2011 Record: 90-72, 1st NL Central
2011 Prediction: 78-84, 3rd NL Central

Impact Player: LF Matt Holliday
Impact Pitcher:
RHP Adam Wainwright
Best Reliever:
RHP Jason Motte
Top Prospect:
RHP Shelby Miller

Last Year
On August 25th of last year, the St. Louis Cardinals were 68-63 and trailed the wild card-leading Braves by ten full games. They were left for dead; no one was even considering them a marginal playoff contender at that point. Then things started to fall apart for the Braves, they lost 20 of 30 games from that point on while the Cards got hot and took 22 of their last 31 games. The climactic end result came on the final day of the regular season when St. Louis beat the Astros while the Braves lost to the Phillies, vaulting the Cardinals to the NL Wildcard and into the playoffs.

They did stop there either. They edged out the mighty Phillies in five games in the NLDS and then rather easily disposed of division-rival Milwaukee in the NLCS, setting up a date with the AL Champion Rangers in what would become one of the most entertaining Fall Classics of the last few decades. In game six, the Rangers twice had the Cardinals down to their last strike and twice blew it, going on to lose the game in extra innings. The Cards easily took game seven and won their franchise’s 11th World Series and the second in the last six years.

Their championship was both the culmination and the end of an era in the Gateway City. Longtime manager Tony LaRussa announced his retirement shortly after the Series’ conclusion and a few weeks later, the best player in franchise history, Albert Pujols, signed a free agent contract with the Angels. Things will certainly be different in 2012 with rookie manager Mike Matheny taking over, but all is not lost for the Red Birds. The team still has talent, but just how much of that will translate to wins remains to be seen.

Pitching
What’s most impressive about St. Louis’ 2011 campaign is that they won 90 games without their best pitcher. Adam Wainwright spend the entire year on the DL recovering from Tommy John’s surgery, yet the team still had more than enough depth in the rotation to contend. Wainwright is back and although there’s no telling how long it will be before he’s back to being the pitcher he used to be, his presence will certainly be a boost. Unfortunately, incumbent ace Chris Carpenter’s speckled injury history is always a concern; he’s already on the shelf and will likely miss the start of the season with a neck problem.

If Wainwright can come even close to the numbers he put up in 2010 when he had a 2.42 ERA and a 6.1 fWAR, St. Louis will not need Carpenter to be rushed back. However, it might be unrealistic to suggest that Wainwright will immediately be the pitcher he was and Carpenter’s injury is even more worrisome when you consider he threw 273.1 innings last season in both the regular and post –seasons. The Cardinals will need one of those two to be a legitimate number one if they’re going to repeat last year’s performance and at this point, that seems unlikely.

Jaime Garcia has become an excellent mid-rotation starter. Last year, he posted a 3.56 ERA and a 3.31 xFIP in 194.2 innings. His 3.6 fWAR was second to only Carpenter among pitchers on the team and he lowered his walk-rate significantly from his rookie season. Kyle Lohse, meanwhile, has been named the Opening Day starter for St. Louis, which means nothing ultimately. He’s the fourth-best starter on this team when everyone’s healthy and he shouldn’t be counted on for anything more than average production.

The final two spots, at least until Carpenter returns, will go to veteran Jake Westbrook and re-converted reliever Lance Lynn. Westbrook posted the third-worst K/BB ratio in the NL last season at 1.43, but does consistently post excellent groundball percentages. Still, he’s clearly not the pitcher he once was and if Lynn pitches as well as he has so far this Spring, he may lose his spot in the rotation.

Jason Motte emerged last season as a legitimate late-inning reliever. The converted catcher finished tenth in fWAR among NL relievers and was fantastic in the playoffs. Barring a staggering regression, he’ll be the closer all season for the Cards. In setup of Motte will be electric righthander Eduardo Sanchez and every Jays’ fans favourite lefty Marc Rzepczynski. Sanchez will strikeout you, your whole family and your dog, but he also struggles to keep his walks down, while Scrabble continues to quietly be a steady-as-they-come reliever who could still be used as a starter if things get dire.

