ST. LOUIS, MO: Matt Carpenter of the St. Louis Cardinals hits an RBI single against the Chicago Cubs at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Missouri. Both teams wore the number 42 in honor of Jackie Robinson Day. The Cardinals beat the Cubs 10-3. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Despite winning the World Series last fall, the St. Louis Cardinals weren't the consensus pick to win the National League Central this season. They're off to a good start, though, thanks to some surprises.
Ah, the St. Louis Cardinals. After just barely reaching the postseason and just barely winning the World Series and just barely filling every deserving child's stocking with goodies before the clock struck midnight on Christmas Eve, they were supposed to collapse from exhaustion this spring. Especially after Chris Carpenter went down.
So far, not so much. Here's Bernie Miklasz:
The Cardinals lose Albert Pujols, have limping 1B Lance Berkman in the lineup for only five of the first 10 games and have played without 3B David Freese for the last two games. Allen Craig and Skip Schumaker are on the DL, Matt Holliday is hitting .200 (he'll be fine) and their second basemen are batting .189 collectively. Pitching ace Chris Carpenter is on the disabled list, and ace-designate Adam Wainwright has an 11.42 ERA after two starts. This is a team with a rookie manager, Mike Matheny, and a pitching coach (Derek Lilliquist) who is in his first big-league season as the full-time PC. Seven of their first 10 games have been played on the road, and the Cardinals have faced a collection of aces including Josh Johnson, Zack Greinke and Johnny Cueto.
And yet somehow the Cardinals are 7-3 after 10 games.
How? Miklasz offers a number of reasons, along with (because he's a smart guy) the caveat that 10 games is only 10 games, and the Cardinals can't keep winning precisely like they've been winning. Eventually, Holliday's going to have to hit, Carpenter and/or Wainwright have to make real contributions, and the second basemen have to do something.
Miklasz's reasons for the Cardinals' early success include a young fellow named Matt Carpenter, which I mention now because there's a pretty good chance that until just this moment, or certainly until just this month, you had never even seen Matt Carpenter's name.
Granted, Matt Carpenter did play in a few games for the Cardinals last summer. I missed them. Carpenter missed a lot of pitches; in seven games, he hit safely once in 15 at-bats. Carpenter debuted on the 4th of June, got sent back to the minors after playing third base on the 12th, and never made it back last season, not even in September when the Cardinals were fighting for their lives. I can't help wondering if he somehow got in Tony La Russa's doghouse, since Allen Craig was La Russa's only potent bench player down the stretch. And Craig bats right-handed, Carpenter left-handed.
Anyway, Carpenter didn't figure to see much action this season, either. In the minors, his primary position was third base and the Cards are set there with David Freese. His other position was first base, but Lance Berkman.
Nevertheless, Carpenter's gotten into eight games so far. His lines last year and this year:
Oddly, Carpenter's No. 1 attribute in the minors has been walks, with just decent power; this season he's drawn just one walk, but has five long hits (two doubles, two triples, one home run). He's obviously not this good in real life. But he probably can hit well enough to stick in the majors, and contribute.
He's in a tough spot, though: Blocked by veterans Berkman and Freese, and perhaps blocked soon by prospects Zack Cox (third base) and Matt Adams (first), both of whom are now just one step away from the majors.
Still, I can't help thinking that Adams, just a 13th-round draft pick three years ago who signed for $1,000, has a bright future after entering this season with a career .408 on-base percentage in the minors. I also can't help thinking that the Cardinals might have tried harder to keep Albert Pujols if they didn't have Carpenter and Cox and Adams waiting in the wings.
Lance Lynn's pitching well, and there are more young pitchers on the way. Albert Pujols or no Albert Pujols, this organization seems well-stocked for at least the next few years.