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One would think after winning the World Series an organization would come into the next season happy, confident, and with some momentum. I’m sure the St. Louis Cardinals organization still has some of that feeling after winning the franchise’s 11th World Series, second most all-time (*), but the offseason didn’t go as the organization or fans hoped. The team lost the “face of the franchise,” Albert Pujols, as he left for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and a ludicrous $240 million contract (**). The loss of Pujols left a mammoth sized hole for the front office to fill. Winning the World Series may feel like a distant memory, however, the Cardinals still have a roster capable of winning a lot of games.

(*) The Cardinals are still 16 championships away from tying the New York Yankees. The franchise the Cardinals chase is more than double ahead. Staggering.

(**) Honestly, I think this was good for the Cardinals. Of course Pujols is one of the greatest players the game has ever seen. He’s also on the wrong side of 30 and received a 10-year contract. The Angels are a team with a massive payroll. The Cardinals are not. Committing those years and those dollars to one player is more than risky. To sign Pujols to that much money would have tied down over 20% of the payroll to one player. At least when Pujols left he had an offer that he couldn’t pass up and St. Louis would have been foolish to offer. That part of it worked out for both sides.

(To see an explanation of 2012 MLB team previews and release dates click here)

Somewhat surprisingly the Cardinals were a top five run scoring offense in 2011. With the loss of Pujols it would be reasonable to assume the offense will not be as explosive this season. There is still talent in the lineup. That talent starts with left fielder Matt Holliday. Having been the Robin to Pujols’ Batman the past couple years, Holliday steps in as the team’s biggest offensive threat. There will be more pressure on the 32-year old to perform. Over his career, Holliday has shown he is a great hitter, but now he will have to be the team’s best hitter. Expect mid-20s in home runs, good production, and a batting average near .300. After consecutive sub-par seasons, Lance Berkman had a comeback year a season ago. He suddenly hit like the Berkman of old. He’ll move over to first base to replace Pujols this season and look to have a similar year as last. It will likely be tough for him to accomplish this feat in a weaker lineup and being another year older, now 36. The big offseason acquisition made by the front office was the free agent signing of Carlos Beltran. Beltran is going to be 35 next month and has had trouble staying on the field in recent years. He’s still an offensive weapon when in the lineup, though a diminishing one. The Cards will have playoff hero David Freese at third base hoping he can solidify his place in the lineup and play at least 100 games for the first time in his big league career. The front office re-signed Rafael Furcal in the offseason. Furcal has had big injury problems in three of the past four seasons and was unable to reach .300 in on-base percentage a year ago in 369 plate appearances. In related news, Furcal is 34 years old. His numbers should come up this season, however, I worry about how many games he’ll hold up for. One of the few Cardinals position players in his prime is Yadier Molina, one of the best defensive catchers in baseball. He can also hit (for average) too. I don’t see him matching his career-high 14 home runs from last season – his previous career-high was only eight. Molina has been a top five all-around catcher in his career. Jon Jay will get the bulk of the starts in center field. Second base will be a bit of an adventure with Tyler Greene getting the nod at the beginning of the season with injuries to Skip Schumaker and Allen Craig out with injury. Though I imagine Allen Craig will get a lot of playing time one way or another once he is healthy. The ceiling for the Cardinals offense in 2012 has come down. There is no more Pujols in the lineup and the top four hitters in the lineup are all on the wrong side of 30. Furcal and Beltran are considerable injury risks and Berkman is only a season removed from looking like his career was quickly winding down. Many things will have to go right for the Cardinals to be a top offense again in 2012.

