The St. Louis Cardinals possess the reigning National League's Most Valuable Player, the runner-up for last year's Cy Young Award, and re-signed one of the most coveted players on the free- agent market this past offseason. Yet neither Albert Pujols, Chris Carpenter, Matt Holliday nor any other member of the team's active roster were the focus of attention when the team reconvened in Florida in February to begin defense of its NL Central title.
The spotlight instead was cast upon new hitting coach Mark McGwire, the one- time single-season home-run king who ended years of suspicion with a public admission of using steroids during his accomplished 16-year playing career back in January. The disgraced former slugger's addition to manager Tony La Russa's staff was the most head-turning move of a relatively quiet winter for a Cardinals' club fresh off a 91-win campaign and a return to the playoffs following a two-year hiatus.
St. Louis brought in only two veteran players -- starting pitcher Brad Penny and versatile infielder Felipe Lopez -- on major-league deals during the offseason, although most of general manager John Mozeliak's time and energy was spent getting Holliday to agree to a seven-year, $120-million contract and remain the team's cleanup hitter. The three-time All-Star proved his value by batting a scorching .353 with 13 home runs and 55 RBI in 63 games after being acquired from Oakland in late July, and the Cardinals went an NL-best 39-25 following the trade.
Holliday's return combined with the intimidating presence of Pujols, a unanimous choice to receive his third NL MVP honor in the past five years, gives St. Louis a middle-of-the-order duo that can rival any in the game today. The Cardinals can also boast one of baseball's elite 1-2 punches in the pitching department with Carpenter and fellow right-hander Adam Wainwright, a duo which produced a stellar 36-12 record and placed second and third in last season's Cy Young voting.
With all that star power, not to mention a reliable bullpen and deep bench that will be put to good use by the ever-resourceful La Russa, the Cardinals enter 2010 as prohibitive favorites to capture a second straight NL Central championship.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2010 edition of the St. Louis Cardinals, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
(91-71) - First Place (NL Central)
Key Offseason additions
IF Felipe Lopez, SP Brad Penny
Key Offseason subtractions
3B Mark DeRosa, SP Joel Pineiro, SP John Smoltz, IF Joe Thurston, IF Troy Glaus, OF Rick Ankiel, RP Todd Wellemeyer, RP Brad Thompson
It goes without saying that St. Louis' climb back to the top of the NL Central heap wouldn't have been possible without the contributions of the incomparable Pujols, who bagged his second straight MVP award after batting .327 with 135 RBI and leading the majors with 47 home runs. Such gaudy numbers have been par for the course for the superstar first baseman, a career .334 hitter who's averaged 41 homers and 124 RBI over his nine major league seasons.
The Cardinals aren't as set on the opposite side of the diamond after allowing third baseman Mark DeRosa to depart via free agency during the offseason. The club is awfully high on rookie David Freese, however, and the soon-to-be 27- year-old reinforced the organization's faith by hitting .323 in a 17-game audition last season. As insurance, Mozeliak signed Lopez (.310, 9 HR, 57 RBI with Arizona/Milwaukee), who batted a robust .385 while playing four different positions during a two-month stint in St. Louis in 2008, at the outset of spring training. The veteran switch-hitter's speed and professional approach make him a good fit as a table-setter in front of the team's big boppers.
Lopez will also see time at second base, where incumbent Skip Schumaker (.303, 4 HR, 35 RBI) made a relatively smooth transition from the outfield while maintaining his role as a sparkplug at the top of the lineup. The scrappy left-handed hitter has hit over .300 in each of the last three seasons.
Hard-nosed play is also the forte of shortstop Brendan Ryan (.292, 3 HR, 37 RBI, 14 SB), who filled a glaring void at the position last year after being inserted as a starter at midseason. The 28-year-old supplied excellent defense and also acquitted himself well at the plate in his first taste of an everyday role.
While on the subject of good fielding, the Cardinals possess one of the best in the business at the catcher position in Yadier Molina (.293, 6 HR, 54 RBI), who earned his second consecutive Gold Glove in 2009 in addition to a first- ever All-Star nod for his all-around play. The talented backstop has earned a reputation as a clutch hitter and can single-handedly shut down the opponent's running game, as he's thrown out 46 percent of those attempting to steal for his career.
With Holliday back in the fold and gifted youngster Colby Rasmus poised to improve off an inconsistent rookie campaign, an outfield group that was rather unspectacular as a whole in 2009 appears ready to eclipse its overall production from the previous year.
After putting up huge numbers in the hitter's haven of Colorado over his first five seasons, Holliday (.313, 24 HR, 109 RBI) dispelled any notions of those accomplishments being the sole product of the thin Coors Field air with his performance following last summer's trade. The 2007 NL MVP runner-up may no longer be a 35-homer threat like his days with the Rockies, but is still a proven run producer who provides necessary protection for Pujols.
Rasmus (.251, 16 HR, 52 RBI) seemed to wear down in his first big-league go- around, hitting just .216 with five homers after the All-Star break, but the highly-regarded 23-year-old has put together an outstanding spring and should be better from last season's experience. He's also a plus defender with the potential to hit 20-25 homers a year.
