Cardinals no strangers to defying the critics
Minus Pujols and La Russa, defending champs ready for action
JUPITER, Fla. -- Jason Motte admits that he never has been one to get caught up in all the chatter.
Motte spent little of his offseason dissecting the discourse or activity of other National League Central teams and has paid only minimal attention since then. He, as some players do, prefers to keep his focus entirely internal.
So it came as no surprise when Motte admitted his oblivion to recent prognostications. You know, the ones that the self-described experts and analysts put out in the weeks leading up to the regular season, the ones in which they try to convince everyone of what will transpire over the next seven months.
Motte was told that one specific report listed the Cardinals out of the playoff picture altogether. He grinned.
"Oh, that's fine," Motte said. "That's the way we like it."
W: Lohse (1-0) L: Johnson (0-1)
SV: Motte (1)
Indeed, being underestimated is something that this bunch knows all too well.
After hovering under the radar during much of their run to a World Series championship last season, the Cardinals welcome the presence of naysayers again. But if they hope to play the role of underdog again this season, they should know that opportunity vanished upon hoisting the Commissioner's Trophy last October 28.
They will discard the role of hunter and take on the target of the hunted. And they do so believing that sans Tony La Russa, Albert Pujols, Dave Duncan and, at least temporarily, Chris Carpenter, they can be better than last year's 90-win team.
"The elements that could lead to a great regular season are all in place," first baseman Lance Berkman said. "Our pitching staff has a chance to be a lot better than it was last year for most of the year. Our bullpen is vastly more settled than it was at this time last year. I think our defense is going to be good. You can't replace 40 home runs in the middle like Albert gives you, but despite that we still have a tough offense top to bottom.
"We definitely have a chance to win more than 90 games. I would be disappointed if we didn't."
Even without losing a future Hall of Fame hitter and manager, the quest to defend a World Series title would be difficult. Since 1979, only two clubs have successfully done so. The Blue Jays captured back-to-back championships in 1992-93. The Yankees won three straight beginning in 1998.
Amid discussion about the turnover the Cardinals endured this offseason, one player interrupted with a reminder that 18 of the 25 players on the World Series roster are still here. Focusing on who remains as opposed to who has left has been a mantra all spring.
La Russa's handprint on the organization hasn't entirely evaporated, but manager Mike Matheny commanded instant respect and authority with the way he handled Spring Training. Yet, how he will fare managing game situations and player personalities remains largely an unknown.
Matheny is a rookie manager in every sense of the word, having never managed at any level above Little League.
"There are surprises every day," Matheny said. "I didn't plan on coming here and having it all figured out. I try to be prepared for the challenges. I think that's going to continue for as long as I'm in this position."
A team well versed in adversity last season doesn't get the opportunity to enter 2012 without some more. The Cardinals expect to begin the season with three players on the disabled list, including co-ace Carpenter, who is out for at least the first month of the season.
A right-hander who put this club on his back during the postseason last year must now get himself right. And how long it takes Carpenter to recover from nerve irritation is truly an unknown, therefore leaving his teammates to play indefinitely without a pitcher who logged more than 500 innings since the start of the 2010 season.
Perspective, though, can be powerful, and the Cardinals have plenty to draw on. While Carpenter could return to the club as early as May, this is a team that just won a World Series title with team co-ace Adam Wainwright sidelined for a full year.
"Last year, everybody pretty much discounted us after [Wainwright] went down," said 2012 Opening Day starter Kyle Lohse. "We had a lot of guys step up. It just shows what kind of character we have in here. Nobody feels sorry for us. If we start feeling sorry for ourselves, it's going to be a long year."
Shouldering the news of Carpenter's indefinite absence is made easier by recent proof that Wainwright is truly back to full health. He'll be joined in the rotation by Jaime Garcia, Lohse and a substantially slimmed-down Jake Westbrook. Assuming Carpenter's place will be Lance Lynn, a former 39th overall Draft pick.
"I'm looking forward to it," Lynn said of the opportunity to start. "I just have to stay within myself and do what I'm capable of and just control what I can control."
Also set to begin the year on the DL are Skip Schumaker and Allen Craig, two key position players that the Cardinals had hoped to have available for an early-season schedule that has the team playing 27 of its first 28 games against divisional opponents.
On paper, the Cardinals' offense can still match up against that of any other NL club. What will be particularly key, though, is health.
Three of the team's projected eight starting position players -- Carlos Beltran, Berkman and Rafael Furcal -- are at least 34 years old and have all dealt with lingering injury issues in recent years. Even the younger David Freese and Craig have had several injury problems early in their careers.
This is a team that is built to be a contender, and anything less than a return to the postseason will be a disappointment. It's also a group that wants to show that its 2011 success was about more than just Pujols and La Russa. There's an insatiable desire to prove that the unlikely and unexpected can indeed be done again.
"I think there are some guys here who certainly believe they haven't been given as much credit for the 2011 finish as maybe they have deserved," Matheny said. "I think it's a positive when you take something to heart and say, 'Hey, we can do this. It's not something that we can't do again.' I think that's pretty much been the attitude this whole spring."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.