In the effort to offset the loss of Albert Pujols it looked like the Cardinals rotation would be in position to pick up the slack. Adam Wainwright returns to go with Chris Carpenter, or so was the plan. Wainwright is back. Carpenter is going to start the season on the disabled list in all likelihood and has been shut down indefinitely with neck and shoulder problems. Last year’s ace becomes a big question mark when the team really cannot afford him to. Luckily Wainwright will be able to come back after having Tommy John surgery and missing the entire 2011 season. There may be questions with workload for Wainwright, but I think he’ll be just about as effective as he was previously in his career even though he will have to work off some rust. If the team somehow allows him to pitch the full season he could come right back as one of the best pitchers in all of baseball. Wainwright was an ace the two seasons before his injury. After Wainwright, and hopefully for the Cardinals sake Carpenter, is Jaime Garcia. The 25-year old has been good in his first two full Major League seasons with solid numbers across the board. It is now time for him to take another step up this season. Kyle Lohse will also be in the rotation after having a nice 2011 season. The pitch-to-contact Lohse had some trouble staying in the rotation in 2009 and 2010 with ineffectiveness and more importantly, injuries. St. Louis is likely hoping Lohse can deliver what he did last season. Jake Westbrook, like Lohse, does not strike many batters out. He has a K/9 rate just above five for his career. It would be a plus if Westbrook was serviceable this season and ate up some innings. The fifth spot, at least while Carpenter is out, is projected to go to Lance Lynn. Kyle McClellan got a lot of those starts last year. I don’t expect much out of the fifth spot in Carpenter’s absence. The Cards lose an ace but gain another to start the season. To make another playoff run it is critical for St. Louis to have both aces in the fold. In Garcia, the team would presumably have three good starters with Lohse and Westbrook at the back-end hopefully pitching as well as an average Major League starting pitcher. Starting pitching is an issue before the season starts because of injury and questions about the effectiveness of the rotation.

Adam Wainwright will have to jump right back in and be his old self if the Cardinals are to be successful in 2012 (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

The Cardinals should have three effective arms in the bullpen this season in Jason Motte, Fernando Salas and Marc Rzepczynski. Motte will be the closer and should do fine in the role. He brings serious heat and a serious beard. Salas and Rzepczynski will be the setup men. Salas was the closer for most of last season before losing the job. He still had an all-around decent season. The rest of the bullpen includes veterans Scott Linebrink and J.C. Romero along with Kyle McClellan and Mitchell Boggs. The bullpen is not dominant but if the starters can turn it over in the seventh or eighth inning, the team should be in decent hands.

The St. Louis Cardinals come into 2012 having won a World Series, but losing perhaps the best player in baseball. The team is also without manager Tony La Russa who stepped down after 16 seasons with the club – Mike Matheny takes over. It has been a bit of a roller coaster. The lineup is set around several veteran players that will be looking to step up and fill the void left by Pujols. The offense, not only because Pujols is gone, will likely take a step back in 2012. The rotation was looking to be a strong suit for the team until recently when Chris Carpenter came down with injuries. Adam Wainwright will look to come back strong and others will look to hold down the fort. This team has enough talent to win a weakened NL Central division but they are certainly no sure thing.

Offseason Moves:

Additions:

  • Carlos Beltran (OF) – free agent
  • J.C. Romero (LHP) – free agent
  • Scott Linebrink (RHP) – free agent
  • Erik Komatsu (OF) – Rule V draft
  • Eugenio Velez (IF/OF) – free agent

Subtractions:

  • Albert Pujols (1B) – signed with Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
  • Edwin Jackson (RHP) – signed with Washington Nationals
  • Ryan Theriot (IF) – signed with San Francisco Giants
  • Octavio Dotel (RHP) – signed with Detroit Tigers
  • Nick Punto (IF) – signed with Boston Red Sox
  • Gerald Laird (C) – signed with Detroit Tigers
  • Corey Patterson (OF) – signed with Milwaukee Brewers
  • Arthur Rhodes (LHP) – unsigned

Projected Starting Lineup:

1. Rafael Furcal – SS

2. Carlos Beltran – RF

3. Matt Holliday – LF

4. Lance Berkman – 1B

5. David Freese – 3B

6. Yadier Molina – C

7. Jon Jay – CF

8. Tyler Greene – 2B

Projected Starting Rotation:

1. Adam Wainwright – RH

2. Jaime Garcia – LH

3. Kyle Lohse – RH

4. Jake Westbrook – RH

5. Lance Lynn – RH

Projected Bullpen:

  • Jason Motte – RH
  • Fernando Salas – RH
  • Marc Rzepczynski – LH
  • Kyle McClellan – RH
  • Scott Linebrink – RH
  • J.C. Romero – LH
  • Mitchell Boggs – RH

Projected Bench:

