St. Louis Cardinals (91-71, first place in NL Central)
Back when when we were at The Phrontiersman, Paul and I did a playoff projection pool with our friends and families (his Yankee-fan girlfriend predicted the outcome of every single series and won). I got in trouble when my predicted NL champion, the Cardinals, got swept in the first round. Since then, not much has changed. They’ve ditched Joel Pineiro and Mark DeRosa’s medical history, but the core remains.
I don’t know how a team with so few quality players can be any better than the 2009-10 Cardinals. They manage it because they’ve got two of the five best starting pitchers in the National League, two quality outfielders (including one, Colby Rasmus, who’s getting a lot of love for a breakout 2010 on the heels of his 16-homer rookie season), the best defensive catcher in baseball, and that dude Pujols.
Albert Pujols is mind-bendingly good, as I’m sure you know. He just turned 30 in January, and has already hit 366 major league home runs. His WAR of 8.5 last year was as good as Ichiro and Shane Victorino combined. He’s literally two all-stars in one. He’s third all-time in career OPS, up with Babe Ruth and Ted Williams and Barry Bonds. At one point late last summer (I don’t know if this held up until October), he was twice as likely to hit a homer with the bases loaded than he was to swing and miss at a pitch. He’s a truly transcendent player, and I don’t know that we’ll ever see the like of him again.
But after Pujols, there’s a huge drop-off to Matt Holliday, and from him, a huge drop in quality to Brendan Ryan, Rasmus, and Yadier Molina, and after that, who knows?
Essentially, the Cardinals won 90 games last year on the strength of Pujols, their top two starting pitchers, and tremendous good fortune. Ryan Franklin held up as a dominant closer for most of the year. Pineiro developed a bowling ball sinker. Zombie John Smoltz turned into a solid No. 4 starter.
Perhaps most ridiculously, Skip Schumaker acquitted himself quite well after converting to second base from the outfield. While infielders move to the outfield quite often with great success (Mickey Mantle, for instance, was originally a shortstop), the opposite almost never happens. But Schumaker, while he didn’t light the world on fire, continued to hit .300 and walk some while not killing the Cards at the keystone. That’s the kind of break the Cardinals always seem to get, and it’s what put them into a position to mount a serious challenge for the pennant.
The good news for Cardinals fans is that the rest of the NL Central is in such a state that they don’t need all the same breaks to get back into the playoffs. I’m going to contradict my esteemed colleague Pat Gallen here, but the NL Central, apart from St. Louis is like a Dane Cook TV special–just one terrible joke after another.
I can’t name more than four Pittsburgh Pirates without using Google. The Reds don’t have any proven star-quality players and are toiling under the leadership of the only manager in baseball whom I’d describe as an albatross–Dusty Baker. In Houston, Ed Wade is trying to win by reassembling the 2003 Phillies. Lou Piniella’s Flying Circus is just getting older and more dysfunctional. That leaves the Brewers, a team that could steal the division, but needs even more lucky breaks than the Cardinals to do so.
St. Louis would be the third-best team (at best) in four of the other five divisions in baseball, but due to fortunate geographical circumstances, they’re in a division where having two good starters and one monster position player is good enough to win 90 games.
Of course, once they win the division, Wainwright and Carpenter go from pitching 40 percent of the time to 2/3 of the time. I’m not saying that’s enough for me to pick them to win the pennant again, but they scare me.