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Why I’m excited for the 2012 baseball season

Last season left off in euphoria, and how much things have changed this off-season. No Pujols. No La Russa. And no Jeff Luhnow (!) who has taken the helm of the Houston Astros after turning the Cardinal’s farm system from tumbleweeds to one of the highest rated systems in the minors. As someone who has interviewed Jeff Luhnow on a couple of occasions I always came away very impressed with his demeanor. I will be watching his career with great interest and wish him all the best…after the Astros moved to the AL West, of course.

So what am I looking forward to this year? Well, no real surprises here. The number one thing I’m looking forward to seeing is Adam Wainwright back with his batter-humiliating curve. Tommy John surgery has saved many a pitcher’s career, and most projections have Wainwright pegged to throw at least 170 innings.  I’m cautiously optimistic that he will immediately return to being the workhorse he once was. His ZiPS projections call for a 3.10 FIP over 173 innings. If he does throw say…200-220 innings, we’re talking about an easy Cy Young candidate. Does that seem far-fetched?
It does, and yet we’ve seen this before, so there is some basis for high hopes. Matt Morris finished 3rd in the Cy Young voting with a 6 WAR season in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery in 2001. In more recent memory, Chris Carpenter finished 2nd in the Cy Young voting his first season back from Tommy John in 2009. So I would not at all be shocked if Wainwright finishes the season as a 5 WAR pitcher, if not slightly better. (I’m sorry for those of you who don’t speak saber, this blog might be unreadable for you at times. If you want to know what these weird metrics I keep referring to are, go here.)What else am I excited about? Tony La Russa is gone, and the Mike Matheny, who has managed a grand total of 0 games, has been hired to take his place. That might seem to be a strange thing to be excited about, after all, La Russa is a sure-fire Hall of Famer and one of the most successful managers of all time and Matheny’s managing career is just beginning. Yet, after the Colby Rasmus trade I was fed up with La Russa. Another player-manager clash, another silly trade, or so I had thought. Will Leitch sums up my feelings about La Russa better than I can express them:

Cardinals fans both adored and despised La Russa the way a child adores and despises a parent. His constant my-way-or-the-highway standoffishness — it was not for nothing that his best friends in sports are Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick, and Bob Knight — drove fan favorites like Brian Jordan, Colby Rasmus, and even Ozzie Smith out of town. And, yes, we Cardinals fans were as exhausted by the pitching changes and David Eckstein–Nick Punto fetishism as you were. But you always felt better having La Russa managing your team; you always knew that Dad had your back. It was comforting, in a way, knowing that the manager of your team so desperately wanted to win that it would drive him insane. He might have been a madman, but he was our madman.

He was our madman. An overrated madman perhaps, but one with an unquestionable desire to win. The cold, analytic side of me is somewhat doubtful that a manager’s presence counts for much in terms of wins, yet there is part of me that is willing to be convinced that La Russa was responsible for a decent amount of the team’s success during his tenure. I know that opinion isn’t all that popular out of non-nerd circles, but to me it’s always been about the talent assembled for the manager to work with than writing lineup cards, making calls to the bullpen and keeping unhappy players from pooping in the team chemistry, although that is important. Matheny is a clean slate, is conversely way more relaxed and less surly as far as I can tell, and he is willing to use data to his advantage. For this nerdy fan, that’s exciting. So while I’ll miss the madman, but I feel like I can breathe easier with him gone. And I’m glad he got to go out on top.

Lastly but not least, I’m excited to see Carlos Beltran in a Cardinal uniform. Don’t get me wrong, losing Pujols was like dropping a car battery from a hundred story building directly on my emotions. But Beltran is a pretty nice consolation prize. Beltran, Holliday and Berkman are all projected to post wOBA’s in the .358-.370ish range. The Phillies are the only team that comes to my mind in the NL that have a comparable middle of the lineup. (OK, maybe the Brewers if Ramirez is close to 100%) I doubt I will ever see a player in a Cardinal uniform that is as good as Pujols, but the lineup should be just fine.
So while I don’t expect this season to replicate the high that came from such an emotional rollercoaster as 2011, this team ought to be pretty darn good for 2012.

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