04/08/12 7:25 PM ET
Cards-Crew looks to be a season-long battle
St. Louis takes opening round, but teams evenly matched
By Mike Bauman / MLB.com
The Brewers were the NL Central Division champs last year, their 96 regular season victories setting a franchise record. The Cardinals trumped them with a head-to-head victory in the NL Championship Series, and then took the ultimate prize, winning the 2011 World Series.
Still, both clubs came to the 2012 season with much of the commentary about them focusing not on accomplishments but on losses. These were personnel losses, through free agency, of two of the game's most feared run producers: Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder.
It was widely written, speculated and re-stated incessantly that neither team could be the same. Well, of course they couldn't be exactly the same, because these two players could not be replaced on a one-for-one basis. But that did not necessarily mean that either club had to automatically become something much worse.
The template for this sort of thing is the Seattle Mariners. Due largely to financial considerations they were forced to trade Ken Griffey Jr. after the 1999 season. Then they lost Alex Rodriguez to free agency after the 2000 season, when the Texas Rangers gave A-Rod the unprecedented -- and ultimately unwise -- $252-million, 10-year deal.
So the Mariners had lost two genuine mega-stars, two players among the best of that era. So what happened next? The 2001 Mariners won 116 regular season games, setting an American League record. With the money that they didn't have to spend on Griffey and Rodriguez, the Mariners fortified themselves in other areas, most notably with the acquisitions of Ichiro Suzuki, who subsequently fashioned a Hall of Fame career, and Bret Boone, who had a breakthrough season for the Mariners.
Both the St. Louis and Milwaukee organizations have made sensible attempts at compensating for their losses. The Cardinals were able to keep shortstop Rafael Furcal and sign outfielder Carlos Beltran, and later got the game's premier defensive catcher, Yadier Molina, signed long-term. The Brewers found third baseman Aramis Ramirez as at least a plausible replacement at the cleanup spot for Fielder, and then made a major defensive upgrade at shortstop, signing Alex Gonzalez. Their primary contractual task now is to find a way to sign starter Zack Greinke to a long-term deal. So the departures of Pujols and Fielder were obvious losses, but there have been ways to at least partially offset those losses.
"You never want to lose a guy like a Pujols or a Fielder, but we wouldn't have Furcal and Beltran right now if that hadn't happened," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "And they wouldn't have Aramis Ramirez. So you understand the value of somebody but you make those adjustments because the game changes so much."
The Cardinals won round one of the 2012 argument with the Brewers, taking a three-game series with a 9-3 victory Easter Sunday at Miller Park. It was a doubly encouraging result for the Redbirds.
They won because they had a pitcher of Lance Lynn's quality to fill Chris Carpenter's spot in the rotation. Against a tough Milwaukee lineup, Lynn was splendid Sunday, giving up one earned run on just two hits in 6 2/3 innings, walking one, striking out eight.
"He's just tough," Matheny said. "He's tough mentally. He's tough physically. He's a workhorse."
And the Cardinals won because they have enough depth that four starters could be rested and the team could still come up with a 14-hit attack. Credit center fielder Shane Robinson with an especially stellar afternoon -- three hits, including his first Major League home run.
The Cardinals have displayed their multi-faceted talents in going 3-1 to start the season, but Matheny believes there is not a great deal of distance among three clubs in this division.
"I've been impressed with the Milwaukee club," Matheny said. "They've got a lineup that's going to score some runs and they've got some starters who have shown us that they've got the ability to shut you down.
"I think it's a very similar club to ours. They've got a good lineup, a good starting rotation. I think our bullpen's come a long way, and you look at the back end of Milwaukee's bullpen and it's very solid.
"Cincinnati made some good moves. Losing their closer [Ryan Madson] hurts them, but they have similar starting [pitching] and a good lineup, too. There's just not a lot of holes. Sometimes there's a team that stands out above the others. But I don't think that's here, this year."
That is a reasonable assessment. The NL Central should be a highly competitive, three-team race. There may be no dominant team here, but in this era of increased competitive balance, that isn't in the standard script, anyway.
No doubt, the Cardinals and the Brewers lost two of baseball's biggest impact players, players who were worth a total of $254 million and 19 years' worth of contracts to their new employers. But it's not as though either of these clubs is now going to tumble out of contention, into mediocrity.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.