If you look closely, you'll notice that I released the Central previews in the reverse order of how I expect the Brewers competition to finish in the division, with the Pirates being undoubtedly the worst, followed by Houston, Cincinnati, Chicago and finally the St. Louis Cardinals. The wildcard in all this would have to be where will the Milwaukee Brewers finish?
St. Louis Cardinals
But we aren't talking about the Brewers (yet), we're talking about the Cardinals and the offseason that they had. And oh what an offseason it was, the Cards brought in a staggering one player to bolster their hopes in 2010. Complacency be damned, St. Louis must be doing something right otherwise last year would have been fluke and that's not possible... right?
Those guys are good
Four players are the St. Louis Cardinals. Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright. A bad injury to any of these four would greatly effect any postseason hopes. Pujols is the most important, without him this offense is mediocre at best. Carpenter and Wainwright missing time would be absolutely devastating. Of those four guys Holliday would be the easiest to cover for, but the Cards would still be hard pressed to replace him.
There's nothing new to be said about this bunch of players, but more than ever their health will be a determining factor for the Cardinals success in 2010.
That's a problem
One huge concern for St. Louis has to be depth, everywhere. Let's start with the pitching staff, where, after the previously mentioned Carpenter and Wainwright, the Cardinals are set to feature free agent signee Brad Penny and Kyle Lohse. After those four it's a crap shoot, but I can't imagine Tony LaRussa is seriously considering going to a four man rotation. With the injury history of Penny, Carpenter and Wainwright that would be asking for trouble.
Lohse had a good first season with St. Louis before a return to form of sorts last year. He put up a career year year in 2008 (15-6, 3.78 ERA, 1.30 WHIP) but 2009 saw him settle closer to his career averages. Lohse has a career ERA of 4.68 and a career WHIP of 1.41. People love Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan, but 2008 was a fluke and Lohse's numbers will be more 2009 (4.74 ERA, 1.37 WHIP) than 2008.
As far as Penny goes, he is a notoriously poor finisher. It'll be up to Duncan to change a trend that Penny has had his entire career. Also, at some point during the season, he will get hurt and miss time. It's what he does. Penny has pitched more than 200 innings only two times in his ten-year career. How an already thin rotation deals with that will be something to watch.
That's it. If there is an injury the Cardinals will be forced to tap into the plethora of inexperienced and under-talented minor leaguers that make up one of baseball's worst farm system. The Cardinals don't really have any bright spots on the farm after trading away Brett Wallace last year.
Pitching depth isn't the only problem this team faces, they're set to open the season with 26-year-old rookie David Freese starting at third base. In four minor league seasons Freese hit .306 with a .384 OBP and 68 home runs. Solid numbers all-around, but a rookie is a rookie. Even if Freese does well an injury could cause major problems. Julio Lugo will be their chief bench option but he's not a good defender and he's 34, could be worse but it could also be much better.
Can lightning strike twice?
In nine major league seasons Ryan Franklin never had an ERA lower than three. Than, out of nowhere, he becomes closer of the Cards and puts up an ERA of 1.92 while giving up less home runs than any other full season and converting 38 saves. All at the age of 36. The year he had in 2009 is absolutely out of nowhere and will be hard to repeat for anyone, let alone a player that will be 37 in March.
The Cardinals have to be hoping for a repeat performance though, because their other options at closer leave a lot to be desired. Jason Motte would likely be the number one backup and he struggled mightily with his control at times last year.
Speaking of lightning strikes
Another player that will be under the spotlight will be starting shortstop Brendan Ryan. It took Ryan seven seasons to get out of the Minor Leagues and when he did get called up it was mostly by necessity. He took the opportunity and ran with it but he'll need to have a few good seasons before he can be considered a sure thing.
I'm not saying Ryan won't be successful, his defense alone was outstanding a year ago and there's no reason to think that will suffer. But I'm not willing to pencil him in for a .290 average over 150 games just yet.
I hate that man
If I'm writing about the Cardinals, I have to work in some reference to how much I dislike Tony LaRussa. I hate his old man sunglasses, I hate his mullet haircut, I hate the way he manages his pitching staff, I hate his arrogance, I hate how he thinks everyone is out to get his players and I hate how he tries to irritate the hell out of opposing players. I cannot stand him and his approach. Period. For a more expansive look at the Cardinals, look back to this piece I wrote during last years playoffs.
About Mark McGwire. There's not much I can say about the McGwire as hitting coach thing that hasn't really been said, so I'll sum it up with a brief, vehement, statement. Mark McGwire is a cheater, a liar and a black spot on the game. He doesn't belong in the hall of fame and he shouldn't be allowed around the game.
When it all hits the fan
I'd love to rip the Cardinals apart and I've done my best to highlight their weaknesses and question spots but this is a good team. As is the case with good teams the only thing that can really hurt their chances at a division title would be injury or just a complete disaster of a season from the Cards top players. The division seems to be theirs to win, which so often ends up as a reason to lose.