Can the lineup and rotation stay healthy enough for the Cardinals to contend?
After another unlikely October comeback, the Cardinals won three quick games against San Francisco and found themselves one victory away from a second consecutive National League pennant and the World Series. It was where they planned to be. It was not how they planned to get there. The Cardinals took several detours before their seventh National League Championship Series since 2000, navigating around a spring training injury to ace Chris Carpenter and the loss of Albert Pujols (to free agency) and Tony La Russa (to retirement). Rookie manager Mike Matheny inherited the 2011 World Series champs and drove them to contention despite a maddening offense. The Cardinals scored the second-most runs in the NL, but did so in gulps. In 44 of their 162 games they scored two or fewer runs and went 5–39 in those games. A third consecutive second-place finish in the NL Central meant the Cardinals needed the grace of Bud Selig’s second Wild Card to reach the postseason. Once there, the offense helped oust Atlanta in the Wild Card Game and proved timely for the Cardinals’ record rally from a 6–0 deficit to Washington in Game 5 of the NL Division Series. Then, true to the trend, the lineup wilted. The Cards scored one run in the final three games of the NLCS, and the Giants claimed the pennant. Denied a fourth trip to the World Series in nine years, the Cardinals confronted their contrast: To match the team that was one win shy of the World Series, they first had to address what also made them the team that finished nine games behind Cincinnati.
Adam Wainwright returned from the elbow surgery that stole his 2011 season, but Carpenter had recurring nerve issues in his right shoulder and eventually surrendered to surgery. Second-year righty Lance Lynn won 18 games as his sub. Kyle Lohse’s 2.86 ERA anchored the rotation’s 3.62 ERA, fourth-lowest in the majors. Jaime Garcia struggled because of a shoulder injury that did not require surgery but will be closely monitored during the spring. The absences tested the Cardinals’ pitching depth, and they passed with surging prospects. Joe Kelly, Trevor Rosenthal, and Shelby Miller — all 24 or younger — proved themselves capable of joining the rotation. Wainwright became stronger as the season progressed and appears to be back in Cy Young form. Carpenter, on the other hand, appears to be at the end of his career due to continued nerve problems. Lynn has nailed down a spot in the rotation, as has Garcia as long as his shoulder holds up. It’s now Miller’s time to join the group as the fifth starter.
After weeks of letting leads slip in the unsteady seventh inning, the Cardinals’ grip improved with the addition of Edward Mujica. Acquired at the trade deadline, the splitfinger-firing righty gave Matheny an effective, three-step approach: Mujica in the seventh, NL holds leader Mitchell Boggs in the eighth and closer Jason Motte (42 saves) in the ninth. That trio was the backbone of a bullpen that had an average age of 26 in the postseason and, led by Rosenthal’s 100-mph heat, overpowered with fastballs often surpassing 97 mph. But it was still lacking a lefty. The Cardinals signed veteran lefty specialist Randy Choate, who has held left-handed batters to a .173 average since 2010, and expect him to further simplify the relief recipe.
Rafael Furcal’s season ended with a torn ligament in his right elbow in August. Rehab created optimism, but his elbow didn’t hold up in spring training and he’s lost for the season. Rookie Pete Kozma’s unexpected punch from shortstop in September fueled the postseason run. He’ll get the call from the start of the season this year. It remains to be seen how he can produce over the long haul. Matheny will have an interesting decision at second. He has incumbent Daniel Descalso, a solid defender, and Matt Carpenter, a third baseman by trade. Carpenter batted .294 with an .828 OPS last season. Contrast that with Descalso’s .227/.627. Both will get some time there as Matheny must choose between offense and defense, at least until Carpenter gains some experience.
Allen Craig’s move to everyday play at first base happened a year earlier than expected, but his production was exactly as imagined. Despite missing a month recovering from knee surgery, Craig delivered 92 RBIs and a .522 slugging percentage. Since 2011, Craig’s .889 OPS ranks 17th among hitters with at least 700 plate appearances, and he’s the only one in the top 24 who hasn’t been an All-Star. That should change. Craig and third baseman Dave Freese were two of the five Cardinals who hit at least 20 home runs, a first for the club. Freese set career highs in homers and RBIs because of one big change: health. The hero of the Cardinals’ 2011 October run played more than 100 games in the majors for the first time in 2012. Now healthy again is an issue as a balky back has landed Freese on the DL to begin the season. Optimistically, he’ll miss no more than a week or so.
