Now that we have turned the page to a new calendar year, it’s time to take a look ahead at what the year 2012 might hold for the St. Louis Cardinals and their fans. Reminiscing on the magical year that was 2011 is always nice, but considering what’s to come can’t hurt either. With a pair of icons gone and several new faces arriving this offseason, change is in the air as we approach Spring Training. Last season brought the 11th World Series Championship in franchise history, but can we expect a similar outcome this season? Find out after the jump. Despite all that the Cardinals have been through since October, there still seems to be an overwhelming sense of optimism surrounding this ballclub. However, that optimism doesn’t come without at least a slight dose of uncertainty. I’m all for looking on the bright side, but when you lose your Hall of Fame superstar and Hall of Fame manager in the same offseason (both of whom were cornerstones of the franchise for the past decade), anything can happen the following year.
Let’s start with the changes. Mike Matheny, a man with no managing experience whatsoever, replaces the third-winningest manager in history in Tony La Russa. This may in fact be the toughest change to adjust to considering just how unique La Russa’s style of managing was. Not to mention, a manager can affect the win/loss column on a game-by-game basis just as much if not more so than any individual player. Albert Pujols, the three-time MVP and best player to wear a Cards uniform since Stan Musial, has been indirectly replaced by Carlos Beltran. Lance Berkman will move to his natural position of first base with Beltran playing center field and Jon Jay moving to right while Allen Craig recovers from knee surgery. Replacing a player like Pujols will require a collective effort, but Beltran certainly brings a lot to the table.
Additionally, relief pitcher Octavio Dotel and outfielder Corey Patterson will not be returning in 2012. Both were toward the end of their respective careers anyway, and neither figured to have much of a role on a fully-healthy St. Louis squad. I think it’s safe to say they won’t be missed. Lefty reliever J.C. Romero has been brought on board on a one-year contract, and his effectiveness against left-handed hitters could be valuable in the bullpen.
Now obviously we will have a much better idea of what we can expect from this team as we get closer to opening day because there are several factors that are to be determined. Will Prince Fielder sign with St. Louis or any other team in the NL Central for that matter? Will the Cardinals be able to avoid major injuries throughout Spring Training? Will there be any kind of World Series hangover for the defending champs? How will things develop and come together for the Cardinals and their division counterparts leading up to the start of the season? These are all unknowns at this point, but that doesn’t mean we can’t lay out some expectations based on what we do know.
Taking all of the above into consideration, I think it’s reasonable to expect not only an NL Central division title, but also yet another deep postseason run. I’m not ready to go so far as to say it’s World Series or bust (I’m not Rex Ryan), but given the proud history of this franchise and the talent on this roster, 2012 could end up looking a lot like 2011. The Cards finished the regular season last year with a record of 90-72 and reached the playoffs via the Wild Card. This season, I expect 90+ wins once again, which should be good enough to win the division. After taking a significant step forward last year, there is no doubt that the NL Central has gotten weaker over the last few months. When you throw Ryan Braun‘s 50-game suspension into the mix along with Fielder’s likely departure, the Milwaukee Brewers have taken a significant hit. The Astros, Cubs, and Pirates aren’t quite ready to challenge the best of the best in this division in my eyes, so we could be looking at another year of the Cards/Reds rivalry at the top.
These are all long-term expectations, so for now, we should hope to see chemistry develop and players improve in order for this team to reach it’s maximum potential. The way the Cards come out of the gate in April will be quite interesting. Mike Matheny is the man at the center of it all, but how will he respond to the challenge? Just months after winning it all, the Redbirds face doubters once again. Don’t be surprised if those doubters are proven wrong yet again.