Optimism reigned the day following the St. Louis Cardinals’ 11th World Series championship, but three months later that optimism might turn to skepticism.
The Cardinals had just won one of the most dramatic World Series ever played on October 28, and it looked like the team might bring back the entire coaching staff and nearly the entire roster.
At that point St. Louis celebrated the championship with a parade on the Sunday following Game 7, and many people thought things would only get better in 2012 because the team had gelled so well toward the end of the 2011 season.
The next morning everything changed, and the fallout has continued all the way into the first week of January.
Tony La Russa announced his retirement Oct. 31, leaving the Cardinals in a spot where they had to find a new manager for the first time in 16 years.
So one big piece of the 2011 championship puzzle left, but surely the Cardinals would make a smart decision and find a new manager who fit in well with the current structure of the team and everything would still be all right.
I’m not saying hiring Mike Matheny was a bad decision at all. The Cardinals made a smart, calculated decision when they hired him and any criticism of that move before the season starts is unfounded.
But, then Albert Pujols left to sign with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim on Dec. 8, leaving a gaping hole in the middle of the Cardinals lineup and on their team. Pujols had been the premier Cardinals player for a decade. That type of player doesn’t get replaced immediately no matter what move the team makes the rest of the offseason.
The team used the money it saved by not signing Pujols to sign outfielder Carlos Beltran, 34, and resign shortstop Rafeal Furcal, also 34.
While those moves may have filled the positions on the field, it is a real stretch to say the Cardinals should be better in 2012. Remember, this team didn’t even win its division last year, and now possibly the best pitching coach in the history of the game, Dave Duncan, has taken a leave of absence.
That means the Cardinals will return on Opening Day with nearly an entirely different coaching staff and middle of the lineup.
Sure, starting pitcher Adam Wainwright will be back to lead the rotation, but there are other teams in the NL Central that are younger, have good starting rotations and have more potential than the Cardinals in 2012.
This isn’t to say the Cardinals won’t be highly competitive this coming season. The Chicago Cubs, Houston Astros and Pittsburgh Pirates will likely still lease the bottom half of the division for another year. The Milwaukee Brewers also have lots of troubles with first baseman Prince Fielder expected to leave and left fielder Ryan Braun out for the first 50 games because of a suspension for using a banned substance.
All things considered, the Cincinnati Reds might be the team that walks into the season as the favorite in the division. This is a young team with a powerful middle of the lineup, and MVP at first base and a pitching staff that continues to progress.
The Reds are just one year removed from winning the NL Central in 2010, their core players have another year of maturity under their belt and the pitching staff looks better on paper for 2012 than it did in 2010.
The addition of Mat Latos and maybe Aroldis Chapman to the starting rotation along with the returns of Johnny Cueto, Bronson Arroyo, Mike Leake will almost certainly keep the Reds in strong contention throughout the season.
With hitters such as Pujols and Fielder leaving their respective teams, the NL Central will likely be down on power in 2012. The Reds have a solid rotation but will also likely send out a more-powerful lineup than the rest of the division.
That could put the Reds in a better position than anybody in the NL Central, including the defending world-champion Cardinals, to make a run to the postseason.