Friday, March 9, 2012

NL Central preview: St. Louis Cardinals

Today's National League Central preview features the 2011 World Champions -- the St. Louis Cardinals.

To say the Cards had a magical run last season would be a vast understatement. The club squeaked into the playoffs thanks to a late surge and a colossal collapse by the Braves to capture the Wild Card. They then outlasted the heavy-favorited Phillies in five games in the NLDS before eliminating division rival Milwaukee in six in the NLCS. Despite their late season and postseason heroics many tabbed St. Louis as the underdog going into the World Series against the Rangers. As it turned out, the Cardinals upstaged even their own recent theatrics by turning in an epic performance in the Series.

Down to their last out, last strike, and facing elimination, a legend was born as eventual WS MVP David Freese tripled in two runs to tie the game at 7-7, thus forcing extra frames. The St. Louis native wasn't finished though as he sent the Busch Stadium crowd into oblivion with a solo walk-off homer in the 11th to force a game seven. The next day ESPN analyst Buster Olney called the game "the greatest in the history of baseball".

The rest was history as the stunned Rangers fell 6-2 to the Redbirds in game seven. It capped off an improbable season, but also unknowingly served as a farewell tour for two of the most prominent figures of the franchise -- Tony La Russa and Albert Pujols.

Just three days after winning baseball's most coveted prize La Russa announced his retirement after 16 years as manager of the team. He helped guide the organization to three pennants and two championships in his tenure in St. Louis and goes down as the third-winningest skipper in MLB history (2,728 wins). Former player and rookie manager Mike Matheny was named as his replacement two weeks later.

Meanwhile, it became more transparent that the symbol of the franchise for over a decade and the game's greatest hitter in Pujols would not return. On December 8th the 32-year old confirmed the Cardinals' greatest fear as he opted to sign with the Angels to a 10yr/$254M deal. The move left the team to go on without both their Hall of Fame coach and Hall of Fame first basemen.

Although the Cards are not likely destined to repeat last year's achievements, you surely can't count 'em out either. They still have plenty of pieces in place to contend for a playoff spot yet again in 2012.

So, without further adieu here is my best attempt at previewing the 2012 version of the Cards:

Notable Additions: RF Carlos Beltran (Signed as free agent), LHP J.C. Romero (Signed as free agent), SS Alex Cora (Signed as free agent)

Notable Losses: 1B Albert Pujols (Signed as free agent w/LAA), INF Nick Punto (Signed as free agent w/BOS), RHP Octavio Dotel (Signed as free agent w/DET), SS Ryan Theriot (Signed as free agent w/SF), RHP Edwin Jackson (Signed as free agent w/WSH), C Gerald Laird (Signed as free agent w/DET)

Youngsters to watch: 3B Zack Cox, RHP Eduardo Sanchez, RHP Lance Lynn, RHP Shelby Miller

Manager: Mike Matheny (0-0, 1st season)
2011 payroll: $105.43M (11th in MLB)
Avg. home attendance: 38,196 (6th in MLB)

2011 records:
Overall: 90-72
Home: 45-36
Away: 45-36
Vs. NLC: 44-35

2012 Exp W/L: 88-74

Notable 2011 stat rankings:
Runs - 5th (762)
HR - 13th (162)
AVG - 5th (.273)
SB - 29th (57)
ERA - 12th (3.74)
BAA - T-20th (.261)
WHIP - T-15th (1.31)
Errors - T-25th (116)

Project lineup:
SS Rafael Furcal
RF Carlos Beltran
LF Matt Holliday
1B Lance Berkman
3B David Freese
CF Jon Jay
C Yadier Molina
2B Tyler Greene

Projected rotation:
RHP Chris Carpenter
RHP Adam Wainwright
LHP Jaime Garcia
RHP Kyle Lohse
RHP Jake Westbrook

RHP Fernando Salas (SU)
RHP Lance Lynn (SU)
RHP Jason Motte (CL)

Best case scenario: St. Louis continues to defy logic and shows no ill effect of losing Pujols or La Russa. The addition of Beltran ignites an already potent offense as the Cards lead the majors in both runs scored and average. Their formidable pitching staff stays healthy and the 1-2 punch of Carpenter and Wainwright proves to be among the best in the league. Their bullpen is lights out and Matheny is the consensus pick for Manager of the Year in his first career season as a skipper. They lock up the division by mid-September as the Prince-less Brewers and disappointing Reds are unable to keep pace. Fans begin to wonder if La Russa was the reason for the team's recent success or that the franchise is just destined for greatness. Of course, that could be the Budweiser. Final record: 95-67 (1st place in NL Central)

Worst case scenario: Things fall apart from the get-go. The departures of their two mainstays are immediately felt and a rash of injuries send the team spiraling toward a losing season. Berkman, Furcal and Beltran all shows signs of their age and unlike La Russa, a helpless Matheny can't fix the problems. Widespread bickering in the clubhouse only makes matters worse for the defending champs. Meanwhile, Pujols is well on his way to another MVP season and the Angels look poised to win over 100 games. Fans try to comprehend the meaning of "rebuilding" as local radio hosts spew the idea over the airwaves. Chaos breaks out at Busch as the stadium runs out of Bud in the team's home finale. No late season magic this time around as the club records its worst season since 1997. Final record: 73-89 (4th place in NL Central)

And in case you missed a preview from earlier this week...

NL Central preview schedule:
Monday: Houston Astros
Tuesday: Chicago Cubs
Wednesday: Pittsburgh Pirates
Thursday: Milwaukee Brewers
Today: St. Louis Cardinals

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