Monday, March 24, 2008

30 Teams in 30 Days: St. Louis Cardinals

A look back: The Cardinals kept alive the streak of failing to reach the World Series after winning it all in the previous season. In fact, the Cards missed the playoffs entirely, ending their own streak and extending the streak of defending champions not winning a game in the playoffs last year. The streak is intact since 2001, or every year in this millennium. See Boston for details. But the Cards struggled because of injuries to key pitchers, which made things difficult for both the rotation and the bullpen. If the injury bug doesn't hit and the pitchers who are still hurt come back strong, the Cards are easily contenders. If the reverse is true, the Cards will have little chance to compete.

Positives on the field: The Cards have built a solid batting order that actually stands a chance of putting balls out at spacious Busch Stadium. Chris Duncan, Rick Ankiel, Troy Glaus and some guy named Albert Pujols are all excellent hitters who are capable of putting runs on the board. If the Cardinals' other hitters can get on, and with Tony LaRussa still calling the shots, there's no reason to believe they won't, St. Louis could have a solid offense.

On the pitching side, Jason Isringhausen doesn't take the most direct route, but he gets the job done. The rotation is led by ace of the future Adam Wainwright, who could give St. Louis an unbelievable staff if the other pitchers ever get off the DL. With only Braden Looper and Kyle Lohse joining him as quality pitchers in the rotation for now, the rotation is merely average.

Negatives on the field: The Cardinals' injury history puts them in the unique position of having to play catch-up from the beginning of the year. St. Louis doesn't have the rotation right now to compete with the better teams in the National League, but if Mark Mulder, Matt Clement and Chris Carpenter come back strong from injuries, they immediately have one of the strongest around. But that's a big if, and the Cards might not be able to afford waiting in terms of 2008's chances.

On the other side, how badly is Pujols hurt? He's not showing any ill effects right now, but if his injury flares up during the season, the Cardinals lose a big chunk of their offense. The same applies to Troy Glaus and his heels. If the turf in Toronto was the problem, he's fine, St. Louis plays on grass. If there was a different problem, he's in trouble.

Outlook: The Cardinals will become a strong team, but they won't become that strong team until about July or August. That might be enough to finish them if the Cubs or Brewers get off to a hot start. St. Louis might have to connect with their inner Rockies to return to the playoff.

Projected finish: 2nd in NL Central. Season opener is March 31 against Colorado at Busch Stadium.

Spring base: Roger Dean Stadium, Jupiter, Fla. The team plays on the east coast of Florida and shares the stadium with the Florida Marlins.

Fan of the team?: Check out Viva El Birdos, the Cardinals fan community.

Come back tomorrow: The road trip heads to the North Side of Chicago and the Friendly Confines of Wrigley Field.

My time is up. You've all been great. Enjoy Phil Stacey.

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