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The Winter Warm Up Files: Spring Has Almost Sprung

Spring Training is about a month or so away for the St. Louis Cardinals, and plenty of intrigue surrounds the team as they head for Florida. Last weekend at the Winter Warm Up, much of that was discussed with Cardinal players, coaches, and members of the front office. But the fact of the matter is, much of the 2012 team promises to also have to answer questions of “living up” to predecessors. For instance, exactly how does one improve on a World Series Championship? And just for good measure, some competition for pivotal roles will be thrown into the mix as well.

Obviously, one of the major departures is Albert Pujols. And while that subject has been beaten to death from every possible angle, the Cards do have a quite capable replacement at first base in Lance Berkman. After proving he still had plenty left in the tank with a monster comeback season in 2011, Berkman is ready, willing and able to step back into the post he held for so many years in Houston. So with the on-field hole filled, what about the offensive production missing with Pujols’ bat no longer in the lineup? The Cards went out and signed Carlos Beltran, and he certainly will contribute power to the lineup. But he also brings an element of speed—albeit not what he once had in his prime—and versatility as a switch-hitter. Beltran can be dangerous and effective hitting anywhere from 2nd to 6th in the lineup.

Of course, Beltran and Berkman are not spring chickens any more, and both have a recent injury history that cannot be ignored. Such is the case with Matt Holliday, David Freese, and Allen Craig. All these players are expected to have major roles on the field for the 2012 St. Louis Cardinals, and every season’s success is dependent on the old axiom, “Well, if everyone can stay healthy…” No one can guarantee the health of any player or players. But with the lineup the Cards at least expect to run out onto the field on a daily basis, they have to stack up favorably with any team in the league.

What could be bigger than losing a Hall of Fame player? Why, losing a Hall of Fame coaching tandem, of course. And it just so happens the Cardinals lost both in the same offseason. Replacing Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan is impossible. But the Cards must find a way to move on, because they are not coming back but there are still games to be played.

Mike Matheny takes over as the team’s skipper and says he is ready to learn a lot. He has already spoken to most of the players and tinkers with potential lineups every day. He also appears to have a grasp on some of the Cards’ shortcomings from 2011 and wants to formulate a plan to remedy those issues for 2012 starting in Spring Training. “There’s going to be a lot of bunting going on,” Matheny said, when asked about his approach. “There’s going to be a lot of fundamental situational hitting. There’s going to be team fundamentals that are going to have a focus. I think it’s going to cover the whole gamut…We’re going to have some guys come in from the past who have been extremely good baserunners and are going to help us out for the first part of spring.”

Derek Lilliquist has some tough shoes to fill, too, taking over for Duncan as pitching coach. Adam Wainwright spoke of Duncan in glowing terms echoed by the rest of the staff: “Dave Duncan is the best big league pitching coach I’ve ever had. Dave’s philosophy has just been bred into us…Not that we don’t need Dave, but we understand what we want do out there now. I think Carpenter and myself, Lohse, Westbrook, Jaime…I think we’ve got five guys who have learned from the best in the business, and continue to learn from each other, too.” But he also thinks Lilliquist understands pitching really well, and believes his philosophy is a lot like that of Duncan. “When you look at what Lilly brings, we’re still really excited about our pitching coach,” Wainwright said.

Arguably the biggest unknown on the field going into Spring Training is the second base position. Both Matheny and John Mozeliak anticipate an open competition between Tyler Greene, Skip Schumaker, and Daniel Descalso for the starting job. Matheny spoke numerous times about “healthy competition” and how it would benefit the team and the players involved. Mozeliak also expects all three to challenge for the job, but feels the opportunity is Greene’s to seize. “We do want to see Tyler Greene get a strong opportunity there,” Mozeliak said. “We look at his athleticism and what he’s capable of doing and I do know we want to give Tyler a very good chance at playing and getting a lot of AB’s in Spring Training…(Greene) has never really had an opportunity at the ML level to be given that job. It’s understandable because we’ve always had competitive clubs and players that were playing better than him. So it’s just about opportunity.” But the GM stopped short of giving Greene any sort of leg up before the preseason gets underway. “It’s a different situation this year—second base is open so that’s where we’re going to try to give him a shot.”

Other positions remain unsettled until the team heads to Florida. Beltran, Craig, and Jon Jay figure to be a part of some sort of rotation or platoon in center and right. The Cards signed Koyie Hill to a minor league deal, and he figures to be the defensive dark horse for the backup catcher job. But the team already has two younger backstops in Tony Cruz and Bryan Anderson who have had a taste of the majors and are no doubt chomping at the bit to win that supporting role. And the bullpen has a lot of returning faces staring at a young corps who makes it increasingly difficult for the Cardinals to keep sending them back to the minors.

Expectations will be high for the Cards in 2012, but that is normal after a World Series win. These players have already proven they can execute. Now they have to go out and stay healthy enough to do it again. The NL Central appears weaker on paper than it did last season, aside from the overhauled Cincinnati Reds. But not many picked the Redbirds to make the playoffs last year, either. The Cardinals appear poised to make another serious run at the division title. Getting into the playoffs is tough for any team, but once you’re in…well, you know.

Chris Reed also writes for InsideSTL Mondays and Bird Brained whenever he wants. Follow him on Twitter at @birdbrained.

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