Well, we're back. I was aiming to do one of these team previews a day, but it's rather difficult to keep up. Anyway, now we get to the defending champions: the St. Louis Cardinals. They just barely squeezed into the playoffs last year, but ended up going all the way. And that was without Adam Wainwright, and with an uncharacteristically great season from Albert Pujols (which is to say, he's usually more than just great). It was certainly an unpredictable year.
Anyway, Albert Pujols is gone now after signing a mega-contract with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. And that's no easy void to fill -- Pujols has played a crucial role in the Cardinals' success over the last decade, and he's arguably still the best player in baseball right now. But despite losing the face of their franchise, St. Louis is actually in pretty good shape to defend their title, thanks to a productive offseason.
The two big moves of the offseason, at least as it pertains to shaping the 2012 team, centered around a pair of aging injury-prone guys in Rafael Furcal and Carlos Beltran. They're both around the same age -- Beltran will turn 35 in April, while Furcal turns 35 in October. And they've both missed significant time over the past few years, averaging around 100 games per season since 2009. But even though they can't be relied on to remain on the field and healthy, they can be relied on to produce.
Furcal was excellent from 2008 to 2010, but upon returning to the field in 2011, he struggled -- most of that stemming from an awful 37-game stint with the Dodgers in which he posted a 48 wRC+. Midseason, he was traded to the Cardinals, and upon arrival, he returned to his usual self, posting a 105 wRC+ (.255/.316/.418) that was in line with his career norms. Needless to say, if he continues to hit like that, he'll earn his two-year $14M paycheck.
And then there's the signing of Carlos Beltran, a deal that Dave Cameron dubbed the best transaction of the winter. Beltran's had a marvelous career, and though he's been slowed by injuries -- and he's definitely not the elite fielder he used to be, he can still rake. In fact, the 151 wRC+ he posted across 598 PAs this past season represented a career high (well, tied for his career high, at least). And despite all the time he's missed over the past three seasons, he's still averaged roughly 3 WAR. I figured he'd easily get a three-year deal this offseason, and if not, he'd be making $30+M. Well, I was wrong. Even given his injury history, to have him for the next two years at $26M is an absolute bargain.
The Cardinals' offense was by far the best in the National League last season, and with Pujols' departure, there's probably a general expectation that this will no longer be the case. But in Matt Holliday, Lance Berkman, and the aforementioned Carlos Beltran, the Cardinals still have a crazy-good heart of the order. In 2011, those three hitters ranked fourth, sixth, and seventh in the NL in wRC+, respectively. I don't know if it's possible, but Holliday might actually still be underrated. I mean, this is a guy that's been a consistent monster at the plate for the last six years.
The pitching's not quite as good, but they do have a formidable front of the rotation: Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter, and Jaime Garcia are each projected by ZiPS to post FIPs in the low threes. A trio of starters that good can take a team deep in the postseason, as we've seen. And it's not as though the back end -- anchored by the likes of Jake Westbrook and Kyle Lohse -- is too shabby, either; the two did combine for nearly 4 fWAR this past season (although Lohse is likely to regress a bit).
The bullpen has probably undergone the most transformation in the last year, and while it imploded in the middle of 2011, I don't expect that to happen again. Jason Motte has stepped up as a quality closer (2.48 FIP in 68 innings last year), and Fernando Salas is coming off a strong season (3.16 FIP in 75 innings). Plus, a full year of Eduardo Sanchez, who impressed out of the bullpen in 2011 (when healthy), will help. All told, it's still not a great bullpen, but it's also not a standout weakness -- as it became in the middle of last season.
The Brewers are the defending NL Central champions, and the Reds, of course, added Mat Latos; but the Cardinals -- coming off a championship season -- look even better than they did going into 2011. They appear to be in the best position to win the NL Central, at least as of now.