I feel like I’m knocking on heaven’s door: If the Cardinals had been desperate enough last year, pitcher Shelby Miller could have performed adequately. Of course, the Cards did pretty well without Miller — Edwin Jackson sufficed — and now the count calls for restraint. Miller is good enough — a first-round draft pick, 312 strikeouts in 247 innings, a 2.70 ERA in half a season at AA — but might not yet be disciplined enough. The Cardinals suspended him for what was reportedly an alcohol offense last August when Miller was only 20, and we’ll see, now that he’s of age, if his control off the field improves as it has on it. If so, he’s going to look more like a major leaguer every fifth day, or whenever Jake Westbrook starts.
What is this man doing here? The Cardinals’ opening-day bullpen last spring included Ryan Franklin, Trever Miller, Miguel Batista, Brian Tallet, Bryan Augenstein . . . need we go on? That’s a group non-roster invitee Scott Linebrink would fit right in with — Linebrink has thrown 34 home runs in his last 213 innings and given up 187 hits in his last 167. The Cardinals would be the sixth National League team Linebrink has played for, if he makes the team. If he does, Cards’ fans know not to panic. It’s not the bullpen you start the season with that counts, but the one you end it with.
What he said: Cards GM John Mozeliak on new manager Mike Matheny. “Ever since I knew him in his playing days, I always knew him as someone who would potentially evolve into some sort of leadership role in baseball.” What he meant: “You think he lasted as long as he did as a player because of his bat?”
Outlook: It might be fashionable to dismiss the Cardinals for a.) losing Albert Pujols to free agency, and b.) the team they’ll put on the field without him. Don’t.
First, the Cardinals got 11 seasons from the best hitter of the last decade. Arthur Miller may have only been married to Marilyn Monroe for not quite five years, but we’re willing to bet those were some of the best years of his life. The Cardinals got the best years of Pujols’ career — when he goes into the Hall, it will undoubtedly be as a Cardinal — and they won two World Series.
Second, there’s enough reason to think the Cardinals made a rational decision. Pujols is already 32 and his 2011 OPS was .205 points less than his 2010 OPS, and .131 points below his career. Still good, but $24 million a year good? Hardly.
Of course, there’s nothing like winning a World Series to soothe an angry portion of the fan base. The Cardinals won’t be returning to the days of Ken Reitz (for the record, Reitz was a 1970’s third baseman on some mediocre teams who was Mr. April. His first-month OPS of .775 was .126 points higher than his .649 career mark).
The Cardinals still have that great bullpen, they return Adam Wainwright (one of the NL’s best pitchers in 2009-10, when he won 39 games and pitched 463.1 innings), they get a full season of shortstop Rafael Furcal and they add Carlos Beltran (we’ll talk more about Beltran, but we’re afraid he’ll pull a muscle if we do so too soon).
That’s good enough to contend in the NL Central, although the Cards should expect some dropoff from Lance Berkman (.959 OPS at age 35) and catcher Yadier Molina (career-high 14 homers, .305 average and 65 RBIs).
Two take signs, though. The Cardinals need a good year from Beltran, and he’s a natural risk factor. The world is full of gamblers who try to explain to their bookies that they can’t pay because they were depending on Beltran’s health.
And the Cards will be without pitching coach Dave Duncan, who left to be with his wife, who is battling brain cancer. No matter what ingredients Duncan was supplied, he always managed to stir an edible stew of a pitching staff; there’s no better or more immediate example than last year. He’ll be missed.
Team song: St. Louis Blues by Louis Armstrong, with Velma Middleton. (Suggested subtitle: Summers without Albert)