NLDS Playoffs Preview and Predictions – St. Louis Cardinals vs. Pittsburgh Pirates

Games, Players, Playoffs

St. Louis Cardinals (97-65) vs. Pittsburgh Pirates (94-68)

Keys for the Cardinals: Get runners on base; continue trend of hot hitting with runners in scoring position; try not to leave the game in the hands of the bullpen; get the goods from their proven post-season performers.

The Cardinals led the National League in runs scored using a similar formula as the Yankees of the 1990s used by having a very high teamwide on-base percentage and no big home run hitters. Instead of having that one basher in the middle of the lineup hitting 35-45 homers as they did with Albert Pujols, they spread the wealth in the home run department with six hitters in double figures. Not one, however, had more than 24. In addition, the Cardinals had a .330 batting average with runners in scoring position.

The Cardinals bullpen is deep and diverse. Edward Mujica pitched well for much of the season as the team’s accidental closer after Jason Motte was lost for the season with Tommy John surgery. Mujica saved 37 games and walked only five batters in 64.2 innings. Home runs have always been his bugaboo and he surrendered nine. With Mujica’s struggles, the Cardinals have to decide whether to stick to the regular season script and leave him in the role, go with Trevor Rosenthal or a closer-by-committee.

The Cardinals have a roster full of players who’ve put up big numbers in the post-season with Adam Wainwright, Carlos Beltran, Allen Craig, David Freese and Yadier Molina. Players who’ve performed in the post-season have a tendency to do it again.

Keys for the Pirates: Don’t wait too long with their starting pitchers; don’t change their game; keep the Cardinals off the bases; get into the Cardinals’ bullpen.

The Cardinals were vulnerable to lefty pitchers but with Francisco Liriano having started the Wild Card Game against the Reds, he won’t pitch until game three in Pittsburgh. The Pirates are starting A.J. Burnett in game one and Gerrit Cole in game two. Even though he struggled in September, I might’ve rolled the dice and started Jeff Locke in game one if I were manager Clint Hurdle. The Pirates have a deep bullpen and shouldn’t wait too long with their starting pitchers before making a change. Locke as a middle reliever might end up being more effective than having him start.

As stated earlier, the Cardinals get a lot of runners on base. The Pirates have a solid defense and have to shun the walk – this is especially true for Burnett with his scattershot control.

If the Pirates don’t get the Cardinals starting pitchers’ pitch counts up and force manager Mike Matheny to go to the bullpen, they might not get a shot at Mujica.

The Pirates won their games this season with good starting pitching, speed, power from Pedro Alvarez, a great back of the bullpen and defense. They have to maintain all facets of their game.

What will happen:

The Cardinals are built more for the long season than for a short series. While they have those aforementioned big time post-season players, the Pirates have the pitching and bullpen depth to neutralize them. If the Cardinals don’t get runners on the bases, they’re not going to score because they don’t hit enough home runs and the Pirates don’t surrender many home runs. Mujica is not trustworthy as a post-season closer and if it comes down to a one-run lead in the ninth inning, everyone in St. Louis will be holding their collective breaths waiting for the inevitable longball.

The Pirates are riding a wave with their veteran acquisitions Russell Martin and Marlon Byrd leading the way joining Alvarez, Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker in the lineup. A lack of post-season experience could be a problem. The Cardinals have loads of it and the Pirates have nearly none. It could also go the other way. With the first playoff appearance and playoff win in two decades under their belts, the Pirates won’t feel the pressure. That’s one instance when the Wild Card Game will benefit a young and inexperienced team.

I don’t like the way Matheny handles the bullpen as if he’s panicky and desperate not to do the wrong thing rather than do the right thing.

The Pirates’ method of winning has a better chance to carry over into the post-season. They rely on fundamentals, speed and pop; the Cardinals relied on getting on base and clutch hitting. The Pirates are younger, stronger, faster and hungrier than the Cardinals. They’re better too.

PREDICTION: PIRATES IN THREE




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Analysis of the Kyle Lohse Signing

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The Brewers have signed Kyle Lohse to a three-year, $33 million contract making Scott Boras look like a genius again. In this market, at this late date and with the draft pick compensation attached to Lohse, to somehow convince the Brewers (and probably the Brewers owner Mark Attanasio) that they needed Lohse when they didn’t need Lohse is worthy of a bow.

Let’s look at the signing.

