By Jonathan O'Konis, MLB Analyst (Sports Network)
2004 FINISH (105-57) - First Place (NL Central); lost to Boston in World Series
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: SP - Mark Mulder, SS - David Eckstein, 2B - Mark Grudzielanek, C - Einar Diaz, RP - Mike Myers
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: SS - Edgar Renteria, 2B - Tony Womack, C - Mike Matheny, SP - Woody Williams, SP - Danny Haren, RP - Kiki Calero
PROJECTED LINEUP: David Eckstein (SS), Larry Walker (RF), Albert Pujols (1B), Scott Rolen (3B), Jim Edmonds (CF), Reggie Sanders (LF), Mark Grudzielanek (2B), Yadier Molina (C)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Mark Mulder (LHP), Chris Carpenter (RHP), Jason Marquis (RHP), Jeff Suppan (RHP), Matt Morris (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Jason Isringhausen (RHP)
MANAGER: Tony La Russa
Sorry Red Sox. Sorry Yankees. The St. Louis Cardinals were the best team in baseball last season. The Cardinals led baseball with 105 wins and completely dominated their opponents in the National League all season long. If it wasn't for the fact that they ran into a hot Red Sox team, the Cardinals would have been the world champs.
The Cardinals did just about everything right last season They had a staff with four pitchers having at least 15 wins. They had three players finish in the top 15 in RBI and two guys finish in the top ten in home runs.
In the off-season Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty addressed the only glaring weakness by adding an ace starting pitcher in Mark Mulder. With the return of Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds the Cardinals' offense should once again shatter some records. Jocketty and manager Tony La Russa have put together a team that should dominate the NL for years to come.
Despite losing their starting shortstop and second baseman, the Cardinals return one of baseball's best infields. Pujols is the best player in baseball and can do absolutely everything with the bat. Last year he finished in the top ten in the majors in the following categories: runs, hits, doubles, HR, RBI, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS (on-base + slugging percentage). Pujols did this despite suffering from chronic plantar fasciitis in his heel the entire season. Even with the heel injury Pujols is remarkably durable, having played over 150 games a year since the start of his career.
With the Cardinals adding players who get on-base in front of Pujols 50 HRs and 150 RBI are actually not out of the question. Defensively Pujols is an above average first baseman. With Barry Bonds' status this season up in the air Pujols has to be the early favorite to win the NL MVP.
The other anchor of the Cardinals' infield is third baseman Scott Rolen. What's awesome about Rolen is that he's just as good with his glove as he is with his bat. Rolen won his fifth consecutive Gold Glove and his sixth overall last year. He also put together his best season at the plate, setting career highs in batting average (.314), HRs (34), RBI (124), OBP (.409) and slugging percentage (.598). He did this despite missing two weeks with a strained left calf muscle in September. Without the injury Rolen would have challenged for NL MVP. He had a tough postseason, going hitless in the World Series. It will be interesting to see if other teams adopt the Red Sox scouting reports that allowed them to shut down the Cardinals' powerful lineup.
Now for the changes. Edgar Renteria chased the big bucks to Boston and left St. Louis with a rather large hole on the left side of the infield and in the lineup. The Cardinals plugged that hole with former Angel David Eckstein, who isn't as flashy or smooth with the glove or bat as Renteria was. In fact, it often looks like Eckstein just barely gets to a ball and then just manages to get enough on a throw to get the runner by half-a-footstep. But he makes those plays consistently enough to still be a serviceable shortstop. Eckstein will bat leadoff for the Cardinals, and if he manages to get on-base enough he could score close to 110-120 runs. He can also steal a base when needed.
Tony Womack will not be missed this year in the lineup, as he signed with the Yankees. The Cardinals replaced him with former Cub Mark Grudzielanek, who is a better player and cheaper then Womack. Neither player has ever been considered great with the glove. Womack at 35 had a career year last season hitting .307 with an OBP of .349. Grudzielanek hit .307 with a OBP of .347. The difference is that Grudzielanek's career numbers are better then Womack's meaning he has better chance of remaining at that level. Grudzielanek's career OBP and slugging percentage are .330 and .389, Womack's are .319 and .362. Grudzielanek is also a year younger.
Yadier Molina is the starting catcher with the departure of Mike Matheny this offseason. The Cardinals only hope that Molina, like Matheny, does the job defensively and with the pitching staff. Molina appears to already be a better hitter then Matheny, which isn't saying much. So far this spring Molina has looked good behind the plate and with the bat.
Jim Edmonds returns to center field after winning his seventh Gold Glove and setting a career high with 111 RBI and an OPS of 1.061. He also managed to blast 42 homers and score 102 runs. Edmonds is, along with Carlos Beltran, the most prototypical centerfielder in the game today, because he excels at every aspect. Edmonds really put his career into the stratosphere when he came to St. Louis and learned how to control the strike zone and raised his OBP from .358 through seven seasons with Anaheim to the .410 he's averaged since joining the Cardinals. He's one of the flashiest centerfielders in baseball history and often suffers from the nagging injuries that come with fully- extended dives into walls.
