What 2012 Really Meant to the St. Louis Cardinals

Thursday November 1st, 2012

2012 was a season that ended with disappointment which ultimately distracted us from recognizing what a successful year it really was. 2012 highlighted a lot of the greatness that is to come for this great franchise.

Alex Mednick (Baseball Analyst and Writer)

The St. Louis Cardinals came into 2012 as the defending World Series Champions.  In 2011 they just eked their way into the post season on the final day of the regular season when they defeated the Houston Astros and the Braves, who were tied for the wild card spot with St. Louis, ended up losing to the Phillies in extra innings.  Coming into the 2011 postseason, the Cardinals were huge underdogs.  That didn’t stop them from going for what they wanted: to win it all.

While most analysts amongst the sport would not have guessed St. Louis would even make it to the World Series, yet alone win it, the Red Birds emerged to show their true colors.  The current team that the city of St. Louis has assembled and gets to watch for 81 games a year is, undoubtedly, a team that plays on all cylinders and the highest octane fuel.  They play with the intensity of a little league team that wants nothing more than the coach to bring them out for ice cream when they win. Watching the Cardinals brand of baseball is to watch baseball again as a game, and not just as a competition played by millionaire athletes with tremendous talent.

Watching the scrappiness of St. Louis native David Freese in the 2011 playoffs is the perfect example.  His David Eckstein-like approach to the game reminds us all of one of our teammates back in middle school.  The one at the sandlot that always slid hard, tried to steal home, and complained when the rest of us wanted to go home because “it was getting dark”.  In 2011, David Freese and his 39 teammates played baseball together as a true team and sent Tony LaRussa home with a World Series title in his final year managing. 

Because Mike Matheny did such a great job filling the void, we forgot how concerning it was to see the iconic LaRussa stepping down from the helm. The transition was as smooth as butter and really eased our minds during what was expected to be a dramatic change in leadership.

While nobody might have expected that the Cardinals would have done what they did in 2011, they certainly created high standards for 2012.  The city of St. Louis is regarded as one of the greatest baseball cities in the world, and it is known as such for good reason.  The folks who show up at Busch Stadium are not your normal baseball ‘fan’, but are more religious about the game…in the way that most people from outside the region can truly understand.  Although the ending of the 2012 NLCS may have been a bit of a letdown, the Cardinals endured another exciting season in 2012.  I want to look forward, and give those Cards fans an additional perspective as to why optimism should be running on full blast through the veins of Red Bird Nation.

St. Louis Cardinals: 2013 and Beyond

In the excitement of the 2011 playoffs life in St. Louis became a blur.  When you breathe, dream and live Cardinals baseball, a World Series title is the highest high man can achieve.  But when coming down to planet earth we have to remember one giant variable that would be different in 2012; something drastic enough that is should warrant concern, and possibly doubt, going forward.  In 2012, Tony LaRussa would no longer be leading the team.  It was a new era, and this historic franchise was losing their iconic hall of fame manager.

I am pointing this out simply for the sake of demonstrating how great of a job Mike Matheny has done taking the helm in 2012 and grabbing the bull by the horns.  The same way that hindsight is 20/20 when something goes wrong, when something goes so right, it is really easy to forget about such a looming issue that the franchise was facing.  Losing Tony LaRussa was a big deal.  Luckily, any reasons for concern have been washed away and absolved by Mike Matheny’s ability to really pick up the slack…but without a reminder like this one, and giving credit where credit is due, it is easy to forget the predicament the organization faced going in to 2012.  Without even earning a playoff berth in 2012, we can argue that the season would have been a positive one simply because the managerial question was solved and solved well.

But there are numerous other notes that requires recognition as well and much more to take away from the 2012 that shines a bright light on the future.  An early season injury to start Jaime Garcia created a small stir of panic.  In 2011 Garcia was a 13 game winner and he started the 2012 season as the number 2 starter, slotted behind ace Kyle Lohse.  For a team with ambitions to win back to back world championships, losing your number two pitcher in June is not a good omen. 