For Lohse

We’ll know soon enough whether Lohse was a creation of the Dr. Frankenstein-like corpse rejuvenation of former Cardinals’ pitching coach Dave Duncan or if he has become a different pitcher whose new mentality, mechanics, approach and stuff that can translate the knowledge everywhere. But here are the facts:

  • Lohse gives up more fly balls than ground balls and is going from a home ballpark that allowed 140 homers to a ballpark that allowed 230 homers
  • The Cardinals’ infield defense was average; the Brewers’ was bad
  • He’ll be working with a catcher that’s not Yadier Molina

Because Lohse learned to pound the strike zone, trust his catcher and defense, and not worry about the outcome as long as he made his pitches—Duncan trademarks—he reached a level of success with the Cardinals that he never did in any of his prior stops. That he’s leaving the Cardinals isn’t as much of a factor as where he’s going and going to Milwaukee to join a pockmarked team with multiple holes and is floating halfway between a rebuild and clinging to the tendrils of contention, his margin for error is gone and what worked with the Cardinals is unlikely to work with the Brewers.

In short, he can do the exact same things with the Brewers he did with the Cardinals and have drastically different—and worse—results.

For the Brewers

Anything they did was bound to make a gutted starting rotation better. They were beginning the season with Yovani Gallardo at the top of the rotation and a series of question marks behind him. There’s some ability with Wily Peralta and perhaps useful mid-rotation arms with Marco Estrada and Mike Fiers. Their bullpen isn’t particularly good and manager Ron Roenicke hasn’t distinguished himself as a field boss who can inspire overachievement in his players. It’s a bad sign when a pitcher signs with a club a week before the season starts and he’s automatically their number 2. Of course it has to be footnoted why Lohse was sitting out for so long as teams didn’t want to surrender the draft pick compensation, but they were also concerned about what I alluded to earlier: that he’s not going to be as good away from the Cardinals and not worth the money he wanted and, by all rights considering his performance, deserved.

For the National League

Are teams looking at the Brewers and seeing how they can hit thinking, “Whoa!! They got Lohse!!! Watch them!!”?

No.

Lohse is a pitcher who’s a “Yeah, we can use him I guess” arm, but he’s not a difference-maker for a mediocre team. The Brewers have him for three years when they’re locked in the vacancy of a simultaneous rebuild/contend. History has proven that’s not only very hard to do, but can be destructive when a team surrenders a draft pick (the 17th overall) to get the player who: A) won’t help that much; and B) will cost them the draft slot where there can be a very good player available (Brad Lidge and Cole Hamels were taken at 17).

I wouldn’t have done this and I doubt the Brewers’ baseball people would’ve done it either if they weren’t forced to do so by the owner who’s the latest in a long line of smart men who were sold on a player they didn’t need by the mastermind named Scott Boras.

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2012 MLB Award Winners—National League MVP

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Here are my top five finishers for the National League Most Valuable Player along with who I picked in the preseason.

1. Buster Posey, C—San Francisco Giants

Not only did Posey have to handle a pitching staff that was the key to his club’s success, he had to function as the centerpiece of the Giants’ offensive attack and he was doing it a year after he’d sustained a devastating ankle injury in a collision at home plate.

Where would the Giants have been without him? The concept that he could’ve sat behind the plate in a rocking chair and nurtured that pitching staff based on its greatness is ludicrous. Barry Zito gets by with trickery; Tim Lincecum was dealing with extended adversity on the mound for the first time; and they lost their closer Brian Wilson—the one constant was Posey.

Statistically at the plate, he led the National League in batting (.336); led the majors in OPS+ (172); had 24 homers, 39 doubles and an OBP of .406.

2. Andrew McCutchen, CF—Pittsburgh Pirates

If the award was handed out at mid-season, McCutchen would’ve won. As much of a linchpin to the Giants as Posey was, McCutchen was more of a key to the Pirates’ woeful offense. McCutchen had a .327/.400/.553 slash line with 31 homers, a league-leading 194 hits, 20 stolen bases and good defense in center field.

3. Yadier Molina, C—St. Louis Cardinals

Molina has become an offensive force to go along with his all-world defense. Posting a 48% caught stealing rate and completely shutting down the opposition’s running game is written in ink before the season, but he also had a .315/.373/.501 slash line with 22 homers, along with 12 stolen bases in 15 tries.

