Still, while expectations are tempered, hopes remain high for this new-look team. The Redbirds feature what could be their most powerful offense in five years, or more. The club hopes its defense is upgraded after a disappointing year in the field in 2007. And the rotation, though questionable at the start of the season, could become a major strength by midyear.
One way or another, it's sure to be an interesting year in St. Louis. The roster could look quite a bit different at the end of the year as compared to the beginning, with the expected arrival of top prospect Colby Rasmus and perhaps several pitching prospects as well.
The heart of the order should be extremely potent. In Albert Pujols, Chris Duncan, Rick Ankiel and Troy Glaus, the Cardinals have four legitimate 30-homer-plus threats. Part-timer Ryan Ludwick offers significant thump as well. It's not inconceivable that St. Louis could total 200 home runs for the first time since 2001, which would take some pressure off the starting rotation while it awaits reinforcements.
Projected starting lineup
|1. LF Skip Schumaker|
|2. RF Ryan Ludwick|
|3. 1B Albert Pujols|
|4. 3B Troy Glaus|
|5. CF Rick Ankiel|
|6. C Yadier Molina|
|7. 2B Adam Kennedy|
|8. P Adam Wainwright|
|9. SS Cesar Izturis|
|1. RHP Adam Wainwright|
|2. RHP Kyle Lohse|
|3. RHP Braden Looper|
|4. RHP Todd Wellemeyer|
|5. RHP Brad Thompson|
|Closer: RHP Jason Isringhausen|
|Setup: RHP Ryan Franklin|
|Setup: RHP Russ Springer|
|Middle: LHP Randy Flores|
|Middle: LHP Ron Villone|
|Middle: RHP Kelvin Jimenez|
|Long: RHP Kyle McClellan|
After Adam Wainwright, the starting rotation is filled with major questions at the start of the year. Kyle Lohse was a nice pickup, but he's not a front-of-the-rotation type, and neither is No. 3 man Braden Looper. Todd Wellemeyer and Brad Thompson won jobs in the spring, but both are on shaky footing. Until Joel Pineiro, Mark Mulder, Matt Clement and later Chris Carpenter arrive, the rotation could struggle to soak up innings and hold opponents down on a nightly basis.
You'll know they're rollin' if...
The heart of the lineup looks just fine; if the rest of the lineup contributes, this will be a legitimately dangerous offense. If Yadier Molina repeats or builds on his respectable 2007, if Adam Kennedy returns to his 2002-2005 level, if someone emerges in the leadoff spot and if Cesar Izturis can offer anything offensively, this team will score a lot of runs.
You'll know they're in trouble if...
It's very simple. If the discussion is the same at midseason as it is now, then things will be ugly. The questions about the rehabbing starters must be answered in the affirmative. If, come July, the Cards are still waiting on Mulder, Clement and/or Pineiro, it's likely to be a very long season.
In the National League Central, the Brewers may be on the rise, but the Cubs are the current measuring stick. The Cubs head to Busch Stadium for three games May 2-4. Three games don't tell the story of a team or a season, but it could be a revealing first look at how St. Louis stacks up against the reigning division champs.
The Interleague schedule is, quite simply, brutal. The Cardinals visit what appear to be the two best teams in baseball -- the Red Sox and Tigers. They host the Rays, who may be the game's most improved club. And six games against the Royals may not be killers, but even KC could be improved this season.
The Bottom Line
The list of ifs is long, but not impossible. If they stay healthy and hit for power on offense, if they improve the defense and if most of the ailing starters are productive, it could be a year of legitimate contention. But the margin of error is extremely thin, and if a few of the possibilities fall through, it could be a long year.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.