St. Louis Cardinals 2011 Season Preview

Leading up to the start of the 2011 Regular Season, Diamond Hoggers will preview each of MLB’s 30 teams . Today’s preview features the St. Louis Cardinals. Stay tuned as Diamond Hoggers previews every team division by division until the start of the regular season.

Over the course of a lifetime, a baseball fan might get a look at a half-dozen generational talents. That’s if they’re lucky. There might be one or two more or less give or take, but over the course of a full lifespan there aren’t too many players who you just know when you see them that it’s something so legendary that it couldn’t be scripted better in a storybook.

Albert Pujols is one of those guys. Griffey Jr. was one of those guys. Alex Rodriguez has been removed from my list. I don’t know if you can add in guys like Mike Schmidt, or Eddie Murray. Guys will plot the chart along the way who give a glimpse, but in terms of true legends that have a chance to go down in the history of one of the greatest of all-time; it just doesn’t happen often.

Pujols was supposed to be a Cardinal forever. In the sea of Red he would appear every summer from the time he burst on the scene with one of the most prolific rookie seasons in the history of the game until the time when he was around forty years of age; a pile of championship rings in full tow.

It’s frustrating to know that this was all that the Cardinals could muster in the Pujols era. This was really all they could get? One world title. Two World Series appearances. He’s played in 56 career postseason games wearing that Red. As great as he is, as perfect as the numbers worked out over the course of a decade; that’s all it really amounted to.

The final season of Pujols in St. Louis might be upon us all. We’ve predicted all along that he’ll remain in St. Louis, and we stand by that. But with every passing moment it looks a little bit less likely. And no matter what Cardinal fans tell you the doubt is in the back of their minds, creeping in with each spring and summer day that goes by. Imagine being a Cardinals fan right now with the reverse succession of games counting down in your head. “147 games left of Albert Pujols…. 146 games left of Albert Pujols….” and so on.

Would he really leave St. Louis?

He’s never appeared as a guy who would want to wear another uniform, or break the bank so badly that a contending team wouldn’t be able to be built around him. That’s why this makes no sense. Pujols has never came out and said he needs $300 million dollars but that was the report that was floated and it’s probably accurate. That said, we imagine that what is taking place is similar to what happened when Jim Thome left Cleveland for Philadelphia a few years back. He didn’t want to leave, but the Player’s Association was putting so much pressure on him to take the biggest contract he could get that he felt that he had to take it to do what was right for his peers and for the sport. They were talking about building statues outside of Jacobs Field in Cleveland if Thome would have stayed. The heartbreak was monumental–and if Pujols walks out of St. Louis it would be about as bad for that city as the Arch crumbling on a sunny day or LeBron James taking his talents to South Beach.

In the end, we think that he takes less than it was reported and settles for conceivably less than he could get on the open market to stay in St. Louis, and the storybook continues to be written in this quaint little baseball mecca in the Midwest. But before that happens, you will see Albert Pujols’s magnum opus. He will be in his element, taking no prisoners in 2011. A career year will be painted like a beautiful Picasso by the man who uses an AP5 Maple bat as his paint brush. This will be the year he tops 50 home runs, drives in 130, hits .340 with over 200 hits. This should be the season in which you see all of his greatest numbers from every category combined for a season of the ages. His prolonged slumps will be no longer than a short series, and his hot streaks should go on for weeks. Albert Pujols is about to show the world why he’s still baseball’s best player.

And soon enough, we think Cardinals fans everywhere will be able to finally exhale.

The team around Pujols

The Cardinals have been able to have ‘the big 3′ behind Pujols the past few seasons. And there aren’t many teams who can be as dominant with their top four players as the Cards’ Chris Carpenter, Matt Holliday, and Adam Wainwright. But the Cardinals received a damaging blow when news broke that Wainwright would have Tommy John surgery and that he would miss the upcoming season.

When I look at other building blocks in this organization, guys like Colby Rasmus and David Freese are guys that I look at in terms of being able to take that torch from Pujols down the road. Rasmus needs to grow up and mature, and Freese just needs to stay healthy. I’ve seen a lot of big time third baseman watching baseball, and I’m telling your right now that this Freese is a ballplayer. His backside power and natural tendencies as a hitter will make him dangerous in the middle of the order for years to come.

Yadier Molina is a gold glove backstop, and the stage is not ever too bright for him. He’s a guy who can hurt you in big spots, he’s a tougher out hitting in the clutch than most give him credit for.

While the Cardinals don’t have an abundance of headliners at their core, it’s a solid enough group that you can win with them. And if they just buy into Tony La Russa’s grinding style, they’ll be a tough out in 2011 as a team. Whether Pujols stays or not, the Cardinals will always be at least competitive with this core.

The Cardinals Character

Anyone who has watched baseball at any length should know that Tony La Russa is quirky. He’ll do weird shit, just because. He strikes me as a guy who would mix mint chocolate chip yogurt along with pralines and cream, because he wanted to see what color it would end up making.

He’ll trot out John Jay at first base to give an off-day to Pujols. He’ll double switch pitchers to hit for themselves. He will absolutely love the 16-inning game that depletes the bullpen so he can see what Allen Craig has got on the mound. He lives for that stuff.

It’s true, La Russa is a great manager. He’s a consistent winner. But I also think he out manages himself at times. In the process of being unpredictable to manage and play against, sometimes the simpler solution would do fine. It’s Tony’s Achilles heel and possibly also his greatest strength. And he’s going to ride with it until it flames out. He also whips his horses hard. Somehow, he gets veterans to play every single day in the heat of a playoff chase. You look at the back of their baseball card at the end of the season and they give La Russa 158, 160 games somehow coming off an injury the year before. He rides guys until they drop. Again, strength mixed with weakness. The Cards flamed out last year because they were just dry-mouthed in the heat of a pennant race.

You can count on them finding a few reclamation projects over the course of the year who will surprise all of baseball. But you can also count on them using guys in the wrong spots and giving too many at-bats to a role player or two. It’s an odd way to go about things. But this is the Cardinal way under TLR.

You can’t count them out

A lot of people in the NL Central are now calling for this to be a 2-horse race with the loss of Wainwright. I don’t see it that way at all. The Cardinals will find a suitable replacement in the rotation for Waino to take the ball, and it will be someone who does a solid job and acclimates himself well for being a newcomer as Jaime Garcia did last season going 13-8 with a 2.70 ERA.

They’re still going to figure in the NL Central race and Wildcard even if they don’t win either. They’re not going to lose to as many bad teams as they did last year, just maybe more a few who are better. But it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if the Cardinals are still unspoken for come late-August.

The Final Verdict

Last year they won 86 games and dropped 76, and they were a decent ballclub. We’ve got them at about 88 wins this year. They’re going to be in the mix, but will ultimately fall short in the NL Central and will make the looming Pujols contract extension a big question mark heading into one of the most interesting November and December free agencies ever.

Cardinal fans should keep their eye on guys like Freese, Rasmus and young pitchers like Shelby Miller and Carlos Martinez. These guys are the future of your franchise. And depending on what happens over the next 8 months, it might be time to start uttering the words that every fan hates to hear. Rebuild.