Major League Baseball returns in earnest this Wednesday. It marks the beginning of the St Louis Cardinals title defense, and hopefully their return to the post-season. ESPN.com ranks St Louis ninth in their initial baseball Power Rankings, the highest of any NL Central team, making them the early favorites to win the division.
As we head into the regular season, here are three things to consider that may well determine whether or not they do return to October baseball.
Chris Carpenter‘s health. First the bulging disc in his neck, then the weakness in his right shoulder and arm attributed to a nerve condition, much like what he experienced during the 2004 and 2008 seasons. Apparently his body is allergic to Presidential campaigning and the Summer Olympics. He could return in May, he might miss the entire season. The Cardinals are guardedly optimistic he will return this season, however, there is no timetable as to when that return will be.
Lance Lynn has pitched capably this spring and looks poised to carry that forward into the season. The return of Adam Wainwright also helps soften the blow to the rotation. There’s no way Lynn will replace Carpenter’s 237 innings, however, and it’s unrealistic to expect Wainwright to throw that many innings his first year back from Tommy John surgery. If Carpenter does not return, will Lynn, Kyle McClellan, and possibly Shelby Miller give the team enough out of the #5 spot to stay in contention?
Rafael Furcal‘s bat. Furcal has really struggled this spring. I mean struggled (.192/.222/.269). Struggled to the point where people who don’t put any stock in spring training statistics are saying, ‘wow he’s really struggling’. St Louis has been exploring options to hit leadoff because of Furcal’s struggles, including Daniel Descalso and Tyler Greene.
At some level we should have seen this coming; after all, Furcal only hit .236/.296/.382 in the leadoff spot last year. He has hit .281/.327/.417 leading off during his career, but the drop-off is concerning; can he pull himself out of the ditch? The Cardinals are loaded in the middle of the order with Lance Berkman, Matt Holliday, and Carlos Beltran, but those guys need guys on in order to produce. Will the Cardinals be able to contend if they turn over the top of the lineup to Descalso or T. Greene?
Mike Matheny. He’s said all the right things and run a very organized camp, which made it easy to forget this will be his first year ‘behind the bench’. Matheny inherited a good chunk of Tony LaRussa’s staff, which has undoubtedly made his transition into the job easier; however at the end of the day he’s the guy making the final decision on pinch-hitters, pitching changes, and the like. LaRussa was one of the most seasoned managers in the game and he still made decisions which occasionally cost the Cardinals games. Matheny will make his share of mistakes. What will the cumulative effect of those errors be on the Cardinals’ season? Will they be too much to overcome?