The St. Louis Cardinals not only went into the 2012 season without manager Tony La Russa, but also lost three-time National League Most Valuable Player Albert Pujols to free agency.
You would never have known it, though, as new manager Mike Matheny flourished, and the Cardinals grabbed the second wild card spot and came within an eyelash of their second straight World Series appearance.
First, they won the play-in game over the Atlanta Braves, then they took out the Washington Nationals, the best regular season team of 2012, in a 5-game series. However, the magic finally ran out against the San Francisco Giants, who rallied back from a 3-1 deficit to end the Cardinals' season.
St. Louis received huge offensive seasons from Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran, David Freese, Allen Craig, and Yadier Molina.
Beltran was brought in with the unenviable task of replacing Pujols in the lineup and responded, as he became the driving force in the offense, swatting 32 home runs to go along with 97 RBI.
St. Louis figures to field essentially the same team as last year, as it remained relatively quiet this offseason, acquiring a player like Ty Wigginton to round out its bench and adding lefty specialist Randy Choate to the bullpen.
Unfortunately, injuries have once again reared their ugly head in Cardinals land. Former Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter will be sidelined for the year with another elbow injury that will likely end his career, while shortstop Rafael Furcal will sit out the year as well with an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery. Also it now appears as if closer Jason Motte (RHP) will miss the start of the season with an elbow strain.
Luckily, the Cards are deep and have one of the best farm systems in baseball.
Even with the injuries, Matheny's club should once again be in the playoff mix.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2013 edition of the Cardinals, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
Cardinals Projected Lineup
(88-74) - Second Place (NL Central)
Key Offseason additions
Randy Choate (LHP), Ty Wigginton (UTIL)
Key Offseason subtractions
Kyle Lohse (RHP), Lance Berkman (1B)
CAN ADAM WAINWRIGHT GET BACK TO CY YOUNG FORM?
If you are banking on someone to have a monster season, look no further than right-hander Adam Wainwright, who will now be two years removed from Tommy John surgery.
After missing all of 2011 with the injury, Wainwright showed flashes of the pitcher who won 39 games from 2009-10, last year, but still only went 14-13 with a 3.94 ERA in just under 200 innings.
With Carpenter sidelined and Kyle Lohse still looking for work, the Cardinals will have a very young rotation this year. Lefty Jaime Garcia was injured most of last year, but has been good this spring. He'll have to be considering the Cardinals are also planning to go with a pair of youngsters in right- handers Lance Lynn and Shelby Miller.
St. Louis will need a healthy Wainwright to be the pitcher he once was if they have any intention of getting back to the postseason. Early indications are that he can get back to where he was, as he has looked terrific this spring. There's also the added motivation of this being his final season under contract for the Cardinals.
HOW WILL THE TEAM HANDLE THE LOSS OF FURCAL?
Furcal missed the Cardinals' playoff run with an elbow injury and that same ailment will keep him on the shelf for the upcoming season.
Without Furcal, the Cardinals will likely turn to Pete Kozma.
When Furcal went down last season, Kozma took over for the stretch run. After hitting only .232 at Triple-A Memphis, the former first rounder responded with a .333 average in 26 games and performed solidly in the field. However, he may have run out of steam in October, as his average dipped to .214 in the playoffs.
Kozma will be given the first shot at replacing Furcal.
If you are searching for a dark horse in this race, remember this name: Greg Garcia, who is expected to be the team's everyday shortstop in Memphis. The Cardinals are very high on him and he could be with the big club sooner rather than later if things don't pan out.
CAN OSCAR TAVERAS BE THIS YEAR'S MIKE TROUT?
Speaking of prospects, the Cardinals have one of the best in baseball in outfielder Oscar Taveras.
Taveras won league batting titles in each of the past two seasons while managing 272 hits in 202 games. In 2012, he led the Texas League in doubles (37) and extra-base hits (67). He also drove in 94 runs, hit 23 home runs and batted .346 with runners in scoring position during a full season in Double-A.
All that came one the heels of a year that saw Taveras bat .386 with an on- base-percentage of .444 in 78 Single-A games.
At 20, Taveras was the youngest of the 59 participants in the Cardinals major league camp. He's held his own offensively, but St. Louis wants him to get a little more polished in the field before they bring him up on a full-time basis.
Taveras is going to play all three OF spots in Memphis, but the hope is that he will replace Beltran in 2014. Should Beltran, or anyone else in the outfield go down at some point don't be surprised to see the Cardinals turn to Taveras.
X-FACTOR: JAIME GARCIA: As much as the Cardinals are going to lean on Wainwright, the key to the rotation is going to be the 26-year-old lefty Garcia. When healthy, Garcia is as effective as any starter on the staff. But because of a balky shoulder, he wasn't right for much of 2012 and it showed. After going 13-7 in 2011 and helping the Cardinals win the World Series, Garcia slumped to a 7-7 record in just 20 starts last year. He was sidelined between June 5 and Aug. 19 because of a strained left shoulder, then lasted just two innings in Game 2 of the NL Division Series against Washington and was taken off the roster because of a strained rotator cuff and inflammation. He's looked great this spring and can make Matheny's life a whole lot easier if he is right considering how young of a rotation he is going to have.
St. Louis should not only be able to compete for a playoff spot, but it is good enough to win the National League Central. Of course, many things must fall into place for that to happen, the most important of which being staying healthy. You can probably say that about most teams, but staying on the field is essential for the Cardinals. Injuries, though, have already sapped the team's depth, but they do have a young stud waiting in the wings in Taveras. If Matheny can get 30 starts apiece from his top-3 pitchers, the Cardinals are going to be very good. That is a very big if, though.