4. Ryan Braun, LF—Milwaukee Brewers

I almost wish Braun had been head-and-shoulders above the other competitors to see if there would be enough fallout from his failed PED test after winning the award in 2011, and then the deft stickhandling the Players Association did to overturn his suspension.

Braun wound up leading the league with 41 homers and OPS at .987. He also stole 30 bases and has become a respectable glove in left field.

Had he been the clear MVP, he wouldn’t have won it.

5. Michael Bourn, CF—Atlanta Braves

Bourn’s defense was superlative, he stole 42 bases and had a career high 9 homers. The main reason he’s ahead of other candidates Chase Headley, Clayton Kershaw, and David Wright is that his team made the playoffs. Otherwise all have cases for the 5th spot.

My preseason pick for the NL MVP was Troy Tulowitzki.

Yah.

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2012 MLB Award Winners—National League Manager of the Year

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Awards time is coming up fast in MLB. Yesterday I wrote why Bob Melvin should win the Manager of the Year award on the American League. Last month, I listed my Cy Young Award picks. Now, let’s look at the National League Manager of the Year along with who I picked before the season and who I think is going to win as opposed to who should win.

1. Davey Johnson, Washington Nationals

Johnson retuned to the dugout at mid-season 2011 at age 68 replacing Jim Riggleman and taking over a team that had been rebuilt from top-to-bottom and was on the cusp of taking the leap into contention. 2012 was supposed to be a step forward with a chance at making the playoffs if everything broke right. It turned out that everything broke right and then some.

Johnson straddled the line of development and winning; of protecting and letting fly and the Nationals won 98 games and the NL East title.

In his long managerial career, Johnson’s confidence has never been lacking. He’ll tell you his team’s going to win and tell you that it will be, in part, because they have Davey Johnson as their manager. He dealt with the rules and was onboard—reluctantly I think—with the limits placed on Stephen Strasburg. He didn’t hinder Bryce Harper learning how to play and behave in the big leagues and, for the most part, the 19-year-old exceeded expectations especially considering the reputation he carted with him from the minors as a loudmouthed brat.

The veterans have loved Johnson in all of his managerial stops because he lets them be themselves and doesn’t saddle them with a lot of rules and regulations. He doesn’t care about the length of their hair or that their uniforms are all identical as if they’re in the military. He treats them like men and they responded by getting him back to the playoffs.

2. Dusty Baker, Cincinnati Reds

The criticism Baker receives from the stat-obsessed is bordering on fanatical and doled out just for its own sake. He does and says some strange things sometimes, but so does every manager in baseball. He lost his closer Ryan Madson in spring training and replaced him with the unproven Aroldis Chapman and manipulated the bullpen well. The starting pitching was solid from top-to-bottom and remarkably healthy. The lineup lost star Joey Votto for a chunk of the season, but got through it and won the NL Central in a walk. The bottom line for Baker is this: he wins when he has good players and the players play hard for him. That’s all that matters.

3. Bruce Bochy, San Francisco Giants

Bochy is old-school and would fit in perfectly in the late 1800s with his gravely voice, gruff and grumbly—though likable—manner of speaking, and professional handling of his players. Like Baker, Bochy lost his closer Brian Wilson; dealt with Tim Lincecum’s poor season; and manipulated the lineup getting useful production from journeymen like Gregor Blanco after the suspension of Melky Cabrera.

4. Mike Matheny, St. Louis Cardinals

Matheny made some strategic mistakes as he was learning on the job after never having managed before, but the Cardinals made the playoffs and got past the expected pains of evolution following the departures of Tony LaRussa, Dave Duncan, and Albert Pujols. Matheny coaxed a career year out of Kyle Lohse, transitioned Lance Lynn into the starting rotation and an All-Star berth, and overcame the injuries to Lance Berkman and Yadier Molina.

5. Fredi Gonzalez, Atlanta Braves

Gonzalez learned from his mistakes by not burning out his bullpen and overcame injuries and questions in the starting rotation and lineup to win 94 games. Gonzalez and pitching coach Roger McDowell developed Kris Medlen; didn’t abuse Craig Kimbrel; overcame the struggles of Randall Delgado and Tommy Hanson; and the injuries to Brandon Beachy and Jonny Venters. Dan Uggla dealt with prolonged slumps; Chipper Jones was in and out of the lineup; and the Braves went through multiple shortstops, but still emerged in a tough division to make the playoffs.

