NL Central 2012 Preview: Looking Far(ther) Ahead

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3. St. Louis Cardinals

 2011 Results: 90-72 (2nd, Clinched Wild Card, Won World Series)

Key Losses

1B Albert Pujols

2B Nick Punto

Key Pickups

RF Carlos Beltran

P Scott Linebrink

If ever a team could show us how important a manager is to an organization’s success, it’s the 2012 St. Louis Cardinals. Tony LaRussa is off to greener pastures, and with him leaves an era of unrivaled success in the Gateway to the West. (By consequence, the rash of unfair play against the Cardinals that has dominated the NL Central will likely come to a close as well.) So the only real question about the Cardinals has to be:

Can Mike Matheny bring the Cardinals back to the World Series?

Short answer: no. The reasons being two fold: First off, the baseball season is long, arduous, and built to frustrate and disappoint baseball teams and fans alike. Secondly, Albert Pujols is gone. I know that one man does not a team make, but if ever it could that team would be called the Albert Pujolses. There is no question that the offense will suffer for the loss of the Machine. Beltran was an amazing pickup by the Cards and he will play well, but the rest of the lineup has questions as well. Will Holliday be back to 100%, or is the wrist injury a harbinger of future struggles at the plate? Both John Jay and David Freese have played brilliantly in their young careers, but can they continue their success into the future? Will Lance Berkman finally be too old and gooey to play effectively, even with the added benefit of a move to first base? Will Wainwright be back to his old form?

These are the things you have to ask yourself as a defending champion. And in looking at the numbers, St. Louis hit a perfect storm of players having great years at the same time. Lohse and Westbrook both put up some of the best numbers of their career last year and Garcia has proven that he can lead a rotation if needed. The problem will be staying power, and a lot of that comes from a manager being able to smooth out kinks when things aren’t working well, and keeping players focused when they are. It’s just impossible to tell if Matheny is up to that task.

2011 At-a-glance

Batting Average – .273 5th in MLB, 1st in NL

OBP – .341 3rd in MLB, 1st in NL

SLG – .425 6th in MLB, 2nd in NL

OPS – .766 5th in MLB, 1st in NL

ERA – 3.74 12th in MLB, 8th in NL

How these numbers will sway after Pujols is gone remains to be seen, but these numbers are certainly aided in part by one of the greatest runs to the playoffs any organization has – or likely will – see in the history of the game. I think St. Louis will do well again, but how well they will do in a wide-open division is up in the air. The division is no longer the Cardinals’ to lose, regardless of how well they did last year.