Fernando Salas and Kyle McClellan will make up the righthanded middle-relief corps. Salas was very good in 2011 putting up very similar peripherals to Sanchez, but with a slightly less impressive strikeout rate and a better walk rate, while McClellan was stretched out a starter last year with middling results. He’ll need to strike out more to be successful.

The last two spots will probably go to veteran lefty J.C. Romero and long-man Mitchell Boggs. Romero had a 2.35 xFIP against lefties in 2011, so he could have value if he’s used properly, while Boggs is versatile enough to be used in almost any role.

Lineup
The Cardinals led the NL in runs scored in 2011 thanks in part to the continued great play of the now-departed Pujols and the resurgence of Lance Berkman. Leftfielder Matt Holliday was his usual excellent, if underrated, self and catcher Yadier Molina put up a career-year with the bat. Repeating that 2011 performance could be difficult for St. Louis considering Pujols is now gone and Berkman and Molina will almost assuredly fall back somewhat.

Berkman will be moved from rightfield to first base, which is a dramatic improvement defensively, but it’s doubtful he repeats his surprising 2011. His .402 wOBA was fifth in the NL behind only Ryan Braun, Matt Kemp, Prince Fielder, and Joey Votto and he finished with 31 home runs, but he looked left for dead in 2010 and was in decline long before that. Holliday, meanwhile, is one of the most consistent hitters in the game, and may now be recognized as such without the looming shadow if Pujols.

Replacing Berkman in rightfield will be Carlos Beltran, who was signed to a two-year, $26-million deal. Beltran had his healthiest year since 2008, finishing with a career-high-tying 151 wRC+ split between the Mets and Giants. He’s not the defender he once was, but if he can stay healthy he should be an above average rightfielder.

Molina had by far his best offensive year in 2011, finishing with a .305/.349/.465 slash line and a career-best 14 homeruns and as a result, he was signed to a five-year, $75-million contract that doesn’t kick in until next season. Although the deal is about market value for someone of Molina’s ilk, expecting him to keep up the offensive numbers he put up last year and to maintain his immense defensive value until 2017 is probably unwise.

The Cardinals decided to re-sign shortstop Rafael Furcal for the 2012 and 2013 seasons after a decent showing with them down the stretch after being acquired from the Dodgers. He hit seven homeruns in just 50 regular season games with St. Louis, but finished the year with an on-base percentage below .300 and has lost a lot of his defensive value over the years. Like Beltran, there’s also a significant risk of injury and not a lot of depth to fall back on.

Joining Furcal on the left side of the infield will be World Series hero David Freese. Freese certainly has all the skills to be a slightly above average hitter, but has always had trouble staying on the field long enough to actuate them. At 29, there’s no reason to think he’ll suddenly start being durable; he played in only 97 games last year, which was his career-high.

Rounding out the infield will be a combination of Daniel Descalso, Tyler Greene and Skip Schumaker at second base. Greene has the most significant upside, but is 28 and unlikely to light the world on fire. Neither Descalso nor Schumaker should be considered more than adequate bench players. Speaking of bench players, Jon Jay is expected to be the main option for St. Louis in centerfield. He looked good at times last season, but he’s about to make the Colby Rasmus trade look pretty foolish for the Cards.

Bench
Tony Cruz, Bryan Anderson and Koyie Hill are still battling for the right to back up Molina at catcher; Cruz probably has the inside track as of now. Mark Hamilton can provide some support for Berkman at first and Erik Komatsu and Adron Chambers are candidates for the fourth outfielder spot. Allen Craig will likely take the spot of Hamilton once he’s back from his knee injury and is good enough to step in and start if Beltran can’t stay healthy in right.

For a more detailed look at the Cardinals roster, click here.

Outlook
The Cardinals got hot at the right time in 2011, thanks in part to the mid-season rebuilding of their bullpen and the acquisition of Edwin Jackson in their rotation. Their offense was excellent, but appears primed for a setback in 2012 with several below-average pieces getting significant playing time and many of the better pieces remain major injury concerns. Ultimately, they aren’t any better than the team was sitting with a 68-63 record on August 25th and they shouldn’t be expected to repeat their 90-win performance. If everything goes right, they could still contend in an unstable NL Central, but I don’t buy that they’re really that good.

2012 Prediction: 84-78, 3rd NL Central