My preseason pick was Johnson and that’s who’s going to win.

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Washington Nationals vs St. Louis Cardinals—NLDS Preview and Predictions

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Washington Nationals (98-64; 1st place, NL East) vs St. Louis Cardinals (88-74; 2nd place, NL Central; Won Wild Card Game over Braves)

Keys for the Nats: Don’t be overconfident; get good starting pitching; let the game come to them.

The Nationals have taken the tone of being very impressed with themselves. This stems from their large number of young players who’ve never been in the post-season, nor have they been on clubs that were as dominant as the Nats were in 2012. Manager Davey Johnson has always been somewhat egotistical to say the least. He’s been able to back it up in regular seasons past, but in the playoffs, his clubs have been disappointing considering talent levels.

Gio Gonzalez won 21 games in the regular season and shed the “wild” and “inconsistent” labels he brought with him from the Athletics. He strikes out a lot of hitters, allowed only 9 homers in 199 innings, and had a great innings pitched/hits ratio of 199/149—the entire tone of the series will be set by Gonzalez’s performance. With Stephen Strasburg having been shut down, game 2 falls to Jordan Zimmerman, game 3 to Edwin Jackson, game 4 to Ross Detwiler.

The Nationals will be excited to be in the post-season and with the number of first-timers and young players, there could be an aspect of trying to get it all done at once from the likes of Bryce Harper, Danny Espinosa, and Michael Morse.

Keys for the Cardinals: Take advantage of the Nats’ inexperience; catch the ball; don’t put manager Mike Matheny in a position where his strategic gaffes can cost them.

The Cardinals have plenty of playoff and World Series history behind them from the top of the roster to the bottom. They got by the Braves in the Wild Card play in game with Kyle Lohse starting and now have the battle-tested Adam Wainwright ready for game 1 and Chris Carpenter for game 3. The Cardinals have been here before as heavy underdogs and they’re feisty in their own right so the Nats won’t be able to bully them as Johnson’s teams have been known to do.

The Cardinals defense is not great and they don’t want to give extra outs or miss catchable balls to give the Nats baserunners for the bashers to knock in.

Matheny has no managerial experience and that is a factor when going against one as experienced as Johnson. The more times he’s in a position to make a mistake, the more likely he is to make one.

What will happen:

Gonzalez truly surprised me this season with his Cy Young Award-caliber season, but a game 1 playoff start is a whole new level for him. I still don’t trust his command and if his adrenaline is exploding the Cardinals will take advantage of walks followed by a fat, get-me-over fastball.

Fear and not knowing what to expect will not be a factor for Wainwright or Carpenter. Cardinals’ closer Jason Motte has gotten the big outs in the playoffs and World Series. Nats’ closer Tyler Clippard hasn’t.

The Cardinals are one of the few teams in baseball that have the offense to get into a shootout with the Nationals and win it. Carlos Beltran, David Freese, Matt Holliday, and especially Yadier Molina have—for the most part—relished the playoff spotlight. The Nats’ only key players with post-season experience are the veterans Jayson Werth, Jackson, and Adam LaRoche. It’s not necessarily a key component to winning. It helps more to have good starting pitching and a solid bullpen with an experienced closer. The Nats have the potential in the starting rotation, but I’d like their chances exponentially better if they were pitching Strasburg in the playoffs. They’re not. He’s doing the equivalent of taking violin lessons while his friends are outside playing ball.

Davey Johnson’s teams have a history of regular season dominance, lots of yapping, and a playoff flameout. The Cardinals starting pitching is deeper and more experienced and the offense can score with the Nationals. Those factors will get them through the first round.

PREDICTION: CARDINALS IN FOUR

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National League Wild Card Play-In Game Preview—St. Louis Cardinals at Atlanta Braves

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The starting pitchers are relatively meaningless in a one-game playoff. What’s most important is how the managers handle said pitchers. Will either wait too long before pulling him? Will one or the other panic and pull him too soon? It’s a fine line between letting the pitcher get a feel for the game and gain his bearings or leaving him in to blow the game up before the fans are in their seats.

This is not going to be totally about Cardinals’ starter Kyle Lohse or Braves’ starter Kris Medlen. It’s going to be about which manager hits the panic button and does something he shouldn’t do. Cardinals’ manager Mike Matheny has no post-season managerial experience and Braves’ manager Fredi Gonzalez is prone to gaffes and knee-jerk decisions to make it look like he’s doing something when he should sit back and wait.