With Pujols away and Lance Berkman reduced to 32 games due to knee injuries, Carlos Beltran became a worthy and necessary complement to Matt Holliday. Beltran’s 32 home runs and 97 RBIs were his highest totals since 2007. Holliday’s .903 OPS since 2010, his first year with the Cardinals, ranks fifth in the NL, and he and Beltran are the only current teammates to rank in the top nine in OPS during that span. Often hitting back-to-back, they were bookends in the field around Jon Jay, who became a deft center fielder and then a capable leadoff hitter when Furcal faltered. With three stalwarts, prospect Oscar Taveras offers intrigue in the outfield. The heir to Beltran in right, Taveras, 20, could see playing time in center if he sticks out of spring training, which isn’t likely.
Yadier Molina’s record-setting season ended with a fourth-place finish in the NL MVP, the highest for a Cardinals catcher since Tim McCarver was second in 1967. On his way to a fifth consecutive Gold Glove Award, Molina became the first Cardinals’ catcher in more than three decades to hit 22 home runs and drive in 76 runs. With a .315 average, he led the team in batting for the second consecutive season, all while nurturing a pitching staff to a 3.60 ERA with him behind the plate. Molina started 133 games, leaving few for Tony Cruz, an adept backup despite the limited activity that will likely continue. Molina enters the first season of a five-year, $75-million extension signed in March 2012 insisting that “what I did was good, but I know I can do more.”
The Cardinals moved quickly this winter to add the player they believed their bench missed late in games last summer. Ty Wigginton signed to provide right-handed power potential and a veteran presence — “a piece, by definition, that you (cannot) get from your system,” GM John Mozeliak explains. Greenhorns and a rotating cast of minor leaguers will still be asked to provide bench options — like rookie slugger Matt Adams, a true left-handed threat — but Wigginton’s addition concedes that an unproven and improvised bench left Matheny shorthanded last season.
A rookie manager, Matheny showed he could work around injuries, integrate youth, and massage a lineup to avoid overtaxing players. Over the winter, the club tinkered with the roster to better fit his managing style. Mozeliak’s increased imprint on the organization includes the expanded use of analytics and a business model that rewards in-house players and avoids bidding wars. In five seasons as GM, Mozeliak has routinely made midseason moves to solve weaknesses, like the bullpen in 2011 and 2012. The trades have recently been subtle, yet substantive. Now with a cache of young pitching talent, he has the means and awaits the motivation to make a splash.
The Cardinals had a quiet winter, content to use a thin free-agent market for fine-tuning. With several aging contributors, health remains their biggest risk, but less so as the club has a stronger, self-sufficient farm system ready to keep them consistently competitive. There are many routes to their stated goal of annually reaching the playoffs. And the Cardinals, twice a champ as the Wild Card, know October’s abiding rule: A team just has to get in it to win it.
Lineup CF Jon Jay (L)
In his first year as the everyday center fielder, Jay seized the leadoff role with a .303 average when batting No. 1. RF Carlos Beltran (S)
Seven-time All-Star brought desired jolt to Pujols-free lineup, with 32 homers and 97 RBIs, his best totals since 2007. LF Matt Holliday (R)
Through nagging hip and back injuries, outfielder played 157 games and was an offensive fulcrum with team-high 102 RBIs. 1B Allen Craig (R)
In his first season as an everyday player, ranked seventh in the NL in both average (.307) and slugging (.522). C Yadier Molina (R)
After signing a 5-year, $75-million extension, Molina set career highs in home runs (22), RBIs (76), and batting average (.315). 3B David Freese (R)
Adding 2012 health to his 2011 heroics, Freese set highs for homers (20), RBIs (79) and games played (144). Injuries continue to plague Freese this spring as a bad back has landed him on the DL again. 2B Daniel Descalso (L)
Emerged as the starter at second in September, overcoming a difficult offensive season with sure-handed play at the pivot. SS Pete Kozma (R)
Thrust into starting job at short late last season, he responded with a .333 average and a .569 slugging percentage in 26 games.
Bench UT Matt Carpenter (L)
Called “offensive spark” for production in a reserve role, he’s being outfitted for more playing time and a new position. He replaces Freese at third (his natural position) to start the season, but it will be interesting to see if he hits enough to replace the better defender (Descalso) at second once Freese returns. UT Ty Wigginton (R)
Craving a seasoned presence for clubhouse and right-handed pop for the bench, Cards signed veteran who hit 22 HRs in 2010. 1B Matt Adams (L)
The slugger had 24 strikeouts and 21 hits in an audition last season. C Tony Cruz (R)
Proven to be a reliable backup for his handling pitchers and ability to also play corner positions. OF Shane Robinson (R)
Need for a right-handed-hitting center fielder off the bench creates an opportunity for solid-fielding Florida State alum. IF Ryan Jackson
Recalled when Freese went on the DL.
