NL Central preview: St. Louis Cardinals

NL Central preview: St. Louis Cardinals

March 28, 2013, 7:45 pm
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Tony Andracki

The Cardinals are coming off back-to-back seasons of miraculous postseason runs -- first the World Series Championship in 2011, and then the amazing win over the Braves in the first-ever Wild Card one-game playoff and the unbelievable comeback against the Nationals in the NLDS last year -- and look to do it again in 2013. But will this roster stocked with veteran talent be able to stay healthy when it matters most?

2012 retrospective

The Cardinals didn't miss a beat last season despite losing Albert Pujols, the face of the franchise; Tony La Russa, maybe the best manager of all-time; and Dave Duncan, a Hall of Fame-caliber pitching coach. St. Louis won just two fewer games in 2012 (88; it won 90 in '11) with rookie manager Mike Matheny at the helm while Carlos Beltran helped ease the loss of Pujols.

[Related: NL Central Preview: Milwaukee Brewers]

The emergence of Allen Craig (.876 OPS) and another MVP-type year from catcher Yadier Molina (.874 OPS) also helped establish the Cardinals' offense as one of the best in the NL. Just like under LaRussa, the 2012 Cards received a boost from unheralded role players like Matt Carpenter, Skip Schumaker, Tyler Greene, Pete Kozma and Daniel Descalso.

The starting rotation was consistent all season and even dominant at times, led by first-half star Lance Lynn (18-7, 3.78 ERA) and Kyle Lohse (16-3, 2.86, 1.09 WHIP). Adam Wainwright returned from Tommy John surgery and, after a little bit of a slow start, turned in a fine season at 14-13 with a 3.94 ERA and 1.25 WHIP. Jason Motte emerged as one of the top closers in the game and Mitchell Boggs and Edward Mujica were superb as setup men.

Despite the unreal postseason that saw the Cardinals claw back from a 6-0 deficit in the deciding game of the NLDS, including four runs in the ninth inning, St. Louis was manhandled by the Giants in the final three games of the League Championship Series, scoring just once to erase a 3-1 lead in the series.

Who’s leaving

SS Rafael Furcal, RHP Kyle Lohse, 1B/OF Lance Berkman

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Furcal didn't go anywhere, but the same elbow injury that kept him out of last year's playoffs will also wipe out his 2013 season as it will require Tommy John surgery. His loss is underrated, as his defense and spark atop the lineup helped make him an integral part of the 2012 Cardinals.

Lohse leaving is also a big loss, but it was to be expected. The Cardinals extended a qualifying offer, but the veteran righty turned it down and wound up signing with the Brewers just this week. Berkman's departure was also anticipated, as he wound up inking a deal with the Rangers. He only played in 32 games last year for St. Louis, so his loss won't come as a major blow.

Who’s arriving

LHP Randy Choate, UTIL Ty Wigginton

Choate is actually a really underrated signing, as the 37-year-old lefty has been one of the best relievers in the game over the past few seasons. He led the NL in appearances last season, pitching in 80 games for the Marlins and Dodgers with a 3.03 ERA and 1.21 WHIP. The Cardinals needed another lefty in the bullpen to help ease the load off of Marc Rzepczynski, who struggles with his consistency at times.

Wigginton still has some pop and can play all over the diamond. Expect to see him in the lineup against left-handed starters and as one of the first guys off the bench late in games.

[Related: NL Central Preview: Pittsburgh Pirates]

Season outlook

Carpenter will almost assuredly not pitch this season, as he still struggles with a nerve issue in his neck/shoulder. The word "retire" has actually been thrown around, and it's a real possibility for the 37-year-old. He made just three starts in 2012 after pitching the Cardinals to a World Series title the year prior.

His loss will be big -- as will Lohse's departure -- but the Cardinals carry on. It's just what they do. They have a roster made up of reliable veterans. If they can all stay healthy, both the offense and the starting rotation should be just fine. But, that may be a big if, especially with injury-prone Beltran and David Freese manning the offense.

Top prospect Shelby Miller was awarded the final spot in the rotation and his development will be essential. Motte will start the season on the DL and it's up to Boggs and Co. to fill the closer's role until he returns.