This is the 5th in an ongoing series previewing the 6 teams in the National League Central.
1) How much will age impact the team?
It’s no secret that the core of the St. Louis roster has gotten a little long in the tooth. Many of their best players, including Chris Carpenter (37), Lance Berkman (36), Carlos Beltran (35), Rafael Furcal (34), and Matt Holliday (32) are well past their age-30 seasons and either in career decline or quickly approaching it. That’s not to say they aren’t talented or capable of producing at high levels, because they are and most have recent histories of still good production. It’s just that when any player ages, it brings along added risk of injury and general decline. Carpenter is already on the disabled list to start the season, and it’s hard to imagine a scenario where he’s the only key veteran on the roster to miss some time. Even if collectively they are able to maintain a reasonable level of health, it’s quite possible that their combined performance won’t live up to expectations simply due to aging. In the end, if they all perform reasonably well, there is no reason they can’t make up for the departure of Albert Pujols and maybe then some, but they still have to get on the field and do it and they’re not off to a great start in that department.
2) Will Adam Wainwright return to his previous ace level performance?
It’s easy for fans to take for granted that players will perform up to their previous levels after having elbow ligament replacement (or Tommy John) surgery these days because of the impressive record of success of the procedure, but it’s not nearly that simple in reality. First off, while the success rate is high, it’s not perfect. There are also players that end up having to undergo the procedure again because they never fixed the mechanical issue that caused the problem in the first place. Finally, even though the recovery time is now down to 9-12 months, it still often takes pitchers longer to regain their velocity and command. With Carpenter already on the disabled list, it’s that much more important for the Cardinals that Wainwright performs at a high level. If he’s unable to do so or suffers a setback in health, the Cards rotation could have trouble keeping the team in games. Until we see him a few times in real game action, it’s hard to say one way or another just what the team might get out of him.
3) How will the team respond to the changes in the clubhouse hierarchy?
Understanding and managing the dynamics of a major league clubhouse is a tricky thing even for people who spend every day living it. It’s part of why not every tactically qualified managerial candidate proves successful. Therefore, it’s hard to say just how important former manager Tony LaRussa and star Albert Pujols were in maintaining the atmosphere that kept the club competitive over most of the last decade. Just because we can’t measure it, doesn’t mean it’s not a potential problem, though. The Cards have entrusted the highly regarded Mike Matheny with keeping the train on the tracks, but he has zero managerial experience at any level. Beyond him, how will the rest of the team respond in Pujols’ absence? He was such a presence both in the lineup and as a personality, it will be interesting to see what happens now that he’s not there. The old power structure generally maintained an “us against the world” mentality that kept the team pulling in at least mostly in the same direction, young center fielders aside. Will the new regime be able to do that, or at least find something else that can work? If they can’t, it could keep the talent from shining through and push the team down in the standings.