Once again, Cardinals expect to overcome adversity
Despite key injuries as new season dawns, club's optimism only grow stronger
JUPITER, Fla. -- The narrative is frustratingly familiar to the Cardinals, whose well-laid winter plans have been scrambled by spring adversity each of the last three seasons. That's not to say, though, that they wouldn't welcome the same ending.
As the Cardinals prepare for a 2013 season without the services of at least two key contributors, the club draws on the precedent it has already set. Adversity doesn't diminish expectations. It only augments character and depth.
W: Kennedy L: Wainwright
"We have a great mix of guys that when the chips are down, keep going," said Adam Wainwright, who will start the Cardinals' April 1 opener in Arizona. "You can look at the success we've had and realize that losing an arm here or a bat there is not going to affect us over the long haul. We're going to still find a way to win and find a way to make it work."
The Cardinals have already lost at least one of each. The first blow came early in February, when Chris Carpenter revealed that recurring numbness in his arm would shut him down indefinitely. Five weeks later, shortstop Rafael Furcal was sent to Dr. James Andrews for season-ending elbow injury.
In the last week, the outlook has only gotten fuzzier. Third baseman David Freese will miss at least the first week of the season due to lower back inflammation. Closer Jason Motte is expected to begin the year on the disabled list, as well, as he works back from an elbow injury. There are questions about the status of Carlos Beltran (fractured right toe), too, given his limited activity as of late.
It all leaves an organization that came into camp with few questions much more unsettled as it prepares to depart.
"Obviously, we don't want to see injuries ever. But it's tough, especially early in the year," said Freese, who hopes to return for the team's April 8 home opener. "In the middle of the season, you can kind of deal with it. But to start the season all excited and then some guys go down, that's tough. But we battle. The Cardinals have always battled. We get through it, and we continually will."
The Cardinals did in 2011, when, after losing Wainwright to an elbow injury in February, they went on to win the World Series. A year later it was Carpenter who went down during Spring Training. With a lift from Carpenter's rotation replacement, Lance Lynn, the club advanced to within a game of a repeat trip to the Fall Classic.
Even back a decade, some of the Cardinals' best teams (think: 2002, 2006, 2009) were the ones hit most by adversity.
"When you're faced with injuries, when you're faced with things that you don't necessarily want to happen, I think you have a couple of options," said reliever Mitchell Boggs. "You can either feel sorry for yourself and wonder why this is happening. Or you can view this as an opportunity to step up and continue to help this team be successful. I think the last couple years, we've shown that guys in this clubhouse who get opportunities take advantage of those opportunities. It's great to have the guys that we have who can step in and get the job done."
Boggs will be one of those, as he lines up to assume closer duty until Motte returns. Carpenter's absence opens up a rotation spot for former first-rounder Shelby Miller. Pete Kozma, a top Draft selection two years earlier, takes over for Furcal, while Matt Carpenter will take the starts at third.
The Cardinals have long sought to saturate their pipeline with talent, a dedicated directive that has them now considered by many to have baseball's best Minor League system. The organization seems comfortable plucking from that system to fill these current voids, which means the Cardinals' success in 2013 will be a litmus test of how substantive that depth really is.
"If you keep talking about it, it better be there, right?" said Mike Matheny, now in his second year as manager. "Here we go. Now is the opportunity for guys to step up. This team is never believed to be immune to the adversity and challenges that come with adversity. When it happens, someone else steps up. That's what we do. Our guys are ready for that.
"There's also a sense of accomplishment when you've had that adversity and you've answered it and you've come out stronger than when you went in."
For all the focus on who the Cardinals have lost, those headed into the season healthy still comprise a core that should help the Cardinals challenge for their first division title since 2009.
The club returns almost all of its key position players from an offensive unit that ranked second in batting average (.271) and runs scored (765) in 2012. Catcher Yadier Molina, left fielder Matt Holliday, right fielder Beltran and first baseman Allen Craig are all considered among the league's best at their respective positions. Top prospect Oscar Taveras will be waiting in Triple-A if a need arises in the outfield.
The bullpen, though without Motte, should get a boost from the inclusion of Trevor Rosenthal and Joe Kelly. Randy Choate adds a lefty specialist element the Cardinals did not have a year ago, and this will be Edward Mujica's first full season with the team.
Wainwright leads a rotation that mixes young talent (Miller and Lynn) with the more proven Jake Westbrook and Jaime Garcia. If any of those five falters, Kelly or Rosenthal or even standout prospect Michael Wacha could be summoned to assist.
It's a roster teeming with talent but also with players eager to prove that they can follow the same step-up-when-knocked-down script again.
"We've done it," Westbrook said. "Each time we've had somebody step up and take control and be that guy for us. We feel like we're still in good shape. We know we have the guys who can step in and do their job and who can pick up the slack."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.