The 34-year-old Lohse went 16-3 during the regular season with excellent on-the-surface numbers across the board, but he benefited from a large amount of luck with a .267 BAbip. He allows a fairly high number of homers (19 this season), and the Braves beat him around in their one game against him on May 30th as Freddie Freeman and Brian McCann took him deep. Lohse has a 5.54 ERA in nine post-season appearances. Matheny is adhering to his starting rotation by keeping Lohse in his turn, but Adam Wainwright is rested and in a one-game playoff, 100 out of 100 times, I’d start Wainwright over Lohse. If Lohse gets into trouble, one would assume that Wainwright would be the first one out of the bullpen, but by then it could be too late. Lohse has had a fine year, but Wainwright has the post-season bona fides that Lohse does not have and Wainwright should be the starter.

Medlen has been masterful since joining the starting rotation at the end of July, displaying a control and intelligence that has been compared to that of Greg Maddux, but with better strikeout stuff. He doesn’t allow many homers and has been masterful beyond the Braves’ wildest imagination. My worry with Medlen would be that he’s too amped up for the start and loses his feel for the strike zone, using the adrenaline to try and blow fastballs past fastball hitters in the Cardinals lineup such as Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday, and David Freese. The Cardinals also have players who relish the post-season spotlight in Yadier Molina, Freese, and Allen Craig.

The divergent personalities and strategies in the dugout are likely to come into play if either starting pitcher gets into trouble early. Matheny is more likely to stick with Lohse; Gonzalez will have a quicker hook with Medlen and it could be a mistake on both ends.

In a battle of the bullpens, I trust the Braves contingent led by the searing fastball of Craig Kimbrel along with their set-up men than I do that of the Cardinals, whose bullpen has been a recurrent problem. Watch for Edward Mujica’s entrance into the game—he surrendered one homer since joining the Cardinals, but is notoriously homer-prone. In a late, close game, someone’s going to take him deep.

I have little faith in Lohse in spite of his fine season. As long as Gonzalez doesn’t do anything loony such as call for a squeeze play with the bases loaded or something similarly deranged and self-sabotaging, the Braves have too many weapons and the better pitching from start to end.

PREDICTION: BRAVES 7—CARDINALS 2

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The Pujols Departure Makes Like Easier for Matheny

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No manager—especially one who’s brand new and has never done it before—wants to have to come to an agreement on the clubhouse power structure upon walking in the door.

Mike Matheny, whom Albert Pujols was said to like and respect when the two were teammates with the Cardinals, was going to be in just such a situation taking over for Tony LaRussa as the Cardinals new manager. Pujols was said to prefer Jose Oquendo as the new manager. Undoubtedly that will be referenced as part of the list of reasons why Pujols left; this is twisting the issue away from what really was the motivating factor—money—into something other.

If the Cardinals had given Pujols a similar contract as what the Angels gave him, he would’ve stayed. They didn’t and he didn’t.

Already we’re hearing whispers from the netherworld of rumor and innuendo that may or may not be accurate.

“I thought Albert didn’t seem happy.”

“There was something off.”

Blah, blah, blah.

This is just the beginning as an explanation is sought.

Here’s the answer: the Angels paid him a lot more money than the Cardinals were going to.

Period.

This affects Matheny because he doesn’t have to cater to anyone in that clubhouse; that’s immensely valuable to a new manager. The only player on the current Cardinals roster that he played with as a teammate is Chris Carpenter.

That’s not a small thing.

Joe Girardi walked into a similar situation with the Yankees when he took over for Joe Torre, was managing a large segment of contemporaries and former teammates. What made it worse was dealing with a bunch of bratty superstars who’d grown accustomed to Torre and the known rift between Girardi and Jorge Posada that was never adequately repaired.

Matheny has a clean slate.

It’s doubtful any of the remaining stars—Matt Holliday, Lance Berkman, Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina—are going to give him a problem; nor do they have the cachet that Pujols had to try and exert their will over a rookie manager. Pujols isn’t the type to bully and take over the room as a Josh Beckett would, but that doesn’t mean he’d be a perfectly good soldier if the two disagreed about something, anything.

