Thursday, December 22, 2011

Can Reshuffled Cards Do It Again?

After pulling off that improbable - actually, impossible - World Series triumph over the Texas Rangers a couple of months ago, the St Louis Cardinals will enter the 2012 season with a new manager - Mike Matheny - whose biggest challenge will be taking over a team that no longer has the Game's Greatest Player on its roster.  The good news for the Cardinals' front office:  The Game's Greatest Player is no longer on the payroll.

Certainly, losing a guy who usually drives in well over 100 runs each year is going to put pressure on the new lineup; but the Cards just signed 34-year old outfielder Carlos Beltran to a two-year-$26 million deal; an amount roughly one-tenth as much as the ten-year contract the Angels negotiated with King Albert Pujols - The Game's Greatest Player.  Maybe Angels owner Artie Moreno can afford to shell out over a quarter of a billion bucks to a player who will more than likely be a DH or bench player in another five years or so.

The Cardinals offered a measley $210 million-10-year deal to the former Cardinals icon.  What an insult.  What were they thinking?  Hmm.  Maybe they were thinking/hoping  he'd turn it down, figuring they could spend the money on other items, such as moderately-priced free-agents like Carlos Beltran.  Or contract extensions on guys like David Freese and Adam Wainwright, among others.  There are lots of possibilities for the frugal front office to keep the roster stocked with good, young ballplayers, in lieu of overpriced aging icons.

Obviously, with Pujols no longer a part of the Cardinals' lineup heading into the 2012 season, the challenge of repeating as World Champions becomes all the more difficult.  Although the Redbirds have now won eleven titles - the most of any NL team - the franchise has never won back-to-back Fall Classics.  In fact, the last NL team to accomplish the feat was the fabled Big Red Machine - the Cincinnati Reds, in 1975 and 1976.  Prior to that, the New York Giants defeated Babe Ruth's Yankees in 1921 and 1922, before the Bambino and Company took care of business in 1923.  Strangely enough, those lovable losers - the Chicago Cubs - were at one time hard-core winners, with back-to-back World Championships in 1907 and 1908.  Great memories, eh Cubs fans?  Sorry.

So, what are the chances of repeating for the Redbirds?  Past history suggests it's unlikely.  Losing the services of Albert Pujols suggests it's even more unlikely.  Although the current roster is loaded with talent, it has also been injury-prone.  Gambling on an aging player's ability to stay injury-free for an entire season is a risky proposition; but let's face it, not gambling on oft-injured free-agents like Rafael Furcal and Carlos Beltran has no upside potential.  If they manage to stay healthy and play in 140 or more games in '12, that would bode well for the Redbirds' chances of winning back-to-back World Series titles.  It wouldn't hurt if the Cards could also have the services of David Freese for an entire, injury-free season.  Wow.

Every time I think of Freese, I think of Game 6 - the most miraculous victory in World Series history.  The great sportswriter, Jason Stark, supplied us with some fascinating tid-bits of information about Game 6, in case anyone doubted the extent of the miracles that happened in that contest:

* The Cardinals trailed in that game five different times before finally winning it.  No team in World Series history had ever done that.  The Cardinals - in 19,387 regular season games - had never won a game after trailing five different times.  Never.

* In the previous 1327 post season games played, no team had ever scored in the 8th, 9th, 10th, and 11th innings.  Of course, in the 9th inning, St Louis was down to its last strike before extending the game with Freese's two-run game-tying triple.  Likewise, they were down to their last strike in the 10th inning before Lance Berkman's game-tying single plated a jubilant, skipping Jon Jay.  The last time any team was in that same situation was in the '86 World Series - the Miracle Mets in Game 6 - when the Red Sox managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, to perpetuate the Curse of the Bambino.

Of course, the Redbirds' unlikely post season berth resulted from an amazing stretch run, combined with the total collapse of the team they were pursuing - the Atlanta Braves.  With just five games left to play, the Cards still trailed the Braves by three games.  Incredibly, the Braves lost all five of those games while the Cards won four out of five.  How often is that sort of thing going to happen?

It's interesting to note, the 1985 Cardinals won 101 regular season games, and never lost a game entering the 9th inning with a lead; that is, until Game 6 of the World Series.  The 2011 Cardinals won just 90 regular season games, losing eleven games when they held a 9th inning or later lead.  In other words, they should have won 101 games last season.

Had the Cardinals actually won 101 games last season, perhaps their five-game NLDS conquest of the Phillies wouldn't have been so shocking.  Actually, the way they won Game 2 was quite shocking.  Staked to a 4 - 0 lead, Phillies pitcher Cliff Lee wound up on the losing end of a 5 - 4 decision.  In his career, Cliff Lee is now 94 - 2 whenever he's ahead by four or more runs.  Strangely enough, the winning pitcher on both occasions was Octavial Dotel.

I don't know if all those miracles that happened for the Cardinals in 2011 will somehow balance out against them in some sort of weird cosmic-way in 2012.  I always feel slightly uncomfortable whenever so-called experts predict St Louis to fare well in anything; they're usually wrong.  As luck would have it, three analysts on the MLB Network - Larry Bowa, Dave Valle, and Mitch "Wild Thing" Williams unanimously picked the reshuffled Cards to win the NL Central in 2012. 

It may be unrealistic to expect another trip to the World Series for the Cardinals in 2012, but after last year's non-stop barrage of miracles, it actually may be unrealistic for Cards' fans to expect anything less than another World Series championship.  For those keeping score at home, that would be 12 in '12...

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