Happy New Year! It is time to flip the calendar once again. The St. Louis Cardinals would probably prefer to forget most of 2010. Bright spots like Jaime Garcia’s breakout rookie campaign, the continued ascendance of Adam Wainwright, and solid offense from the middle of the order were overshadowed by devastating injuries, down production from the top and bottom of the lineup, and focus/attitude issues that led to the early ouster of Felipe Lopez and eventual trade of Brendan Ryan.
But New Year’s Day provides an opportunity for rebirth. Bad habits are identified and eradicated; fresh outlooks and routines are established. And then by Mardi Gras we’re all smoking, drinking, and overeating again. Such is life. The Cardinals also need to examine their collective reflection in the figurative mirror and find things to work on. Some are big and some are small. But all are important to the type of team that they will field in 2011. In fact, their success or failure this year pretty much depends on them.
Sign Albert Pujols – Yeah, yeah yeah…let’s bring out the dead horse for another beating. But is there really anything more important for the Cardinals to do over the next month or so? I mean, the entire future (and a good chunk of the legacy) of the franchise hangs in the balance here. Do they make Pujols the richest player in baseball? Does he walk if they don’t? Can the team compete with that salary on the books? Will they trade him? It really is unbelievable how big this decision is—probably bigger than acquiring Lou Brock or deciding to dump Steve Carlton—and it will be made within the next few weeks.
Address organizational depth issues – Part of the reason the 2010 team fell short is the injuries sustained during the season. The pieces used to compensate for those losses were woefully inadequate. Aging veterans are fine as role players and late-inning replacements, but when they’re asked to start for weeks or months in a row it leads to trouble. Obviously it may not be feasible to stock the bench with top-notch talent, but the Cards have to find a middle ground. The players in the Cards’ farm system have to step up when called upon, and the front office needs to be a little more selective regarding the veterans they bring in.
Stay healthy – This may seem like another obvious one, but that does not make it less important. Kyle Lohse, David Freese, and Lance Berkman will all be expected to make major contributions to the 2011 Cardinals after recent injury issues. And their importance pales in comparison to what it would mean to the Cards to lose Pujols, Holliday, Wainwright, or Yadier Molina for an extended period of time. Yes, a little luck is involved here. But keeping this team together and humming for the majority of the year will go a long way toward establishing them as a contender in the NL Central.
Beat the teams they’re supposed to beat – How many times did we see the 2010 Cardinals beat the crap out of the Phillies or the Dodgers only to turn around and lose two of three to the Pirates and Nationals? And the only NL Central team they were able to beat handily last season was the division-winning Reds. That must change in 2011. All the Cardinals needed was one more win per month to take the NL Central in 2010. Kind of puts a 5-10 record against the Houston Astros in perspective, doesn’t it?
Play a Hard Nine – Tony LaRussa’s philosophy seemed to be lost on the 2010 Cardinals, especially when playing sub-.500 teams. The moves made by the team are clearly meant to upgrade attitude and focus rather than overall talent. The 2011 Cardinals are going to have to bear down for what could prove to be a grinding season. They must learn to play more effective small ball. They have to take extra bases and play smart, effective defense. They have to play like underdogs, because that is exactly what they will be in 2011. The Cards can no longer win on reputation alone.
So here’s to hoping the Cardinals do better than most of us with their New Year’s Resolutions. If they want to win a more competitive NL Central in 2011, they really have no choice.