Is it easier to run a team on the field without a weapon like Pujols? Of course not. The Cardinals just lost the best player of this generation and one of the best players ever, but to think they can’t function without him is absurd; the Cardinals will absolutely be better off in the long run without that gigantic contract for a player reaching his mid-to-late-30s clogging up their payroll. That they wouldn’t have the DH position to stash him when he can’t play the field anymore and the contract and his stature would make him untradeable would make the situation exponentially worse.

Right now it’s remarkably simple for them: they move Berkman to first base and find a right fielder. They’ll have a ton of cash left over to keep Wainwright and Molina and possibly lock up David Freese through his arbitration years and have the foundation for a good team without that one Hall of Famer stalking the middle of the lineup and paying him $25 million a year during his inevitable decline.

The Cardinals didn’t want to lose Pujols, but the fallout will be muted by the World Series they just won and that they’re going to acquire a name player to fill the gaping hole in the lineup.

There are outfielders available and Carlos Beltran on a 3-year contract is a perfect addition; the offense won’t be diminished all that much and with Wainwright returning, the pitching will be the strength of the team.

Much like the Stephen Strasburg injury where, I’m convinced, there were numerous people within the Nationals organization who were somewhat relieved that he got hurt and there was no one to hold accountable for it, there will be people with the Cardinals who aren’t all that bothered to see Pujols go. They’ll never admit it publicly, but it’s the truth.There was going to be a transition from LaRussa to Matheny and now it’s made much easier without Pujols to run interference on what the new manager wants to do.

The Cardinals will survive.

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Cubs Or Cards For Francona?

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The Cubs currently have a manager so it’s unfair for people to speculate on whether or not Terry Francona is going to take over while Mike Quade is still employed—the job’s not open, so until it is he’s not a candidate.

But that doesn’t mean he’s not going to be a candidate once Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are settled in and come to a decision on Quade.

Common sense dictates that if they’re making a change, they’ve informed Francona that he should wait before taking another job.

And presumably that was before Tony LaRussa retired and a potentially more inviting job came open—a job where Francona could walk in and win immediately with the Cardinals.

The teams are bitter, historic rivals and that’s only be exacerbated if their manager of choice has to pick one over the other.

Which job is better?

Which is preferable?

Let’s take a look.

Expectations.

The Cubs demands are going to be muted as Epstein sifts through the current mess, tries to clear the contracts of Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Zambrano, repairs the farm system and alters the culture. Francona could run the club on the field while they retool and no one’s going to be comparing him to his predecessor—if they remember his predecessor at all.

The Cardinals are the world champions are are accustomed to contending almost every single year. With or without Albert Pujols (who’s going to have a say in whom the new Cards manager is), they’re good enough to make the playoffs in 2012. It’s not easy being the replacement for a legend and even though Francona has some hardware in his own right with two championships, there’s forever going to be the onus of the appellation of “middle-manager”; that other managers could’ve won with the Red Sox collection of talent; and the way his tenure in Boston ended was a humiliating disaster.

Being the boss and familiarity.

The Cardinals are ready-made to win, but with LaRussa’s departure, I’d be concerned that they’re going to return to their earlier attempt to go the Moneyball route with the Jeff Luhnow-types in the front office and ignore what the manager thinks. LaRussa was able to use his resume as a hammer to fend off those adjustments and eventually won the power struggle; GM John Mozeliak was the man in the middle, appeasing his bosses and the manager. If Francona comes along, he’s not going to have the sharp elbows that LaRussa did. Francona’s much more affable than LaRussa, but that might not necessarily be a good thing.

Francona can work with Dave Duncan and doesn’t have the ego to retreat from delegating responsibilities to his coaches and players.

With the Cubs, he’d have at least some say with the construction of the roster because of his prior relationship with Epstein and Hoyer.

Talent.

Short of a miracle the Cubs aren’t going to be winning anytime soon and Epstein ain’t Moses.

The Cubs have a semblance of a good nucleus with Geovany Soto and Starlin Castro forming the basis for a solid up-the-middle club; Blake DeWitt deserves a chance to play and under Epstein his on-base skills and good defense will be better appreciated.

But it’s going to take a couple of years for the Cubs to be ready to win.

When Epstein took over the Red Sox, much of the ALCS club from 2003 and championship club from 2004 were already in place due to the prior work done by Dan Duquette. The Cubs have some talent, but are far from contending status. Would Francona be willing to walk in and have his record sullied by a 75-87 season in 2012? His job wouldn’t be on the line, but it’s a weak follow-up to the Red Sox collapse.

