No team seems to have an easier path to a division title than the Cardinals in the National League Central. PECOTA projects them to finish nine games ahead of the second-place Cubs, which would be easily the largest margin in any of the major leagues' six divisions.
However, Tony La Russa is not setting up his starting rotation for the playoffs yet. As he gets ready to begin his 32nd season as a major-league manager today as the Cardinals play the Reds at the Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati, he is fully award divisions titles are not won before the year's first pitch.
"I like my club a lot, don’t get me wrong," La Russa said. "But a lot of things can happen. It's good that people think we're the favorite but you can't get caught up in that kind of stuff."
The Cardinals may not have the most-talented roster from top to bottom in the major leagues. However, their concentration of superstars is as strong as any team's with first baseman Albert Pujols, left fielder Matt Holliday and right-handers Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright. PECOTA projects that foursome to account for 210 points of VORP, or 21 victories.
Pujols is pegged for 74.4 VORP with slash stats of .322/.429/.572 and 35 home runs. That would be nothing but a routine season for Pujols, who has been so consistent through the first nine seasons of his career that he is almost taken for granted.
"After a while, you kind of get used to Albert doing things that no one else can do," Wainwright said. "Nothing surprises you. But then you realize how often he's been pitched around and how few hittable pitches he's gotten the last few years, and his production has been really remarkable."
The addition of Holliday in a trade from the Athletics last July gave the Cardinals an accomplished hitter to pair with Pujols in the middle of the batting order. Thus, the Cardinals anted up $120 million for eight years to re-sign Holliday as a free agent in the offseason. PECOTA projects him for .294/.380/.481 with 23 homers.
"Matt is a great hitter but the biggest thing he does for us is that he allows Albert to participate again," La Russa said. "The other team can't continually pitch around Albert anymore. At some point in the game, they have to pitch to Albert because Matt is eventually going to hurt them."
Meanwhile, the Cardinals will count on Carpenter and Wainwright to carry a strong starting rotation. PECOTA projects Carpenter to go 13-7 with a 3.11 ERA in 178 innings and Wainwright for a 14-9 record and 3.35 ERA in 207 innings.
PECOTA also expects solid seasons from the rest of the rotation, with projections of 10-9, 3.88 in 178 innings for Kyle Lohse, 9-8, 3.87 in 159 innings for rookie left-hander Jaime Garcia and 9-9, 4.05 in 167 innings for Brad Penny.
"It seems like everyone focuses on Carp and myself but we have a very good and deep pitching staff," Wainwright said. "You need more than two pitchers to win and we have enough depth that I feel we have a very legitimate chance to win our division again."
If nothing else, the Cardinals have motivation to repeat as division champs just to get another shot at the postseason. The Cardinals were swept in three games by the Dodgers in the National League Division Series last season.
"That was really tough," Wainwright said. "We had such a good season and then it all ended so suddenly. It left a bad taste in all of our mouths and we haven't forgotten it."
It has been speculated that the only thing that might bring the Cardinals down this season is if first-year hitting coach Mark McGwire becomes a distraction. However, La Russa scoffs at the notion that the former slugger will overshadow the team in the wake of his admission during the offseason that he used steroids during his record-setting career.
"I'll take on that challenge any day of the week," La Russa said. "For me, the only question about Mark is if he is the right hitting coach for our team and there is no doubt in my mind that our guys are learning a lot from him and will benefit from having them as their hitting coach."
The Cubs open their season this afternoon against the Braves at Turner Field in Atlanta. However, Tom Ricketts says he will not truly feel like he is the new principal owner of the Cubs until they play their home opener next Monday against the Brewers at Wrigley Field.
"I just want to fast-forward to that day," Ricketts told the Chicago Tribune's Paul Sullivan. "I'm so excited for that day."
Ricketts has been very visible in his short time as the Cubs' owner. That is certainly something different for a franchise that had corporate ownership the previous 29 seasons with the Tribune Co. In fact, the last Cubs' owner who could be considered a public figure was P.K. "Phil" Wrigley, who ceded control of the franchise to his son Bill in the 1970s.
Ricketts has made a good early impression on the Cubs' players. They like the idea of getting to know the new chief on a first-name basis.
"I just think the general excitement from your boss and him wanting a first-class organization is nice," pitcher Ryan Dempster said. "That's the biggest difference. I’m not saying Tribune Co. didn't before but you didn’t know who they were. In turn, he's expecting the best of us as players and that's an important thing to have someone who is going to hold you accountable."
This season, Burnett plans to use his changeup more. He threw the pitch just 5.7 percent of the time last season according to Fangraphs.com.
Even though he has 100 wins in 11 seasons, including 14 for the Yankees last season, Burnett made working on the changeup his main point of emphasis in spring training. He says he will mix more changeups in during the regular season, including Tuesday night when he makes his first start of the season against the Red Sox in Boston.
"I really haven't had the kind of success in my career that I think I should have," Burnett said. "I need another pitch. I can't expect to just go out and try to blow hitters away with my fastball and curveball. I need a changeup. There aren't many successful starting pitchers who don't have one. It's a pitch I need and I feel like it came a long way during the spring."
Burnett may be on to something, too, when he says he is capable of more success. Though he was 13-9 last season in the first year of a five-year, $82.5-million contract he signed as a free agent the previous winter, his .530 SNWP ranked just 75th among major-league pitchers.
Three series to watch (all times Eastern):
Mariners at Athletics, Monday-Thursday, April 5-8
Yankees at Red Sox, Tuesday and Wednesday, April 6-7