Back to man right field is the steady Ryan Ludwick (.265, 22 HR), who followed up a breakout 37-homer, 113-RBI season in 2008 by knocking in 97 runs hitting behind Pujols and Holliday. The onetime top prospect seems to have finally found a comfort zone in St. Louis after years of bouncing around the minors.
After pitching a mere 21 2/3 innings over the previous two seasons due to an assortment of arm issues, Carpenter (17-4, 2.24) came back healthy and strong in 2009 and quickly regained the form that made the tall righty one of baseball's elite hurlers over the middle part of the last decade. The reigning NL Comeback Player of the Year led the Senior Circuit in earned run average and yielded a mere seven home runs in 192 2/3 innings pitched, while finishing only six points shy of winning a second career Cy Young distinction.
Wainwright (19-8, 2.63, 212 K) was equally as good as his counterpart in turning in his best major-league season last year. The former first-round pick topped all NL pitchers in victories and innings pitched (233) while ranking fourth in the league in both ERA and strikeouts as the staff's co-ace. He's also an accomplished hitter and fielder to boot, belting a pair of homers at the plate in addition to winning a Gold Glove.
Penny (11-9, 4.88), a two-time All-Star with the Dodgers from 2006-07, could give opposing teams something else to worry about if he pitches like he did over the final month of last season. Cut loose by the Red Sox after a string of poor outings in late August, the hard-throwing righty went 4-1 with a 2.59 ERA in six starts after being picked up by San Francisco. The Cardinals saw enough to offer him a one-year, $7.5 million contract to replace 15-game winner Joel Pineiro in the rotation.
A bounce-back season out of fourth starter Kyle Lohse (4.74 ERA) would also boost St. Louis' prospects for a repeat. After recording career bests in wins (15) and ERA (3.78) in his Cardinals' debut in 2008, the right-hander slumped to a 6-10 ledger with a 4.78 ERA last year while being limited to 22 starts because of forearm and groin injuries. Expect something in between those two stat lines for a pitcher with an 84-90 lifetime record in nine major-league seasons.
Kyle McClellan (4-4, 3.38, 3 SV) entered camp as the front-runner to claim the final rotation spot despite working exclusively out of the bullpen the past two years. The Missouri native has faced fierce competition from rookie Jaime Garcia, a 23-year-old left-hander regarded as one of the organization's top pitching prospects. The promising youngster has made a successful return from Tommy John surgery and stood among the team's most impressive pitchers of the spring.
What began as an uncertain situation at the closer position in 2009 was turned into a source of strength and stability thanks to an unexpectedly terrific season from veteran Ryan Franklin (4-3, 1.92). A back-end starter and middle reliever for most of a relatively undistinguished 10-year major-league career, the well-traveled right-hander tied for third in the NL with 38 saves and allowed only two home runs in 62 appearances, while garnering a well-deserved first-ever All-Star nod at age 36.
Franklin is flanked by a pair of proven lefty specialists in Trever Miller (4-1, 2.06, 46 K) and Dennys Reyes (0-2, 3.29, 1 SV), a duo which combined to limit southpaw hitters to a miniscule .170 batting average. The right-side options are less established, especially if McClellan winds up in the rotation, but longtime pitching coach Dave Duncan has two good arms to work with in Jason Motte (4-4, 4.76) and Mitchell Boggs (2-3, 4.19). Motte had an inconsistent first full season in the big leagues but finished strong, surrendering just one earned run over his final 13 appearances. Boggs, a starter all throughout the minors, flashed plenty of promise when used out of the pen in a late-year callup.
Right-hander Blake Hawksworth (4-0, 2.03), another converted starter, has a spot sewn up as a long man and could figure in the setup mix as well, while 2006 first-round draft pick Adam Ottavino has a chance to stick if McClellan claims the fifth-starter's job.
LaRussa values flexibility in his roster, and the cagey skipper should have plenty of alternatives at his disposal to exploit matchups or give one of his regulars a rest.
While Lopez doesn't have a set position, expect him to get plenty of at-bats in a "super-utility" capacity in which he'll used all throughout the infield and possibly the outfield as well. Journeyman Julio Lugo (.280, 3 HR, 21 RBI) can also play all over the diamond and lends both a seasoned bat and base- stealing ability to the reserve group.
Outfielders Allen Craig and Joe Mather don't offer much in the way of big- league experience, but the former is a career .306 hitter in the minors who belted 26 homers for Triple-A Memphis last season. Mather smacked eight long balls in just 133 at-bats during a stint with St. Louis in 2008, but was set back by a wrist injury this past year.
The Cardinals re-signed Jason LaRue (.240, 2 HR, 6 RBI) in November to again serve as Molina's backup at catcher. The 36-year-old is a strong receiver who offers occasional power at the plate.
St. Louis has sound pitching, very good overall depth and the most feared hitter in all of baseball in the heart of the lineup. Add in a manager with a gift of getting the most out of his talent in La Russa and a division that doesn't seem to have any other true heavyweights, and the ingredients are there for a second straight postseason appearance. Carpenter and Wainwright do have injury histories that breed caution and Pujols was dealing with some back issues during the spring, but the absence of one or more of the team's frontline players may be the only thing that prevents the Cardinals from retaining the Central crown.