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Nightengale: Trades make St. Louis Cardinals favorites to win the central

USA Today baseball scribe Bob Nightengale professed Thursday to dislike the St. Louis Cardinals' trade deadline swap of outfielder Allen Craig and pitcher Joe Kelly for Boston Red Sox hurler John Lackey.

But, while he said he didn't like the long term ramifications, Nightengale must like the immediate impact.

To the chagrin of Milwaukee Brewers fans who irately questioned his post, Nightingale predicted that, following their trade deadline moves, the Redbirds are the best team in the National League Central and would pass the brewers to win the division crown.

Nightengale didn't elaborate. But, while the Cardinals didn't really overwhelm the opposition with a blockbuster, they significantly upgraded a young pitching staff that, despite all the club's faults, was able to keep St. Louis within two games of Milwaukee at the trade deadline.

Lackey gives the Cardinals a true number two slot starter that, for all their depth, the club has lacked since Chris Carpenter's shoulder troubles took him out of the picture two years ago. He's a guy who not only is having a good season, he's used to pitching in big games and can thereby be a difference maker.

Justin Masterson isn't having a great season. But he could also be a big difference maker if he's healthy, bringing a veteran presence to a spot in the rotation previously occupied by shaky fill ins.

It's true the Birds did nothing to add another offensive player. But the trade of Craig, who wasn't producing, isn't likely to make the offense any worse. So the team would have a better chance of winning with the same poor offense if the pitching is more consistent. Matt Holliday and Matt Carpenter have been hitting better lately. However, it is possible that the Cardinals could see Oscar Taveras play better now that he'll be in the lineup more often because he will have more of a chance to get into a groove.

Another hopeful effect of the Lackey addition -- as well as the signing of his former teammate AJ Pierzynski, is that the Cardinals could play less of the role of Mr. Nice Guy on the field. Both of those players are known to have a competitive drive in the spirit of Chris Carpenter. Maybe they'll roll over a little less easily.

While it might not kick in until very late in the season, I am hopeful that the return of catcher Yadier Molina will ad a dynamic to the St. Louis bench we haven't seen all year -- a decent reserve bat.

If Molina is back and able to start, St. Louis would be wise to keep Pierzynski as a backup catcher and pinch hitter. As it stands, the Birds are reluctant to use their second catcher to pinch hit for fear of injury. But Pierzynski is a veteran hitter with some pop in his bat who wouldn't be intimidated by a high-pressure at bat late in a game.

Right now the Cardinals bench is very week with Daniel Descalso and Mark Ellis both hitting well below .200. It could certainly use the boost.

Add all those factors with Milwaukee's failure to pull away when the Cardinals were down with injuries and, generally, were not playing well and it's easy to see why the division would be there for the taking.