When ESPN.com releases our big annual predictions file on Sunday, I'm guessing a majority of the voters will pick the Cardinals to make the playoffs -- either as NL Central champs or as one of the two wild cards. I'm in that boat -- I have the Cardinals finishing second to the Reds but reaching the postseason.
Let's start with this: Despite winning the World Series in 2011 and coming within one win of the World Series in 2012, the Cardinals weren't a regular-season powerhouse either of the past two years. They won 90 games in 2011 and 88 last year, capturing the wild card both seasons. To be fair, while they finished 9 games behind the Reds in the standings last season, they did have a run differential 36 runs better than Cincinnati's.
But there are some potential issue here.
Injuries are nothing new for Freese. He played just 70 games in 2010 and 97 in 2011. Carlos Beltran played 151 games last year but averaged 96 per season from 2009 to 2011. Allen Craig missed significant chunks of action the past two seasons. Shortstop Rafael Furcal is already out for the year, replaced by late-season hero Pete Kozma, who isn't really any good. The rotation, down their best starter from 2012 in Kyle Lohse, is depending on Jaime Garcia, Jake Westbrook and rookie Shelby Miller. Closer Jason Motte is currently resting a "mild strain" in his elbow. Yadier Molina is coming off what could have been a career season at the plate and All-Star Matt Holliday is now 33.
Like I said, I still like the Cardinals. Their depth is outstanding, with the likes of rookie stud Oscar Taveras ready to play the outfield, versatile Matt Carpenter and Daniel Descalso in the infield, a deep bullpen and backup rotation options like Trevor Rosenthal and Joe Kelly. Adam Wainwright could post better numbers than last year, when he had a strong second half. Maybe Garcia stays healthy and pitches 180 innings. Holliday is 33 but can still rake and Craig has developed into one of the bigger threats in the NL.
But the Brewers could be right there; they won just five fewer games than the Cards in 2012 and had the worst bullpen in the NL, losing 11 games they led in the ninth inning. The Lohse signing should be a big boost to the rotation. They can score runs. It wouldn't surprise me at all to see the NL Central turn into a three-time race.