With the Winter Warm-up in the rear view mirror, we've reached the one month point until pitchers and catchers report to spring training.
So it's officially time that we can start to put the magical -- if implausible -- 2011 World Series championsip season behind us and to look forward to what 2012 holds.
Things to be positive about for 2012:
- The most obvious advantage for this team over last season's squad is the return of Adam Wainwright. Many wrote the Cardinals off before Grapefruit League games even started last season when news that the Redbirds ace tore a ligament in his pitching elbow. How much will Wainwright be able to contribute right off the bat? That's unknown. But he reports that he feels stronger than he has in years. So, hopefully, Wainwright will return as seemlessly as Jaime Garcia did a couple of years ago and he'll be a force at the top of the order.
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- Better Balance. The Cardinals have been Albert Pujols' supporting cast for the better part of a decade. Now the squad will work more as a team and some of the members of the chorus will have a chance for a starring role. There will be a whole lot less pitching around the number three spot in the order and, hopefully, everyone in the order will be a threat. Not only will other players have more of a chance to contribute. But the Cardinals will likely play less American League style, hope for a three-run homer baseball and more hit and run and base stealing is likely to be on the agenda for 2012.
- Last season the bullpen was a huge mess before a mid-season overhaul. In fact, if not for the huge pile of blown saves in April, May and June, the late season comback the Cardinals made might not have even been necessary. The bullpen is much more settled in 2012 with Jason Motte in the closer role and Lance Lynn, Fernando Salas, Marc Rzepczyski and Eduardo Sanchez establishing themselves in the second half of 2011. J.C. Romero was added as a free agent and hopefully he can do better than Trever Miller did.
Things to worry about it 2012:
- While the Cardinals have a lot of youth on the roster, many of the important pieces are getting more than a little big long in the tooth. Chris Carpenter pitched an awful lot of innings with his 36 year old arm. Lance Berkman is 35 and new addition Carlos Beltran is 34. With Pujols gone, the Redbirds will rely more on across the board contributions. So if any one of those pieces fails, it could put a serious dent in the effort to defend the Cardinals title.
- A lot of players had career type years in 2011. So is it more likely that they'll do it again -- or that they'll fall back? Berkman had his best season in five years last year. Still he showed signs of slowing in the second half of the year. Beltran had his best year in four years last season -- and it was the first time in the last three years that he played more than half a season worth of games. On the other side of the ball, Kyle Lohse had his best season since 2008 last year and, as previously mentioned, Carpenter seemed to give everything he had last year and then some.
- Tony La Russa retired after 16 years as the St. Louis skipper. While Mike Matheny is highly regarded by many, he's completely inexperienced when it comes to managing. If the Cardinals get off to a poor start, he could feel the heat early. This is an aspect of baseball the Redbirds haven't had to worry about for quite some time. It's important the club gets off to a solid start to put the question marks to rest.