Thursday, February 24, 2011

Take a Deep Breath Cardinal Nation

Today's social media often brings unexpected results. One of them is this writer in northern Maine becoming acquainted with bloggers and baseball fans from areas of the country that normally wouldn't ever cross the Fan's path. Two favored writers are from Toronto and from following their work and interacting with their fans, an appreciation has been built for Toronto baseball. In the last few months, the same social media has taken another funny path and acquaintances have been made with avid St. Louis Cardinals fans. Many of them gather on Blog Talk Radio for podcasts that include chat. Under the banner of Ivie League Productions (run by blogger Bill Ivie and often hosted by BBA president, Daniel Shoptaw) these wonderful folks have become familiar greetings and though this Fan doesn't share their passion for the Cardinals, they are baseball fans, and that binds us all together. Obviously, the past month has been tough on these folks. When one such fan (Angela) mourns the loss of Brendan Ryan, how much more so is an injury to Adam Wainwright going to hurt? And of course, the Pujols contract distraction hasn't helped their anxiety any. The Fan has one message for his new buds in Cardinal Nation: Relax, it's going to be okay.

Of course, it's easier to say that being an outsider with no emotional stake to the outcome. But it is reality too. It wasn't long ago when the Cardinals won a World Series after finishing with a record near .500 and having one quality pitcher in their rotation (Carpenter). For a team like the Cardinals in their current division, there is no need to panic or hang heads. Here are some valid reasons to stay optimistic:

1. The NL Central - There are no clear cut powerhouses in this division. Yes, the Reds won the division last year. Yes, they still have Joey Votto. But this Fan isn't convinced you can count on their rotation of Volquez, Arroyo, Cueto and the rest. Volquez and Cueto have never been able to consistently go out there start after start and shut people down. And there are other reasons for doubting the Reds. First, Scott Rolen had an enormous year for the Reds last year. He keeps getting older, has a history of injuries and this Fan can't see a repeat of that success. Both their catchers hit over .300 last year. Can't see that happening again. They have questions at shortstop and at least one outfield position. This Fan just doesn't see them running away and hiding. The Cubs got better, but how much better? They have to hope Aramis Ramirez bounces back and Soriano has something left and so on. Beyond Dempster and Garza, who can shut down teams consistently in that rotation? The Brewers have improved dramatically and should be a contender. But they aren't a perfectly constructed team. Weeks has to play well and Braun has to stay healthy and if they don't start off quickly and stagger a bit out of the gate, fur will fly. So the Cardinals could win 86 to 88 games and be right in the thick of things.

2. They still have a strong front three of Carpenter, Garcia and Jake Westbrook. Those three should win their fair share of games. That leaves two spots to fill and they have some internal candidates like Lance Lynn and others that can step up. The rotation won't be quite the same without Wainwright, who has been one of the five best pitchers in the NL the last three or so years, but it's still good enough to compete.

3. The Cardinals still have the best player on the planet. It may be for just one more year or it may be just another year in a career with the Cardinals, but Albert Pujols is going to win you some games in 2011. He is a force that no other team can match. The Fan doesn't know about you, but when you have the best guy in the world, a lot can fall in place behind him.

4. Best case scenario: Holliday, Berkman, Pujols knock the snot out of the ball. Eww. Sorry for the yucky graphic on that one. But it's true. If all goes according to plan, you have three guys in the middle of the line up that are going to be a force. Even if Berkman doesn't hit the same way as his peak years, he'll get on base because he's one of the most patient hitters in baseball. Add a (cross your fingers) healthy David Freese and an improving Colby Rasmus and you have five guys in your line up that can do some damage. If Molina gets some offense back and Theriot has a good year (not counting on that), then this team will score a lot of runs and not need to win 2-1 games all season.

5. Love him or hate him (the Fan leans toward the latter), Tony LaRussa is a proven commodity. He's taken teams to the promised land on many occasions, and as one of the Fan's new friends said last night, LaRussa seeems to do his best work when things are a bit of a mess. Now certainly qualifies. Whenever you have LaRussa in your dugout, you should never panic.

Yes, Cardinal Nation, this injury hurts. It's a big loss from a big stud who has been the rock for the Cardinals the past few years. But there is no reason to panic. 162 games is a long time and a lot can happen. If the Cardinals can stay in the race and sneak into the playoffs, they have just as good a chance as anyone else. Cheer up. Things can always be worse. The Cardinals are still viable contenders in a fluid division and one injury, no matter how important a player that guy is, is not going to automatically mean a ticket to the bottom of the division. Not in that division, and not with that manager.

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