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Can the Cards repeat?

October 31, 2011

After today’s announcement that Tony LaRussa has retired after 33 years as an MLB manager, 16 of which he spent in St. Louis, the off-season has officially begun. And so begins free agency, countless words spent on where a player will sign, and endless talk of who will be the favorites heading into the 2012 season.

Odds regarding who will win the 2012 World Series have already been released, and the Phillies are the early favorites, at 4-1. The Cardinals have 14-1 odds, which ranks them tied for fifth with the Tigers, behind Phillies, Yankees (13-2), Red Sox (8-1) and Rangers (12-1). I’m kind of surprised the Cardinals are fifth, but let’s take these odds with a grain of salt. I’m sure on August 25th the Cardinals were maybe 300-1 to win the Series.

But is their a Cards’ repeat in the cards? If there is, it’ll be tough to accomplish. The loss of LaRussa has very little impact – positive or negative – in the Cardinals’ pursuit of a second consecutive title. I mean Ron Washington almost won a World Series three nights ago.

Regardless of who the Cardinals bring in to manage in 2012 the repeat bid lies in the hands of the players. The Cardinals should return the core of their ’11 World Series team, with Matt Holliday being under contract for five more years, Lance Berkman signing a deal for 2012, the Cards picking up Yadier Molina’s and Adam Wainwright’s 2012 option, and Chris Carpenter signing an extension. That’s five of the Cards’ top six players, and of course Albert Pujols’ contract negotiations will loom large in the winter. If Pujols comes back the Cards should return most if not all of their ’11 championship team. If Pujols doesn’t come back, the Cardinals can easily slide Berkman to first, where he’ll help the team by allowing 2011 postseason slugger Allen Craig to play right field, where Craig’s defense will be better than Berkman’s, and Berk should be able to stay healthier at first.

The pitching staff, just like the offense, will return intact, presumably minus Edwin Jackson, who’s a free agent, and plus Adam Wainwright. Jake Westbrook and Kyle Lohse will be in the last years of their respective deals, and both Carpenter and Jaime Garcia were extended in recent months. Adding Wainwright back into the rotation instantly improves it, and if Kyle Lohse can come close to replicating his 2011 season (career-low in BB/9 and HR/9) and just stay healthy, the rotation should have no holes in it. Carp-Waino-Garcia-Lohse is a great 1-4 and all you’re asking for from Westbrook is to go six innings and keep the team in the game, which he’s capable of.

The bullpen should also be better than the rotation was in ’11. Jason Motte (2.48 FIP), Lance Lynn(2.88), Marc Rzepczynski (yes I had to look it up, 2.72), Fernando Salas (3.16) and Eduardo Sanchez (3.03) provide an above-average core to work with, plus Mitch Boggs, Kyle McClellan and the possible returns of the still-superb Octavio Dotel and lefty Arthur Rhodes. The Cardinals relievers put up a 3.23 postseason ERA, which was the best of any team which made it past the first round.

Right now we can count out the Astros, Pirates and Cubs as contenders for the NL Central title, which leaves us with the Cardinals, Brewers and Reds. I expect the Brewers to fall off a bit from their 96-win season this year, partly due to Prince Fielder’s inevitable free agency departure and that there’s no way they can win 57 home games again. Their defense is sub-par (and that’s being nice), and now Corey Hart or Casey McGehee will have to bat cleanup behind Ryan Braun, who, if that happens, will easily break the intentional walk record.

The Reds give me more pause, as I think they’ll rebound from a disappointing 2011. However they should still be well below the Cardinals in pre-season predictions. Their core-four on offense (Jay Bruce, Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Drew Stubbs) can compete with almost anyone, but beyond those four their next best offensive player was…Ramon Hernandez? Providing they can find somewhere to play Yonder Alonso (.330/.398/.545 in limited time in ’11) their offense should be improved. Their pitching will rank third by a long shot, and maybe worse, in the division, but their young arms still have time to get better.

The Cardinals should have a fairly easy time winning the NL Central in 2012 (knock on wood), but can they use some leftover magic from this miraculous postseason run? Only five times has a defending National League champion returned to the World Series since 1969, and only five times since 1963 has a team won back-to-back World Series. Dare I say it, there is no other NL team, as of right now, more fit to make it to the World Series in 2012 than the Cardinals. The Phillies offense – well you all saw Game 5 of the NLDS this year. Even though their pitching will still be excellent, their offense is nothing close to what it was three years ago. There are no other complete teams – solid starting pitching, deep roster, deep bullpen – in the National League that should scare the Cardinals into not thinking they can return to the World Series.

The Cards’ four biggest hindrances to back-to-back titles should come from the American League. The Yankees will probably sign a top starter – and if it’s CJ Wilson, that’s not who I’m talking about – to go with CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova. The Red Sox could do the same, or just stay the same and actually make the playoffs this year. The Rays could field a rotation comparable to the Cardinals next year – David Price, James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore – and with a full season of Desmond Jennings, that offense could be loaded. The Rangers, power-packed lineup and deep bullpen anchored, could easily reach the World Series for a third time in a row.

I’m not one to get ahead of myself. I didn’t even think the Cardinals would make it out of the NLDS this year. But I don’t see any team that I would take over the Cardinals in the National League in 2012. The Cards are basically signing a Cy Young-runner up to what was already a solid rotation, and even if Albert Pujols signs elsewhere the Cardinals can add Allen Craig, whose per-162 game averages equate to 35 doubles, 25 homers and 90 RBIs, in and barely miss a beat without The Mang.

I don’t know if the Cardinals will win the World Series, make the playoffs or even win their own division in 2012. But after this crazy ride they just went on, starting on August 25, 10.5 games out of the wild card, concluding with their 11th World Series, and seeing the Braves and Red Sox choke and the Phillies waste a historical season by a pitching rotation, there’s no reason to believe the Cardinals couldn’t do it again and repeat as World Series champions.

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