Season preview review: St. Louis Cardinals

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The defending champs didn't make it back to the World Series. How does that match up with preseason expectations?

The St. Louis Cardinals won a World Series and unexpectedly lost a franchise icon within a couple of months. It was a pie of cognitive dissonance right in the face; most franchises might experience one of those franchise-changing moments every decade or so. The Cardinals had a few weeks to process it.

So before focusing on the relative success of the 2012 Cardinals, let's take a minute to appreciate the calm, collected way they went about rejiggering their championship roster. The Beltran-for-Pujols swap worked out in the short-term, and it almost certainly worked out for, oh, 2015 and beyond. It was a nifty job to get out of a situation that had to make everyone in the organization nervous.

But how did the Cards do relative to preseason expectations? Let us look back at preseason expectations and compare.

Overall tone of preview
Stopped short of calling them favorites, but certainly considered them contenders. The 2011 lineup benefited from what looked like career-type seasons, and they weren't going to have Albert Pujols, but the addition of a healthy Adam Wainwright was going to be a boon. The wild card was Mike Matheny and Derek Lilliquist replacing Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan.

What actually happened
88-74, the second Wild Card, and a trip to the National League Championship Series for the second straight season. To get to the NLCS, the Cardinals had to ruin the hopes and dreams of another team that could be forgiven for counting chickens and getting excited about an impending victory that was never to be. The Cardinals are an especially cruel franchise.

What changed between the preview and the end of the season?
Chris Carpenter had neck problems in conjunction with shoulder problems in conjunction with nerve problems that finally resulted in the removal of a rib. He came back at the very end of the season, and he wasn't quite right in either of his starts in the NLCS. With a healthy Carpenter, the Cards probably weren't going to contend with the Reds for the NL Central, but they would have had a much better shot at advancing to another World Series.

For the most part, though, things went as expected for the Cardinals. Beltran provided a reasonable facsimile of Pujols's production. The players they expected to contribute, did. The rotation wasn't especially flashy, but it was deep enough to absorb injuries and still make the Cardinals one of the better teams in the National League.

Player(s) I ignored for whatever reason
The only mention of Yadier Molina was as a bullet point in a list of players who were supposed to decline. Whoops. Instead, Molina was one of the very best players in the National League, winning a deserved Gold Glove and hitting even better than his breakout season the year before.

His career path is remarkable, as he just keeps getting better and better. A season preview for the 2013 Cardinals begins and ends with bouquets of praise thrown at Molina's feet. Don't forget that he takes this stuff really, really seriously, too.

Also of note: I guess Kyle Lohse really is that good? Okay. I really didn't see that coming a couple of years ago.

Biggest surprise?
Other than Rafael Furcal getting hurt? That's a tough one, actually. The Cardinals didn't have one of those wholly unexpected, baseball-gonna-baseball kind of developments that stunned the world. There wasn't a rookie who dominated when he wasn't supposed to, though Lance Lynn looked like that for a while. There wasn't a player who was supposed to be good but tanked.

If not Lynn, the answer is Matt Carpenter, a quasi-prospect who was a little too old for Triple-A last season. He came up and gave the Cardinals almost 300 quality at-bats. Some teams have been chasing the kind of production from a homegrown player for years, but the Cardinals kind of lactate these guys.

Obscenely stupid quote

If I had to make a list of Cardinals hitters I'd guess will decline compared to last season, it wouldn't be a short one.

The list I came up with: Molina, Allen Craig, Jon Jay, Carlos Beltran, and Lance Berkman. But the only disappointment was Berkman, who was hurt for most of the year. The other four players either had a season that was just as productive, or they improved. Considering what those players looked like in 2010, that was pretty impressive, and it augers well for the Cardinals' future, especially when it comes to Molina, Jay, and Craig.

The tone of the next preview?
The Cardinals would have to enjoy a bizarre offseason to not be considered co-favorites in the NL Central. They have a decision to make with Kyle Lohse, and they could probably use another middle infielder, but they're set up pretty well for the next couple of seasons.

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