Are the Cardinals headed for 2000 again?

I had the opportunity to take in my first 2012 St. Louis Cardinal game at Busch Stadium this past Sunday, as they defeated the punch-less Cubs behind a very solid pitching performance from Jake Westbrook and tremendous days at the plate from Yadier Molina and Matt Carpenter. That win pushed the Cardinals to 7-3 on the young season.

One of the worst mistakes any blogger/journalist can make is take a small sample size (like 10 games) and make a lot of assumptions or unreasonable projections, but soaking in the beautiful day at Busch Stadium during a blowout of the Cubbies….I just could not help myself.

I began to ask a lot of “what if” questions.

What if this team under new leadership, starts another great era of Cardinal baseball without a reloading period following the key off-season losses?

Mike Matheny has been preaching respect. He has preached playing the Cardinal Way. He has reminded the team what it means to wear the Birds on the Bat. They are playing hard and playing with confidence. The Cardinals could not have asked for a better start to the season. If you had told me that the first two weeks would be played without Allen Craig, Skip Schumaker, and Chris Carpenter, see Lance Berkman, David Freese, Jon Jay, and Carlos Beltran miss time with aches and pains, AND yet to have the “real” Adam Wainwright make an appearance; I would have predicted 3-8 not 8-3. Many experts in the industry warned of a mediocre season for St. Louis following the loss of Pujols, Duncan, and LaRussa. There are 25 solid players in the clubhouse and a coaching staff that does not believe a “reload” is necessary. They play hard for each other and want to win now.

Could this mix of veterans and deep farm system usher in a new era of being perennial playoff contenders, just like 2000-06, when the Cardinals made the playoffs six out of seven consecutive seasons? What if…..

What if Matheny does not listen to the doubters who say he can not manage a winning ballclub without any experience…and the team keeps on winning ?

-What if Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook continue pitching this well in their contract years?

What if Pujols did not afford the other batters in the lineup as much protection as we thought he did? These guys can hit the baseball. It is a solid, deep, and balanced lineup.

What if the bullpen is actually better this year than it was last year? Matheny lets relievers who are pitching well stay in the game, as opposed to playing the matchups constantly like LaRussa did. He looks more at the quality of the pitches that night, and less at the spreadsheet of past performance. This just might create an added level of confidence in the bullpen that the better they perform, the more they get to pitch.

What if the team makes great selections with five of the first 59 draft picks?…and keeps stocking its deep farm system with future impact players. The model of surrounding four or five key veterans with young talent seems to be the Cardinals best chance for sustained excellence. They have a tremendous opportunity during this year’s draft to get a bunch of great young talent that they can keep for at least  six years at a very reasonable price.

What if Carpenter returns to form by summer and Wainwright returns to his former dominant self? The rotation would be just plain scary.

-What if this team is tired of the talk they can’t repeat without Pujols and LaRussa? Touched on this one above, but this is a highly talented group of professionals with a very competitive edge. This was most evidence by several players showing up to camp after a short off-season in the best shape of their lives. They are motivated to win this year.

Look, I know everything seems like rainbows and lollipops after such a fast start. The trials will come. Matheny will cost them a game with a bad decision at some point. But as I sat in the bleachers Sunday afternoon, I had a realization of just how many things are going right in Cardinal Nation right now.

For years, the talk was how losing Pujols would derail the organization into mediocrity. I am simply proposing that may not be the case. In fact, this organization may be the brink of a new standard of sustained excellence. That is a very big leap to make after 11 games, I know. This could be the start of another spell of playoff runs like the team had at the start of the century.

With a solid rotation, deep lineup, a manager they love to play for, and motivation to silence the doubters, they have as good a chance as any to make quite a run for seasons to come.

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