St. Louis Cardinals Still in NL Central Race Despite Recent Trades

Jonathon HiltonContributor IJuly 9, 2008

Back at the beginning of spring training I wrote an article about how the Cardinals should shut down Albert Pujols due to all his injuries piling up and the team seemingly going nowhere.

Another dull offseason had witnessed the Cards trading one troubled third basemen (Scott Rolen) for another (Troy Glaus) and the not-so-surprising leaving of longtime GM Walt Jocketty, who had failed to capitalize on the Cardinals 2006 success with any moves that could keep them in contention.

Bummed and almost giving up on the season, I, along with many other Redbird fans, had a season of  injuries to stars, no-name pitchers, and more Triple A kids being called up to look forward to.

Halfway through the season however, I'm here to tell you how wrong I was.

The Cardinals 2008 season could go down as the most surprising and encouraging story of the year (if the Rays fall out of contention in the AL East).

The Cards, as of today are 51-40, 3.5 games behind the Cubs for the NL Central lead and a game up on the Brewers.

The explosive play of Ryan Ludwick and Rick Ankiel have provided the Cards with a ton of new offensive power, and the starting rotation, still riddled with pitchers yet to prove their durability (Adam Wainwright, Braden Looper, Joel Piniero) have held together nicely going into the midsummer classic.

The defense  has been excellent at times, with stars like Adam Kennedy and Glaus making up their lack of offense with consistent double plays and infield leadership.

Even Pujols, though still recovering from injuries, looks like a kid having fun again, which was evident when he led the charge out of the dugout last Saturday to mob Rick Ankiel after he hit the game winning single in the ninth to beat the Cubs, 5-4.

But over the past week, the MLB tradeline has heated up with huge trades involving teams either leading or contending for the lead in the NL Central.

First it was the Brewers, a team many experts forgot about at the start of the year,  landing last year's AL Cy Young Winner CC Sabathia for a couple of minor leaguers including, Matt Laporta.

Landing Sabathia had the so called "experts" on ESPN predicting the Brewers to come back and win the NL Central by a landslide. Not to be outdone, the Cubs announced on Tuesday that they landed starters  Rich Harden and Chad Gaudin from Oakland for no one you've ever heard of.

With the Cubs and Brewers dueling for leadership in the division, many have overlooked the Cards as a threat, but the following reasons are why I think the Cards still have a shot to win this race

1. Starting Pitching—Yes, it's been rusty at times, but with the return of  Mark Mulder tonight and hopefully Chris Carpenter within a few months, the Cards can still make magic under pitching coach Dave Duncan, who has been known to make winners out of losers (aka Jeff Weaver 2006)

2. Tony LaRussa—My vote for NL manager of the year, LaRussa has actively managed  arguably the best season of his tenure in St. Louis. The young players trust him, the veterans respect him, and the cool yet active way he manages has developed great team chemistry within the clubhouse. Everyone knows their duties on the field, and that is what makes team baseball, I say again "team" baseball, click.

3. Durability—It's not safe to say that CC Sabathia or Rich Harden will be able to hold up in early September when the race is at a boiling point. CC Sabathia last season put together impressive numbers during the regular season, but lost control in two starts against the Red Sox in the ALCS last year and was blasted for two losses.

Not to mention that outside of Ben Sheets, the Brewers don't really have three consistent pitchers to round out the rotation nor a bullpen that is known for keeping leads.

Up in Chicago, the news is less damaging, but there are still some holes in the Cubs that should be reason for concern. While their starting rotation is much better and durable, injuries to Alfonso Soriano and others have led many to speculate that the Cubs injuries may begin to pile up heading into September.

It's also safe to say that given Rich Harden's past injuries, he too may also spend some time on the DL.

My point is that don't declare a race over one day and say it's back on the next (I'm talking to you, ESPN).

This is baseball, and no one can predict the outcome of anything two months down the road, much less who is going to play in the World Series in October. Given the Cardinals success this season and their flux of new talent, it's safe to say this race is still wide open.