The 2006 St. Louis Cardinals were as ironic as any pro sports champions come. After brilliant regular seasons in 2004 and 2005 (105 and 100 wins, respectively), the Cardinals put up a mediocre 83 wins to go with a less-than-stellar 78 losses.
How is it possible for such dominating teams to fail to win a championship, but a team that had to scratch and claw its way into the postseason can win it all? It could be managerial genius, or it could be clutch hitting and pitching.
The answer is much simpler, though. When it came down to it, the 2006 Cardinals had more heart than the teams of '04 and '05. They had more heart than the Detroit Tigers – and yes, hitting it to the pitcher seemed to work in their favor. It simply came down to St. Louis wanting it more, and something about this '07 team says "2006 wasn't a fluke".
2007 is a bit of a different team, especially in the starting rotation, but no need to worry. Adam Wainwright is already a postseason hero, as is Anthony Reyes. The St. Louis Cardinals of 2006 had heart – and as of now, the 2007 Cardinals look to be the same way.
2. How will the starting rotation perform?
No need to worry here. Sure, losing NLCS MVP Jeff Suppan and World Series clinching pitcher Jeff Weaver can't possibly help things, but the staff ace (Chris Carpenter) is a guy whose hard work rubs off on his teammates. Anthony Reyes is back with a season under his belt, and he looked amazing in World Series Game One at Detroit. Adam Wainwright should be able to make an easy transition to starting, mainly because of how good an arsenal of pitches he has. That curveball is devastating, and his fastball is more than capable of dominating. He did strike out one of the league's best hitters to win the NLCS in Carlos Beltran (he didn't just strike him out, either, he made him look silly).
As for Kip Wells, he is a typical St. Louis Cardinals' reclamation project. Dave Duncan has done it many, many times, and he'll likely do it again with Wells. Duncan is the master of taking diminishing talents and turning them into better-than-average Major League starters (just look at Woody Williams and Jeff Weaver), or even a Cy-Young winner like Chris Carpenter. He should be able to take Kip Wells and make him into an every-five-days starter, and I predict Wells will win around 14-15 games next season, as long as he stays healthy.
As for the fifth spot in the rotation (behind Carpenter, Wells, Reyes, and Wainwright), there's going to be an uphill battle in Spring Training between off-season acquisition Ryan Franklin and current Cardinals' reliever Braden Looper. Franklin has pitched with the Reds, Phillies and Mariners in recent years, and he could very well be named the fifth starter, mainly because of his experience on the mound. The shroud of controversy surrounds him though, as he failed a steroid test in his past. As for Looper, he has never started a game in his whole career, but Dave Duncan and Tony La Russa believe he can do it. An above-average fastball should be his out-pitch, and typically if Duncan says he can do it, he probably can.
No matter how the rotation shapes up this season, there should always be a bit of uncertainty. Of course, except for Wells and Franklin, these other guys have the World Series experience to their advantage. They know how to win when it matters, but can they provide enough wins to propel this team to the playoffs? I believe they can, but only time will tell.
3. If Albert Pujols stays healthy, how many home runs will he hit in 2007?
2006 started out as a monstrous year for Albert Pujols. The 2005 MVP first baseman belted a record 14 home runs in the opening month of April and was on pace to break Barry Bonds' home run record until he went down with an oblique strain on June 3rd. The slugger was hitting home runs by the truckload, and not just any home runs either – on April 16th, he hit three home runs, including a walkoff two-run home run in the bottom of the ninth.
Clutch, powerful, amazing – the descriptions couldn't stop coming. Baseball analysts believed he would actually break the record, but that injury defined his season. So, in 2007, Albert Pujols starts off healthy again, and the sky is the limit (or, to be more realistic, about 500 feet is the limit).
Are 50 home runs realistic? Absolutely. Is 60 home runs possible? Absolutely. Can he break the single-season home run record? Definitely. Then again, the question remains: will Pujols break the record? Believe it or not, in 2006, pitchers still continued to pitch to Pujols, something that seemed sort of like an insult and a blessing at the same time. He punished pitchers, but they continued to put the ball over the plate – something that couldn't be said about the aging Bonds.
In 2007, Pujols probably won't hit 60 home runs, but he should easily hit 100 walks on the season, plenty of those being intentional. He will continue to hit for average and get on base, but I don't see his home run totals going up much higher mainly because eventually managers and their pitchers have to get smart, and I think that is about to start happening.
4. Will Tony La Russa and Scott Rolen start getting along?
The answer to this is a big yes. La Russa and Rolen are two of the most professional men in baseball, and I expect their feud to be over by the time Spring Training comes to a close. Whatever has gotten in between the two will move along quickly, because in the end, it always comes down to baseball – and Scott Rolen and Tony La Russa both love the game of baseball.
They don't have to love each other, but they will start getting along and eventually their relationship will improve vastly. It's really a non-issue at this point. Neither one of them wants to become a distraction to the team, and because of that, this dislike of each other will end very quickly. Somehow, some way, the two will speak with each other and clear things up, and for all we know, this may have already happened.
There is too much press coverage of this, and perhaps it has been blown out of proportion. La Russa said recently that he "loves" Scott Rolen, so clearly things are starting to look up already. In all reality, this is the biggest non-story of 2007, but it has to be addressed – swiftly and silently.
5. How far will five-tool prospect Colby Rasmus progress in the minors this year?
Colby Rasmus is rated by many as the St. Louis Cardinals' best minor league prospect; considered to be a "five-tool" player. He has above-average defense, great bat-speed, good base-running skills, and amazing vision. He has a high baseball IQ, as well.
Rasmus moved up to Palm Beach from Quad Cities last year and struggled a little bit, but he has said that he was possibly trying a little bit too hard, and 2007 will be a fresh start for the outfielder. He is projected to reach St. Louis by the time that Jim Edmonds' contract runs out (Edmonds is most likely going to retire then).
So, just far will the Alabama native make it through the Cardinals' farm system in 2007? I believe he will make it to at least Double-A ball this season, because he really started to come along as the season progresses at Palm Beach in 2006. He is steadily improving and is said to have put on some needed weight over the off-season.
Look for him to appear at Triple-A Memphis at the start of 2008, and he could see a little playing time in the majors (possibly for September call-ups) that year. He has everything he needs to be a future all-star, and he knows it. Colby Rasmus is the future for the Cardinals' outfield, and I expect him to live up to that hype soon.
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