There is a lot of optimism around the St. Louis Cardinals these days, despite the loss of the greatest hitter in baseball since 2001 and one of the most successful managers of the modern era. Not to mention the most famous pitching coach in baseball, Dave Duncan.
Last season, Cards fans were distraught when they found out that Adam Wainwright would miss the season and then St. Louis went on to win the World Series. So, they are keeping their heads up this time around and with the NL Central looking like one of the more winnable divisions in baseball, there is a belief that the Cardinals can make it back to playoffs.
I have picked the Reds to win the Central, but there's a lot of good talent here. Let's take a look around.
Best Hitter: Matt Holliday
It's never felt to me like he's made quite the same impact in St. Louis as he did in Colorado, which would make sense since nothing is quite the same as playing in Colorado. However, he was worth more on a per game basis than any other hitter in St. Louis last season, accumulating 5 WAR in 124 games. (Pujols 5.1, Berkman 5.0)
Holliday hit .296/.388/.525 with 22 HR, 75 RBI, 83 R on a .330 BABIP.
He hasn't hit 30 HR since 2007 and his 18% strikeouts in 2011 was the highest it's been since he was a rookie. Those are some of the concerns around Holliday in coming seasons as he approaches his mid-30's. Additionally, how will he handle the role of "team's best hitter" now that Pujols is gone? Will that motivate him to get better?
No reason to believe he's not going to hit .300/.390/.520, 25 HR, 95 RBI, 95 R, 35 2B.
Best Pitcher: Chris Carpenter
I was very close to selecting Jaime Garcia here, as they posted nearly identical numbers last season. It's a decision of choosing "the up and comer" at age 25 or the "experienced veteran" at age 37. I went with the veteran that pitched 43 more innings last year.
He's had a remarkably interesting career that includes the fact that up until age 28, he had a 4.83 career ERA in Toronto and then missed a full season after he signed with St. Louis. Since that time, he's pitched like a Hall of Famer. Can he pitch long enough to earn that spot in the Hall? Even after missing most of 2007-2008?
Guess: 220 innings, 3.30 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 14-7, 180 Ks.
If he returns to form, Wainwright would easily be the #1 starter on this team. That's just something you'll have to weigh the risks of.
Potential Breakout: Allen Craig, OF
The Cards 2011 season will have many heroes, but Allen Craig might be the most unlikely.
He hit .315/.362/.555 with 11 HR and 40 RBI in 75 games last season and hit well during every season he had in the minors. Never a top prospect, he just goes out and silences doubters with production time and time again.
The words "surgically repaired knee" never sound good and he won't be ready to start the season, barring a surprise, but that doesn't mean he can't get 120+ games in this year and the Cards expect a big breakout from the 27-year-old with the possibility that he could grab a hold of that #3 hitter spot.
Potentially: .300/.350/.520 with good power, RBI, R. Unable to guess on the counting stats without knowing how many games he'll play, but he's a sneaky sleeper.
Potential Disappointment: Beltran, Berkman, Wainwright, Motte
Rather than examine one guy, I'll give shorter explanations on a few guys.
Carlos Beltran because he's 35 and was terrible two seasons ago. Always an injury question.
Lance Berkman because he's 36 and was terrible two seasons ago.
Adam Wainwright because he's coming off of major surgery.
Jason Motte because he has 12 career saves.
I'm not saying these guys will disappoint. I doubt that all four will live up to expectations or beyond expectations but I'm pointing out the potential each has to disappoint. Some of them will be just fine and be draft bargains.
Rookie Watch: Shelby Miller
Fun fact: Miller and top 2B prospect Kolten Wong were both born on October 10, 1990. I just found that out when I was researching this piece, though some Cards fans may be aware. Because of his talent and level however, Miller could be up first.
He absolutely dominated hitters last season, including his stint in AA, and even at age 21 he is knocking on the door of the majors. Any time you're still starting Jake Westbrook, you know that the job is just waiting to be taken by a young stud and that's what Miller is.
Some people have him ranked as the #1 starting pitching prospect in baseball after he posted a 2.77 ERA in 25 starts with 170 strikeouts in 139.2 innings.
It might only be 10-12 starts or something, but I expect Miller will be up this season.
One of the most interesting prospect watches this year will be fellow right handed starter Carlos Martinez, though he is much further away.