And just like that, 2012 is behind us. From a Cardinal standpoint, it didn’t go quite as well as it could have — I’d say another five wins would have done the trick — but it’s hard to complain too much. After all, a lot of good things happened in 2012, and before we flip the calendar, the United Cardinal Bloggers Guild (I may have added that last word to make us sound even nerdier than we already are) has decided to put together a group of posts about the year’s five biggest stories. Such a project is not hard in a year like 2012, easily one of the biggest transitional years in franchise history. We’ll be getting into specifics below, but it’s not often a team’s central identity gets altered this much, and that’s what makes it doubly impressive the team got as far as it did.
Granted, the team UCB members love more than their spouses (in my case, I love them so much I haven’t even bothered getting married yet) would not have had a chance to get as far as they did if it weren’t for a newly instituted consolation prize Wild Card rule, but with the run differential being what it was, I’m willing to overlook that. It was a fine year, a fine baseball season, and looking back on it has me feeling sort of misty-eyed. For this project, Brian and I combined efforts and thought up a few stories we thought merited the biggest mentions. The results follow, and depending on what page you’re on, you’ll either have to click the more button or keep scrolling down to get to them. Sorry about that.
The Cardinals keep rolling without the help of any quarter-billionaires or pet safety advocates
There were plenty of reasons for us to worry as Cardinal fans entering the 2012 season. There was certainly no way to predict how many games Carlos Beltran would play, Lance Berkman’s return to relevance could end at any moment, and Adam Wainwright hadn’t pitched since 2010 thanks to Tommy John surgery. Those potential problems were nothing to sneeze at, but the most prolific reason to doubt last season’s Redbirds was a mass exodus of legendary talent: the great Albert Pujols had decided the allure of Disneyland’s roller coasters was far too great to pass up a move to California, and Tony La Russa was finally done managing after roughly a century of dugout dominance.
Watching the 2012 Cardinals, it was difficult to feel like the team was missing any essential personnel. The offense continued to be one the very best in baseball without Pujols, ranking first in the majors with a .338 OBP and fifth with 765 runs scored. Sure, there were rough patches, but the end result under rookie manager Mike Matheny was an 88-win season, a playoff berth as the second wild card team in the National League, and very nearly another trip to the World Series. We were quite high on the Cardinals all season long even if the team’s record didn’t always show its balance, but it’s a pretty big deal when a team suffers such dizzying losses and still succeeds.
Trevor Rosenthal gets everyone out, threatens to do so for all of eternity
If there was one unit most responsible for the Cardinals often feeling like an underachieving squad for much of the 2012 season, it certainly wasn’t the multi-weapon offense or the solid starting rotation. No, it was the ugly bullpen, a group that didn’t hit its stride until the Cardinals realized Victor Marte was better at eating pig’s feet drenched in horseradish than delivering baseballs plateward and brought Trevor Rosenthal and his saber-toothed fastball up to the big club. Rosenthal gave the bullpen an immense boost in the season’s final month, ending up with a regular season line featuring 25 strikeouts, seven walks, and a 2.78 ERA in 22 2/3 IP.
The Rosenthal train of destruction certainly didn’t end along with the regular season, as he continued to make opposing hitters cry tears throughout the first two rounds of the postseason. Rosenthal’s postseason performance amounted to 15 strikeouts against just four base runners in 8 2/3 IP; against his triple-digit fastball, even the most professional of hitters seemed disgustingly impotent. Now that Rosenthal has shown his prowess with the Major League club, he represents a valuable weapon who at the least is an excellent reliever and at the most is a 22-year-old who could become a big contributor to the starting rotation. That’s a hell of a discovery if you ask us!
Yadier Molina is the best baseball
As Cardinal fans, we’ve been spoiled by Yadier Molina for a very long time. What we certainly couldn’t have expected a couple of years ago, or even after Molina’s banner 2011, was for the man to elevate his already-impressive game to an all-new level. Molina continued to dazzle behind the plate, gunning down any runner foolish enough to try and steal a base, blocking any baseball daring enough to attempt escape, and occasionally erasing runners who had already reached first base and were content staying there.
Molina’s defense has been historically excellent for years now, but only recently did his bat step into the inner circle with the rest of his game. Molina’s 2011 outburst seemed to be the very upper reach of his capability, but he proved even his staunchest supporters wrong by hitting .315/.373/.501 and posting a stellar WAR figure of 6.5 per FanGraphs. Molina also happened to the lead the Cardinals in OPS, which is shocking given that the lineup featured plus contributions from Carlos Beltran, Allen Craig, David Freese, Matt Holliday and others. There just isn’t any other way around saying it now: Yadier Molina is one of the best players in the game, and his 2012 campaign is the one that officially put him in such an elite place.
Memphis flexes its muscle
Several recent products of the Cardinal farm system established themselves in a huge way in 2012. We already mentioned the season Molina and Rosenthal contributed, but there’s more. David Freese, fresh off his October heroics in 2011, kept his ankles attached enough to play 144 games, and his first full season statistics did not disappoint — he put together a .365 wOBA, walked over 10 percent of the time, and contributed 4.1 WAR. Jon Jay was arguably even more impressive, as he gave the Cardinals a legitimate leadoff hitter (.373 wOBA), flashed a little speed on the base paths (19 steals in 26 tries) and played outstanding defense in center, one of the most important positions on the field. He was also worth 4.1 WAR, and he only played in 117 games due to shoulder woes that are hopefully a thing of the past now.
There’s more. What about Allen Craig, the favorite Cardinal of StanGraphs? Like Jay, he missed plenty of time in 2012 due to injuries, and let’s face it, he’ll probably keep doing that in future seasons, but when healthy, the turtle lover mashed, straight mashed. He mashed to the tune of a .374 wOBA and .876 OPS, mashed 22 long balls, and mashed baseballs into mashed potatoes. Allen “Monster Mash” Craig, ladies and gentlemen (none of you are either female or all that gentle, actually). Even Matt Carpenter turned into a vital part of the team off the bench, as he was worth 1.6 WAR over 340 plate appearances. These players were all drafted and developed internally, and for a team that was very recently thought to have no impact players inside their system, this is a pretty impressive development. Jeff Luhnow is starting to get the credit he deserves. Now he just needs to figure out a way to turn the Astros around.
Adam Wainwright’s rebuilt elbows holds up
Even with today’s success rate of Tommy John surgery, it’s always a little frightening to see a pitcher in his prime miss an entire season due to a serious injury. Wainwright’s return was a highly celebrated one, and while he suffered a few hiccups his first month back, his 2012 season was very much so in line with the incredible numbers he put up the previous two years he pitched in. He managed to contribute 4.4 WAR, rack up 8.3 K/9, and post a 3.10 FIP in just under 200 innings. Even in a banner season for Kyle Lohse, Wainwright easily reestablished himself as the team’s ace, and it was awfully nice seeing that big curve back in action. Whether or not the team is able to lock him for the long-term is unknown at this point (in fact, it may be an item on this very same post a year from now), but for now, let’s enjoy the fact that our beloved tall southerner is back and still very, very good.