Posted on January 25, 2012 at 6:51 AM
Filed Under: St. Louis Cardinals
Ladies, gentlemen, fellow Redbird fanatics:
Last night was the annual State of the Union address, given from the White House in Washington. It was an (inspiring/depressing) speech, full of (uplifting messages/political malarkey) but it didn't address a major point of life in 2012. It didn't address the state of the Cardinals as we approach spring training.*
*I am assuming that it didn't, at least. I didn't watch the speech, instead bathing and putting the kids to bed and watching White Collar. There are better ways to spend an evening, but not many.
So today, members of Cardinal Nation, I want to rectify that oversight. As I stand (well, sit--who stands to type a blog post?) before you now, I contend that the state of Cardinal Nation is strong, perhaps as strong as it has ever been.
There are arguments for other times, of course, arguments that Bob
might be best in the position to make. You could say that back in the '40s, when the Cards were in the midst of their run of three straight World Series, that things were better. More recently, coming into the 2005 season, with a team that had won 105 games in the last season and had made the big move for Mark Mulder
, things were very good. However, right now most likely at least ties for first in Cardinal history.
Anytime that you are coming off of a World Series title, of course, things are good in a fandom. It's the ultimate achievement for a squad and, no matter how expected, still creates a lot of good feelings among its followers. When you do it in the dramatic fashion that the Cardinals did it last year, that buzz and excitement is going to last well into 2012.
There are more reasons than just a shiny trophy, though, for the high standard Cardinal Nation is setting right now.
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Ownership and Management:
While there have been shots about ownership's commitment to put dollars into the club, those claims have largely been silenced in the last few years. Ownership, let by Bill DeWitt Jr., has continued to punch above its weight, at least when comparing payroll size to market size. There's not necessarily a correlation between payroll and winning (just ask teams like the Mets) but when the club has spent, they have done so wisely and on the proper players.
John Mozeliak has come into his own as a general manager as well. Ironically the formative moment is what he and DeWitt didn't
do, going above and beyond what the club could take to sign Albert Pujols
. Instead of succumbing to public pressure, Mozeliak stood his ground in the Pujols negotiations and in so doing won the public relations war when Pujols left. (Granted, Dee Dee might have helped a little bit there.) Whatever the merits of the decision (and there were a lot of them), it also proved that you never make moves for the sake of public opinion. While there was a lot of outcry at the time, for the most part Cardinal fans (and I include me in that statement) have moved on and have done so at a speed that I, frankly, have been surprised at.
He also quickly used the "Pujols dividend" to sign the top outfielder on the market, Carlos Beltran
. It's a testament to how Mozeliak has done his job that the Cards lost their icon, likely the best player in baseball, and are still considered a favorite in their division with a strong chance of repeating in October.
The problem with the club a couple of years ago were that there were too many black holes in the lineup, spots that seemed to kill rallies and caused the offensive engine to sputter. Now, while you never know how players are going to do or what injuries are going to throw a wrench into the works, on paper this is a very nice lineup. Rafael Furcal
brings some speed to the table as well as the ability (at least in the past) to swing the bat well. Beltran may slide into the second hole and has gotten closer to his former All-Star levels the further away he is from knee surgery.
The heart of the order is Matt Holliday
, still the most expensive Cardinal but, if he can stay away from moths and other freak incidents, perhaps underpaid for what he gives the squad. Lance Berkman
was the Comeback Player of the Year last year and while it might be too much to expect a similar performance in 2012, it's not inconceivable that he'd be close to those numbers, especially when moving back to the infield.
Postseason hero David Freese
could be up in the fifth slot, and as we saw last season, when he's healthy he's got a solid and dangerous bat. Yadier Molina
had his best offensive season last year and may be able to approach that again this coming year.
At the bottom of the lineup you have Jon Jay
, who's shown that he can be a .300 type hitter in the big leagues, and either Tyler Greene
or Daniel Descalso
. Greene has the potential but hasn't ever been able to unlock it. Descalso showed that he isn't afraid of the big moments and had a very nice offensive season last season.
When you look at the lineup from one to eight, there aren't really any automatic outs. I'm still not sold on Furcal and what he can do at the top of the lineup, but there's potential there for a very good leadoff hitter. Plus, if Greene starts to click, he might move up a little bit in the lineup as well. Remember, even with all the time he spent in Memphis last season, he led the team in stolen bases.
When Allen Craig
returns, hopefully in mid-May, every day the bench will feature one of him, Holliday, Berkman or Beltran. No matter who it is, that's a potent weapon held in reserve, something that Cardinal benches really haven't had in a long while.
The backup catcher, whether it's Bryan Anderson
or Tony Cruz
, will likely have more offensive punch than any backup catcher since Molina took over the top spot. Skip Schumaker
has shown that he can be a pretty good average hitter, which can be important in a pinch-hitting slot. Greene or Descalso will also be there, whichever isn't playing on a given day. The last slot on the bench is still up for grabs, but on the whole, there isn't that "why is this guy playing" guy on the bench for next season. In other words, there are no Corey Pattersons
You know that the state of the Nation is strong when you go win the World Series without your staff ace, who then returns for the next season. While Chris Carpenter
showed that he will always be a legend in St. Louis, especially after the battle with Roy Halladay
in the NLDS, there's no doubt that the return of Adam Wainwright
is the most exciting thing going into the new season. While expectations should be tempered somewhat by the fact that he has been out over a year, getting him back on the mound can only give a boost to the pitching staff.