Reggie Sanders will be in left field once again after doing an admiral job last season. Sanders put up some good numbers for the Cardinals hitting 22 HRs with 21 stolen bases in 135 games. Sanders has a knack for being on winning teams, having been in the playoffs with four teams over the last five years. Sanders is doubtful to start the season, as he had an emergency appendectomy late in spring training. Always in good shape, Sanders is a capable defensive outfielder.
The Cardinals are counting on a big boost from having Larry Walker for an entire season in right field. The only problem is that it's hard to remember the last time Walker played an entire season. The last time Walker played 150 games in a season was 1997. Eight years ago. Walker came alive when he was traded to the Cardinals by the Rockies hitting 11 HRs with an OPS of .953 in 150 at-bats. Walker continued his hot hitting into the World Series hitting .357 with two HRs in the Cardinals' four-game game loss. Seeing how well Walker hits without having Coors Field as his home stadium should be interesting. A seven-time Gold Glove winner, Walker remains an excellent defensive outfielder.
The Cardinals made their biggest move of the offseason when they traded pitchers Danny Haren and Kiko Calero, plus catching prospect Daric Barton for left-handed starter Mark Mulder. As the Cardinals advanced to the World Series last year it was obvious that their pitching staff was missing that one true ace who could match zeros with the Red Sox' Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez. Mulder, last year's AL starter in the All-Star Game, should be able to fill that void. Mulder was leading the AL Cy Young Award race down the stretch, but he hit a rough patch and went 0-4 with a 7.27 ERA in his last seven starts, as Oakland barely missed the playoffs. Mulder finished the season with a record 17-8, an ERA of 4.43 and 140 K's. He has long been one of the most durable pitchers having thrown 14 complete games over the last two seasons (second in the majors behind Washington's Livan Hernandez who threw 17). Mulder has been excellent over his career having amassed a record of 81-42 with an ERA of 3.92 with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of better then 2:1 (668-298).
Chris Carpenter was the Cardinals' best pitcher last season and would have helped them in the playoffs if it wasn't for an arm injury. He had a record of 15-5 with an ERA of 3.46 with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 4:1 (152-38). Those are great numbers for a pitcher, but those numbers are out of context with the rest of his career. He's been a starter for seven years and has had a winning record in only two seasons and he's pitched 200 innings only once in his career. For his career, his strikeout-to-walk ratio is 2:1 (764-369) and his ERA is a run higher then it was last year (4.59-3.46). This season will go a long way to proving if last season was a breakout performance or a fluke.
The rest of the rotation will be filled out by Jason Marquis, Jeff Suppan and Matt Morris. These guys all were with the Cardinals last season and won at least 15 games. All three had acceptable ERAs. Marquis had the best with an ERA of 3.71, followed by Suppan at 4.16 and Morris at 4.72. It's doubtful that these guys are going to win 15 apiece again in the same year. They're all decent back of the rotation starters, but as they showed in the playoffs they don't match up with the other best starters in the league. So far this spring Morris is recovering from shoulder surgery and may miss the first part of April.
Jason Isringhausen is a solid closer. He's not as flashy and his numbers aren't as gaudy as Mariano Rivera, Eric Gagne or Brad Lidge. What Isringhausen gives you year-in and year-out is 30 saves with an ERA in the mid-2.00s with a good strikeout-to-walk ratio. Last year he managed a 4-2 record with 47 saves and an ERA 2.87. Isringhausen is always an injury concern, but when healthy he's one of the best closers in baseball.
Julian Tavarez and Ray King will set up for Izzy. Tavarez, (despite "Kevin Brown disease" breaking non-pitching hand in a fit of anger against the clubhouse wall) was one of baseball's best relief pitchers last season. In 77 games pitched, he went 7-4, with four saves and a 2.38 ERA. Ray King will serve as the left-handed setup guy after pitching in 86 games with a record of 5-2 and an ERA of 2.61. These two guys should be among the best righty-lefty setup duos in baseball. Cal Eldred, who went 4-2 with a save and an ERA of 3.76, could either set up or fill another relief role. Mike Myers, Al Reyes and Carmen Cali, the three other guys they have penciled into the bullpen, all enter the season as question marks.
So Taguchi and John Mabry will fill out the outfield when the regulars need a break. Mabry has developed into an excellent bench player last year hitting 13 HRs and 40 RBI in a part-time role. Taguchi is a better defensive outfielder who can also hit, batting .291 with three HRs and 25 RBI. Einar Diaz will serve as Molina's backup and mentor. Hector Luna is by definition a super-sub having played 2B, 3B, SS and the OF last season. A fast young player Luna is a good defensive player but he strikes out too much.
The Cardinals should run away with the division this year, as long as Pujols, Edmonds and Rolen stay healthy. There are some concerns about the bullpen and rotation, but La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan should be able to make everything work. St. Louis must once again be counted upon to be one of the favorites to win the World Series.