Rotation RH Adam Wainwright
Gaining strength with each start after elbow surgery, Wainwright went 5–1 with a 2.75 ERA in six August starts. LH Jaime Garcia
Inconsistency stemmed from a shoulder injury he insists he can overcome without surgery. Has 2013 to prove it. RH Lance Lynn
Burly righty filled Carpenter’s spot in the rotation with an 11–4 record and 3.41 ERA in first half before stamina faltered. RH Jake Westbrook
Sinkerballer’s 3.97 ERA was his lowest in a full season since 2004, and his overall sturdiness earned an extension for 2013. RH Shelby Miller
The top prospect finally joins the rotation full-time.
Bullpen RH Jason Motte (Closer)
In first season as surefire closer, Motte collected every save for the Cardinals, tying for league lead with 42. A sore elbow has shelved the former catcher and could delay his season. RH Mitchell Boggs
Fulfilling his promise to be an impact pitcher in 2012, power righty led NL and set club record with 34 holds. He’ll close in Motte’s absence. RH Edward Mujica
Acquired at the trade deadline, veteran righthander became the seventh-inning solution with 18 holds and a 1.03 ERA. RH Fernando Salas
Led team with 24 saves in 2011, but that workload may have contributed to erratic, ragged results in 2012. RH Trevor Rosenthal
Flamethrowing rookie was a postseason revelation as he struck out 15 of the 30 batters he faced in October. LH Marc Rzepczynski
Perhaps miscast as a specialist; Cards hope addition of second lefty allows “Scrabble” to reset and thrive in late innings. LH Randy Choate
The 37-year-old received a 3-year, $7.5-million commitment from the Cards because he’s the lefty neutralizer they lacked. RH Joe Kelly
Will take on the long relief role if Motte is out for an extended time.
Athlon previews the Cardinals-Giants matchup in the NLCS.
Neither the Giants nor the Cardinals made anything look easy in the NLDS. After losing the first two games at home, the Giants handed the Reds three losses in a row in Cincinnati, the only time the Reds dropped three straight at home all season. The Cardinals — stop me if you’ve heard this before — were down to their last strike twice, down two runs at Washington.
Offseason changes add to senior circuit’s pitching depth, teams’ expectations
—by Mark Ross
Similar to the American League, this offseason has seen plenty of changes when it comes to the pitching staffs in the National League. Trades and free agent signings have not only impacted rosters, but have been made in hopes of shaking up the standings in Major League Baseball's Senior Circuit.
Will Albert Pujols' former team or current team be the first to win it all?
by Charlie Miller
With Albert Pujols signing with the Los Angeles Angels, ending his 11-year tenure in St. Louis, just how much does that swing the balance of power in baseball? While the Cardinals are coming off their second World Series title in six years, even with Pujols they would have not been a favorite to win again in 2012. But how far does Pujols’ defection knock St. Louis down the pecking order in the National League? The NL Central isn’t exactly the toughest division in baseball.
And how much do the signings of both Pujols and starting pitcher C.J. Wilson push the Angels up the depth chart in the American League? Are those two signings enough to tip the scales to L.A. in the AL West? Remember, two-time AL champion Texas resides in that division. And with the strong AL East — eight of the last 10 AL wild card teams have come from the AL East — winning the division is the only realistic shot at the postseason if you play in the Central or West.
So, who wins the World Series first, St. Louis or the Angels?
The Case for St. Louis
St. Louis has a few loose ends to tie up in order to lock up some key players, but World Series hero David Freese, clean-up hitter Matt Holliday, rising star Allen Craig, centerfielder Jon Jay, starter Jaime Garcia, prospect Shelby Miller and essentially an entire bullpen are locked up for the next four years or beyond. And at relatively reasonable prices. Ace Chris Carpenter, who was one of the Redbirds’ postseason heroes last season, is signed for two more years. So not only do the Cardinals have a proven core in place, but there remains enough payroll flexibility to fill holes.
Now back to the “loose ends.” They hold the key to the Cardinals’ next five years. Catcher Yadier Molina can be a free agent after 2012 and Adam Wainwright is signed through 2013. Getting extensions done for Molina and Wainwright will keep the Cardinals squarely in the hunt in the National League.
They may not be the odds-on favorite to win any single season, but as we’ve seen over and over again, once teams reach the postseason, the season resets enough for any hot team to win. Were the Cardinals really the best team in baseball in 2011? No. Not even the best in the National League. They squeaked into the playoffs courtesy of the Atlanta Braves on the final day of the season. Having an ace in Wainwright and stalwart Molina behind the plate gives the Redbirds a terrific opportunity to reach the postseason. Then anything can happen.
The final loose end is securing one more first baseman/outfielder. Not only for 2012 while the Cardinals wait for Craig to return from knee surgery, but for 2013 and beyond after Lance Berkman is presumably gone.
