The St. Louis Cardinals begin their defense of their world championship today in Miami against the new-look Marlins. The team comes into the season minus Albert Pujols who could not resist the carrot dangled by Arte Moreno. Tony La Russa has retired as manager after being an institution in St. Louis and the author of two championships. Those two losses would seem grim for just about anyone but the Cardinals. This seems to be a resilient and upbeat bunch and their new manager, Mike Matheny is home grown and could have the easiest ride of any new manager in quite some time.
Not that the Cardinals 2012 season will be easy. The Brewers are still a potent team and the Reds have lots of talent as well. But the Cardinals should be fine. They still have the best catcher in baseball. Adam Wainwright is back. And the team has a battle-tested bullpen that wowed the world last October. What's not to love about where this team is going into the new season?
Yes, they lost Albert Pujols. It's hard to think about the Cardinals without him. For ten years, he has been the best player on the planet. But he was not without a certain amount of baggage. Pujols had an enigmatic persona and was treated differently than other players. At times, it seemed as if his teammates had to tip-toe around him. His leadership skills were questionable for a player of his stature. He failed to hustle on ground balls and we can never forget how he skipped out on reporters in the playoffs leaving his teammates to hold the bag without him. It is possible that a Cardinal team without Pujols could be more cohesive and have a whole lot more fun, especially with Lance Berkman around to lead the comedy troupe.
Speaking of Berkman, his 2011 season was one of the biggest stories of last season. His performance was breathtaking despite being misplaced in right field. He has always been a better than average first baseman and the Cardinals will not lose anything defensively from having him at first base. If he hits like last season, then Pujols' numbers from last season are covered.
Carlos Beltran was a perfect signing. Yes, we will have to see how it all turns out, but on paper, it is perfect. He will be a win better as a right fielder than Berkman was and his offensive production combined with a bounce-back season from Matt Holliday would offset any lingering wins lost by losing Pujols. This space is not a big fan of John Jay in center. But he has his moments at the plate and gives the team more consistency than what they had in the past. Look for this position to be in transition during the season though.
Despite his struggles this spring and his track record the past two seasons, Rafael Furcal is a huge upgrade starting the season than where the Cardinals were a season ago. If he mans his position effectively, the Cardinals should continue to cover any lack he provides on offense. Second base is also a transition as Daniel Descalso has been handed the starting position. There are many who feel that Tyler Greene can be a top notch infielder and made the team as a backup if Descalso falters. Descalso displayed terrific patience at the plate this spring and that could be a big factor during the season.
David Freese has had a tough spring and Cardinal fans will always hold their breath concerning his health. But the thought here is that the post season and his heroics therein should fill him to the brim with confidence and allow him to become one of the best third basemen in the National League. If he does not make the All Star team this season, it would be a huge surprise.
The Allen Craig injury is a problem and is unfortunate. He really does have the makings of a star and if he returns mid-season, it could be like making a huge trade deadline deal.
Chris Carpenter starts the season on the disabled list and that's a problem. His bulging neck leaves his season in uncertain status. To see he and Wainwright again anchoring the rotation would make the team's prospects that much brighter. But this could be an opportunity for the Cardinals. Carpenter is getting up there in years and won't be around that much longer anyway. This could give guys like Lance Lynn an opportunity to become the next great starting pitcher in the league.
Jaime Garcia does not bring a level of comfort. Watching him perform has never induced a wow factor here. And Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook are just serviceable pitchers who eat innings and keep the team in most of the games they pitch. As long as the rotation can keep the game close, the offense and deep and talented bullpen should win their share of games.
It seems hard to imagine that a team can lose a Hall of Fame manager and the best player of his generation and still be the team to beat in their division. Yet, they are. They have an intelligent and capable coaching staff, a general manager now out of La Russa's shadow and contention and a still potent and talented team. They are the world champions until they are not. And the NL Central will have to prove the St. Louis Cardinals are not every bit as scary as they were a season ago.