If all goes well ...
Left fielder Matt Holliday will anchor a deep and power-packed lineup that is capable of echoing last season's league-leading offense.
Aware that one bat wouldn't be able to replace the production Albert Pujols took with him to California, the Cardinals instead will turn to a concert of contributors, all following a beat set by Holliday. The former batting champ and five-time All-Star inherits the No. 3 spot in the order vacated by Pujols. It's a homecoming of sorts. Holliday manned that high-rent spot for the Colorado Rockies in his MVP-caliber 2007 season, and he once said he prefers hitting third because it assures an at-bat in the first inning. From 2007-08, Holliday had 310 games as the No. 3 hitter and he elevated the Rockies with a .326 average, a .575 slugging percentage and 195 RBIs from that spot.
With Holliday as the fulcrum, the Cardinals can fill the top four spots in the order with Rafael Furcal, Carlos Beltran, Holliday and Lance Berkman — hitters who have combined for 19 All-Star Game appearances and nine top-10 finishes in MVP voting. Batting fifth on most days? The World Series MVP, David Freese. And sometimes Allen Craig, who had 11 homers in 200 at-bats in 2011, could hit sixth.
"That's pretty scary when you're talking about all of them, one after another," manager Mike Matheny said. "There are not a lot of breaks there for the pitcher."
The Cardinals had a consolidated offense in 2011 and still led the league in runs scored (762), on-base percentage (.341) and average (.273). Hitting coach Mark McGwire's approach took root and the Cardinals were the only NL team with fewer than 1,000 strikeouts. Strikeout rates rose throughout baseball; the Cardinals' dropped.
Flanked by Beltran and Berkman, Holliday leads a trio of OPS monsters. Individually, they may not pack the punch of Pujols, but as a group, backed by Freese and Yadier Molina, they make up for it in depth.
"I still feel like our offense is great," Berkman said. "We've got a good team. Analyze it however you want, we have a very, very good team. And it will be a disappointment if we didn't make the playoffs."
If something goes wrong ...
The Cardinals just won't click. This was the verb Matheny revisited repeatedly throughout spring training.
He wanted to tinker with the lineup to see "what clicked." He wanted to see Beltran in different spots to see "where he clicked." His ideal lineup didn't click together until midway through spring because various injuries and ailments kept the varsity from playing together.
"We're going to be talking about it all season: It's health," Matheny said. "How these guys are moving, how they're feeling? That's just the theme. You can say it's spring training, but it's extremely true with us."
Injuries could complicate the collaborative offense the Cardinals have envisioned. Holliday was the big prize of the 2009 season because he ended the Cardinals' annual search for who was going to protect Pujols. In the 244 games before Holliday arrived, Pujols was intentionally walked 68 times. In the 370 after, 63. Holliday now needs the bodyguard, and the best form of protection is prevention. Having a healthy Furcal and Beltran ahead of Holliday leaves nowhere to put him, and a healthy Berkman and Freese behind him act as deterrent. All four of them have missed significant time or production to injury in the past four years.
With all the bats present, the Cardinals could boast three players who have 30-homer seasons in their careers and two others (Freese and Craig) with the potential to hit at least 20. There is not, however, the singular slugger. Since 2001, Pujols' first season, only one Cardinal not named Pujols has had a 40-homer season. Jim Edmonds hit 42 in 2004. Beltran and Berkman have combined for three 40-homer seasons, none since 2006. That could emphasize this team's ability to conjure rallies with both thunder and lightning — a series of hits and newly aggressive baserunning with rumbles of extra-base damage.
The combination of hard-hitting righthanders and high OBP contributed to the Cardinals' NL record 169 double plays in 2011. Matheny called the significance of that statistic "overblown." After all, to hit into a double play, there has to be a runner on base and that runner has to be healthy enough to be in the lineup. Matheny likes their chances if both of those things happen.