With spring-training games starting at the end of this week (hooray!), it's time to start learning a bit about the Cubs' regular-season rivals. Beginning today, I'll preview each of the Cubs' 2012 opponents, one per day (except weekends, since I know fewer people are around here on weekends).
The Cardinals are what the Cubs hope to grow up to be. If that sounds fawning, it's not meant to be, only to acknowledge that St. Louis has built a strong organization that keeps producing good players even after others retire or leave via free agency or trade. The Cardinals have been in the playoffs nine of the last 13 years, winning two World Series; since Tony La Russa's managerial reign started in 1996. During that time they have had just three losing years, and didn't miss a beat when La Russa retired, returning to the NLCS in 2012 under new manager Mike Matheny.
This is what we hope the Cubs become when the rebuild is complete. It can be done, and St. Louis isn't anything near "major market" size, as Chicago is.
Anyway, this year's Cardinals might have a bit more trouble staying on top. They're returning most of their starting eight from a year ago, including Rafael Furcal, who missed most of the last two months (and even there, they didn't miss the proverbial beat, with Pete Kozma, whose minor-league numbers didn't impress, taking over and hitting .333/.383/.569 in 28 late-season games). They are likely going to move Daniel Descalso into the supersub role previously filled by Skip Schumaker (now with the Dodgers), and work Matt Carpenter in at second base. Carpenter can hit (.294/.365/.463 in 340 PA in his rookie year); if he can handle second base full-time, the Cardinals will have a strong lineup. They finished second in the NL in runs in 2012 and could be near the top again.
Starting pitching is St. Louis' big worry, with Chris Carpenter out for the year (and probably for good) and Kyle Lohse having departed via free agency. Top prospect Shelby Miller will presumably take one of the open spots. The rest of the rotation will be filled by Adam Wainwright, Jaime Garcia, Lance Lynn and Jake Westbrook. Garcia had injury problems in 2012 and Lynn faded after a hot start, so the Cardinals' rotation shapes up as good, but not as deep as it once was.
St. Louis' bullpen will try to pick up the slack; they return most of last year's key relievers, particularly closer Jason Motte and setup men Mitchell Boggs and Trevor Rosenthal.
The Cubs won't see their division rival until a pair of games May 7 and 8 at Wrigley Field; we'll be 33 games into the season by then, so we'll at least have some idea as to how the division is shaping up. After that, the teams don't meet again until game 70, when the Cubs will head to St. Louis for a four-game set. Despite the Cubs' awful record in 2012, they played the Cardinals reasonably tough, winning seven of the 17 games. Here's hoping for better in 2013.
Tomorrow: a preview of the 2012 NL Central champion Reds.