What else can baseball fans do in January but dream of October? In You May Say I’m a Dreamer, the Outside Corner staff will imagine the route to a World Series in 2012 title for all 30 teams.
It’s technically true to say that the Cardinals’ 2012 World Series Championship is their second in a row and third in seven years. That’s what the numbers say. This Cardinal team, though, is radically different than either of those first two champions. Since 1996, the Cardinals have been Tony La Russa’s team. Since 2001, he shared the “face of the franchise” role with Albert Pujols. Now, though, both are gone and the Cardinals are still winning championships. Given the circumstances of Pujols’ departure, it might be fair to say that this is the Cards’ sweetest championship in recent memory, even though it’s the third for most fans.
It’s strange: the La Russa and Pujols Cardinals had some great teams that didn’t win the World Series. They won 97 games in 2002, 105 in 2004, and 100 in 2005 and came up empty in all three trips to the playoffs. The two World Series that they won together came after regular seasons that could be called mediocre at best — an 83-win 2006 team and a 90-win 2011 team that needed a miracle to make the playoffs. There was never any doubt with this Cardinal team, though. Before they even played a home game, they took five of six from the Brewers and Reds and they never looked back. They were literally never out of first place after the season’s first series and they won the NL Central going away with 98 wins. Where it took 18 (of a possible 19) playoff games to churn out a championship in 2011, the Cardinals rolled to a sweep of the Rockies in the NLDS, then took care of the Phillies and Rangers in five games each to close out the franchise’s 12th World Series.
So how does a team lose the greatest player of a generation and turn around by flat-out cruising to a second straight World Series? There are a million moving parts in any good baseball team and it’s not necessarily easy to point the finger at one person, but in this case there’s certainly one guy that deserves a lot of credit for the Cardinals’ quick return to glory: Adam Wainwright.
Wainwright missed all of 2011 with Tommy John surgery, but when he came back in 2012 he looked like the same guy that nearly won Cy Youngs in both 2009 and 2010. He was great in traditional stats, winning 20 games with a 2.37 ERA. His peripherals were there, too, as he had a 3.5 K/BB ratio and a career best 52.1% groundball rate. He finally won the Cy Young that barely eluded him in the past. To put it simply, Adam Wainwright was the best pitcher in the National League in 2012. Over the winter, teams like the Yankees and Angels and Rangers made big splashes to acquire pitching, but in the end the Cardinals improved their pitching staff more than anyone just by getting Wainwright back.
Winning a World Series takes more than one pitcher, though. The Cardinals lost Albert Pujols over the winter, but they still trotted out a lineup with Carlos Beltran, Lance Berkman, and Matt Holliday at 3-4-5. With Beltran fully recovered from his knee surgery and Berkman continuing his late-career resurgence, the Cardinals’ version of the Killer Bs may have had the best season ever for teammates with a combined age of over 70. Throw David Freese’s first full healthy season, and the Cardinals barely missed a beat at the plate in 2012. With Pujols in the lineup in 2011, the Cardinals lead the National League in runs scored with 762. Without him in 2012, they still scored 741. That was plenty of runs for the pitching staff.
The most important thing for the Cardinals, though, was probably their team health. No one can confuse this Cardinal team for a group of young up-and-comers. Beltran is 35, Berkman is 36, and Chris Carpenter is 37. Those three players all had prominent roles in the 2004 NLCS, and here they are leading the Cardinals to a World Series in 2012. Carpenter and Beltran both have serious injury histories, as to Wainwright and shortstop Rafael Furcal. John Mozeliak took a pretty serious risk this winter putting together a roster so full of older players and injury prone guys, but it all paid off in the end.
The small pieces came together, too. Furcal played 120 games and played well while he was healthy. David Freese played a full, productive season at third base. John Jay and Allen Craig graduated from helpful role players to regulars. The bullpen held up, and the pitching staff came through even in the absence of Dave Duncan. For a second year in a row, everything fell into place.
Perhaps the last word belongs to the new helmsman of the Cardinal ship. Mike Matheny was faced with an impossible task, stepping into a role that was Tony La Russa’s for 16 seasons. He resisted the urge to try and emulate his predecessor, though, and instead forged his own path. He didn’t juggle pitchers the same way that La Russa did, but he showed more patience with the young players on the club that needed at various points in 2012. When asked after the World Series about what he had to do to lead his team to victory, Matheny smiled and said, “I let the players take me there.”
Even without Albert Pujols, it was the players that got the Cardinals back to the top.