Enter 24-year-old Joe Kelly.  A 3rd round pick by the Cards in 2009, Kelly was quickly thrown into the big leagues with very little warning to take on Garcia’s place in the rotation.  Kelly more than held up his end of the bargain while filling in for Garcia and ended up leaving such a great impression that he earned a spot in the bullpen upon Garcia’s return.  All he did in his rookie season was pitch 107 innings and maintain a 3.53 ERA.  The thing about Kelly that we have to remember is that he has more upside than we saw in 2012 when he was thrust in the big leagues.  We need not look at Kelly’s future role as big league ballplayer in accordance to his role in 2012.  He will not simply be a spot starter, inning eater or extra depth.  It is not to slight any of Joe Kelly’s accomplishments thus far, because he has clearly proven an ability to get outs in the most talented baseball league in the world, but I think that there is the possibility of more to come.  He clearly has a good arm and the ability to throw hard.  His fastball is not much of a concern for this reason, but developing a secondary pitch that is above average is what is going to separate him from being an inning eating bullpen worthy thrower, and becoming the major league pitcher he is capable of becoming.  I wouldn’t be pointing any of this out if I was not optimistic about him doing so. 

Joe Kelly really stepped up when he was thrust into the big leagues to replace the injured Jaime Garcia. Losing the teams number 2 pitcher early in the season was a hard blow, but it permitted the emergence of Joe Kelly, who did more than hold his own. In 2012 Kelly served as an innings eater, but with his strong make-up, if he can develop some secondary pitches to couple with his fastball we might see more out of him.

At the age of 24 he has not only shown loads of promise in terms of talent, but he is an extremely hard-working so developing his slider and changeup into more serviceable pitches is a definite possibility.  Adding 1 or 2 upside pitches to his plus fastball is going to, however, be necessary for him to become more than a serviceable inning eater in the bullpen (although who can complain about having a verified long-arm in the pen?).  If he continues to rely too much on just his fastball he will not be able to throw deep into games as a starter, and after 3 or 4 times through a major league lineup he will soon be figured out.  Without creating a bad taste in anyone’s mouth with my observations here, I want to reiterate that I am very bullish on the makeup of Joe Kelly and what he means for the future of the organization…as a possibly 3, 4, or 5 starter or a go-to guy out of the pen.

Jumping up to a different pedigree of pitching prospect, the Cardinals got to see the first looks at what might be the next Rick Ankiel (before he forgot how to pitch).  Shelby Miller was called up in September and didn’t disappoint.  There was no question whether or not he had the makings of a big league pitcher…in fact, he has ace written all over him, but he showed some concerns in his performance to start of the 2012 season in AAA with Memphis.  It was really the first difficult the prodigy had seen during his quick ascension through the pro-leagues after being drafted in 2009.  Heck, he won the Cardinals minor league pitcher of the year in each of his two seasons playing professionally.  Whatever had been the cause for his hiccups in Memphis, Miller really found his stride when he got called up to St. Louis.  In his first game on the big stage he pitched 2 scoreless innings and fanned 4 of the 7 batters he faced.  Over the remainder of his brief stay in the big leagues, Miller went 1-0 over 13 innings while allowing just 2 runs.

Shelby Miller is the top pitching prospect in a Cardinals farm system boasting multiple potential aces. Possessing the talent to be a truly once-in-a-generation type of pitcher, we got to see 13 innings of prodigious pitching from Miller this season. Expect him to be pitching in many big post season games in the not too distant future.

The excitement surrounding Shelby Miller can be seen in his short stint in St. Louis, and we have heard time and time again about what a stud this young pitcher is.  But really, he is a stud.  Psychologically he is everything you could want out of a starting pitcher.  Fiercely competitive, but composed and in control in any situation on the hill, and a quick learner.  Even those without baseball knowledge can look at his delivery and notice how compact and seemingly well-balanced it is.  His great extension and follow through really allows him to make the most of his 6’3’’ frame and contribute to his absolutely untouchable fastball.  I mean he throws a fastball that is 97+ mph and “heavy”.  He is going to make a lot of professional hitters very peeved over the years with his fastball alone.  But throw in his plus-plus curveball that’s 2 o’clock to 7 break bites right before reaching the plate…and we’ve got a recipe for the next generation’s ace in St. Louis.

