St. Louis Cardinals 2010 preview

The Cardinals weren’t projected to be the class of the NL Central last season when they won the division by 7 1/2 games before fizzling in the postseason. But after they spent $120 million on Matt Holliday to keep their lineup virtually intact, it will be a surprise if they finish anywhere but first this season. Even manager Tony La Russa, not one for hype, said, "We will be one of those clubs that has a chance. I like our core."

Chris Carpenter finished second in NL Cy Young voting in 2009.
Chris Carpenter finished second in NL Cy Young voting in 2009.

Three questions

1. Where are the problem areas?
You have to look beneath the surface to find any weaknesses. Consider: The Cardinals have the game’s best player in Albert Pujols. They have the National League’s best catcher in Yadier Molina. They have what is arguably the NL’s best 1-2 rotation punch in Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright. They have a future Hall of Fame manager in La Russa.

If all that isn’t enough, they also have a top slugger in Holliday, an All-Star closer in Ryan Franklin and the resources to spend money for improvements during the season.

So what don’t they have? They lack experience at third base and depth in the outfield, and their bullpen isn’t as formidable as that of the Phillies — the only NL club that looks to be superior to St. Louis.

2. Who’s on third base?
This is the only position where the Cardinals won’t return their regular from the end of last season. Rookie David Freese is the front-runner. La Russa, however, doesn’t like to hand out jobs, especially to rookies. Freese’s main competition will come from a couple of other youngsters, Tyler Greene and Joe Mather, though the Cardinals could give utilityman Felipe Lopez a shot.

Freese was the projected starter at third when spring training ended last year, but he struggled early — partially because of injuries — and spent most of his season at Class AAA. He impressed enough in a brief late-season call-up to be deemed the favorite after the Cardinals opted not to re-sign Mark DeRosa or bring in another veteran.

3. Will the hitting coach be a distraction?
There will be times when Mark McGwire has to address the past again, such as when the Cardinals visit New York (July 27-29) and like he did recently when a book written by his brother rehashed the steroids issue. For the most part, however, McGwire has been able to focus on his new job during spring training.

When La Russa pushed Cardinals ownership to hire McGwire last fall, he admitted part of the reason was to get McGwire back in the game. La Russa, however, asserted that the main reason he wanted McGwire was because he believes the former slugger has the makeup and knowledge to be an effective hitting coach. Early signs out of Cardinals camp are that La Russa is correct. McGwire has gone about his job without a lot of fanfare.

Projected lineup
1. 2B Skip Schumaker: .307 AVG over past 3 seasons.
2. CF Colby Rasmus: .251 AVG, 16 HRs as rookie in ’09.
3. 1B Albert Pujols: As bonus, led club with 16 SBs.
4. LF Matt Holliday: Team-best .353 AVG, 55 RBIs, .604 SLG after arrival.
5. RF Ryan Ludwick: ’08: 37 HRs, .966 OPS; ’09: 22 HRs, .775 OPS.
6. C Yadier Molina: .366 OBP, 50 BBs, 39 K’s.
7. 3B David Freese: .323 AVG in 31 MLB at-bats last season.
8. SS Brendan Ryan: 23 of 37 RBIs came after break in breakout season.

Projected rotation
1. RHP Chris Carpenter: 17-4 with NL-best 2.24 ERA.
2. RHP Adam Wainwright: 19-8, 2.63 ERA, NL-best 233 IP.
3. RHP Kyle Lohse: Injuries a factor as ERA rose nearly a run from ’08.
4. RHP Brad Penny: 5.61 ERA in 24 starts with Red Sox; 2.59 in 5 starts with Giants.
5. RHP Kyle McClellan: 3.38 ERA as RP last season.

Projected closer
RHP Ryan Franklin: 1.05 ERA pre-September; finished at 1.92.

Grades

Offense: B. Pujols and Holliday give the Cardinals one of the majors’ top 3-4 tandems and Molina improves every season, but they aren’t that special elsewhere. St. Louis finished ninth in the NL in runs scored after the All-Star break last season. In 2010, the production of Ryan Ludwick, Skip Schumaker and Colby Rasmus will be key.

Pitching: A. Wainwright and Carpenter were the best 1-2 rotation punch in the game last season. Franklin leads a balanced bullpen that includes a couple of hard throwers in Mitchell Boggs and Blake Hawksworth. Brad Penny has the ingredients to be pitching coach Dave Duncan’s next success story.

Bench: B. Recent acquisition Felipe Lopez was second to Chase Utley in runs scored by NL second basemen last season, and he can play all over the infield. Julio Lugo also brings plenty of experience to the middle infield. There isn’t much experience in the outfield, however.

Manager: A. All of those pitching changes might rile some fans, but opposing managers consistently praise La Russa’s consistent approach and for never being caught off-guard. His players always are prepared to play, and you rarely (if ever) see an undisciplined player on the Cardinals.

Sporting News prediction: Any team with Pujols is a contender. Any team with Pujols, Holliday, Carpenter and Wainwright — as long as they’re healthy — is a clear choice to win the division. Beating Philadelphia, however, is another matter.

COMING TUESDAY: Cubs preview.

Stan McNeal is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at smcneal@sportingnews.com.

