We all love an encore performance and the St. Louis Cardinals are hoping to put one on for us this season. The ability to repeat as World Champions is no easy feat. The last time it was done was back in 2000 when the New York Yankees rattled off their third World Series title in a row. Previous to that the Toronto Blue Jays went back to back in 1992 & 1993. You’d have to go back even further for the previous instance, the 1977/1978 Yankees. So, in over thirty seasons there have been 3 teams to win the World Series in successive seasons. Do we now, dismiss the notion that the Cardinals could repeat in 2012? I say it would be foolish to count them out.
Oct 28, 2011; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals team celebrating their victory in game seven of the 2011 World Series against the Texas Rangers at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-US PRESSWIRE
The good news is there have been plenty of teams who have made it back to the World Series the following season after winning it all. It just didn’t always end as well. But, getting back there is half the battle and to be honest the Cardinals have it easier being in the National League. The division may be difficult to win because the top three teams; the Cards, Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds will be evenly matched opponents. The Pittsburgh Pirates are not going to be pushovers. Teams may take advantage of rebuilding franchises in Chicago and Houston, but it seems everyone steps up when a division rival is on the other side of the field.
The divisional match-ups between the top teams will see a lot of split series. I can see each team playing in and around .500 ball against their top rivals. The division winner will probably need to amass 90 or so wins to claim the title. Now with the expanded wild card system, don’t be surprised if the last team in wins 86 games. I distinctly remember a team winning 83 games, enough to win the division, and then making a World Series run not that long ago. That 2006 season saw the top three teams in the NL Central finish within 3 1/2 games of each other with the Cardinals taking the title. I wouldn’t be shocked if we were in for a similar result as far as closeness in the standings.
I also believe the same thing will happen in the NL East. Each of the teams will battle each other hard and I do not suspect anyone running away with the division title. My guess is that the NL West will become a two team race between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the San Francisco Giants. I further expect the wild cards to come out of the NL East and NL Central. I’m not going to use this space to detail my predictions, that will come closer to the beginning of the season and in another column, but you get my point.
So, what is it that the Cardinals need to accomplish in order to make the playoffs? Well, we can begin with something they DON’T need to accomplish; they do not have to finish with the best record in the league. It’s nice, but this season in particular, the team with the best record doesn’t receive a true home-field advantage. The team receives the ability to play more games in the opening round at home, but the initial two games are played in the wild card play-in winner’s park. That’s enough for momentum and home field is not all it’s cracked up to be. Plus, we’ve seen plenty of teams win the World Series from the wild card spot.
Next, I’ll state the obvious. Health is going to play a role in where any team finishes. For the Cardinals, more than some of the other teams in the NL Central, age and injury history could make the chances of a repeat difficult. It is not impossible as the Cardinals’ anticipated 25-man roster is deep as is the minor league system. But, there are a multitude of injury prone ‘regulars’, who if down at the same time, will cause some strife for manager Mike Matheny.
The pitching needs to be solid from start to finish. So far this spring we have seen Adam Wainwright come out strong after missing 2011 due to Tommy John surgery. Chris Carpenter has battled a neck injury so far this spring and he has not pitched in a game yet. Kyle Lohse has been good, but not spectacular. Jake Westbrook looks to be in great physical shape and is throwing groundballs at a rate any manager would love. Jaime Garcia continues to be an enigma. His ability to pitch deep into games is virtually non-existent and this needs to change in order for the bullpen to not get overworked. Lohse and Westbrook do not traditionally last much past the sixth inning either. Lance Lynn, who is filling in for Carpenter in case Carp cannot make the opening day start, has looked more than capable of being a spot starter for short and long periods of time. Using Lynn as such opens up a role for the bullpen.
The pen features Jason Motte, who will be the closer to start the season. He’s been heralded for a long time as the Cardinals’ closer of the future. He finally gets his opportunity straight out of the gate after securing the spot in late August last season. He’ll need to perform the role well in order to hold off other pitchers who have the ability to close games such as Fernando Salas and Eduardo Sanchez. Mitchell Boggs has been working on a new mindset and new pitches this spring without great results. He is being outperformed by veteran Scott Linebrink. It would not be surprising to see Linebrink be given the chance out of spring and in order to allow Boggs to work on his stuff in the minors. Marc Rzepczynski is the lefty specialist and the team has to decide if they want another lefty in J.C. Romero. Kyle McClellan will be in the bullpen this season and there is no chance of him starting now that Lynn is being stretched out.
The Cardinals’ lineup has the ability to be as potent as last season without Albert Pujols provided the there is a balance to production. The team is assembled to feed off of each other. The Redbirds will need Rafael Furcal to revert back to the player he was a few years ago as the table-setter for the team. It looks as though Matt Holliday will be the number three hitter and Carlos Beltran could get many starts in the number two hole. The Cards seem to think that David Freese is set to finally explode and view him as the cleanup or number five hitter, switching off and on with Lance Berkman depending on the pitching match-up. If Yadier Molina can maintain his production at the plate from 2011, the Cardinals will be stacked from 2-6 in the lineup. Jon Jay will likely hit seventh and the winner of the second base competition, Daniel Descalso or Tyler Greene will round out the lineup. This crew may try to run the bases differently than in recent years. Looking for more steals and aggressiveness on the base paths has been a sticking point with Matheny. Even so, the middle of the lineup can rake and each player has the potential to get hot enough to carry a team much like Pujols did in his prime. With the addition of Beltran, the emergence of Freese and Molina to complement Holliday and Berkman, runs will not be hard to come by.
On the bench, the loser of the second base starter’s role will see a lot of time in the infield. Both Descalso and Greene can cover the middle of the diamond and third base if needed. Matheny will have some decisions to make early on about the rest of the bench now that Skip Schumaker and Allen Craig are both likely to begin the season on the disabled list. Matt Carpenter, Mark Hamilton, Erik Komatsu, Adron Chambers, and Shane Robinson are all expected to receive consideration for bench roles due to their versatility and production this spring.
Due to their depth, it will take a good amount of juggling the bench players (including Schumaker and Craig when they return) in and out of the lineup to give the veterans rest. I do not like babying players, but this is a fragile lot and it’s a long season. Matheny’s hardest job will be divvying up playing time especially once Craig returns. Craig, to me, is too valuable to sit on the bench waiting for at-bats. Injuries happen and the bench and role players will get their time as the season presses on, but Craig should not have to sit back and wait for an injury to get on the field. Craig is probably the only non-starter who will reach 400 plate appearances, of course barring injury.
The Cardinals are built for the regular season and the playoffs. They have plenty of arms in the rotation and in the bullpen to accumulate innings during the regular season and they have enough top-notch arms to carrying them in a short series. The lineup is more than solid top to bottom. Injuries could be an issue, but the bench and role players are plentiful and versatile. There will not be significant downgrades if a regular starter goes down for a short period. Another component to consider is that the Cards did not break the bank over the winter. They have the necessary resources if there is a significant long-term injury to sign a Roy Oswalt, or make a trade for an expensive rental type player for the stretch run.
The Cardinals are set up for an encore performance. The stage is set and the crew is in place. So long as everyone remembers their part and plays it to the utmost of their ability, the Cards should have no problem making the playoffs. If they reach the postseason the Cardinals have a chance to do something very special in 2012. They could repeat as World Series Champions. That has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it Cardinals’ fans?