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A Look Ahead: Lineup Intrigue for 2012

We ended 2011 with a look back on the World Champion Cardinals (CLICK HERE to read that post). How ‘bout we kick off the new year with a look ahead at the possible make-up of your 2012 Redbirds!

Rookie manager Mike Matheny has a tall order in front of him – continue Cardinals greatness while leading a re-tooled, Pujols-less lineup into a new era of St. Louis baseball. The task was difficult enough as it was, but then Albert had to up and desert us over a few million bucks (okay…it was more than a “few” million…but still…). Now, things are a bit more complicated.

What was once a simple lineup construction strategy – insert Albert in the #3 hole, Holliday in the #4 hole, Berkman in the #5 hole, Freese in the #6 hole…fill in the rest of the holes…wash, rinse, repeat – is now a conundrum of possibilities. Does Lance hit third? Holliday? Is Freese ready for regular time in the 5 hole? Can Yadi stick in the 6 spot? Where in the world does Beltran hit?

Let’s start there. Below is a possible lineup configuration for Opening Day in Florida. Take a look as we unpack the latest and greatest Cardinals team.

1. Rafael Furcal – SS
While his postseason performance was less than inspiring, Furcal is still the best everyday option in the leadoff spot. A case can be made for Jon Jay to hit here against righties, but let’s consider the following: A) Jay has never really shown he can step up in the leadoff role. He’s been much better when simply allowed to get comfortable elsewhere and settle in. B) Jay is only a viable option against righties. Furcal offers the switch-hitting flexibility to solidify the top spot and provide needed stability in front of a run of All-Stars and MVPs. C) Furcal is not playing for a contract now. I hope that means he’ll stop swinging for power and just stroke the ball to all fields. When Furcal swings from his heels…it’s embarrassing.

2. Carlos Beltran – RF
Matheny has already hinted at Carlos in the two spot. As a student of TLR, Mike is naturally inclined to stick a good hitter with power ahead of his best hitter – especially a veteran All-Star who knows how to work an at-bat. And let’s face it…sticking Furcal and Beltran ahead of Holliday with Berkman behind him means the batting champion from Colorado is surrounded by switch-hitters. Talk about difficult to pitch to! An opposing pitching staff must navigate its way around two switch-hitting, MVP-caliber All-Stars to pitch to Matt Holliday. That’s just scary.

3. Matt Holliday – LF
Make no mistake…the departure of Albert Pujols makes Matt Holliday the best hitter on the team. He deserves the three spot. Berkman’s 2011 performance was inspiring, but let’s not anoint him the golden bat just yet. An expected drop-off for 2012 and his susceptibility to left-handed pitching makes Berkman the right man for the clean-up position…not the number three hole.

4. Lance Berkman – 1B
Aaahhh…that fits just right. Lance isn’t the sure-fire threat he once was, but he’s a helluva bat in the middle of the lineup. He fits comfortably into the four spot for many obvious reasons…but perhaps the most subtle is his OBP and ability to work an at-bat in front of emerging third baseman David Freese. Big Puma’s vulnerability to left-handed pitching is a liability in the three hole – necessitating a shift down a spot or two against southpaws – but his skills as a veteran switch-hitter are an asset in the clean-up spot. Not only does it make it more difficult to pitch around Holliday, but it should also allow David “Mr. RBI” Freese greater opportunities to drive in runs. As a number three hitter, Berkman would be a nomad, sliding up and down as the pitching matchup dictates, but as a clean-up hitter…he becomes a significant RBI threat and OBP asset on an everyday basis.

5. David Freese – 3B
With Berkman holding down the number four spot in the order with regularity, Freese is allowed to comfortably squat in the five spot and clean up the scraps. The fifth spot in the order – comfortably positioned behind four veteran All-Stars – offers The Iceman plenty of opportunity to contribute offensively without over-exposing the young, injury-prone World Series MVP (does it feel like I’m over-using hyphens today? I think I am…ah well). His opposite-field power and uncanny composure will complement the big guns nicely from the shotgun position in the lineup.

6. Yadier Molina – C
For my money, this is the big question mark in the order. Yadi is fresh off his best offensive season – albeit a down defensive year – and just so happens to be in the walk year of his contract the year after his good buddy (Albert “The Betrayer”) fled for LA. With AP out of the picture, more pressure will fall on Molina to establish himself as an offensive weapon. The question is, was 2011 a fluke? Or an indicator of things to come? On his side are his career numbers hitting sixth (BA .299 / OBP .353) versus seventh (BA .280 / OBP .339) in the order, but with Pujols gone, this team no longer has the offensive cushion it once enjoyed. If even one member of the two through five hitters is out for a significant period of time (without a fully healthy and effective Allen Craig), then Yadi gets pushed to the five hole. For his career, he’s a .242 hitter with an OBP of .298 in the fifth spot. That’s not good.

7. Jon Jay – CF
As long as no one is injured (and Craig isn’t playing), Jay in the seven spot is a no-brainer. But again, if a member of the big bopper parade goes down, Jay likely goes up. Because of Yadi’s noted struggles in the five spot, I have to believe Beltran would move down and open up the two hole for Jay. As long as he’s getting on base, that formula could work long enough to allow the injured hitter to return to the lineup.