  • Tony Cruz – C
  • Matt Carpenter – 3B
  • Daniel Descalso – IF
  • Shane Robinson – OF
  • Erik Komatsu – OF

Projected Disabled List (start of the season):

  • Chris Carpenter – RHP
  • Allen Craig – IF/OF
  • Skip Schumaker – IF/OF

Variables:

  • Age & injuries – The team relies on three players well into their 30s – Furcal, Berkman and Beltran – to hit at the top of the lineup. Each player has had a fantastic career but it wouldn’t be a surprise if age/injuries caught up with any of them.
  • Filling the void – Multiple players are going to need to step up with Pujols no longer with the team. There are capable players in the lineup though there is perhaps limited upside.
  • Carpenter – He’s one of the best starting pitchers in baseball but is down with injuries right now. He is critical to the team’s success this season.
  • Wainwright – He comes back after a full year off. There is more pressure on him to perform because Carpenter will be out for an unknown period of time. I expect Wainwright to come back at almost full form this season, though who knows?
  • Starting rotation – After Wainwright and Garcia (and Carpenter if/when he returns) there are question marks in the rotation with Lohse, Westbrook and whoever else happens to be in the rotation. Lohse and Westbrook have the ability to be average starters, but I’m not sure they will be.
  • Bullpen – Especially after the top three options in the bullpen, things may become an issue. Motte, Salas, and Rzepczynski are coming off decent seasons, but there is reason for skepticism elsewhere.

Fantasy Implications:

  • Matt Holliday has been one of the best outfielders in fantasy baseball for years. At his best you can count on mid-20s in home runs, 90+ runs, 90+ RBIs, a .300 average, and double digit steals. He is both outside of Coors and away from his lineup-mate Albert Pujols for the first extended period of time in his career. He now becomes the best hitter in the lineup, so it should be interesting to see how he is pitched and how effective of a hitter he can be. Talent is not the question.
  • Lance Berkman is coming off a resurgent season in which he went into the 90s in R/RBIs and a .300 or higher average for the first time since 2008. He hit at least 30 home runs for the first time since 2007. Berkman is up there in years but he has been a good bat during his career. Each fantasy player will have to determine the extent in which they believe in him. He is ranked as a top 25 outfielder this season.
  • I really believe Adam Wainwright is going to come back strong from Tommy John surgery this season. There is a legitimate chance he could finish as a top 12 or 15 starting pitcher. He is currently being drafted in the low-to-mid 20s. He is supremely talented; it is more of a question of him coming back after such a long layoff after undergoing a serious surgery. His workload could be limited too.
  • You do not have to pay a huge price for Carlos Beltran this season. He is being drafted as a bottom 3/high 4 outfielder. If he is in the lineup he should contribute adequately in all categories except stolen bases. At this point in his career it is difficult to expect a huge year out of him.
  • Jamie Garcia has been a good pitcher in his first two full Major League seasons. He can get somewhere in the mid-teens in wins with some decent strikeouts and a helpful ERA. His WHIP will creep up a little high, but it’s workable. As a fifth fantasy starter he is relatively safe.
  • After most of the sure starting catchers are taken – there is a group of eight in my opinion – Yadier Molina is worth considering. He should be good enough to nab a starting slot in a 10-team league. At the very least he shouldn’t hurt your team. He plays and has shown in the past to hit for average.
  • Injuries have hurt Chris Carpenter’s fantasy stock just prior to the season beginning. If not for his injuries Carpenter would be a top 20 starting pitcher. Now he is a huge question mark as it is a mystery when he will return. If/when he does, one would expect him to be effective.
  • You have to wonder if Jason Motte will be able to hold onto the closer job for the whole season. He has been thrown into the position before but has never been able to hold it down. A new manager may help him out in that respect. He is sort of an interest person to watch in drafts. If he is not one of the first 10 closers off the board he may be someone to target.
  • David Freese is not worthy of being a starting fantasy third basemen. He has yet to play at least 100 games in a season but could be coming into his own. Freese is not all that interesting to me until much deeper into the draft.
  • I wouldn’t think about drafting Rafael Furcal in a league that wasn’t extremely deep or NL-only. That being said, shortstop is a weak fantasy position. If you miss out on the usable players at the position Furcal may prove just good enough to fill in if he is healthy.
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