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02/26/10 3:45 PM EST

Bauman: Cards are favorites in NL Central

Redbirds built to win with potent lineup, deep pitching staff

JUPITER, Fla. -- By last October, the only surprising thing about the St. Louis Cardinals was that they did not advance past the National League Division Series in the postseason.

It was a team set for success, with two aces atop the rotation in Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright, a better-than-solid defense and Matt Holliday providing lineup protection for the incomparable Albert Pujols. While the Cubs had been a popular preseason pick, the Cardinals had easily topped the competition in the NL Central and appeared to be on the verge of even bigger accomplishments.

What followed was a disheartening series sweep at the hands of the Los Angeles Dodgers, including a Game 2 loss that probably set records for being simultaneously painful and bizarre. But now, four months later, the Cards begin anew with all the positive factors solidly back in place. Continued success, even increased success, would carry no shock value at all for the 2010 Cardinals.

Certainly there are some questions here, but the definitive reasons for renewed optimism far outweigh them. No other NL lineup has a combination like Pujols and Holliday, and now St. Louis has Holliday for a full season. The Carpenter-Wainwright rotation combination is also among the game's best.

On paper, the Cards again look like the favorites in their division. The only NL team with more talent might be the Phillies. There are other givens about this operation that are built-in causes for optimism. As long as Tony La Russa is the manager and Dave Duncan is the pitching coach, the Redbirds will be a picture of day-to-day determination, and the talent on hand will be maximized.

There has been a ton of discussion about Mark McGwire's appearance as batting coach being a potential distraction because of the revelations regarding his use of performance-enhancing drugs. This speculation should not be regarded as anything resembling fact. McGwire's presence is not automatically distracting. If Pujols is hitting .250 on Memorial Day, then the batting coach could be the focal point of some unwanted attention, whether he used PEDs or Tylenol. Apart from that, there will be external attempts to prolong the McGwire controversy, but the Cardinals don't have to buy into any of them.

The questions that the Cards have this spring are fairly standard. They need to find a fifth starter. That probably will be either Kyle McClellan, very effective in relief last season, or lefty Rich Hill, who was once a highly promising pitcher for the Cubs. Lefty prospect Jaime Garcia, who looked impressive throwing a batting-practice session Friday, should one day be a member of the St. Louis rotation. But his time may not be this season.

The rotation would also be bolstered if Kyle Lohse could have a bounce-back year after a season marred by injuries. This is not an unreasonable hope; Lohse won 15 games in 2008. St. Louis has essentially substituted Brad Penny for Joel Pineiro. Penny's recent record indicates that he will be fine as long as he is not pitching in the American League. He was 7-8 with a 5.61 ERA for the Red Sox last year, but 4-1 with a 2.59 ERA for the Giants.

Closer Ryan Franklin had a breakthrough 2009 season -- even a dominant season -- although he struggled at times down the stretch and in the fateful Division Series. Overall, though, the bullpen should be fine.

The questions at the regular positions are largely limited to one side of the infield. The Cardinals are hoping that Brendan Ryan, a superior defensive shortstop, will be available by Opening Day after undergoing right wrist surgery. At third base, touted prospect David Freese will get a chance to fulfill his potential. That potential is widely acknowledged, but at this level, with Freese having only 31 big league at-bats, potential does not automatically translate to success.

All in all, this is a stable situation, one that the vast majority of Major League clubs would look at with envy. There is a significant foundation of talent here.

"You look at our core club, from our rotation to our everyday players, it's definitely in place," general manager John Mozeliak said Friday. "Overall, we feel very good about where this is."

The strength of the Cards, based on their six division titles in this young century, is not a matter of dispute. This offseason, they displayed their willingness to spend when a very large expenditure needed to be made. They did the dramatic and expensive -- but certainly the necessary thing -- by signing Holliday to a seven-year, $120 million contract.

"We looked at Matt in a couple of ways," Mozeliak said. "One was obviously that he was a very special talent. We also believe that he's a special person, one that you really want to build your club around. That type of core player that we could have on our club for the next seven years just made a lot of sense for us."

So the Cardinals once again reached the top of the NL Central. Recent history says that is their accustomed place. They have the talent, the management and the will to remain there. Anything less than that would be, at this point, a surprise.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.