After Wainwright and Carpenter, a 1-2 that can match up with any in the league, you have Jaime Garcia
, who took some strides last year and is developing into a solid pitcher that might come earlier in a rotation on other teams, Kyle Lohse
and Jake Westbrook
. While Lohse and Westbrook don't exactly inspire a fanbase that would love to see Roy Oswalt
take one of those slots, Lohse had a strong beginning and strong ending to the season while Westbrook was really done in by a terrible June. He didn't match his level of what he did down the stretch in 2010 for the club, but there are worse fifth starters out there.
If either Lohse or Westbrook didn't have a no-trade clause, I expect the club would have moved them this offseason. That said, while this is no "Four Aces" rotation that the Phillies had last year, exactly how far did that rotation get Philadelphia anyway?
How much more exciting is it to think about the bullpen this year than it was during last year's spring training? Even before we saw the collapses of Ryan Franklin
and Miguel Batista
, there was just hope they could be serviceable.
Now, though, there are a lot of power young arms in the pen to excite the faithful. We saw what Jason Motte
could do when he was the "closer", so there's an expectation he can do it again on a full-time basis. If he falters, though, you have arms like Fernando Salas
, Eduardo Sanchez
, even Mitchell Boggs
that can step in. Until then, though, they help shorten a game by being ready to take over the seventh or eighth.
From the left side, you have Marc Rzepczynski
, who can be more than just a lefty specialist, and newcomer J.C. Romero
to battle any portsiders.
To round out the pen you have Kyle McClellan
, who battled a dead arm last year but given rest and the fact that he won't throw so many innings next year as he stays out of the starting rotation should be again an effective weapon for the Cards. The last spot of the bullpen is still up in the air. Lance Lynn
would likely get it if the team doesn't want him to be a starter in Memphis again, which would add just another young arm that can pile up the strikeouts to the mix.
The most turnover of the offseason happened here, with only Jose Oquendo
and Mark McGwire
still in their same roles. What do the Cardinals have in Mike Matheny
? Only time will tell on the tactics and baseball side of things, but from the people side, Matheny already seems to have a leg up. Most everyone in the clubhouse already knows and respects him, which should make it easier for him to deal with the personalities and chemistry of the clubhouse.
might be the biggest loss of the offseason, but that loss may be tempered by the fact that his philosophy has so permeated the whole organization. New pitching coach Derek Lilliquist
won't likely try to reinvent the wheel and many of the pitchers already on staff and coming up already are familiar with Duncan's methods.
For once, the Cardinal minor league system seems to be getting some recognition
around baseball as well. Of course, a lot of that focus is on Shelby Miller
and his rise to the top, but there are a lot of other intriguing pieces around him. Players like Carlos Martinez, Kolton Wong, Matt Adams
, Tyrell Jenkins, Trever Rosenthal, Oscar Taveras and Zack Cox
are just some of those that could be making an impact with the birds on the bat in the next year or so. Gone are the days when making out a Top 7 list might force you to stretch or when the top prospect in the Cardinal organization wouldn't make the list for other teams. The organization's strength probably was a major reason why Jeff Luhnow is currently the Astros' GM and hopefully Dan Kantrovitz can pick up where he left off.
Fan Base: Again, Cardinal Nation is one of the best, one of the strongest in the nation. Every group has its outliers, of course, such as those that burned Pujols jerseys when he left for Anaheim, but for the most part this is an intelligent and engaged fan base, with plenty of opinions and always ready for a debate.
I look at the increase in member blogs for the United Cardinal Bloggers
and the unique perspectives they bring to the group. I look at the way the Cardinals are reaching out in social media via Facebook and Twitter. It's a great time to be a Cardinal fan and many are showing that in their public interactions.
Now would be the part of the speech where the president would point out the problems and come up with solutions that never will see the light of day. Which, typically, would be great for a blogger, but honestly, there's not a lot of work that needs to be done, at least as it appears now.
The defense could be better, but having Furcal all year at shortstop should help that significantly. Plus it's likely that either Descalso or Greene will have a better glove at second than Schumaker or Ryan Theriot did. Berkman may not be a Gold Glover at first, but the downgrade there probably won't be as noticeable, especially if the second baseman has enough range to cover that area that Pujols often tried to get between first and second.
We'll have to wait and see what kind of defense Beltran can supply in the outfield. If he can play center adequately, that will help the offense, but the defense may not be as strong as it would be with Jay out there. Then again, Holliday is solid (if not spectacular) and even though Berkman played much better in the outfield than we expected, any replacement for him should at least hold the line if not improve the situation.
Other than defense, speed and baserunning would be the most likely places where fans would want to see improvement. It's hard to argue with an offense that ranked close to the top in the league in most categories, but it was frustrating to see so many double plays last season. With Pujols out of the mix and players such as Greene and Furcal that can steal bases, it will be interesting to see how Matheny uses that tool in his toolbox.
As we stand here today, Cardinal Nation has a lot to be proud of, a lot to look forward to. The best fans in baseball can rest easy knowing that the hard times may come, but they aren't likely to come in the next twelve months.
Thank you and may the new season be a wonderful time for you and yours!