315 with 11 homers and 40 RBI.
But with twice the number of plate appearances this season due to becoming the starting first baseman, Craig contributed a .307 batting average, .876 OPS, 22 home runs and 92 RBI.
Elsewhere in the lineup, Jon Jay provided more production at the plate than Colby Rasmus did before he was traded last season. Jay batted .305 with a .773 OPS in 502 plate appearances this season, giving the Cards an everyday player in center field that they didn't have last year.
Others Stepped it Up
Perhaps the other hitters in the Cardinals' lineup knew they would have to increase their production with Pujols gone. But maybe those players also made natural improvements and benefited, as Craig did, from increased playing time.
Yadier Molina was already one of the best catchers in MLB and had a fine 2011 season, batting .305/.349/.465 with 32 doubles, 14 homers and 65 RBI. But Molina became an MVP candidate this year, compiling a .315/.373/.501 triple-slash average with 28 doubles, 22 home runs, 76 RBI and 12 stolen bases.
David Freese hadn't been able to make it through a full season without getting hurt. But the World Series MVP played in 144 games in 2012. By staying healthy, he was able to hit .293/.372/.467 with 20 home runs and 79 RBI.
Cardinals pitchers elevated their level of play as well.
When Chris Carpenter was sidelined during spring training after developing a nerve problem in his right shoulder, Lance Lynn was brought out of the bullpen in what may have been seen as a placeholder move until St. Louis could acquire or develop an adequate replacement for the starting rotation.
Kyle Lohse had a fine 2011 season with a 14-8 record and 3.39 ERA. But this year, he became one of the elite pitchers in the NL, compiling a 16-3 record and 2.86 ERA. Lohse pitched well in the NL Wild Card Game as well, allowing two runs and six hits over 5.2 innings.
In the bullpen, La Russa went through several different closers during the 2011 season before settling on Jason Motte as the ninth-inning stopper. Following up on Motte's postseason performance, current Cards manager Mike Matheny kept Motte as the closer all season long while also establishing regular roles for each reliever.
Motte responded with 40 saves, nearly as many as the 47 saves the St. Louis bullpen earned collectively last season. Mitchell Boggs developed into an excellent setup man, while Fernando Salas provided a middle-inning strikeout threat.
It's yet to be determined if this year's Cardinals team is better than the team that won the World Series last year.
Is it possible that the 2012 club could actually have more talent and a deeper roster yet not finish with championship results? Sure, but it would be hard to make that argument—especially when St. Louis still might not advance past the NLDS.
If the Cardinals get into the NLCS and World Series, however, the moves and decisions that general manager John Mozeliak made before and during the 2012 season should definitely be celebrated.
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