Don't understimate post-Albert Cardinals
MILWAUKEE -- When judging the 2012 St. Louis Cardinals, there is just this small slice of advice:
Rely on reality, not memory. Stop factoring in what is no longer here. Stay in the present tense. Get completely away from this sort of thought -- "no Albert, no Tony, no chance."
This will be an extremely talented team, a well-managed team and a team whose postseason aspirations are completely realistic. As for winning a second straight World Series, this team can reasonably be mentioned in that context, but nobody else has won back-to-back World Series championships during the new millennium, so let's not over-predict in early April.
The Cardinals are 2-1 in the new season. They lost Saturday, 6-0, to the Brewers, when Zack Greinke pitched like the American League Cy Young Award winner he was in 2009. Greinke is 13-0 at Miller Park, including the postseason. He is becoming a fact of life at this place.
On the plus side for the Cards, there were positives to be taken from Adam Wainwright's first regular-season start since Tommy John surgery. He is one of baseball's best pitchers, and if he had initial problems falling behind in the count, his work improved to the point where he had a five-pitch fifth inning. The Cardinals were genuinely encouraged. Wainwright, who had downplayed the significance of this start, fully understood its importance.
"I'm back out there pitching again," Wainwright said. "It's just another step toward getting back to being a great big league pitcher like I know I can be."
On the broader front, OK, sure, Albert Pujols is the best all-around player in the game, and after 11 seasons, he is an ex-Cardinal. But his absence doesn't make the opposition heave a sigh of relief and take a nap.
Asked what he thought of the post-Pujols St. Louis lineup, Brewers manager Ron Roenicke responded:
"It's a really good offense. The numbers showed that last year. Take Albert's numbers out of what they did last year and they're still probably at the top [of the National League]. And then you put [Carlos] Beltran in there. Carlos Beltran has been one of the best offensive players in this game for a long time. I know he's getting older, but this guy can really play.
"So maybe he's not Albert, but he's really, really good. This lineup's good, it's deep. [Friday] we saw what they were."
Roenicke's reference was to the offensive outburst the Cardinals put on the Brewers in Milwaukee's season opener. It featured 11 runs, 16 hits and four home runs. If you combine that game with the first game of the season, you get a grasp of the Redbirds' potential. In the season opener, they spoiled the grand opening of Marlins Park in Miami behind a terrific starting performance from Kyle Lohse.
Yes, these were only two games out of 162, but they were useful, because they illustrated how good this team could be.
"I think there's some value to that," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "Those times when you're trying to see if we've got what it takes to dig down and come back, we did that [Friday]. And do we have what it takes for our starters to shut somebody down? We saw that the first day. Then we saw the ability of one of our starters [Jaime Garcia] to be on the ropes, but ended up doing a great job, pulling it back together, giving us a chance. We saw that. We saw the power, we saw some speed, we saw defense.
"We saw glimpses, and I think you need to see those glimpses in order to have that faith as you move forward, instead of saying, 'Well, I think we could do this.' But to have it reinforced by actually pulling it together early, I think those are things that you can tap into later."
And then there is the reverse Pujols effect. Say you played on a team that won a World Series championship. The biggest star then left for a windfall elsewhere, and now there are some people telling you that you can't possibly win again without that star. How would you feel about that? You'd be angry, upset, ticked -- especially since you just helped win a World Series championship. This might be an actual competitive edge.
So the Cardinals have kept the focus on what they have, not on what they no longer have.
"I think we've done that from the beginning," Matheny said. "You brought up Albert. The first meeting we had we talked about. Hey, this is what's going on, it is what it is. We can either sit and talk about what we would be if things were different, or we can be honest with ourselves: This is what we have and it's pretty good.
"So I think guys bought into that early on. I think they took a little bit of offense, too. How much has been thrown on other people and the bulk of them are in here saying: 'Hey, we aren't chopped liver here. We did something, too, to help win that thing. And we're pretty good.' So I like that chip that they carry on their shoulders and I think that's just part of what sets them apart as elite athletes."
No, chopped liver the St. Louis Cardinals are definitely not. There are questions, of course, led by when Chris Carpenter can return from nerve irritation in his right shoulder. But in judging this club there is no need to refer to the 2011 roster. The 2012 version could be another truly exceptional St. Louis team.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.