Barring an injury that keeps Albert Pujols out of the line-up for any significant amount of time, the St. Louis Cardinals are the prohibited favorites to win the NL Central again this year.
Entering the 2010 season, the Cardinals top the division in several important factors. They have the best player (Pujols), the best catcher (Yadier Molina), the best manager (Tony LaRussa), the best starting rotation, and the best fans.
They also signed the biggest free agent, when Matt Holliday decided to remain in St. Louis for the next seven seasons for $120 million. Many feel his signing was vital to the team trying to keep Pujols long-term.
Other than those important pieces, the rest of the team could walk down any street in the country in relative obscurity. That just further speaks to the importance of both Pujols and LaRussa to the success of the team.
Oh, the Cardinals also hired a new hitting coach, some guy named McGwire. It was a great public relations move for the team by bringing back one of the team's most popular players, but it will be hard for him not to be a distraction to the team on the road.
McGwire and the rest of the team can say all they want that he won't be a distraction, but it's hard to imagine the club won't hear a ton of questions about steroids on the road. The same questions over and over for six straight months will undoubtedly have an adverse effect on both McGwire and the team.
The offense struggled last year prior to Holliday's arrival from Oakland. He gives Pujols great protection in the line-up. The duo should form one of the top one-two offensive combinations in all of baseball. Eighty home runs and 250 RBI aren't completely out of the question for the pair.
The top of the order will need to continue to get on base for them to put up such eye-popping numbers. Conversely, the bottom of the order needs to clean up whatever Pujols and Holliday can't drive in. Molina and either Ryan Ludwick or Colby Rasmus must produce to keep opponents from pitching around the three and four hitters.
Felipe Lopez was brought in recently, and he could very easily turn into the signing of the winter. He is versatile enough to play multiple positions in both the infield and outfield. At the plate, he could join Skip Schumaker at the top of the order creating issues on the bases for pitching staffs around the league.
The starting rotation has very few concerns going into the season. Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright finished two and three respectively in the Cy Young voting last year. Like their hitting counterparts, they form one of the best duos in the game and give the Cards a great chance of winning two out of every five days.
Kyle Lohse will need to bounce back from an injury-plagued 2009 and return to the success he had in 2008 when he won 15 games.
Brad Penny was signed as a free agent to take the place of the departing Joel Pineiro. Pitching coach Dave Duncan is salivating over Penny, who returned to his former All-Star form with the Giants after a disappointing stint with the Red Sox. He went 4-1 with a 2.59 ERA in six starts in San Francisco last year.
Penny, with Duncan's help, should continue his success in the National League this year. That would give the team three very good pitchers atop their rotation.
The team is still searching for a fifth starter. In recent days, there has been rumblings about the possible addition of either John Smoltz or Pedro Martinez. Either would fit well into the rotation, and if they are healthy, could give the Cardinals the best rotation in all of baseball.
The bullpen is the weakest part of the team, by far.
Ryan Franklin stepped in as the team's closer last year and finished with a career-high 38 saves. The first time All-Star struggled down the stretch, blowing three saves in September.
If Franklin struggles at any point again this year, they don't have anyone with significant experience as a closer to step in. Jason Motte projects as a future closer, but he struggled last season after Franklin beat him out for the job.
A trade for a closer or an established reliever or two will be the most likely trade the team will make this year.
The Cardinals went from having a very good farm system last year, to one of the worst this year. That will happen when trading away six of your top 30 prospects. The most notable losses were third baseman Brett Wallace and reliever Chris Perez. The Cardinals are a veteran team, and they won't get noticeably younger any time in the near future.
There is enough talent on the roster for the Cardinals to win the NL Central in fairly easy fashion this year. Both Milwaukee and Chicago will challenge, but neither can match the starting rotation of St. Louis.
Winning a division title may be fine for most teams, but it won't be acceptable in St. Louis. After a horrible playoff exit last October against the Dodgers, the Cardinals need to win in October.
They are clearly the second best team in the league next to the Phillies, and the two teams should meet to determine the league's representative in the World Series. Pujols, Holliday, Carpenter, and Wainwright can carry them that far. To go any further, Franklin and his cronies in the bullpen will have to step up and prove themselves against the league's reigning kings.
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