ST LOUIS, MO - Albert Pujols #5 of the St. Louis Cardinals celebrates after defeating the Texas Rangers 6-2 to win the World Series in Game Seven of the MLB World Series at Busch Stadium. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Will the defending World Champions repeat without the help of one of the greatest hitters to ever play baseball?
I've never been addicted to cocaine. I've never tried to kick it cold turkey. I'd imagine that it's something like being a Cardinals fan from August through December. One week you're standing up through the open sunroof of a limo, arms aloft as you speed down Sunset Boulevard, ready to take on the world. The next week you're naked and crawling around the showers of the YMCA, shivering despite the 100-degree heat.
The Cardinals went from thinking about trading Lance Berkman in August, to winning the Wild Card on the last day of the season, to being a strike away from losing the World Series, to winning the thing, to losing their beloved franchise icon within a couple of months. That's quite the spectrum of extreme feelings. And if you still woke up naked and crawling around the showers of the YMCA, don't be ashamed. The highs were just that high, and the lows were just that low.
Not only did they lose their beloved franchise icon, who should get a lot of playing time at short for the Red Sox, but Albert Pujols left as well. It was a crazy late summer and fall for the Cardinals. It almost played out like some sort of philosophical debate in a smoky dorm room: "Would you have the most exciting season ever -- we're talking World Series and everything -- if it meant losing Pujols?"
Unless the Cardinals repeat (or Pujols turns into Vernon Wells) this season is going to be the walking-around-unshowered-and-in-pajamas stage of the breakup. If they miss the playoffs by a game, there will be the gnawing what-if-Pujols whispers. If they get bounced out of the first round of the playoffs, same thing. This is going to be a weird season, no matter how Cardinals fans approach it.
But if you're into the cold, hard numbers, it shouldn't be that different of a Cardinals team. Let's see, according to Baseball Reference, Pujols was worth five wins last year, and Beltran was worth four. Subtract Kyle McClellan out of the rotation, divide by Adam Wainwright, and poof: The Cardinals are miraculously a team of similar talents and capabilities.
It doesn't always work like that, though. 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.
And the list of hitters I'm almost certain will improve:
That isn't to suggest that the Cardinals aren't going to hit -- far from it. All five from the former category should still be valuable pieces that most teams probably covet in some capacity. I'm just not sold on all of them repeating some of the best years of their respective careers.
Molina has never been that good of a hitter before. If you use OPS+, last year was the best season in the careers of both Berkman and Beltran, who will both be on the wrong side of 35 next year. Jay's batting average on balls in play probably isn't sustainable, which would explain why his major-league numbers improved over his minor-league numbers. Craig probably isn't going to be a .900 OPS guy if his minor-league numbers are any guide, and he's hurt for the first couple of months of the season.
It's not offensive or rude to point out that a lot of things went right for the Cardinals last year. Things go right for every championship team. That's sort of how they win the durn thing. Every year. That's true with the big picture (several role players contributing whenever injuries struck) and the small picture (Nelson Cruz almost, almost, almost caught that ball).
But if you do that, you have to be fair and note that right around this time last year, a lot of us were pretty down on the Cardinals because Adam Wainwright was going to be out for the season. Without half of the Cy Young-contending duo, there was no way that the team could do anything more than limp into the playoffs, right? They're getting that guy back. A reminder: He's good. If Roy Halladay is clearly the #1 of the National League, a healthy Wainwright is at least a 1a. Thinking that the Cardinals should be better this season, even without Pujols, isn't completely insane. It might even be likely.
That counts on a healthy Wainwright, though, and elbow surgeries can be finicky things. Still, it looks like the front three of the rotation should be an enviable corps -- it's worth remembering that Jaime Garcia is hardly older than the typical prospect. Chris Carpenter had a rough start to the season, but he rebounded to pitch as well as expected. Jake Westbrook should be better after having his worst season since his rookie year.
And never forget: Kyle Lohse led all of the starting pitchers in ERA. That's how we all figured they'd win the World Series, folks. Remember?
The hitting should be worse. The pitching should be better. And in a division where half of the teams are as likely to win the WNBA championship as they are the NL Central, that's certainly good enough for the Cardinals to contend again. It might be enough for them to be favorites. That's hard to do when losing one of the greatest hitters in baseball history.
Coulda Shoulda Woulda (Hole they didn't fill)
They had options internally when Pujols left, specifically getting Berkman out of right field and putting him at first, and getting Beltran was probably a best-case scenario for a team that wasn't interested in overpaying for a replacement. Even though they have a lot of money invested in Lohse and Westbrook, they probably would have been better with Roy Oswalt or with Edwin Jackson staying, but that's nitpicking. Considering the circumstances, the Cards did pretty well this offseason.
Tony LaRussa is out, replaced by Mike Matheny. Dave Duncan is on sabbatical to be with his ailing wife, giving way to Derek Lilliquist. It'd be easy to be saber-cocky and suggest that managers and coaches are as meaningful as lineup orders, but I'm almost certain that isn't the case, especially with Duncan. I might not be actively attending the Church of Duncan every week, but I'll certainly take your pamphlet and read through it.
If the Cardinals pitching gets worse than it was last year, get ready for a spate of articles openly wondering how much of the decline is due to the absence of Duncan. And, heck, all of them might have a point.
Within a game of first by the beginning of September, if not well ahead. Rafael Furcal gets hurt. Matt Holliday doesn't get another moth stuck in his ear. The Cardinals don't repeat (if only because it's almost impossible for anyone to repeat).