At the end of Friday’s column on the Cubs, I tacked on a line about how the team wasn’t clearly better than the Astros and Cardinals. No one questioned the inclusion of the Astros, with their revamped rotation, in that sentence, but I got a few questions about the Cardinals.

I’ll admit that the I didn’t think too carefully about them while writing the column; over the past half-decade, I’ve just gotten used to considering the Houston and St. Louis ballclubs as the teams to beat in the NL Central, and it seemed natural that the trend would continue.

Are the Cards really deserving of comparison to the Cubs? Or is the Central down to two reasonable contenders?

Same as we’ve done with a number of other teams this month, let’s take a look at the performances that PECOTA projects for the Cardinals:

                         2004 PECOTA
                   AB   AVG  OBP  SLG  VORP
Marlon Anderson   399  .267 .320 .377  13.8
Edgar Renteria    531  .297 .360 .432  41.1
Albert Pujols     572  .324 .413 .591  75.0
Jim Edmonds       362  .275 .380 .524  34.0
Scott Rolen       528  .281 .373 .507  54.7
Reggie Sanders    382  .266 .335 .484  16.5
Mike Matheny      258  .245 .314 .344   0.9
Kerry Robinson    143  .262 .304 .347  -1.4

Bo Hart           370  .253 .310 .418   9.6
Steve Cox         233  .240 .323 .387   1.7
John Gall         231  .256 .315 .376   9.0
So Taguchi        111  .243 .305 .341  -2.2
Chris Widger      150  .231 .307 .356   0.4
Ray Lankford      172  .235 .345 .394   3.8

This looks a lot like last year’s team. In 2003 the Cards had four of the top 10 or so players in the National League in Albert Pujols, Edgar Renteria, Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds. Those four weren’t enough, however, to overcome the rest of the team.

Big four	  272.7
Everyone else	  178.8

That structure–four or five stars carrying a roster–reminds me of the Seattle Mariners in the last days of the Kingdome. They had Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez and Edgar Martinez and Randy Johnson and Jay Buhner and…Dan Wilson? Russ Davis? Bobby Ayala? That team seemed like it should have been more successful, but the inability to surround a championship core with quality players kept it from making an extended run.

There are some decisions Tony La Russa can make to improve the situation, but not many. Right now, it appears that Pujols is going to take his $100 million and play first base full time, leaving left field to be filled by an assortment of candidates, quite possibly including Tito Landrum and Steve Braun. Shifting Pujols to left field would free up first base, but it’s not like a Steve Cox/John Gall platoon is going to change the world. Travis Lee is still a free agent, and would not only be an offensive upgrade, but complete the Cardinals’ superior defense. Adding him could be worth a win or two as compared to the available options.

At second base, La Russa has two mediocre choices. With Marlon Anderson in the fold, he can create a platoon that will at least keep Bo Hart out of the lineup against right-handers. Anderson doesn’t have a history of big platoon splits, but Hart does; he simply shouldn’t play against northsiders.

The Cards are going to have to put a strong defense on the field, because their pitching staff isn’t expected to strike out a lot of batters. They were 12th in the NL in strikeouts last year, and adding Jeff Suppan, Jason Marquis and Julian Tavarez shouldn’t change that ranking much.

The rotation, with Suppan and Marquis, should be more stable than it has been the past couple of seasons. Suppan won’t change the quality much–he’s an innings guy who’s a great bet for an ERA in the 4.00s–but Marquis, acquired in the J.D. Drew trade, could be a big upgrade. He fell out of favor in Atlanta, but still has very good stuff and is just 25 years old. Without much statistical backing–PECOTA pegs him at 4.37 ERA in 101 innings–I think he’s going to have a big season, becoming the best Braves’ starter to get away since Jason Schmidt.

After a season in which they blew a ton of late leads, the Cardinals tried to address their bullpen failings over the winter. They signed Tavarez and picked up Ray King in the Drew trade, neither of whom has a track record of consistent success.

The biggest thing the Cardinals need from the bullpen is better health; in ’03, the two best strikeout pitchers on the staff were Jason Isringhausen and Kiko Calero. Injuries–Izzy’s labrum, Calero’s knee–held them to 80 1/3 innings, but in that time they struck out 92 batters and posted an ERA of 2.55. If they can combine for 150 innings in ’04, that will make a big difference. A back of the bullpen that consists of King, Calero and Isringhausen compares nicely to what the Cubs and Astros will be running out there. How many high-leverage innings the Cards can shift from the Fasseros and Simontacchis who pitched them last year to Calero and Isringhausen is going to be a huge factor in determining how the team’s season goes.

While the Cardinals don’t match up with the Cubs and Astros in the starting rotation, they do feature a lineup core that is vastly superior to those two teams. They have competitive starting pitching that lacks upside, the best defense of the three teams, and what should be an improved bullpen. While they haven’t had the sexy offseason that the other two teams have, I don’t think that’s enough to consider them outsiders in this division. They still belong in the discussion.

Tomorrow, I’ll run through this for the Astros, and reach a conclusion about which of these three teams is the favorite in the Central.

Thank you for reading

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