|2007 Team Previews: The St. Louis Cardinals|
Written by Sandy Hemenway (Contact & Archive) on January 30, 2007
Regular Season Record: 83-78
The Skinny: The Cardinals won the central for the 3rd straight season, though they managed their fewest wins since 1999 in doing so. Then, they surprised the baseball world by capturing the World Series title they were supposed to have snagged back in 2004. The club wasn’t extremely active in the off-season, adding only four free agents, with two of those being relief pitchers. But that doesn’t mean things didn’t change a great deal. While the offense remains basically intact, (Adam Kennedy moving Aaron Miles to the bench being the only change), the rotation is another story.
The club had a patchwork rotation in 2006 with only three pitchers managing 100+ innings, (Carpenter, Marquis and Suppan). Two of those, (Suppan and Marquis) have departed, with only journeyman Kip Wells acquired thus far to fill the holes. But, in addition to those two defections, Jeff Weaver appears ready to move to Seattle, and Mark Mulder’s health status is murky, though he’s likely looking at pitching only during the second half of 2007, at best. Any way the Cards fall, they have one Ace in Carpenter, and a quartet of question marks. Emergency rookie closer Adam Wainwright likely takes a slot, (assuming Jason Isringhausen is healthy), and fellow rookie Anthony Reyes is a leading candidate for another slot. The #5 spot in the rotation is a complete guess at this point with rookie Brad Thompson one name being mentioned and murmurs of former closer Braden Looper getting a shot at the job. The stingy Cardinals defense will help any pitcher, but that’s an awful lot of youth injected into a rotation all at once. The Cards will likely need a major breakout season from at least one of their phenoms if they hope to avoid their first losing season since 1999.
Strengths: Albert Pujols is the face of the Cardinals and has the potential to become the greatest player of his generation, if not all time. As Pujols goes, so goes the St. Louis offense, which finished 6th in runs scored in the NL in 2006, while the rest of the Central ended up between 10th and 16th in run production. The Cardinals offense doesn’t have to be stellar to be the cream of a punchless division. The Cardinal bullpen was one of the unsung heroes of their 2006 championship run, and little has changed. The organization has a remarkable track record in assembling quality depth in the pen, which last year allowed the team to salvage many games where their shaky rotation (5 different starters ended up with ERAs over 5.00), was stumbling. The bullpen looks to be solid again in 2007.
Weaknesses: Rotation, rotation, rotation: That’s where all the focus will be on the Cardinals heading into 2007. While they have a Cy Young capable ace in Carpenter, the rest of the rotation is a complete mystery heading into the season. While young guns Wainwright and Reyes have shown they have what it takes to pitch in the Bigs, they are still young, and youth is generally inconsistent, especially when it comes to pitching. The question marks are large, and perhaps even more frightening is the concept of injury. There is absolutely no depth or experience to draw from in the event of even minor injuries. The only nominal bright spot is the hope that Mark Mulder can return and be effective in the second half.
Keys to Success: Young Guns II. If the Cards are going to build a winning hand in 2007, they desperately need for at least two of the guys behind Carpenter to step up and be effective. In a mushy division, the team doesn’t have to dominate, just be a bit more above average than the rest of the pack. Pitching coach Dave Duncan will have his work cut out for him, but if he can resurrect Kip Wells’ career and/or develop Reyes and Wainwright, the club will be playing in October again. If the club loses either Pujols or Carpenter to injury for any length of time, the season is over.
Prediction: This is a transition season for the club. Though they have Pujols and Carpenter locked up for the next few years, it is the youth (Reyes, Wainwright, Duncan) that will make or break this club. To repeat their success of the last decade they’ll need to be a bit luckier than they were in 2006, especially in regards to injuries. The optimistic Cardinal fan could see a year where the club hovers near .500 for the first half, and then comes on strong in the second half with the return of Mulder, the development of the young arms, and another well executed deadline deal, to take the division once more. In the end, however, I think the inexperience of the youngsters results in just a little too much inconsistency, and the club slips to second and misses the playoffs just like most of the recent Series champs have done.