*From Protect the Plate
The St. Louis Cardinals have fallen back to the pack since winning the World Series in 2006. They finished fourth in the National League Central despite going 86-76, which was actually better than the '06 team.
With a two-time MVP in the lineup and a Cy Young winner returning to the rotation, the Cardinals hope to get back to the playoffs in 2009.
Glaus Out Until the Break
Troy Glaus has recovered from offseason shoulder surgery and is likely out until the All-Star break. Rookie David Freese will fill in at third base.
Glaus hit .270 with 27 home runs and 99 RBI last season. Freese, who turns 26-years-old this month, hit .306 with 26 homers and 91 RBI in Triple-A last season.
Free Passes For Pujols
Without the slugging Glaus protecting him, expect defending NL MVP Albert Pujols to rack up plenty of walks early in the season. He drew a career-high 104 walks last year and had 99 the year before.
The 29-year-old also set career highs in average (.357), OBP (.462) and OPS (1.114). With that kind of offensive ability, NL managers will take their chances with the rest of the Cardinals lineup, even if that means pitching to Chris Duncan or Ryan Ludwick with a man on base.
Return of the Ace
Chris Carpenter was one of the best pitchers in baseball from 2004-2006. He helped the Cardinals win over 100 games in '04 and '05 and a World Series championship in '06.
The 2005 Cy Young Award winner has pitched just 21 1/3 innings over the past two seasons, and no longer has youth on his side—he turns 34 this month.
Carpenter is fighting his way back. He's suffered some minor setbacks this spring, but is scheduled to make is '09 debut on April 9. Adam Wainwright, who was 11-3 with a 3.20 ERA last year, has been named the Opening Day starter.
Closer by Committee
The team's closer situation is unsettled, but it appears as though Jason Motte will get the first shot.
A former catcher, Motte had a breakout year in his third season as a pitcher. The 26-year-old led the Pacific Coast League in appearances (63), and struck out 110 hitters in 66 2/3 innings pitched. That's a rate of 14.8 Ks/9. He fared well in 11 innings with the Cardinals at the end of the year, giving up one earned run while striking out 16.
Ryan Franklin and Josh Kinney are also in the mix. Chris Perez, the preseason favorite to win the job, will start the year in Triple-A.
Can They Do It Again?
The Cardinals had three 30-year-olds put together breakout performances last year.
Ryan Ludwick, who turned 30 last July, had terrorized minor league pitching for years, but never really got a fair chance to put it together on the Major League level. He performed admirably for the Cards in 2007, but was one of the most dangerous hitters in baseball last year. He hit .299 with 37 home runs, 113 RBI, 104 runs and 40 doubles.
Kyle Lohse, who actually didn't turn 30 until shortly after the season, showed flashes of his talent in his first seven seasons, but failed to find consistency. He was 63-74 (.459) with a 4.82 ERA coming into last year, but went 15-6 (.714) with a 3.78 ERA in his first year in St. Louis.
Todd Wellemeyer, who turned 30 late in the season, had similar success in his first full year as a starter, going 13-9 with a 3.71 ERA.
Yadier Molina had a career year at the plate, hitting over .300 for the first time, and picked up his first Gold Glove Award.
Rick Ankiel belted 25 homers in only his third season since converting from a starting pitcher.
Chris Duncan hit 43 home runs in 655 at-bats from 2006-07, but injuries limited him to 76 games last season.
The team is hoping former outfielder Skip Schumaker can at least play average defense at second base.
Top prospect Colby Rasmus, 22, is expected to make his Major League debut this season. He struggled through injuries last year, but hit 29 homers and stole 18 bases in Double-A two years ago.