The St. Louis Cardinals lost a huge part of their offense when Albert Pujols signed a 10-year, $240-million deal with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, but that also forced the team to build a more balanced lineup. Now every spot in the order consistently pushes across enough runs to put the Cardinals atop the NL Central as April comes to a close.
But, the margin for error is much slimmer without Pujols. There were times during the last decade when Pujols basically won an entire game with his bat. If it was a close game late, Cardinals fans always felt like the team had a chance to win as long as Pujols got another at-bat.
That’s no longer the case. The 2012 Cardinals have to string together multiple hits to score runs in bunches, but they have done surprisingly well to start the season. From shortstop Rafeal Furcal to centerfielder Jon Jay, each part of the lineup is contributing to give the Cardinals a .278 team batting average, which is the best in the National League.
Hopefully, the increased responsibility on each spot in the order will make this team more slump-proof than previous Cardinals teams. Pujols could mask a bunch of deficiencies in a lineup, but there were times when he would be the only hitter consistently producing runs. So far this season, Cardinals hitters have done an excellent job of picking each other up and getting base hits to keep the line moving.
For example, the Cardinals smashed the Milwaukee Brewers on Friday night with 13 runs, but they didn’t particularly smash the ball. Instead, the Cardinals laced together 15 hits, and only four went for extra bases with no homeruns.
I’m not saying the Cardinals can’t hit homers. They sit second in the National League with 24 homeruns, but they also have the consistency to manufacture runs without the long ball. That, combined with the excellent starting pitching the team is getting from its starting rotation, could make the Cardinals quite a force during the course of the season in the National League.
All of those offensive topics are even sweeter considering Pujols is still searching for his first homerun as an Angel, going 21 games to start the season without a homer.
In fact, the Cardinals likely have the most complete team in the division despite preseason concerns that the Cincinnati Reds might have more firepower. The Reds’ pitching staff has some significant holes.
Johnny Cueto has been fantastic to lead the staff with a 3-0 record and 1.39 ERA, but he is the only starter in the Reds rotation to have more than one win. Mat Latos, Mike Leake, Bronson Arroyo and Homer Bailey have a combined 3-7 record with a 4.65 ERA.
The Cardinals rotation, by contrast, has an ERA of 2.81, and that’s while carrying Adam Wainwright’s 7.32 ERA.
Cardinals fans could not have realistically expected a better first month to the season, and fortunately there is plenty to be excited about over the course of the next five months.