The Cardinals had a bizarre season in 2012. Picked to win their division and be a serious contender to defend their 2011 World Series title, they were devastated by injuries throughout the season.
While they were a disappointment during the regular season, finishing a distant second to the Reds in the National League Central, despite the loss of Chris Carpenter for nearly the entire 2012 season, Lance Berkman for the vast majority of it and Rafael Furcal for nearly half, the Birds showed enough moxie to clinch the newly-created second National League wild card playoff berth. And, given new life, they suddenly made good on their potential by coming within one victory of making the World Series for the second time in a row and the 19th time in franchise history.
Here's a snapshot of what went right and what went wrong:
STARTING PITCHING: The Cardinals started 2012 just like they started 2011 -- with one of their co-aces' suffering a health problem that would prevent them from being a factor in the pennant race. In 2011 it was Adam Wainwright who tore an elbow ligament. In 2012 Carpenter had a recurrence of the shoulder weakness that plagued him a coupe of years ago. Also similar to 2011, the 2012 Redbirds solved the loss of a rotation leader from within. Kyle Lohse, who did a remarkable job in 2011, was again outstanding in 2012 with a 16-3 record and a 2.86 ERA. He's not a big strikeout guy. But when Lohse is healthy he keeps the ball on the ground and gives his team a chance to win every start. Too bad the offense and the bullpen conspired against him. With how well he hurled, he should have easily won 20 games. Wainwright struggled in the early months trying to regain his form and feel after a year layoff. But he came on strong during the middle of the season and finished with a very respectable 14-13 record with a 3.94 ERA. Second year pitcher Lance Lynn, who performed well in a bullpen role after a mid-season call-up in 2011 was pressed into service as Carpenter's replacement and he was phenomenal before tiring late in the second half. Lynn chalked up an 18-7 win-loss tally with a 3.78 ERA and provided a bunch of much needed innings. Jake Westbrook was relatively solid with the exception of a mid-season funk. He managed a 13-11 marj with a 3.97 ERA. Jaime Garcia was the big bust with recurring shoulder troubles that have him seeking fifth, sixth or seventh opinions from any doctor he can find that recommends against surgery. Garcia was limited to a 7-7 record with a 3.92 ERA. But his primary replacement, rookie Joe Kelly, opened eyes. Remarkably composed for a first time major leaguer, Kelly pitched well. But the defense frequently let him down while the offense provided him with few runs in support. He was 5-7 in the win loss column because of these factors, much worse than he deserved with his 3.53 ERA. The rotation was the part of the Cardinals roster that could have folded and people would have excused it due to injures. But the replacements were a pleasant surprise and contributed greatly to both the 2012 cause and the bright outlook for the future. I still can't figure out why the Cardinals signed Westbrook, a fourth starter at best, to an expensive extension while ignoring Lohse's interest in a return. Maybe they couldn't afford Lohse. But give the guy's agent a call to find out before signing a stiff. GRADE: A-
BULLPEN: For the second season in a row the Redbirds found themselves scrambling for suitable relief pitching because they went cheap on middle innings help. The Cardinals signed rapidly descending lefty J.C. Romero over the off-season and then cut him loose after eight innings or work in which he allowed 14 hits to the tune of a 10.14 ERA. Beyond that it was a cast of low cost, young throwers. 2011 bullpen saviors Fernando Salas and Eduardo Sanchez were gigantic disappointments. Salas, who led the Cardinals in saves in 2011, was terribly inconsistent to the the point that when he wasn't in the minor leagues working on his mechanics manager Mike Matheny seemed afraid to use him in anything other than mop up duty. He compiled a 1-4 record and 4.30 ERA. Sanchez looked nasty in spring training with a variety of sharply breaking pitches to chose from. But the Cardinals questioned his approach, saying that he not only seemed to try to strike out everyone he faced. He seemed to be trying to humiliate hitters with his great stuff. The result was far too many walks and terrible pitch economy. It seemed like a small adjustment was needed between the ears and Sanchez was shipped to Class AAA Memphis to start the season. But he completely fell apart there. In the minors Salas was 2-3 with a 5.86 ERA. And when he was called up to St. Louis he couldn't stick with an 0-1 record and a 5.60 ERA. The Cardinals added Edward Mujica and Brian Fuentes in mid-season trades designed to bolster the bullpen. Mujica was a pleasant surprise with a sparkling 1.03 ERA in 30 games. Fuentes, a past free agent target of the Cardinals, was an unpleasant surprise. After crafting a 9.00 ERA in six games, Fuentes quit on his team to take a leave of absence for the rest of the season, never even telling the Cardinals