It’s easy to see how the Cardinals can be in the hunt in the NL Central for the next several seasons. The reigning champion Brewers are about to lose Prince Fielder and MVP Ryan Braun is facing a 50-game suspension. That’s a huge blow to the lineup in Milwaukee. It remains to be seen how quickly the Cubs can become contenders again, but at this point there are no real signs of improvement. They lost their best hitter from last season and have two ugly contracts (Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Zambrano) strangling their payroll. I suspect new president Theo Epstein will right the ship soon, but I don’t see the Cubs becoming a juggernaut in the near future. The Reds can be contenders, but they face payroll constraints and must deal with the impending free agency of Brandon Phillips after 2012 and former MVP Joey Votto after 2013.
Let’s face it, there are no dominant teams in this division, leaving an opportunity for St. Louis.
What could go wrong
St. Louis is beginning a new era, and not simply because No. 5 is no longer hitting in the No. 3 hole. Tony La Russa is no longer in charge in the dugout. Rookie manager Mike Matheny is the new sheriff in town and has little experience. While Matheny played a role in the development of both Molina and Wainwright, both could leave just as Pujols — a close friend of Molina — did this winter.
And what if Matheny just isn’t ready? Having a veteran pitching coach in Dave Duncan in the dugout and experienced Jose Oquendo still on the staff provides some kind of safety net. But if Matheny falters badly, the franchise could be set back a few years. The bullpen, which was much maligned early last season, became a team strength down the stretch. But counting on arms like Jason Motte, Eduardo Sanchez, Fernando Salas, Lance Lynn and Marc Rzepczynski could prove to be fool’s gold. And what if Freese’s World Series performance turns out to be the peak of his career?
There are certainly no guarantees, far from it. But the Cardinals will continue to put themselves in position to make the playoffs for the next several seasons. And that alone gives them a shot at winning the franchise’s 12th championship.
The Case for Los Angeles
Right off the bat, any team with Albert Pujols in the lineup and a rotation that features Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, C.J. Wilson and Ervin Santana has a chance. A very good chance. Wilson, the ace of rival Texas the past two seasons, is arguably the No. 3 starter on this staff. That gives the Angels a pretty good chance to win three out of every five games. Manager Mike Scioscia can’t ask for much more than that. And certainly Pujols, in addition to adding pop in what has been a punchless lineup the last few years, makes every spot in the order better. Weaver, Wilson and Pujols are locked up for the next five years (10 for Pujols). That’s a terrific core to build from.
And with the Angels’ $150 million per season broadcast deal with Fox for the next 20 years, there will be no payroll constraints, even given the enormous deals currently in place. So re-signing necessary parts like Haren and locking up rising stars like Mark Trumbo and Mike Trout are entirely possible.
What could go wrong
The bullpen could falter, costing the rich rotation wins at the price of having to throw more innings than necessary.
The 25-year-old Trumbo, who led the Angels with 29 home runs and 87 RBIs last season, must find a new position. Of course, DH makes some sense, but what will that mean for Bobby Abreu, to whom the Angels have committed $9 million in 2012? Trumbo has played some outfield, but one of the strengths in recent seasons has been the outfield defense. Moving Trumbo to third is risky as well.
How do the Angels fill in the lineup around Pujols? During most of the second half last season, Abreu, Hunter, Trumbo and Wells batted 3-6 in the Angels’ order. Let’s assume Pujols is slotted at No. 3 and Trumbo becomes the DH. That leaves Hunter, Trumbo and Wells as protection for King Albert in the lineup. That’s hardly Lance Berkman and Matt Holliday protection. So, Pujols may see 45 intentional walks this season, and get Jose Bautista treatment, in that no one pitches to him with runners in scoring position. And Pujols showed the propensity to become impatient and to get himself out at times this past season, unlike in his previous 10 seasons. If the Angels turn into a one-player lineup, it may not matter how stingy the rotation is, the Halos may not be able to score enough.
The Angels must make prudent decisions in free agency. With a hefty payroll, the team will rely on signing free agents in building a team over the next few seasons. That puts pressure on GM Jerry DiPoto to build quickly, while Pujols is still in his prime. And that prime may last only another 5-7 years.
Scioscia is one of the best managers in the game. He relishes the National League style of pitching, defense and speed keeping pressure on the defense. Now with a big bopper at his disposal, the manager will squeeze every ounce possible out of this lineup.
We’ll see both of these franchises in the playoffs regularly for the next decade. But winning the World Series? That is all a matter of getting hot at the right time. With their young talent locked up contractually for the next few years, and having the postseason experience from 2011, the Cardinals will have more talent and stability on the roster, which gives them the slight advantage. St. Louis will reach the promised land before the Angels do, but neither team will be an overwhelming favorite in the next few years.