2010 N.L. Central Preview: St. Louis Cardinals

IN: 2B Felipe Lopez, SP Brad Penny

OUT: UT Mark DeRosa, SS Khalil Greene, 3B Troy Glaus, OF Rick Ankiel, SP Joel Pineiro, SP Todd Wellemeyer, P Brad Thompson

2009 W-L: 91-71

PYTHAGOREAN W-L: 91-71

OFFENSE: Potent. The Cardinals didn't lose anyone important from an offense that finished seventh in the N.L. in runs scored in 2009, and this time around they get to have Holliday with them for the whole year. The Cardinals may end up regretting the deal to which they signed Holliday this offseason--seven years is a long time, and what's already happening with the Cubs and Alfonso Soriano is a cautionary tale for teams signing 30-ish outfielders to huge contracts--but years one and two should be all kinds of fun for them. Elsewhere in the outfield, Colby Rasmus increasingly looks like he isn't going to be a high-average hitter in the majors, but he's still a great candidate to take a step forward this year, with a nice skillset of power, walks, and defense--think Mike Cameron. In right field, Ryan Ludwick's awesome 2008 campaign looks like a huge fluke, but with 22 homers last year, he's still useful enough.

In the infield, Albert Pujols needs no introduction, but perhaps the other three starters do. Last season the Cardinals punted on much of their infield after Troy Glaus went down, wasting at bats on AAA players like Joe Thurston. The signing of Felipe Lopez this year is a nice first step toward preventing that from happening again. Lopez's defense isn't much, but he's become underrated in the journeyman portion of his career-- his .383 OBP last year is nothing to sneeze at.

So far, it's unclear what Lopez's role will be, as the Cardinals will juggle a bunch of flawed players and unknown quantities at the infield positions Pujols and Lopez aren't playing. You could think of second baseman Skip Schumaker as a rich man's version of Delwyn Young: he can hit well enough to play the middle infield, but he's played a lot of outfield, and his defense leaves something to be desired. I've never been convinced by shortstop Brendan Ryan, who has a particularly undistinguished minor league record and is now coming off wrist surgery. And new third baseman David Freese has hit very well in the minors, but at 27 in April, it's unlikely he'll improve much more, so it remains to be seen how well his hitting will translate to the majors.

Yadier Molina is the best catcher in the N.L. Central, with a great defensive reputation to go along with a good bat--he'll hit for a high average, often while walking more often than he strikes out. 

PITCHING: The Cards' rotation starts with an absolutely lethal 1-2 of Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter. While they won't be as good in 2010 as they were in 2009, when both had ERAs well below 3.00, they should still be terrific. Kyle Lohse, who's about the most generic starting pitcher imaginable, is their #3, and Brad Penny, the formerly promising hurler who's always rehabbing from something-or-other, is #4.

Their fifth starter candidates are dubious, although in this division, that's par for the course, and the Cardinals have a history of getting a lot out of nobodies like Lohse, Joel Pineiro, and Todd Wellemeyer, so things may not be as bad as they appear on paper. Kyle McClellan is a perfectly reasonable reliever, but he had a low strikeout rate last year and hasn't yet started a game above Class A. Rich Hill's amazing curveball hasn't helped him in so long that it's practically in the realm of folklore, like John Henry's superhuman strength or something. Young lefty Jaime Garcia, who spent most of last year recovering from Tommy John surgery, would actually be a pretty interesting choice, but he's a longshot.

The bullpen, led by closer Ryan Franklin and lefties Dennys Reyes and Trever Miller, won't scare anyone, particularly if you don't believe Franklin is anywhere near as good as he appeared last year. There's potential for flamethrower Jason Motte to help more than he did last year if he can stop allowing so many homers. Mitchell Boggs and Blake Hawksworth (whose parents must be insufferable--how do you name your kid "Blake" if your last name is "Hawksworth"?) will probably get jobs as well.

PROGNOSIS: Healthy. The Cardinals have a much more talented team than anyone else in the division. I was hardly alone in saying the same thing about the Cubs last year, so certainly there are no guarantees, but the Cardinals should benefit from being a solidly-constructed team in a weak division for the next couple of years. The farm system is at a low ebb right now, but that could change this year depending on the development of top 2009 picks Shelby Miller and Robert Stock, and they should have time to reload before the rest of the division really catches up with them. In the meantime, the Cards should lose a bit of production from Wainwright and Carpenter, but they'll gain from having Lopez and a full season of Holliday. Unless the minor injuries Pujols and Holliday are currently dealing with turn into something bigger, I see no reason to think the Cards can't be at least as good as they were last year.

1. St. Louis Cardinals 92-70

2. Chicago Cubs 83-79

3. Cincinnati Reds 80-82

4. Milwaukee Brewers 76-86

5. Houston Astros 73-89

6. Pittsburgh Pirates 70-92

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