Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Guide Preview: St. Louis Cardinals

We continue with the team previews today with the St. Louis Cardinals. Last year at this time, the Cards were being written off as a bottom dweller (you can see that in the predictions shown in the chart). And while people may have been able to predict the MVP-caliber numbers that Albert Pujols had, no one could have foreseen the big seasons that the likes of Kyle Lohse and Ryan Ludwick put up. It's a testament to the Cardinals players and coaches that they were able to stay in contention for so long last year. It'll be interesting to see if they can improve on that season in 2009, or if they'll come back down to earth some.

As before, this preview isn't meant to be my personal opinion about the team's 2009 season. Instead, it's a summary of what the three main baseball preview magazines are saying. I've included quotes and other information from each of the them - Sporting News, Athlon, and Lindy's. I've also included some statistics about each magazines' success at predictions over the last ten years. Be sure to check out the Team-by-Team Season Preview index for other guide previews over the next few weeks.

My intention is to refrain from providing any opinion because, while I may know enough about certain teams to make an educated prediction, I don't feel like I know enough about most teams to make a good guess. In fact, most of my knowledge about some of these teams (like maybe the Pirates or Blue Jays or Royals) will probably come straight from these magazines. Why repeat and dilute the source? Of course, that's my intention - I apologize if I'm unable to keep from interjecting here and there. So, on with the "combined" team preview for the...

St. Louis Cardinals
Last Year: 86 - 76, 4th Place, NL Central

Since 1999

This YearLast Year
Avg Pred.Avg Finish
Sporting News2

* Sporting News average includes preview guides from these years: 1999 - 2001, 2003 - 2004, 2006 - 2008
** Athlon average includes preview guides from these years: 1999 - 2003, 2006 - 2008

Team Notes

There's something interesting about what this year's preview guides are saying about the Cardinals: while all three magazines are predicting that the Cards will finish second in the division, they don't seem to be backing up those predictions with any kind of strong praise. Of course, it's impossible not to mention the enormous positives that Albert Pujols brings to the club. Beyond that, though, there isn't much of an outpouring of praise directed the Cardinals' way.
"The Cardinals are strong at the corners, talented in the outfield and dependable behind home plate. But for 2009, they must fix a bullpen that was among the worst in baseball. They have to rebuild the middle infield and reinforce the starting rotation. Manager Tony La Russa also is hoping for another impact bat to protect Albert Pujols in the middle of the order. Health and player development might fill some of those cracks. General manager John Mozeliak's work over the winter may have caulked others. But will it be enough? With baseball's wild card berth, anything seems possible. But the Cardinals will be hard-pressed to challenge for a division title and will need some breaks to crash the 2009 postseason party through the back door. (Athlon)"
The offense was strong last year, with another MVP season from Pujols and with some breakthrough/career years from a number of players. The starting pitching was successful in much the same way, relying on a strong year from Adam Wainwright and a breakout year from Kyle Lohse. The bullpen, however, was a major problem.
"The Cardinals rotation was ravaged by injuries to Chris Carpenter and Mark Mulder last season, but the bullpen ended up being a bigger problem and led the major leagues with 31 blown saves and the NL with 31 losses. Weak pitching overshadowed a better-than-expected offense, which led the NL with a .281 average and was again led by Pujols, who won his second MVP after leading the league with a .653 slugging percentage and 1.114 OPS. (Lindy's)"
The offense may be enough to make up for that weakness, though, if Ryan Ludwick and Rick Ankiel can each put up strong seasons to go with the year that perennial MVP candidate Albert Pujols will likely have.
"Though the bullpen leaves fans wanting, St. Louis' robust lineup may provide the leadership the team needs. After all, the Cardinals did lead the league in hitting last season.

Pujols (.357, 37 HR, 116 RBI) led the majors in slugging percentage (.653) and hit .411 against left-handed pitchers and .335 on the road. Receiving more than 305 MLB at-bats for the first time, the 30-year-old Ludwick (.299-37-113) barely missed joining Pujols in the .300-30-100 club. (TSN)"
In the end, this year's preview guides believe that the Cardinals, while a flawed team, proved themselves last year with the breakout seasons from Lohse and Ludwick. They also believe that the Cards will be even better this year with the possible return of Carpenter and/or Mulder.
"The Cardinals have some lineup issues, to be sure. But a team with Pujols, Ludwick and Glaus in the middle is not without hope. The critical factors will surround pitching. The club has to have its top starters - like Wainwright and Lohse (and possibly Carpenter) - remain healthy. At the same time, and equally important, it has to re-establish a closer so the rest of the bullpen pieces can fall into place. That last part may be a tall order, unless youngsters Perez and Motte can assert themselves. The Cardinals don't have the look of a division winner, but this team is good enough to remain relevant into September. (Athlon)"
Spotlight Quote

From the "Beyond the Boxscore" section in Athlon:
"Winning Tradition: Not counting the strike-shortened year of 1994, which had no postseason, the Cardinals have not had consecutive losing seasons in nearly 50 years - since 1958-1959. No other MLB team even approaches that consistency. In the National League, the closest is Los Angeles, which has not experienced back-to-back losing seasons since 1986-87. Atlanta last had consecutive losing seasons in 1989-90."
And, as interesting as that is, I'll leave the last word with the "Scouts' Snapshot" section in Lindy's:
"They did a heck of a job to stay in contention until pretty deep in September last year and Tony La Russa really had to manage his rear end off to get them that far. Pujols always gives them a chance to have a great offense, but this team just has too many questions to realistically expect to challenge for 90 wins again this season."

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