Well baseball fans, the time is finally here! Pitchers and catchers have reported, the rest of the teams have been reporting throughout the week which of course signals the official start of Spring Training! Just as it has every year since the 1890's, spring ball offers fans the chance to see a rough draft of how their teams will play in the season to come. Up-and-comers get tons of hype, struggling veterans get critiqued and off-season acquisitions are examined under a microscope of scrutiny. I love the NFL, I love March Madness, and I love NCAA Bowl Season, but nothing compares to the start of spring training and, subsequently, MLB Opening Day. With my preview of the NL Central, I will provide key off-season moves, strongest and weakest areas of the team, and my prediction of where they'll stand when the World Series wraps up near the end of October.
St. Louis Cardinals
Major League Baseball's defending World Series champions have their work cut out for them in 2012. Obviously the loss of Albert Pujols will be a huge blow to their chances in 2012, but is it this loss that will hinder the Card's success in 2012? I don't think so.
Key Off-Season Moves:
The loss of 1B Albert Pujols is going to be a big deal for St. Louis. He led the team in HR, RBI and Hits in 2011 with 37, 99 and 173, respectively. Replacing the future Hall of Famer's bat is nearly impossible and will hurt the STL offense in 2012.
Tony La Russas retirement didn't really come as a shock, but combined with the loss of Pujols it compounds the problem. If La Russa was still the Card's skipper this year they could probably put a solid run together and make another push for the postseason, but Mike Matheny isn't Tony La Russa and it will show on the diamond this year.
Signing Carlos Beltran and Rafael Furcal each to two-year contracts will help make up some of the offensive production that's now in Los Angeles, but you've got to wonder if signing Furcal was necessary. Beltran is old, but played in 142 games last season, had 22 HRs, 88 RBIs and maintained a .300 average. Furcal is a wild card. Injuries have been an issue for the SS who has only played 100 or more games one time in the past four seasons. In 50 games for St. Louis last year he only managed 7 HRs, 16 RBIs and a .255 average. While this was an improvement from the 37 games he played for the Dodgers (1 HR, 12 RBI, .197 AVG), he's still a big question mark.
The Cardinal pitching is as strong as ever. Carpenter, Wainwright, Garcia, Lohse and Westbrook are all strong SPs not to mention they have a stellar Fernando Salas and Jason Motte in the bullpen to close out those close games. If the Cardinals have any hopes of getting back into the Postseason in 2012 it's going to come from their pitching.
As I've already alluded to, their lineup could be a serious struggle this year. Even looking past the obvious blow to the team with the loss of Albert Pujols, they don't have many players who can drive in runs. David Freese came on at the end of the season and if he can help carry some of the load it will go a long ways. Not only is ancient Lance Berkman not a 1:1 replacement for Pujols (who is), he'll struggle to produce half as much offensively. Matt Holliday has a solid bat but not good enough to carry the team on his shoulders the way Albert did. Offense will be an even bigger issue for St Louis this season than it was last.
3rd Place, NL Central