8. Daniel Descalso – 2B
As much as I believe in Skip Schumaker, it appears the end of the Tony LaRussa era in St. Louis also ended Skip’s run at second base. Chatter coming out of the Busch Stadium offices indicates Daniel Descalso gets the upper hand in Spring Training. I don’t think I have a problem with the move – defensive range at second should improve noticeably – but I am concerned about Dirty Dan’s ability to offensively contribute every day. Does it matter much in the eighth spot? I guess we’ll find out. Maybe Double D’s defensive contributions will save enough runs to make the offensive drop palatable.

9. Chris Carpenter – P
This isn’t significant from an offensive standpoint, of course, but with the return of Adam Wainwright, many may raise a few eyebrows at my choice for Carpenter on Opening Day. I don’t care. Carp’s performance in the World Series and the rest of the postseason – as well as his career contributions to the Cardinals – more than earns him the spot of Staff Ace for a day. Plus, many managers are notorious for trying to restrict young pitchers returning from surgery. I have to believe Matheny is going to err on the side of caution with young Mr. Wainwright. The extra adrenaline of Opening Day after a Championship season may be a bit too much to lay on a surgically repaired elbow. Besides…Carp started and finished the 2011 season. Isn’t it appropriate for him to open the 2012 season as well?

Strengths of the 2012 Team

Flexibility:  With three switch-hitters, three right-handed hitters, and two left-handed hitters in the everyday lineup, the Cardinals could deploy a number of different looks against any matchup.

Chemistry:  A lot was made of the 2010 team’s lack of chemistry and the 2011 team’s abundance of the same…but when it comes right down to it, many don’t really know what kind of role it played in either team’s fate. But one thing is for sure…the 2012 Cardinals will have plenty of veteran leadership in Berkman, Holliday, Molina, Furcal, Beltran, and Carpenter. Motivation, perspective, and perseverance should not be a problem.

Bullpen:  Barring some sort of unforeseen trade, the bullpen depth is much improved since the start of last season. Guys like Motte, Sanchez, Salas, and Rzepcynski should solidify a young, nasty staff, and Kyle McClellan should be back to his typically effective self with a full Spring Training as a reliever under his belt. Throw in Lance Lynn and things are looking rather bright.

The Big Three:  The return of Adam Wainwright means the return of The Big Three at the top of the St. Louis rotation. Wainwright, Carpenter, and Garcia are once again free to terrorize a weakened NL Central, and Westbrook can settle in as a low pressure number five option. In 2011, Jake was asked to shoulder a number two or three spot in the absence of Adam Wainwright. The result was not pretty. This year, he gets to return to a more appropriate bottom of the rotation slot. The benefits should be immediate.

Weaknesses of the 2012 Team

Depth:  With Allen Craig injured, the St. Louis offense has little margin for error. Hell…even when he returns, how much can truly be expected of him with an overhauled knee in the outfield? Many have suggested he’ll spell Berkman at first base to ease the strain on his knee, but what about Lance’s own statements that the infield is actually more strenuous on achy knees than the outfield? For that matter, what about Berkman’s knees with a full season of first base? And have we already forgotten about Allen Craig’s infield hi-jinx in 2011? Eek.

Health:  The 2012 Cardinals are relying heavily on players who have missed significant time due to injuries in the last couple seasons. Furcal hasn’t been able to cobble together a complete season since 2009…and he only appeared in 36 games the year before that in ’08! Beltran isn’t much better. In 2008, he played in more games (161) than in 2009 (81) and 2010 (64) combined (145). Even 2011 was injury-shortened to only 142 games. David Freese’s ankle issues are well-documented, but even a strong performance from both legs couldn’t avoid a broken hand in 2011. And let’s not forget that Lance Berkman won the Comeback Player of the Year award for the National League for a reason. Add all that to Matt Holliday’s preference for quirky injuries, Adam Wainwright’s first year back from TJ surgery, and Allen Craig’s bionic knee…and suddenly Chris Carpenter’s 270+ innings in 2011 at 37 years old seems downright reliable.

Rotation Questions:  If Carp can hold up, Wainwright can return to form, and Garcia can settle down…the STL Big Three has a shot to be something special. But more than likely, at least two of those will not happen consistently. In that case, the success of the 2012 starting rotation falls to Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook. Lohse can be “good enough,” but Jake is a roll of the dice. No one knows which Westbrook will show up. Yes, Lance Lynn can reinforce the starting five…but won’t he be entrenched in the bullpen next season? If not, how much worse is the ‘pen with Mitchell Boggs holding down a critical role? Uncertainty abounds.

Wrap-Up!

That’ll do it for this peek at the future. I hate to end it with a gloomy list of concerns, so let’s just end it with this:

No matter what happens, one thing is for sure. The St. Louis Cardinals are the reigning World Series Champions during the entire 2012 season!!!

GO CARDS!!!

P.S. Think about this…if Craig comes back healthy and effective, and Beltran can play CF reliably…how crazy does this lineup look:  1. Furcal SS  2. Beltran CF  3. Holliday LF  4. Berkman 1B  5. Craig RF  6. Freese 3B  7. Molina C  8. Descalso 2B  9. Pitcher………..eek.

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