Spring Postcard: Core strength gives Cardinals edge in NL Central
Matt Holliday and Albert Pujols give the Cardinals a fearsome 1-2 punch
Cy Young contenders Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter anchor the rotation
Center fielder Colby Rasmus feels rested and healthy and has 20-20 potential
This spring, SI.com writers are filing postcards from all 30 major league spring training camps. To read all the postcards, click here.
1. This is the best team in the division
In the NL Central, there is St. Louis, and there is everyone else. The Cardinals have, according to a rival NL GM, baseball's "best core of four players" in Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, Chris Carpenter, and Adam Wainwright. St. Louis cemented itself as big favorites in the division with the signing of Holliday over the winter. Holliday was outstanding in his nine weeks as a Cardinal last summer, and St. Louis won 32 of his first 43 games in St. Louis, though a baseball executive says of Holliday's seven-year, $120 million contract, "They paid too much for him. He'll be worth $16 million this year but in the long run they'll regret it." Meanwhile, the oft-injured Carpenter is, as he always seems to be, the key to the Cardinals season. The good news: Carpenter has been extremely sharp in his last few tune-ups before the season. "He's getting somewhat overlooked with Halladay in the league now," says a scout. "But Carpenter is right there with him and Lincecum. And Wainwright really isn't far behind."
2. The bullpen could be a serious headache
The biggest question facing the Cardinals is whether closer Ryan Franklin can duplicate -- or even come close to duplicating -- his 2009 season. "The short answer," says the scout, "is, 'No.'" On the surface Franklin's breakout year (38 saves, 1.92 ERA, All-Star appearance) was spectacular for a guy who notched his first career save at age 34 and whose fastball averages 91 mph. But Franklin was far from dominant over the last month of the season (he blew four of his last five save chances) as he clearly tired down the stretch. Franklin says he ramped up his offseason workouts but he still is a huge question mark for St. Louis. Cardinals coaches hoped that one of their young power arms would emerge as a solid backup to their closer, but Jason Motte, Blake Hawksworth, and Mitchell Boggs all had rough springs.
3. Colby Rasmus is poised for a big season
Rasmus says he was drained -- physically and mentally -- during his rookie year (a hiatal hernia caused him to lose 25 pounds) and his numbers reflected it on the field: the 23-year-old center fielder hit .251 while posting a puny .307 on base percentage. "I was tired all the time," he says. "I wasn't eating. My body was struggling." Now Rasmus says he's refreshed and ready for big year: he's 15 pounds heavier and has clicked with new batting coach Mark McGwire. Baseball America's third-ranked prospect only a year ago, Rasmus has 20 home run-20 stolen base potential and should provide a huge boost to a lineup that has Pujols and Holliday but little else.
Not Done Yet
Pitching coach Dave Duncan can heal anyone. Next up: Penny. Part of Cardinals GM John Mozeliak's pitch to Penny to come to St. Louis was the chance to work with the pitching guru. The first day of spring training Duncan approached Penny and told him the benefits of adding a two-seam, sinking fastball. The pitch is now part of Penny's repertoire, and his command over his best pitch -- the split-finger -- has also improved.
Prospect Creating A Buzz
The Cardinals sent their 2009 first round pick back to minor league camp the last week of March, but St. Louis coaches were very impressed with the 19-year-old's high 90s fastball and sinker. Miller was regularly clocked at 99 mph during bullpen sessions. The right-hander, who signed the second-largest bonus in franchise history ($2.9 million, just shy of J.D. Drew's $3 million in 1998), found a mentor in Carpenter, as he shadowed the ace almost daily this spring. "He's exactly who I want to be," Miller says of the Cy Young winner. "There's nobody better for me to follow than him."
The Cardinals need one of their pitches behind Carpenter and Wainwright to do what Joel Pineiro (214 innings, 3.49 ERA) did last year. The Cardinals believe Lohse will be reemerge as that guy. A year ago he was slowed by knee and back pain, as well as a forearm injury that set him back for the last four months of the season. Now he's healthy and back to pitching the way he did when he was a 15-game winner for St. Louis in 2008.
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