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2011 Rival Preview: St. Louis Cardinals

Albert Pujolsphoto © 2008 Dirk | more info (via: Wylio)
Last year, I did a running series that previewed the Brewers’ NL Central rivals that seemed to be pretty popular. I’m doing it again this year to help speed up that wait for Opening Day.

We’ll start with the St. Louis Cardinals, who have already had a busy spring. Normally Cards fans would have good reason to be optimistic, but the events of the past few weeks — the Albert Pujols contract situation, the Adam Wainwright injury, and a Chris Carpenter scare — seems to have them feeling a little gloomy (you’ll read more about that in the Q&A below).

2010 Finish: 86-76, 2nd in NL Central
Batting fWAR Leader: Pujols, 7.3
Pitching fWAR Leader: Wainwright, 6.1

Last Season in a Nutshell: The heavy preseason favorites to win the division, the Cards struggled to find consistent offense outside of Pujols and Matt Holliday. Pujols got off to a slow start (by his standards), but finished the year hitting .312/.414/.596 with 42 home runs. Colby Rasmus productive in center when he got to play — .276/.361/.498 at just 23 years old — but at times it seemed like Tony La Russa looked for reasons to not play him. There were a lot of questions in the rotation behind Carpenter and Wainwright heading into the season, but Jaime Garcia made a strong run at the Rookie of the Year award to provide a very solid #3. The back end of the rotation proved to be a problem point, though, and still figures to be somewhat of an unknown heading into 2011.

2011 Prediction: Tied 2nd, NL Central — before the Wainwright injury, I had them winning a close race for the division. Now, there are three (possibly four, depending on how you feel about the Cubs) teams that are virtually at the same level. I’ve gone back and forth on my prediction for the Cards, but right now I think they’ll come up a game or two short of the playoffs.

Q&A: Aaron Hooks of Cards Diaspora
(Read More)

1. Last year, you seemed confident Albert Pujols would remain with the Cardinals. Now he’s broken off negotiations. Do you still see Pujols re-signing at the end of the year, or are you bracing for a future without Prince Albert?
Albert Pujols’ negotiations are shit show. It’s a coin flip if he comes back at this point.

If he signs, great. If he doesn’t, piss on him. But regardless, he’s put the Cardinals in the position where they’ve got to deal with this story all season long. While putting this artificial deadline in place is semi-admirable, it’s also semi-asinine too. Honestly, give the Cardinals a pretty solid idea of what you want and tell your agent to come back when they’re close to that agreement. A little bit of thought in July is going to hamper your season, Albert? Right.

Every single thing that happens to the Cardinals in 2011 is colored by this black cloud hanging called “The Pujols Contract” and even if the guy puts up another monster year, it’s still going to be one that every Cardinal fan can’t really put their heart into.

2. How devastating is losing Adam Wainwright? Who do you see as the most likely candidate to step into the rotation as a replacement? Considering the injury histories of Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia, are you worried at all about the Cardinals’ pitching depth?
The key to the 2011 Cardinals – and I’m shaking as typing this – is probably Kyle Loshe.

Oh, dear GOD!

I can’t believe I just typed that. But it’s probably true. Carp has been reliable the past 2 years. Garcia is stronger than ever and Jake Westbrook is Jake Westbrook. Lance Lynn has a real shot to break the starting 5. Ian Snell and Kevin Millwood are still options out there. And Mitchell Boggs could sneak in there as well.

At the end of the day, though, if Lohse can get to 15 wins, then the Cardinals will be in contention. If he preforms like he did in ’09 and ’10, then the Cards are going to be .500 and hanging around, but not in it.

Losing Wainwright sucks. Balls. Dude was probably the most underrated starter in MLB and coming off two Cy-Young caliber seasons. You don’t replace that. You just don’t.

3. The Cardinals are usually solid defensively, but by putting a guy like Lance Berkman in the outfield it sounds like most people expecting them to take a step back in that department this year. Are you worried at all about the D?
Berkman will be serviceable. Holliday is actually one of the better Fielding Bible LFers in the NL and Rasmus has the talent and speed to cover the gap in right center for the most part. Berkman will be hidden as much as he can be… but Ryan Ludwick was thought to be dead weight in RF as well and turned out fine.

The IF is where I think most Cards fans are a little concerned. Skip Shumaker is in year 2 of the move from OF to 2B and he didn’t seem to get any better at the end of ’10 than he did at beginning and Ryan Theriot is at best a historically average SS (and will pale in comparison to Brendan Ryan). The loss of Nick Punto as a utility man until at least May was a kind of sneaky blow to the team as well, since LaRussa likes to get all his bench guys lots of starts even at the beginning of the year.

4. Is Colby Rasmus ever going to be given a real chance in center as long as Tony La Russa is managing?
2011 is Colby’s year. He’s being counted on big time this season. They’re aren’t any other options for the dude, so yes- he’ll be given a shot this year to prove he can be consistent and mature.

5. Where do you see the Cards finishing this year?
Perhaps being a little too close to the situation, I’m forgetting that a Pujols/Holliday combination is pretty tough to beat every single night. So I think if the division doesn’t have a breakout team, then 91 wins can  get the NL Central and I do think the Cardinals can get to 91 wins.

So 1st place?

With a black cloud.