Let’s do some time traveling this week. We won’t go back that far, just 11 months. The setting is the St. Louis Cardinals’ clubhouse at Busch Stadium, only minutes after the 2011 World Series champions have completed their parade down Market Street. The fans are still cheering, the trophy is stilly shiny (if damp from champagne), and the players are smiling ear to ear.
Until we show up with our crystal ball.
Asking every player and coach to take a seat, we show off said ball (also shiny), and announce a few forecasts for the champs’ title defense:
• Not only will you lose Hall of Fame-bound manager Tony LaRussa (the longtime Cardinal skipper looks sheepishly at the floor, but doesn’t protest), but Albert Pujols will be playing in the American League next season.
• Chris Carpenter — the team’s horse throughout the championship drive — will pitch his first game of 2012 on September 21st.
• Lance Berkman — 31 homers and a Series-saving hit in Game 6 — will get a total of 96 plate appearances in 2012. He will drive in seven runs.
• The Cardinals’ starting shortstop in September will be Pete Kozma, a man who won’t even hold down the everyday shortstop job at Triple-A Memphis.
• The Cardinals’ second ace, Adam Wainwright, will lose (at least) 13 games.
Hey ... pass that champagne bottle!
Among the true joys of following baseball — as it’s played daily over six months — is just how unpredictable every season is. Last spring, if you had the Baltimore Orioles and Oakland A’s in the American League playoff picture — ahead of the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Angels — you’re riding shotgun on my next Vegas road trip. The game surprises, one year after another.
For the 2012 St. Louis Cardinals, the surprises weren’t all of the doom-and-gloom variety. Let’s consider a few more images from that crystal ball:
• Kyle Lohse — poster boy for a rotation’s third pitcher — will win 16 games and post a 2.86 ERA. (This was Lohse’s contract year, so maybe this was in fact predictable.)
• Lance Lynn — the face of middle relief for the 2011 champs — will step into the rotation and win 18 games himself.
• While Pujols hits .288 and delivers 30 home runs and 104 RBIs (through Sunday) for the Angels, his replacement at first base in St. Louis — Allen Craig — will bat .310 with 22 dingers and 91 RBIs. Craig will have 151 fewer plate appearances. (Two more figures to compare: Pujols was paid $12 million this season, Craig $495,000.)
• Joining Craig in the 20-homer club will be old standbys Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran, but also David Freese and Yadier Molina, giving the Cardinals their first team with five such sluggers.
• Jason Motte, the Cardinals’ set-up man as recently as August 2011, will become the fourth Cardinal to save 40 games.
The regular season comes to a close Wednesday, and baseball’s first winner-advances/loser-golfs wildcard game will be played Friday in Atlanta. The Cardinals have a two-game lead on the L.A. Dodgers for the second wild card slot (with three games to play). A Cardinals-Braves tilt would have some carry-over drama from 2011, as the defending champions would face the team whose collapse was essential for them to even qualify for postseason play.
The most compelling angle from the Cardinal side of things will be manager Mike Matheny’s choice for starting pitcher. The rookie manager is armed with two certifiable aces (Wainwright and Carpenter), but must weigh the strengths of Lohse, whose performance over the last six months trumps that of any of his teammates, including the two former World Series heroes. Do Lohse’s numbers this year outweigh his career playoff mark (0-4, 5.54 ERA)? Do Wainwright’s recent struggles cost him the start? Can you possibly send Carpenter to the hill with only two or three starts under his belt?
Those with memories of Carpenter’s epic complete game last year in Philadelphia (to clinch the Division Series) will want to see him on the hill in Atlanta this Friday. And they’ll be thinking with their hearts. Start Lohse ... but with a short leash.