There are Questions, but Cardinals Can Win

The Cardinals will embark on their 2012 season and defense of their 11th World Series title starting Wednesday in Miami, helping the Marlins open the new Marlins Park.

With all the changes that have been made, it would be foolish to compare what’s happening this year to what happened last year. A couple of things to keep in mind: last year was a miracle. Baseball had never seen a stretch run like the Cardinals had to close out 2011. At the same time, we see a huge comeback by some team seemingly every year now, so I’ve learned my lesson. No matter how far out the Cardinals get, and no matter how many games are left, I’m not going to count a team out.

By all accounts, Mike Matheny has made a smooth transition to his new managerial post. He brings a different vibe than Tony La Russa. Matheny doesn’t have the in-your-face intensity that Don Tony brought to the job. That low-key nature will benefit some players that just couldn’t handle the withering, day-to-day heat that La Russa delivered. At the same time, it’ll be interesting to see what happens if the Cardinals do fall behind. Pretty much everyone agrees that last year’s Cardinals wouldn’t have won had anyone else been their manager. We’ll have fun gauging Matheny’s measured approach vs. La Russa’s tenacious manner.

Matheny inherits a group that can, on many levels, manage itself. Veterans like Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman are self-starters and clubhouse leaders that don’t need to be motivated. They do it themselves. Both have taken young players like David Freese, Allen Craig and Daniel Descalso under their wings. Aside from Rafael Furcal, whom Matheny hopes will deliver a higher performance level once the season starts, the position players should be fine emotionally.

My concern about the position players is physical, as in their ability to stay healthy. Freese has never played more than 100 games in a season. Furcal has failed to play more than 100 in three of the last four years. Berkman, who just turned 36, was limited to 122 games two years ago because of knee miseries. Even though he reportedly withstood a rigorous off-season workout program, Berkman did play 163 total games last year including the post-season, at age 35. Can he stay healthy again?

In the outfield, newcomer Carlos Beltran had a bounce-back year in New York and San Francisco, but can his knees hold up as he turns 35 later this month? Holliday has been a durable performer, and Jon Jay led the club in games played last year, but Craig was limited to 75 games because of knee injuries, and will start this season on the disabled list.

Yadier Molina is a horse. However, he played 157 games behind the plate in 2011. Is he going to be able to hold up?

The bench is interesting. The Cardinals have started seasons with young benches in the past, and will do so again this year. The injuries to Craig and Skip Schumacher forced Shane Robinson and Rule V pickup Erik Komatsu onto the club. They’re joined by Matt Carpenter, Descalso and Tony Cruz. There can’t be a more inexperienced bench in the majors. It’ll be interesting to see how Matheny utilizes those kids early on. I hope all of them get at-bats and an opportunity to show what they’re made of.

The strength of the Cardinals is their starting rotation. Jake Westbrook, Kyle Lohse and Jaime Garcia all appear to be well past arm troubles earlier in their careers, and all were reasonably sharp in the spring. Adam Wainwright looked like he put recent arm problems behind him, too. Youngster Lance Lynn gained the confidence of pitching in the highest pressure situations available during the 2011 post-season, and looks like a reliable replacement for Chris Carpenter.

I think Carpenter carries the rotation. He’s the veteran leader and sets the tone for the group. If he doesn’t make 20 starts, Wainwright will have to deliver leadership as the No. 1 starter and innings. Hopefully, Matheny and pitching coach Derek Lilliquist will limit Wainwright’s innings early — perhaps at the expense of a win — to preserve him for key, high intensity starts in August and September.

The bullpen, which was so good last post-season, is really intriguing. Jason Motte showed his mettle as a closer late last season and in the playoffs. Guys like Mitchell Boggs, Marc Rzepczynski and Fernando Salas were great in the post-season last year, and must perform well again this year. Can they deliver an encore? Remember, the 2006 post-season bullpen that included Randy Flores, Trevor Johnson and Josh Kinney was never the same, so last year’s youngsters will be challenged. Newcomer Scott Linebrink is a known commodity, as is veteran Kyle McClellan. Another question in the bullpen is the other lefty, free-agent addition J.C. Romero, who really hasn’t pitched well since 2008 with the Phillies.

Last year, Motte was the only Cardinals reliever to be on hand for opening day and every game of the season. Ryan Franklin, Miguel Batista and Bryan Augenstein were jettisoned; Trever Miller and Bryan Tallet were traded; and Boggs was sent down during the season. During the year, general manager John Mozeliak acquired Octavio Dotel, Arthur Rhodes and Rzepczynski, and brought up Salas, Eduardo Sanchez and Lynn. Will changes like that be necessary again?

Can this team win? Sure they can. They have a great blend of experience and youth, and talent throughout the roster.

My only concerns are health, the young bench, and management. Can Carpenter come back? Can Freese, Furcal and Berkman stay healthy? Did playing through October last year take too much out of them?

Pinch hitters say the hardest thing to do in baseball is come off the bench cold and get a hit against a fresh setup man or closer. Are Robinson, Komatsu, Carpenter, Descalso, Tyler Greene and Cruz capable of that?

While I have full confidence in Matheny’s managerial ability, nobody really knows how he’ll do. We knew that Tony La Russa was going to get the most out of individuals, and if they didn’t perform they’d be jettisoned. Will Matheny get the most out of his individuals, and does he have that leadership La Russa exhibited so dramatically last season?

With health, strong use of the roster, and a solid bench, I say the Cardinals should win the N.L. Central. Let the games begin.