|The return of Adam Wainwright (left) gives the Cardinals another ace to go with Chris Carpenter. (US Presswire)|
• You have to like a team with two aces, and the Cardinals are a rare teams to have a deuce. Chris Carpenter is one of the toughest, most clutch starters in baseball, and the returning Adam Wainwright is one of the most talented. Word is, Wainwright is healthy and on schedule to begin the year in the rotation after Tommy John surgery a year ago, and folks haven't forgotten he was a true ace before suffering his elbow injury last spring. Wainwright happens to be pretty clutch, too, as new teammate Carlos Beltran surely recalls (see 2006 NLCS). The rotation is pretty deep, too, with Jaime Garcia, Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook rounding it out, with the anxious Roy Oswalt possibly waiting in the wings to join them should they feel a need.
There's no replacing Albert Pujols, but the Cardinals did the next best thing Camp report >>
• Even without Albert Pujols in the middle of the order, the Cardinals still have one of the best lineups in the National League. Matt Holliday is a true $120-million talent, not the guy who had a bad wrist last October, and while Lance Berkman will have a tough time duplicating his splendid 2011 season, he's still one of the better hitters in the league. October hero David Freese is a coming star, Rafael Furcal will be there a full year and Allen Craig should get more at-bats (though he'll begin the year on the sidelines following winter knee surgery).
• The vibe is very positive. It's surely a bit gentler in that clubhouse without the all-business Albert around (or for that matter, without former manager Tony La Russa and former pitching coach Dave Duncan). Holliday and Berkman are warmer guys than Pujols, but they are also great competitors in their way. If they do need any extra toughness, Carpenter and newly-extended, tough-as-nails catcher Yadier Molina are there to provide it.
• Beyond the toughness, Molina is simply the most underrated player in the game (though he is no longer the underpaid, with that new $75-million, five-year contract). He is a superstar without the stats, making that pitching staff go and providing key hits when necessary.
• The departure of La Russa can't be seen as a positive in the same way a team doesn't learn more when the substitute teacher arrives. The man was always prepared and hardly ever erred (we still don't know exactly what happened in Game 5 of the World series, but that blip surely wasn't a highlight). The reviews new manager Mike Matheny are getting are all positive. But there's no way to think someone who just stepped in can replicate one of the greatest managers of all time. Matheny certainly seems like his own man, and he's doing the right thing by not even trying to be Tony II.
• The departure of Duncan also can't help. Duncan had a way of turning pitchers with mediocre track records into something way more than that (Lohse is one of countless examples), and it's impossible to think anyone else can have that same knack. New pitching coach Derek Lilliquist is well-regarded. But there's only one Dunc.
• The bullpen came together nicely last year but it's very young and inexperienced (other than that surprise postseason), so it's hard to know which way it will go. The 100-mph-throwing Jason Motte will try his hand back at closing again, with Fernando Salas, Marc Rzepczynski (Zep to his teammates), Kyle McClellan and Mitchell Boggs playing key roles again. There's a lot of strikeouts there, with Salas and Zep averaging at least one an inning and Motte coming close. And there's a lot of youth, with only the converted, late-blooming Motte close to 30. J.C. Romero is in to bring a second lefty and replace the veteran presence lost when Octavio Dotel bolted to the Tigers.
• There's a bit of age in the lineup with Furcal and Beltran (34) and Berkman (36). Furcal is coming off his worst offensive season (he hit .231 between Los Angeles and St. Louis) and Beltran was hurt the two years before his big comeback last season during in his walk year. Neither Furcal nor Beltran can run like they once did, but the Cardinals need them to hit like they can.