St. Louis Cardinals (2012 Finish: 88-74, .543, NL Wild Card winner)
This is yet another very deep and balanced team coming out of this division, and Mike Matheny was a surprise Manager of the Year candidate with the job he did last year. After losing Albert Pujols, to the Los Angeles Angels via free agency before 2012, they moved on very quickly and adjusted wonderfully to life without Albert. The signing of Carlos Beltranhelped soften the blow of losing the offense Pujols brought to the table, and the pitching once again excelled.
St. Louis is expected to make another run at the postseason, whether it be a division title or one of the Wild Card spots in the National League, but they’ll have to figure out a viable alternative at shortstop first. The oft-injured Rafael Furcal is now out of the season and must go under the knife for Tommy John surgery, leaving a gaping hole at a crucial position. Ronny Cedeno was signed over the winter, but he’s not expected to take over starting duties in St. Louis, as they looking around, and Elvis Andrus’ name has come up in conversation. Carlos Beltran is in the final season of a two-year pact, and there is pressure on the right fielder to continue producing, while staying on the field (.269/.346/.495, 32 HR, 97 RBI in 151 GP in ’12). Daniel Descalso has been anointed the team’s starting second baseman after a good postseason, but it remains to be seen if he can be a consistent contributor at the plate throughout an entire season.
The pitching staff ranked eighth in the Big Leagues with a team ERA of 3.71, but they’ve already taken a major hit, as Chris Carpenter is likely to miss the entire year, leaving Adam Wainwright as the ace at the top of the rotation. There is a good mix of young and veteran arms, and despite the injuries they’ve already suffered, the organization has one of the deepest farm systems in baseball, and they’re set up for consistent success over the next few years.
Rookie to watch: OF Oscar Taveras
Taveras is ranked the top prospect in the Cardinals organization, but despite being only 20-years-old, Mayo thinks he’ll be making an impact in St. Louis at some point this season. With an outfield that includes players prone to injury, such as Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran, he could eventually find himself on Mike Matheny’s lineup card. In four minor league seasons, he owns a triple slash of .321/.381/.525, and discovered his power in 2012, hitting 23 homers and drove in 94 runs. What also makes him a top prospect is how he’s limited his strikeouts during his development (52 in 347 PAs in ’11 to 56 in 531 PAs in ’12). Of course, hitting .282/.333/.538 in Spring Training helps his case as well.
The Cardinals are my choice to win this division, winning between 90-95 games this season. Outside of Furcal being hurt, there is no glaring weakness on this ballclub, with their balance and depth throughout the lineup and pitching staff beyond anything the Reds are able to put together. The corners are solidified with young, proven players in Allen Craig and David Freese, while Beltran and Matt Holliday provide the veteran presence, along with Yadier Molina being the leader behind the plate.