why he had to go. That left the Cardinals with only 2011 mid-season acquisition Marc Rzepczynski from the left side in the bullpen after short appearances by lefties Barret Browning and Sam Freeman proved to be not especially helpful. Rzepczynski was 1-3 with a 4.24 ERA and wasn't much of a weapon against lefty hitters. The big boost to the pen came from a call-up of minor league power pitcher Trevor Rosenthal. After spending much of the season in Class AA Springfield where he was a starter, Rosenthal lit up radar guns to the tune of 101 MPH on the big league stage. And that wasn't the only trick in his bag. He also has off-speed stuff that comes in at about 83 MPH. 0-2 with a 2.78 ERA, Rosenthal allowed 14 hits in 22 1/3 innings of work while whiffing 25 and walking 27. At the back of the pen, Mitchell Boggs emerged as a valuable set-up man while Jason Motte led the National League with 42 saves and allowed 49 hits in 72 innings of work. The bullpen was awful in the first half and in the second was unbalanced with no real lefty options. Grade: C-
OFFENSE: The Cardinals batsmen were a study in contradiction in 2012, ranking near the top of MLB in most offensive categories (not including nose hair). But they often couldn't score when they needed to in the clutch despite career years from several players. Catcher Yadier Molina showed instant results after signing a contract extension in spring training. He had career bests in batting average (.315); home runs (22); RBI (76); Runs (65) and at bats (505). First base was the Redbirds' biggest question mark going into spring training with future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols' defection to Anaheim clouding the Cardinals' future. Expected replacement Lance Berkman, moving in from right field to the position he's played most frequently in the second half of his career, seemed like a good solution... Until a rash of knee injuries limited The Big Puma to 81 at bats. Allen Craig, the next option on the depth chart, missed the first month of the season with a knee injury of his own. But Craig came on strong with a .307 batting average 22 homers and 92 RBI -- better pro-rated numbers than Pujols put up in his first year with the Angels. Craig averaged .327 with men on base and hit a league high .409 with men on third base and less than two outs. Daniel Descalso hit only .227 during the regular season but eventually took the starting second base job from Skip Schumaker (.276, 1HR) because of vastly superior defense. Rafael Furcal earned a spot on the National League all-star team thanks to a great offensive display in the first half of the season. But he crashed hard in the second half, struggling to hit before leaving the line-up with an injury that is still unresolved, putting 2013 in doubt. Rookie Pete Kozma eventually took over at short after auditions of Descalso and fellow rookie Ryan Jackson didn't pan out. Kozma, a good field, no hit guy with a .236 minor league average suddenly caught fire and hit .333 with a pair of homers in 82 at-bats and earned the starting job in the playoffs. David Freese, who set expectations high with a record setting offensive outburst in the 2011 playoffs, had a more realistic season with a .293 batting average, 20 homers and 79 batted in. In the outfield, Matt Holliday hit a respectable .295 with 27 homers and 92 RBI. Jon Jay hit .305 in centerfield and newly acquired right fielder Carlos Beltran looked like he would make a case for NL MVP in the second half. But a knee injury apparently affected his swing and he saw his batting average sink to .269 by the end of the season with a team-leading 32 homers. Grade B+
DEFENSE: While Jay looked like a Gold Glove candidate in centerfield and Molina continued his customary fine glove work behind the plate, the St. Louis defense continued to erode elsewhere. Holliday and Beltran don't cover much ground in the outfield corners, making Jay's work much more difficult. Craig did pretty well with the glove at first base. But he's not match with the glove for the slick fielding Pujols. Freeze is a so-so third baseman in the field. Grade: C-
BENCH: A generally weak cast of kids, Matt Carpenter was a standout in an emerging role off the pine. He hit .294 with six homers and 46 batted in over 340 at bats. Shane Robinson surprisingly stuck at the major league level all season while Adron Chambers and Tony Cruz also made the leap from minor leaguers to major league role players. Grade: C
MANAGEMENT: Rookie skipper Mike Matheny seems to be someone his players respect and like to play for. But, as is to be expected when a guy with absolutely no professional coaching experience is hired, he's still learning the ropes of game management and seemed to sometimes randomly push buttons for no apparent reason. He's a smart guy who knows what it takes to play in the big leagues. So it's curious why he ran Furcal and Beltran into the ground when it was openly stated before the season that both of those players would need liberal rest because of their injury history and advanced age. Hopefully, Matheny will be more comfortable in year two and will have a better feel for running games.