The Cardinals weren’t projected to be the class of the NL Central last season when they won the division by 7 1/2 games before fizzling in the postseason. But after they spent $120 million on Matt Holliday to keep their lineup virtually intact, it will be a surprise if they finish anywhere but first this season. Even manager Tony La Russa, not one for hype, said, "We will be one of those clubs that has a chance. I like our core."

Chris Carpenter finished second in NL Cy Young voting in 2009.
Chris Carpenter finished second in NL Cy Young voting in 2009.

Three questions

1. Where are the problem areas?
You have to look beneath the surface to find any weaknesses. Consider: The Cardinals have the game’s best player in Albert Pujols. They have the National League’s best catcher in Yadier Molina. They have what is arguably the NL’s best 1-2 rotation punch in Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright. They have a future Hall of Fame manager in La Russa.

If all that isn’t enough, they also have a top slugger in Holliday, an All-Star closer in Ryan Franklin and the resources to spend money for improvements during the season.

So what don’t they have? They lack experience at third base and depth in the outfield, and their bullpen isn’t as formidable as that of the Phillies — the only NL club that looks to be superior to St. Louis.

2. Who’s on third base?
This is the only position where the Cardinals won’t return their regular from the end of last season. Rookie David Freese is the front-runner. La Russa, however, doesn’t like to hand out jobs, especially to rookies. Freese’s main competition will come from a couple of other youngsters, Tyler Greene and Joe Mather, though the Cardinals could give utilityman Felipe Lopez a shot.

Freese was the projected starter at third when spring training ended last year, but he struggled early — partially because of injuries — and spent most of his season at Class AAA. He impressed enough in a brief late-season call-up to be deemed the favorite after the Cardinals opted not to re-sign Mark DeRosa or bring in another veteran.

3. Will the hitting coach be a distraction?
There will be times when Mark McGwire has to address the past again, such as when the Cardinals visit New York (July 27-29) and like he did recently when a book written by his brother rehashed the steroids issue. For the most part, however, McGwire has been able to focus on his new job during spring training.

When La Russa pushed Cardinals ownership to hire McGwire last fall, he admitted part of the reason was to get McGwire back in the game. La Russa, however, asserted that the main reason he wanted McGwire was because he believes the former slugger has the makeup and knowledge to be an effective hitting coach. Early signs out of Cardinals camp are that La Russa is correct. McGwire has gone about his job without a lot of fanfare.

Projected lineup
1. 2B Skip Schumaker: .307 AVG over past 3 seasons.
2. CF Colby Rasmus: .251 AVG, 16 HRs as rookie in ’09.
3. 1B Albert Pujols: As bonus, led club with 16 SBs.
4. LF Matt Holliday: Team-best .353 AVG, 55 RBIs, .604 SLG after arrival.
5. RF Ryan Ludwick: ’08: 37 HRs, .966 OPS; ’09: 22 HRs, .775 OPS.
6. C Yadier Molina: .366 OBP, 50 BBs, 39 K’s.
7. 3B David Freese: .323 AVG in 31 MLB at-bats last season.
8. SS Brendan Ryan: 23 of 37 RBIs came after break in breakout season.

Projected rotation
1. RHP Chris Carpenter: 17-4 with NL-best 2.24 ERA.
2. RHP Adam Wainwright: 19-8, 2.63 ERA, NL-best 233 IP.
3. RHP Kyle Lohse: Injuries a factor as ERA rose nearly a run from ’08.
4. RHP Brad Penny: 5.61 ERA in 24 starts with Red Sox; 2.59 in 5 starts with Giants.
5. RHP Kyle McClellan: 3.38 ERA as RP last season.

Projected closer
RHP Ryan Franklin: 1.05 ERA pre-September; finished at 1.92.

Grades

Offense: B. Pujols and Holliday give the Cardinals one of the majors’ top 3-4 tandems and Molina improves every season, but they aren’t that special elsewhere. St. Louis finished ninth in the NL in runs scored after the All-Star break last season. In 2010, the production of Ryan Ludwick, Skip Schumaker and Colby Rasmus will be key.

Pitching: A. Wainwright and Carpenter were the best 1-2 rotation punch in the game last season. Franklin leads a balanced bullpen that includes a couple of hard throwers in Mitchell Boggs and Blake Hawksworth. Brad Penny has the ingredients to be pitching coach Dave Duncan’s next success story.

Bench: B. Recent acquisition Felipe Lopez was second to Chase Utley in runs scored by NL second basemen last season, and he can play all over the infield. Julio Lugo also brings plenty of experience to the middle infield. There isn’t much experience in the outfield, however.

Manager: A. All of those pitching changes might rile some fans, but opposing managers consistently praise La Russa’s consistent approach and for never being caught off-guard. His players always are prepared to play, and you rarely (if ever) see an undisciplined player on the Cardinals.

Sporting News prediction: Any team with Pujols is a contender. Any team with Pujols, Holliday, Carpenter and Wainwright — as long as they’re healthy — is a clear choice to win the division. Beating Philadelphia, however, is another matter.

COMING TUESDAY: Cubs preview.

Stan McNeal is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at smcneal@sportingnews.com.

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