The St. Louis Cardinals had a nice season last year. They came in with expectations of finishing with a sub .500 record, yet the Cards battled for the division the entire year. They finished 86-76, only 4 games behind the Brewers for the Wild Card. They were able to be so competitive because of many unexpected heroes. Just look at their outfield. Ryan Ludwick came out of nowhere to put up fantastic numbers. Albert Pujols finally started to get some protection. Rick Ankiel also had a very good year with the bat. All together, they were a good offensive unit with a lot of thump in it.
Despite many injuries to their starting staff, the rotation was O.K. Adam Wainwright had a very good year and pitched like an ace. Unfortunately, he was limited to only 132 innings because of injury. If he can stay healthy, the Cardinals will have a legitimate #1 sitting atop their rotation. After him, there are some question marks. Kyle Lohse had a career year for the Cards after signing for only 4.25 million the year before. Lohse pitched fantastic and so he got a huge 4 year contract just days after the season ended. Todd Wellemeyer also compiled a nice ERA and had a very good season. After you get past that trio, things get a little shaky. Joel Pineiro had a very poor showing in 2008, Chris Carpenter might not be healthy to start off the season, and there is a total lack of depth. This rotation 1-3 is solid, but once you get past them, there are a lot of question marks.
The bullpen is not very good at all. They have only one sure thing: Ryan Franklin. He is a solid relief pitcher, but I would prefer him in a set-up role instead of the closer. If they decide to go that route the closer’s job would probably belong to Chris Perez. This guy was a very good prospect, and definitely their closer of the future, but will he be able to realize his potential in his first full season at the big league level? If not, then manager Tony LaRussa will have to get creative with his ‘pen.
So, this Cardinal team has some good pieces. The middle of the lineup and the top 3 in the rotation are very good. The big problem with the Cards will be once the starter leaves the game. Will they be able to hold onto leads? Will Chris Perez excel in the closer’s role? Will Chris Carpenter regain his 2005-2006 form? How will the 4th and 5th starters perform? If these questions are answered positively, the Cardinals will be in the thick of the Wild Card race once again. They might even contend with the Cubs for the division. It’s tough to count out a team that has Albert Pujols on it.
The Florida Marlins were big overachievers in 2008. They came into the season without, face-of-the-franchise slugger, Miguel Cabrera because they traded him along with pitcher Dontrelle Willis to the Detroit Tigers for a bevy of young prospects. No one had any expectations, and most thought that they would finish fourth in their division, best-case-scenario. The Fish shocked all of their doubters, though, when they went on to post a record of 84-77, missing the post-season by only 5.5 games.
They were able to last so long because a lot of their young players took big steps forward. Coming into the season you would have thought that the Marlins were terrible at the infield corners. But, first and third baseman Mike Jacobs and Jorge Cantu stepped up big time while batting in the heart of the Marlins lineup. Hanley Ramirez and Dan Uggla were All-Stars once again, as the infield kept the offense alive. The outfield was pretty thin; Cody Ross performed the best of them all. Starting pitcher Ricky Nolasco had a break-out season, and young guns Josh Johnson and Chris Volstad also helped the pitching staff out a lot when they returned from injury and got called up from the minor leagues. Scott Olson was decent in the 4th slot. The bullpen had a few nice pieces, including Matt Lindstorm, Kevin Gregg, and others. It was a good team, just not good enough to capture the division.
The Marlins didn’t do much to add to their team in the offseason, but they did open up some spots for young players in their trades. The Fish worked quickly, among the first offseason trades were Mike Jacobs, Josh Willingham, Scott Olson, and Kevin Gregg. Replacing the three departed players will be youngsters Cameron Maybin, Andrew Miller, Gaby Sanchez and Matt Lindstorm. There could definitely be some addition by subtraction here. Maybin could easily outperform Willingham, Miller should hopefully be just as good as Olson was, and Sanchez adds a nice bat. Even if he’s not as good as Jacobs, it’s still a good trade because they brought in some much-needed bullpen help in Leo Nunez. Emilio Bonifacio adds some depth to the club. If Gaby Sanchez needs to be bumped from the lineup, they could always move Cantu to first base, Uggla to third, and then play Bonifacio at second. It hurts to lose Gregg because he could have been a solid middle-inning guy, but it’s good to see that Lindstorm will have a chance to close. I liked their offseason.
They key to this club in ’09 will be how their young players perform, which is pretty much how it is every year. If Andrew Miller and Anibal Sanchez pitch well in the rotation, it will be very good 1-5. If Ryan Tucker pitches in the MLB coming out of the bullpen the way he pitched in the minor leagues, he’ll be a great set-up guy for Matt Lindstorm. Lindstorm, an improved Tucker, and the addition of Leo Nunez should give the Fish a nice bullpen, but they need Tucker to step up. If Gaby Sanchez brings at least close to the bat that Mike Jacobs brought, they’ll still have solid power in the lineup. But most of all, the Marlins’ season depends on how well Cameron Maybin plays. If Maybin can live up to his potential in his first season in the bigs, the Fish will have one of the best leadoff men in the MLB hitting right in front of Hanley Ramirez.
So as you can see, the Marlins’ season is once again up to the young players. If they all step up, you will see a very good team take the field on Opening Day. If the young players don’t step up, you will see a mediocre at best team. If should be fun to watch as the fantastic four in the NL East square off against each other.