A starting rotation with Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia and Jake Westbrook; a bullpen with a 100-mph fastball of Jason Motte; a lineup with Lance Berkman, Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday, David Freese and presumably Pujols automatically has the Cardinals in contention.

The aggravation factor.

Francona’s hands-off approach eventually exploded in his face with the Red Sox, but the Cardinals have leaders who don’t tolerate any nonsense.

The Cubs have Zambrano and Soriano. It’s in their DNA to torment the manager.

There’s not a black cloud hanging over the Cardinals as there is with the Cubs. The negativity isn’t, nor will it ever be, present in St. Louis as it is on the North Side of Chicago.

While they’re almost waiting for something bad to happen to sabotage them—they almost revel in it as if it’s a badge of honor—the Chicago media and fans might be less willing to accept the “Flubs” if they don’t look like they’re on the right track under the new regime.

The Cardinals fans and media will support the club and their manager regardless of what happens as long as Francona doesn’t screw it up. And Francona’s not a “screw it up” guy who’ll make changes just for the sake of them.

There’s something to be said for being the manager of both the Red Sox and Cubs and ending two perceived curses—that’s part of what attracted Epstein to the Cubs in the first place; perhaps that would appeal to Francona. But for the reasons listed above, the Cardinals are a better job.

If offered both, the Cardinals job is a better situation and that’s the one I’d take if I were Terry Francona.

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The Albert Pujols Thing

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Tony LaRussa‘s going year-to-year as manager and has a 2012 option—he’s going to be back; Chris Carpenter is turning 37 and Lance Berkman 36; the Cardinals have exercised their 2012-2013 contract options on Adam Wainwright; Marc Rzepczynski is far from free agency and has potential as a starter; Jaime Garcia is locked up at a reasonable rate.

The only player on the roster who has a super-long, super-expensive contract is Matt Holliday who’s signed at $17 million per until 2016.

Yadier Molina‘s contract is up after next season and they have to keep him, but apart from that and the “Albert Pujols thing”, the team is set and they’re going to contend in 2012…even without Pujols.

It’s unfathomable to imagine Pujols in a different uniform than the Cardinals red, but there’s always that small possibility that he’ll leave. I’ve said forever that Pujols isn’t going anywhere.

And he’s not.

But what if he does?

What could the Cardinals do?

They could do plenty.

They could shift 2010 top draft pick, third baseman Zack Cox to first base; they could move Berkman to first and sign Michael Cuddyer; they could make a trade; they could keep Edwin Jackson and sign Jonathan Papelbon to have a devastating rotation backed up by a dominant closer; they could sign Jose Reyes to make up for some of the lost Pujols offense in a different way.

Could, could, could…

As long as the Cardinals have LaRussa and Dave Duncan and the core of players—especially the pitchers—they currently have, they’re going to be competitive sans Pujols.

That money allocated to Pujols—$20-25 million per year—would fill multiple holes with high-end players.

And Pujols has as much invested in the Cardinals legacy as they have in him; maybe more.

Would he want to muck with the Joe DiMaggio aura and his aesthetic by having teams other than the Cardinals on the back of his bubblegum card to make a few extra dollars?

It wouldn’t be as attractive as the “one team for his whole career” that is part of MLB lore.

The Cardinals need Pujols.

But Pujols also needs the Cardinals.

Examining it more deeply and with a ruthless and businesslike calculation, it just might be that Pujols needs the Cardinals more than they need him. Judging from their roster, their manager and the sudden availability of money to spend on other players, they’d win without him.

He needs to think about that before looking for the rumored Alex Rodriguez contract because as unthinkable as a Pujols-less Cardinals are, they could let him walk and still be very, very good.

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World Series Preview—Texas Rangers vs St. Louis Cardinals

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Texas Rangers vs St. Louis Cardinals

Keys for the Rangers: Knock the Cardinals starters out early, hit the bullpen; maintain their hot hitting; continue the quick hook with the starting pitching; don’t put their manager in a position to make a gaffe.

