by Charlie Miller
With Albert Pujols signing with the Los Angeles Angels, ending his 11-year tenure in St. Louis, just how much does that swing the balance of power in baseball? While the Cardinals are coming off their second World Series title in six years, even with Pujols they would have not been a favorite to win again in 2012. But how far does Pujols’ defection knock St. Louis down the pecking order in the National League? The NL Central isn’t exactly the toughest division in baseball.
And how much do the signings of both Pujols and starting pitcher C.J. Wilson push the Angels up the depth chart in the American League? Are those two signings enough to tip the scales to L.A. in the AL West? Remember, two-time AL champion Texas resides in that division. And with the strong AL East — eight of the last 10 AL wild card teams have come from the AL East — winning the division is the only realistic shot at the postseason if you play in the Central or West.
So, who wins the World Series first, St. Louis or the Angels?
The Case for St. Louis
St. Louis has a few loose ends to tie up in order to lock up some key players, but World Series hero David Freese, clean-up hitter Matt Holliday, rising star Allen Craig, centerfielder Jon Jay, starter Jaime Garcia, prospect Shelby Miller and essentially an entire bullpen are locked up for the next four years or beyond. And at relatively reasonable prices. Ace Chris Carpenter, who was one of the Redbirds’ postseason heroes last season, is signed for two more years. So not only do the Cardinals have a proven core in place, but there remains enough payroll flexibility to fill holes.
Now back to the “loose ends.” They hold the key to the Cardinals’ next five years. Catcher Yadier Molina can be a free agent after 2012 and Adam Wainwright is signed through 2013. Getting extensions done for Molina and Wainwright will keep the Cardinals squarely in the hunt in the National League.
They may not be the odds-on favorite to win any single season, but as we’ve seen over and over again, once teams reach the postseason, the season resets enough for any hot team to win. Were the Cardinals really the best team in baseball in 2011? No. Not even the best in the National League. They squeaked into the playoffs courtesy of the Atlanta Braves on the final day of the season. Having an ace in Wainwright and stalwart Molina behind the plate gives the Redbirds a terrific opportunity to reach the postseason. Then anything can happen.
The final loose end is securing one more first baseman/outfielder. Not only for 2012 while the Cardinals wait for Craig to return from knee surgery, but for 2013 and beyond after Lance Berkman is presumably gone.
It’s easy to see how the Cardinals can be in the hunt in the NL Central for the next several seasons. The reigning champion Brewers are about to lose Prince Fielder and MVP Ryan Braun is facing a 50-game suspension. That’s a huge blow to the lineup in Milwaukee. It remains to be seen how quickly the Cubs can become contenders again, but at this point there are no real signs of improvement. They lost their best hitter from last season and have two ugly contracts (Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Zambrano) strangling their payroll. I suspect new president Theo Epstein will right the ship soon, but I don’t see the Cubs becoming a juggernaut in the near future. The Reds can be contenders, but they face payroll constraints and must deal with the impending free agency of Brandon Phillips after 2012 and former MVP Joey Votto after 2013.
Let’s face it, there are no dominant teams in this division, leaving an opportunity for St. Louis.
What could go wrong
St. Louis is beginning a new era, and not simply because No. 5 is no longer hitting in the No. 3 hole. Tony La Russa is no longer in charge in the dugout. Rookie manager Mike Matheny is the new sheriff in town and has little experience. While Matheny played a role in the development of both Molina and Wainwright, both could leave just as Pujols — a close friend of Molina — did this winter.
And what if Matheny just isn’t ready? Having a veteran pitching coach in Dave Duncan in the dugout and experienced Jose Oquendo still on the staff provides some kind of safety net. But if Matheny falters badly, the franchise could be set back a few years. The bullpen, which was much maligned early last season, became a team strength down the stretch. But counting on arms like Jason Motte, Eduardo Sanchez, Fernando Salas, Lance Lynn and Marc Rzepczynski could prove to be fool’s gold. And what if Freese’s World Series performance turns out to be the peak of his career?
There are certainly no guarantees, far from it. But the Cardinals will continue to put themselves in position to make the playoffs for the next several seasons. And that alone gives them a shot at winning the franchise’s 12th championship.