How Good Are The St. Louis Cardinals?

SAN FRANCISCO, CA: Carlos Beltran #15 of the San Francisco Giants hits a double in the first inning against the San Diego Padres at AT&T Park on September 13, 2011 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

For Cardinals fans, signing Carlos Beltrán for two seasons takes some of the sting out of losing Albert Pujols via free agency. But might the Cardinals actually be better next season than the World Champions of last season?

Not so long ago, I suggested that the Cardinals didn't have a particular need for Carlos Beltrán, who reportedly is going to sign a two-year deal with St. Louis. Not with Allen Craig on hand. Still, there's little doubt that the Cardinals are better with Beltrán -- as long as he's reasonably healthy -- than without him. And of course, Beltrán's not the only reason to like the Cardinals in 2012.

Early last season, the Cardinals had two problems: Adam Wainwright was out for the duration, and the bullpen was a big bloody mess. Oh, and Albert Pujols wasn't hitting. But that problem took care of itself.

Wainwright, of course, never did pitch; Tommy John Surgery will do that to a guy. But John Mozeliak and Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan did fix the bullpen problems and the St. Louis relief corps played a huge role down the stretch and throughout the Cardinals' postseason run.

So ...

Bullpen: fixed.

Wainwright: Back in 2012.

Pujols: Essentially replaced by Carlos Beltrán.

You'll forgive Cardinals fans for being giddy, won't you?

In 2009 and '10, Wainwright was probably the best pitcher in the National League. He doesn't have to pitch that well in 2012 to give the Cardinals a huge boost. How huge?

In 2011, the Cardinals' No. 5 starters -- Kyle McClellan and Edwin Jackson, mostly -- combined for a performance we might approximately describe as "replacement level" ... essentially what you might get from talent that's just sort of floating around, whether at the bottom of your 25-man roster or at the top of your triple-A rotation. There is value in replacement level; many pennants have been lost because a team couldn't field enough replacement-level players. But Adam Wainwright is obviously in a different class.

If Wainwright comes back next season at, say, just 80 percent of what he was, he makes the Cardinals four or five games better than they were last season. All else being equal, of course.

Of course, Carlos Beltrán doesn't make the Cardinals better than they were last year, because they've lost Albert Pujols. But their 2011 values were essentially the same; both were roughly five wins better than replacement level. Granted, Beltrán had one of his best seasons; Pujols, one of his worst. But if Beltrán is reasonably healthy, the difference between him in 2012 and Pujols in 2011 is one, maybe two wins.

Wainwright and Beltrán -- on paper; everything's on paper until Opening Day -- make the Cardinals somewhere between two and six wins better than they were last season. Give or take. The real point is that the Cardinals are better with those guys. It's just hard to figure exactly how much better.

But of course there's more. There's the bullpen. There's a whole season of Rafael Furcal, a whole season of David Freese.

Last season the Cardinals finished with the run differential of an 88-win team. When you have the run differential of an 88-win team, you simply can't sit on your hands during the off-season. You can't, even if you're coming off a World's Championship. You have to try to get better. And to the franchise's credit, they've done exactly that. They've gotten better. Not a lot better, maybe. But enough to where St. Louis will enter next season as favorites in the National League Central.

Again, we're just fooling around on paper here. Which we can do with some confidence, because baseball analysis lends itself quite well to paper analysis. There are some things that paper's no good for, though, and managers is one of those things. How many games was Tony La Russa worth, compared to a replacement-level manager?

Two? Five? Eleventy-seven?

Is Mike Matheny a replacement-level manager? Better? Worse? Nobody can know.

We do know the Cardinals will have plenty of talent on their 25-man roster. But is Matheny the man to wield all that talent? We'll know next summer. Until then, paper's good for only so much.

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