Our team-by-team preview of the 2012 MLB season from a fantasy perspective continues today with the St. Louis Cardinals. If you've just jumped on with our series or need a reminder, we are spending a day with each major league team, looking at 9 different fantasy angles for each franchise while also paying homage to the things we watch for as real life fans. The hope is that through this exercise we might all come to a greater understanding of the various environments that contain the players we spend so much time obsessing over. Fantasy baseball would be a lot easier if these guys played in a vacuum, but since they don't, it's a good idea to learn as much as we can about the circumstances that affect their play.
Make sure you check out Kenneth Arthur's spotlight on various Cardinals players. Our series will continue tomorrow with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
2011 in Review & 2012 Outlook
On August 24, 2011, the Cardinals were 67-63, 10 games out of first place in the NL Central (behind the Brewers) and 10.5 games out of first place in the wild card race (behind the Braves and Giants). For whatever reason (I'm sure there's a book out there somewhere that can tell you why), the team caught fire, posting a 23-9 record for the rest of the season while the Braves went 9-18 in the month of September. They clinched the wild card spot on that epic last day of the regular season, then went on to beat the Phillies, Brewers, and Rangers on their way to the title.
Heading into 2012, the Cardinals are probably the favorites to win a weakened NL Central, but it's not as if they won't be licking their own wounds. All-world slugger Albert Pujols is gone (you may have heard), and so is future Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa. St. Louis dealt with the loss of Pujols by signing outfielder Carlos Beltran and moving Lance Berkman to first base, and they have replaced La Russa with the baby-faced Mike Matheny. Oh, and Adam Wainwright will be back. Amazing what they were able to do without him.
Busch Stadium was the fourth-stingiest ballpark last season in terms of home runs and sixth in terms of overall runs. It's a pitcher's park through and through. The even dimensions all the way around give no advantage to hitters of either handedness. Pitchers with high fly ball ratios can survive here, and all hurlers gain an edge while batters suffer. Sort of puts Albert Pujols' career in perspective, huh?
Manager & Coaching Staff
Mike Matheny is only 5 years older than Berkman and pitcher Chris Carpenter, and he's never managed at any level. He also has the unenviable task of dealing with a set of sky-high expectations following the departure of a well-tenured manager and a championship, but as we were told 85 times each night during the World Series, St. Louis is a sophisticated baseball town, so surely the fans won't be too unreasonable, right? Truth is, we don't know a whole lot about Matheny's managerial style, except that he's made some waves about emphasizing fundamentals. Presumably, he won't handle the bullpen like a madman or make two double switches every day just for the sake of it, but you never know.
Derek Lilliquist will take over as pitching coach for the departed Dave Duncan. Lilliquist was promoted from bullpen coach, which is great for continuity.
Expected Position Battles
Second base is wide open, with Daniel Descalso (advantage: lefthandedness), Tyler Greene (advantage: athleticism), and Skip Schumaker (advantage:...experience?) competing for the job. This seems like an actual competition, with no clear frontrunner as far as I can tell. If Greene gets the job, he'll have to shake the Quad-A label before fantasy players will trust him, so there's possible value here. He'll provide steals regardless of how he hits (though it's obviously better if he can get on base more than 32% of the time, like he did in 58 games with the Cards in 2011. You know what you're getting with Descalso: an average average with no power and no speed. Stay away.
Projected Lineup & Rotation
Rafael Furcal - SS
Carlos Beltran - RF
Matt Holliday - LF
Lance Berkman - 1B
David Freese - 3B
Jon Jay - CF
Yadier Molina - C
Daniel Descalso/Tyler Greene - 2B
Usually it's hard to get a read on a new manager's lineup, but Matheny has been talking early and often with the press about his ideal 8, so it was actually pretty simple to piece one together based on his interviews. Matheny believes in the "new school" approach of placing high OBP guys near the top of the lineup, hence Beltran in the 2-hole. Why that philosophy doesn't call Furcal's role into question baffles me. It appears that Allen Craig will not be ready for Opening Day.
Chris Carpenter | Adam Wainwright | Jaime Garcia | Kyle Lohse | Jake Westbrook
Adam Wainwright is throwing off a mound, and in fact his Spring Training regimen is about a week ahead of schedule so that he can take some time to rest before the regular season starts. Meanwhile, Carpenter will have a lightened workload during the month of March. The guys at the back of the rotation can probably rest easy knowing their jobs are secure.
Mike Matheny has already emphatically stated that Jason Motte is his closer, since La Russa refused to do so until after they had already won the World Series. Apparently it was about motivating him to stay hungry or something. I refuse to believe that the psyche of major league players is so fragile that they need that kind of treatment. Anyway, there are plenty of quality arms in this pen that can help the rate stats. Despite his relatively rough introduction to the National League, Marc Rzepczynski (I always forget that he spells Marc with a 'c') is a good source of Ks, and Eduardo Sanchez might be the next great setup man (but less walks, please).
Potential Fantasy Sleepers
My definition of sleeper and yours may vary. I use the term to refer to a player who may be undervalued, no matter his current or expected draft position.
Let's play the name game! Both of these guys are outfielders, and these are 2011 stats:
Player A: .296/.388/.525, 22 HR, 75 RBI, 2 SB
Player B: .300/.385/.525, 22 HR, 84 RBI, 4 SB
Pretty much the same production, right? Player A is Matt Holliday, currently the 11th outfielder off the board (36th overall), and Player B is Carlos Beltran, 37th OF (138th overall). Sure, Holliday is two years younger and doesn't have chronic knee problems (and last year returned from an appendectomy after only 9 days), so it makes sense for him to go that high. But a guy who can give you similar stats when healthy is crazy good value in the 12th round. It's a crime that he's listed right after Peter Bourjos and Andre Ethier.
Our own Bret Sayre wrote about Jaime Garcia last week, and I have to agree that he's undervalued. I'll be moving him up in the next version of my starting pitcher ranks.
Spring Training Storylines to Watch
It's all about Wainwright for me. He's bumping up against the most aggressive of stated timelines for return from Tommy John surgery, so I'm watching to see if there are any setbacks. Velocity reportedly takes some time to return during the rehabilitation phase, so how will he respond? He has said that he wants to mix in the cutter more, so what (if anything) can we learn about this pitch?
Follow the Team
MLB.com beat reporter: Jenifer Langosch (Blog | Twitter)
St. Louis Post-Dispatch beat reporter: Derrick Goold (Blog | Twitter)
SBN: Viva El (not Los?) Birdos (Blog | Twitter)
Know of any other sites or Twitter accounts that deserve a mention? Let me know in the comments.