Deep, talented Cardinals ready to rock
Few weaknesses hinder La Russa's battle-tested squad
ST. LOUIS -- Neither the complete, dominant team that sailed into October in 2004 and 2005, nor the puncher's-chance underdog that limped into the playoffs in 2006, this year's National League Central champs are a curious bunch.
On paper, they look as deep and as formidable as any team in the league: dominant front of the rotation, solid back of the starting staff, quality bullpen, deep lineup, dependable defense. There's a lot to like here. But over the season's last few weeks, they slipped a bit, raising concerns, especially about the offense. If this team plays as well as it can -- as well as it did over a 33-11 stretch in mid-to-late summer -- it can and should beat anyone. If it plays like it did at times in late September, October could be brief.
Overall, though, the good outweighs the bad, and by quite a lot. Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright represent a 1-2 punch unmatched by any other postseason team in either league. Albert Pujols is the game's best player, and it's a short list of teams that have a better second-best hitter than Matt Holliday. The Cards play much improved defense compared to earlier in the season, and the closer has been solid.
Midseason additions, including Holliday, made the Cardinals much more formidable. Julio Lugo, Mark DeRosa and John Smoltz were all added midstream, and all have worked out well.
"Before, we were a pretty good club that was really gutsy," manager Tony La Russa said. "Now I think we're a good club that's got great guts."
Maybe best of all, they're healthy. Health has been a critical issue on both the plus and minus sides for recent Cardinals playoff teams. The 2004 team had to do without Carpenter. The '05 team didn't have Scott Rolen. The '06 team, though, despite 78 regular-season losses, got healthy at just the right time and rode that advantage all the way through the Fall Classic.
This year's nicks are minor. Yadier Molina has dealt with a sore knee but should be fine. DeRosa's wrist isn't 100 percent, and it may be affecting his offense, but he can play. The pitching staff, though, is healthy -- starting with Carpenter.
If there are issues to worry about, they are on the lineup and perhaps in the bullpen. The offense, which looks like it should be as dangerous and deep as any in the league, has sputtered to score runs in September. But the bats are there: table-setters like Skip Schumaker and Lugo, thumpers like Pujols and Holliday, complementary pieces like DeRosa and Molina.
This team should hit. It just hasn't always. Holliday was torrid when he first arrived, but Pujols wasn't raking up to his standards. Then Pujols got hot, and Holliday slowed a bit. Colby Rasmus and Ryan Ludwick have each had their spells. But it's been a while since all the pieces of the St. Louis offense roared to life as one. But it starts with Pujols, and he's going well despite a late-season home run drought.
"I'm seeing the ball good and driving the ball," he said. "I feel great. Driving the ball back through the middle, balls to the gap. I'm driving some runs in, so you can't complain about it."
As for the bullpen, that worry seems to have subsided. Closer Ryan Franklin has shown encouraging signs after a slide, and he's also gotten plenty of rest lately. Right-handers Kyle McClellan, Jason Motte and Blake Hawksworth have pitched well in front of Franklin. And the left side has been solid all year long. There are no guarantees, but for now the relief corps looks fine.
The rotation, meanwhile, has been the guts of the team all year long. Carpenter has been brilliant. Wainwright has been a rock since Day 1. Joel Pineiro provides a fine No. 3, and the Cards have two intriguing options for the fourth spot in Kyle Lohse and Smoltz. It's the rotation that has given the team its identity, and it's the rotation that will carry them if they go deep into the postseason.
Carpenter gets the first chance to make that happen, starting Wednesday.
"We've got a long way to go," he said. "We've got a great team. We've got a chance to do special things, and my season's not over yet."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.