N.L. Central Preview: Wild Cards Target Title Defense

Joe LaTengo | Updated Mar 23, 2012

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They were a playoff dark horse, and these wild Cards went all the way to the top. New manager Mike Matheny has a tall order to fill — and a huge shadow to step out of — as he tries to take the St. Louis Cardinals back to the pinnacle.

The Action: General manager John Mozeliak hasn’t tinkered very much with this team. Seven of the nine Cardinals who started Game 7 of the 2011 World Series and 18 of the 25 who played in the series are still there today.

One of the most important ones, of course, is not. Slugging first baseman and three-time National League MVP Albert Pujols agreed to one of the most lucrative deals in baseball history when he signed with the L.A. Angels during the off-season. Coming to St. Louis is outfielder Carlos Beltran, who signed to the tune of two years and $26 million.

It’s A Lock: Matheny follows in the footsteps of the iconic Tony La Russa, who won two championships. While the former catcher doesn’t have any World Series rings of his own, he did go to the post-season four of the five years he spent with the Cardinals from 2000 to 2004.

Third baseman David Freese became the unlikely hero and was named World Series MVP, fulfilling the promise heaped on him previously. Rafael Furcal will command most of the playing time at shortstop, Lance Berkman should have an easy transition to being full time at first base and Yadier Molina will be the dependable force behind the plate.

Beltran is ticketed for right field with perhaps a few games in center and is showing good power in spring training, so maybe he’s regained the step or two he seemed to lose in the last couple of years while dealing with knee injuries. Matt Holliday will be at the other corner outfield spot, while Jon Jay should get most of the at-bats in center as Skip Schumaker is dealing with a recently torn oblique muscle. Allen Craig, once he recovers from off-season knee surgery, will pitch in there and spell the other outfield positions.

The Redbirds would like nothing better than to see big righthander Adam Wainwright take a regular turn in the rotation. Things are off to a flying start: the surgically repaired right elbow which took him out of the 2011 season is holding up so far. On the day this preview was posted, Wainwright threw five strong innings and gave up only three hits and a walk with five strikeouts in a 2-1 win over the Miami Marlins.

Most of the other elements of the pitching staff are intact, with starters Jaime Garcia, Kyle Lohse, Jake Westbrook, and Lance Lynn. If necessary, prospect Shelby Miller could also get a chance to show what he can do.

Hedge Your Bets: While the news looks good for Wainwright, Chris Carpenter is another story. He’s having nerve problems in his shoulder and arm and he’s having his neck evaluated, which is likely to force him onto the disabled list to start the season. The bullpen is unsettled, with Jason Motte and Fernando Salas battling to be the closer.

Tyler Greene and Daniel Descalso are vying for the job at second base; Descalso bats lefthanded and Greene is a righthander, so they could wind up platooning there.

The Payoff: The Cardinals aren’t getting much respect in the MLB futures betting, as they are ranked behind the Cincinnati Reds for the National League Central title and are being placed well back in their defense of the World Series crown. In other words, the bettors aren’t counting on a repeat.

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