Moving forward, I want to also take a step back.  I mentioned the offseason concern about losing iconic manager Tony LaRussa.  But I didn’t even address the issue of losing the best hitter in baseball.  How do you replace that offense, that glove at first base and that leadership in the clubhouse?  Well, the Cardinals did and the addition of Carlos Beltran offered Matt Holliday more than enough protection in the 3 hole.  In addition to having to replace the offense lost with Pujols’ move to Los Angeles, the Cardinals also found themselves losing their leadoff hitting all-star shortstop while making a run for the playoffs.  Not only did they lose Rafael Furcal  and have to enter the post season with rookie Pete Kozma up the middle of the infield, they also lost their most potent hitter off the bench early in the season and had to make due.  The fact that the teams spark plug leadoff hitter was replaced by Pete Kozma and the only pinch hitters available were the likes of Allen Craig and Matt Carpenter and the Cardinals still finished in the top 4 teams in baseball…that goes to say a lot.  Expect upgrades in the future over shortstop Pete Kozma and a bench with a few more whoppers to rely on.

While Shelby Miller may be a top talent in pitching, the top prospect in the Cardinals system is actually Oscar Taveras. Ranking as the 12th overall best prospect in baseball, the slick fielding centerfielder hits for average and power. Expect him to be ready to contribute significantly to the St. Louis lineup in 2014.

In short, things look very promising for the future of this franchise.  Carlos Beltran can offer protection in the middle of the lineup again in 2013 and hopefully match his 2012 performance.  In 2014, the Cardinals might be looking at having Oscar Taveras replace his bat in the outfield and middle of the lineup. Tavares looks like a young Carlos Beltran with his ability to hit for both power and average while playing centerfield beautifully.  To put things in perspective of where Tavares’ skill set can take him lets take into consideration that he is ranked above Shelby Miller as the organizations top prospect and is ranked as the 12 best prospect in all of baseball.  We can also look forward to the emergence of young pitcher Tyrell Jenkins who turned down a football scholarship at Baylor and at the age of 19 is already throwing 95 mph.  Mike Matheny fell in love with the young pitcher in Jupiter, FL during spring training and actually compared him to Chris Carpenter!  A third potential ace being cultivated in the farm system is Carlos Martinez, the 20-year-old phenom with a fastball in the high 90s.  Furthermore, the possibility of finding a long-term second baseman looms in 2011 first round pick Kolten Wong, who has exceeded expectations at every level in the minors since beginning his professional career.  Trevor Rosenthal also showed us this year what he is capable of at the big league level and we can expect him to be a useful piece in the arsenal going forward.

So yes, the Cardinals made a great run in 2012 and got our hopes high and adrenaline going.  It was a difficult come down losing the NLCS after being up 2 games to 1 (at least the Giants ended up sweeping the Tigers!)  But when you look back at the beginning of the 2012 season and some of the enormous questions about the Cardinals future that were looming over the organization, we really can’t help but refocus our perspective.  2012 was clearly a successful season on many fronts (you can’t win them every year).  It demonstrated the strength of the franchise at its management and the strong foundation that it is built on, and it also illuminated some the bright spots to look forward to in 2013 and beyond.

 

*** The views and opinions expressed in this report are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of mlbreports.com ***

Alex Mednick is a Baseball Writer and Analyst with MLB Reports.  He has both played and followed the game extensively his entire life.  Alex grew up in New Haven, Connecticut—right in the crossroads of Red Sox Nation and The Yankee Empire.  Somehow, he dodged the bullet of joining the war between these two teams, and a love affair between the Toronto Blue Jays and Alex formed.  Growing up in Connecticut, Alex Mednick idolized Joe Carter and Roberto Alomar.  When he was 19 he moved to Saint Petersburg, Florida.  Here he attended Eckerd College and continued fulfilling his love for baseball.  Tropicana Field was 5 minutes from his apartment, and there were 5 spring training camps within an hour drive.  Alex graduated from Eckerd in 2010 with a B.S. in International Business and dual minors in Spanish and Management.  Most importantly, he met his amazing wife in college, and the two now reside in Stuart, Florida.

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