The Cardinals overcame woeful starting pitching in the NLCS because the Brewers starting pitching wasn’t much better; a Cardinals bullpen that had been a relatively weak point earlier in the season was dominant against the Brewers. The Rangers are deep offensively with nary a break from 1-9 in the batting order; the Brewers were top-heavy with Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun and once those two bats were quieted after the first game, the Brewers had to rely on the background players who, in some respects, played over their heads (i.e. Yuniesky Betancourt), but weren’t enough.

With the blazing hot Nelson Cruz accompanying the professional hitters Michael Young, Josh Hamilton, Ian Kinsler and Adrian Beltre—plus their team speed and aggressiveness—the Rangers have more weapons and are smarter than the Brewers were.

You can make the case that the Rangers starting pitching isn’t all that important with the depth of the bullpen and that they have two starters—Scott Feldman and Alexi Ogando—who pitched tremendously in the ALCS; manager Ron Washington has yanked his starters at the first sign of trouble because of that depth; of course it would be preferable to count on C.J. Wilson rather than Feldman since Feldman wasn’t even a guarantee to be on the post-season roster, but they’re loaded up with arms who can get the outs, so why not use that advantage?

Washington’s main attribute as a manager is that the players play hard for him; if he gets into a mind-war with Tony LaRussa, he’s going to lose. Badly.

The Tigers were beaten up physically and exhausted by the time they got to the Rangers; the Cardinals aren’t; the Cardinals are far more patient and dangerous surrounding Albert Pujols than the Tigers were with Miguel Cabrera. The Rangers can’t give extra outs to the Cardinals and not expect to be made to pay by Pujols, Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman.

Keys for the Cardinals: Get better starting pitching; continue their hot hitting; continue their bullpen dominance; keep the Rangers off the bases via the walk.

Much is being made of the Cardinals getting past the Brewers with the starting pitching having not made it past the fifth inning in any of the 6 games, but that wasn’t really relevant against a Brewers team that was terribly flawed; in fact, the Cardinals were probably better off having the ability to mix-and-match with their bullpen against the two main threats in the Brewers lineup, Braun and Fielder, than staying with their starting pitcher in the middle innings simply because he was their starter and was pitching serviceably.

They can’t count on their bullpen to continue that trend against a deeper and more well-rounded Rangers lineup, so they have to get big-time performances from Chris Carpenter as they did when he took down the Phillies.

Mike Napoli is 3 for 3 with a home run in his career vs Carpenter.

The Rangers won’t be able to run wild on the Cardinals because of Yadier Molina, but stealing bases is only a small part of the Rangers offense; in fact, they really don’t need to steal bases at all with their power. If the Cardinals walk the Rangers, the Rangers will score a lot.

What will happen.

An advantage the Rangers have had with their organizational decision to push their starting pitchers deeper into games by reducing the reliance on pitch counts is that there’s no point in opposing offenses making the attempt at patience and to push their pitch counts up because they’re not going to get tired as other staffs do; with the Rangers depth in the bullpen, there’s not the prototypical “soft underbelly” and they have little to worry about if their starters don’t pitch well.

Wilson has been terrible in the playoffs, but it doesn’t matter much since the Rangers bullpen has the ability to quiet down any rally and give their high-powered offense a chance to catch up.

A problem the Brewers had with their construct became evident when their starting pitching struggled; their long relievers weren’t particularly good and unless they were able to hand the ball off to the late-inning relievers Takashi Saito, Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford, it didn’t help to have a deep starting rotation and shutdown bullpen. With an atrocious defense and lackluster offense behind Braun and Fielder, the Cardinals had advantages against the Brewers they will not have against the Rangers.

Because the Rangers can continually shuttle arms from the bullpen; hit the ball out of the park; and have an airtight defense, the Cardinals will find themselves getting into shootouts that they can’t win.

The Cardinals biggest advantage with pitching is that their ace, Carpenter, has come through in the post-season and the Rangers ace, Wilson, hasn’t. But that’s not going to make a difference if Wilson is pulled before any big innings occur. And Carpenter has had his share of gacks in post-seasons past.

Regardless of the tactical advantage the Cardinals will have if the mistake-prone Washington starts going move-for-move with LaRussa, the Rangers are too deep in the bullpen and on offense and too good defensively for it to cost them the series.

I thought they’d lose the ALDS and they didn’t.

I thought they’d lose the ALCS and they didn’t.

I think they’re going to win the World Series.

And they will.

This is the Rangers year.

PREDICTION: RANGERS IN SIX.

WORLD SERIES MVP: MIKE NAPOLI.

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