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12 in '12

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For me, nothing is more exciting than the start of Spring Training for the next Major League Baseball season. Players begin to head south to team complexes, ready to prove their skill. Some are young minor leaguers attempting to prove that they are worthy of one of those precious twenty-five slots that compose a Major League roster. Others are veterans coming off either a year of poor performance on the field or an injury that they want to prove is healed and will have no negative impact on they’re ability to play. Finally, some players are simply ready to play baseball. As a tried and true fan of the Saint Louis Cardinals, this is a time for me to examine my beloved club and ponder what kind of year lies ahead.
The first thing to do is address the elephant in the room. It is no secret that the defending World Series Champions have undergone a major transition from the team we saw last October. Albert Pujols has gone on to (supposedly) greener pastures, signing a ten-year, $254 million contract with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Legendary manager Tony LaRussa has retired, along with pitching coach Dave Duncan, though he will be tending to his ailing wife. As surprising as it is, I believe the one that will be the biggest loss is that of Dave Duncan. Managers have little impact on the result of games, though LaRussa’s way of twisting things into his favor will be missed. The largest part of a manager’s duties happens in the clubhouse, where I have little doubt that new manager Mike Matheny will thrive. Albert will also be missed, having been the face of the franchise for eleven years, but this lineup is deep enough to makeup for his loss, but more on that later. Duncan, on the other hand, has transformed seemingly lost pitchers into some of the best in the game (see Kyle Lohse). While the staff is primarily veteran, his insight into every aspect of pitching can never be replaced.
Seeing as we’ve already started into the pitching staff, I think an excellent way to start the examination is with the starting pitching rotation. With Spring Training now in full swing, this is one aspect of the team that seems set. Starting with co-aces Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright, the staff will also include young, but deadly Jaime Garcia, Kyle Lohse, whom had a comeback year in 2011, and Jake Westbrook, whom is trying to prove that he still has something left in the tank. At their best, this is a group to fear. Unfortunately, each comes with some serious question marks. Carpenter is coming off the most innings thrown in a single season at any point in his career. At 36 years old, one can’t help but wonder how his body responds to the heavy workload. Adam Wainwright is attempting to move past a Tommy John Surgery that cost him all of last season, and many pitchers need another year to completely regain control, though his bullpen sessions provide reasons for optimism. Garcia had a great start to last year, but the second half saw a higher ERA and lower strikeout rate, raising questions about whether or not he is able to be effective for an entire season. Kyle Lohse was actually the team leader in wins last year, but his long history of injury could come back into affect. Finally, Jake Westbrook is a former All-Star that seems to need pushed into the bullpen, where he landed during the playoffs. Both Westbrook and Lohse are in the final year of their respective contracts, but they each have full no-trade protection, so don’t expect a big move at the deadline involving either of these veterans.
Now matter how effective your starting rotation is, no pitching staff is complete without a potent bullpen. This year’s Cardinals bullpen seems more settled and ready to protect leads. With J.C. Romero joining the staff, the left side of bullpen seems as complete as it was with Arthur Rhodes during the playoffs, though being able to utilize this asset for a full season could be invaluable. Jason Motte seems ready to anchor the back end of games, and the right side looks ready for the task. Recent minor league signee Scott Linebrink will be competing for one of four spots coming out of Spring Training. Kyle McClellan, Fernando Salas, Lance Lynn, and Eduardo Sanchez seem assured spots, leaving Mitchell Boggs as the only legitimate competition for Linebrink to overcome, though Matheny could stray from LaRussa’s system of using thirteen pitchers in favor of the traditional twelve. One way or another, this is one bullpen that should have quite a few saves.
One serious question is that of the offense. How do you move past the greatest baseball player of all time moving to the other side of the country? You spend large amounts of money on outfielder Carlos Beltran and shortstop Rafael Furcal. Though it went largly under the radar Beltran is coming off of one the best years of his career, and should provide the kind of pop that makes this lineup all the tougher. Furcal offers a leadoff man in the batting order, but he seems to have forgotten how to get on base. On the other hand, Lance Berkman, Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina, and David Freese all add to the depth of great hitting this club has to offer. The problem is that Molina coming off the best year of his career, raising the question ‘Can Molina repeat a season where he had ten doubles and hit .305?’ Freese has a history of injury, and Berkman, Holliday, and Beltran are all on the dark side of thirty years old, so being hurt comes much mare easily and production is bound to decline at some point, though it might be later. Also, no decision has been made regarding the situation at second base. Daniel Descalso and Skip Schumaker both raise their own arguments, but Tyler Greene shouldn’t be thrown out of the equation yet. Greene has had problems transferring his success at Triple-A to the Majors, but LaRussa was against giving him an extended look, which Matheny might finally offer. Matheny could also use a platoon of multiple players, but Schumaker seems to be the better option, seeing as Descalso can be put at second, short, or third if any player is injured or requires a day off. Throw in Allen Craig, Jon Jay, and Tony Cruz (who seems to be the frontrunner for the backup catching job) and you have an offense that would make almost any general manager drool.
Finally, the defense looks like it could be even worse then last year. While Furcal gives the team its first solid shortstop since Ozzie Smith retired, Berkman is a lighter asset defensively then Pujols at first base. Second and third both seem solid, as does the backstop. The outfield could involve problems, though. Beltran needs to prove that his knees aren’t shot and Holliday needs to stay healthy, which should not be an issue, provided he wears an ample amount of insect repellent. All and all, though, it doesn’t seem to be enough of a liability to lead to major concern.
So here we are, with only Spring Training and those pesky twenty-eight preseason games before the start of the 2012 season. This team seems deep enough that, should injuries rack up as they did last year, they should remain competitive. The franchise won World Series number eleven last year, and despite all the changes, winning 12 in ’12 may actually seem more probable. It would seem that the Saint Louis Cardinals have a great year ahead of them.



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