Yes, the 2011 Cardinals won the World Series, so this is an obvious title right? It is more than just the fact that the team won the World Series. They could have just as easily not made the playoffs if one game flip flops with the Atlanta Braves. The ’11 team had a 90 – 72 record. The St. Louis Cardinals team from 1995 is one most fans try to forget. There was the firing of Joe Torre, 47 games into the season after the Cards won just 20 of those games. They went on to finish with a 62-81 record (this was the season baseball returned from the 1994 strike thus the 19 missing games). They finished in 4th place finish in the NL Central. Tony La Russa stepped in for the 1996 season with a revamped team both at the plate and in the rotation. They went on to win the NL Central in 1996 with an 88-74 record. New Cardinals’ manager, Mike Matheny has been left with a World Championship team. Mind you, the loss of Albert Pujols will test the lineup, but with the addition of Carlos Beltran and the return of Adam Wainwright, Matheny is in much better shape than La Russa was in ’96. So, it stands to reason that barring a catastrophic injury or two, the 2012 Cardinals should be a playoff team that has a chance of returning to the World Series. Let’s see just how much better Matheny’s 2012 squad will be versus La Russa’s 1996 team.
If we take a look back at the 1995 team, the first issue was consistency of the lineup. Torre, and his replacement Mike Jorgeson, put out 99 different lineups (in 143 games) not including pitchers. There were only 4 players who received more than 100 starts; Brian Jordan (113), Ray Lankford (128), Bernard Gilkey (117) and Scott Cooper (102). The outfield was solid at the plate with Jordan, Lankford, and Gilkey all finished with OPS over .825. The same can not be said for the remainder of the hitters. Ozzie Smith, then 40, played in only 44 games and hit .199.
The pitching staff was “headed” by Mark Petkovsek who started 21 games. He went 6-6 with a 4.00 ERA and 1.245 WHIP. The long bright spot for the pitching staff was then 37 year-old closer Tom Henke, who recorded 36 saves with a 1.82 ERA.
The offseason that followed saw the hiring of La Russa and his personal pitching coach Dave Duncan, come into town. The Cardinals under then general manager Walt Jocketty, went on a complete rehaul of the roster. They traded for reliever Dennis Eckersley, starting pitcher Todd Stottlemyre and shortstop Royce Clayton. They signed outfielder Ron Gant, third baseman Gary Gaetti and starting pitcher Andy Benes via free agency.
The hitters who stayed on in ’96 from the ’95 team and had at least 100 AB, plus the new faces mentioned above (ten players in all) had a cumulative WAR of 21 in ’95. The rotation for the ’96 team had a cumulative WAR of 10.1 in ’95. The ’96 closer, Eckersley had a 0.9 WAR in ’95.
Mike Matheny has the responsibility of replacing a future Hall of Fame manager and that is no small task. However, he is being left with a much more cohesive and productive core than La Russa was given; even with the departure of Pujols. Pretty much he is the lone loss on the field. The departure of pitching coach Dave Duncan could prove to be the most detrimental loss of all, but this post is about the players.
In 2011, La Russa used only 80 different lineups not counting pitchers. The group of returning hitters plus the addition of Beltran also provides us with ten players with 100 plus AB. Each of the ten players played in more than 100 games. Their cumulative WAR in 2011 was 28.9. For the rotation, four pitchers are returning from last season. The total for this group is 12.2 WAR. If we add in Wainwright’s 2010 WAR (6.1) the group total becomes 18.3. This may be a stretch, but the point is proven with just the four returning players. Closer Jason Motte recorded a 1.5 WAR in ’11.
Across the board, Matheny has a special group to work with. Their on the field ability aside, they have a tight knit group as well. While, Jocketty and La Russa had to worry about putting the right team together for the sake of performance, they also hoped to find a grouping of players who could grow into a team. Matheny and current general manager John Mozeliak have no such issues. This team has a core that has been together for some time. Add in a full season with veteran shortstop Rafael Furcal and now Carlos Beltran and this team is full of professionals. Chemistry should not be an issue with this club.
Matheny will have his hands full learning the managerial trade and his pitching coach will also be learning on the job. Fortunately for them the team they have been dealt is solid top to bottom; on the field and off. La Russa had to build his team into a winner, Matheny has been handed a winner. Let’s see what he does with it.