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      The Cardinals in '04? Only on the backs of these three:

    I would have never guessed, but apparently I keep on ripping on the Cardinals. This has never been my intention. I actually like the Cardinals and I really like the city of St. Louis. The fans are a little passive and too polite for my taste, but you have to remember what I'm used to. One of those polite fans, who shall remain nameless, sent me an uncharacteristically angry email, in response to my latest "rip". Looking back, it didn’t seem all that bad, but I guess comparing the Cardinals to a former World Series champion is an insult in some people's book.

    Regardless, the Cardinals have been great so far. No question there. The real question about the Cardinals is: can they keep it up? I gather from the couple of Cards fans I've talked to, that people in St. Louis think they can. Me and the rest of the country? We're not too sure about that.

    The Cardinals are outperforming just about everyone's preseason predictions. I think everyone can at least agree on that. They have an eight game lead in a division they were "supposed" to finish third in. They have the best record in the NL, and the second best in MLB, second only to the Yankees. Yet while the Yankees success comes as no surprise, the Cardinals never really struck me as a 101 win team.

    So what changed? Nobody questioned their offense or defense. Last year they scored 876 runs, second most in the NL. This year they are on pace for 871, again, second most in the NL. Declines from Edgar Renteria, Albert Pujols, and the loss of J.D. Drew have been offset by excellent years from Scott Rolen, Ray Lankford, and Tony Womack (of all people).

    Their pitching, on the other hand, is on pace to only allow 673 runs, fourth fewest in the NL, and a huge improvement from 2003 when they allowed 796 runs. Last year, only five NL teams had worse (non-park-adjusted) pitching. This year only three have been better, the Cubs, Dodgers, and Padres. After adjusting for home park, the Cards might even be better this year than the Padres and Dodgers, but I'm lazy.

    How easy is it to improve a pitching staff by 100 runs? Apparently, all you have to do is replace the 101 awful starts from some combination of Brett Tomko (currently pissing off Giant fans), Garrett Stephenson (injured), Danny Haren (minors), Jason Simontacchi (minors), Sterling Hitchcock (injured), and Jeff Fassero (dead). The Cardinals have relied on a trio that is currently on pace for 95 starts with a 3.79 ERA, or more importantly, a hell of a lot better than the 2003 options.

    Chris Carpenter, a one-time Blue Jay prospect (and New England native) had his first solid year in 2001, then struggled through two years of injuries, including missing all of 2003. He has come back into his 2001 form, only with better control and gone 9-4 with a 3.87 ERA. Whether or not he can keep that up is a real question, especially with his lengthy history of arm injuries.

    The Cardinals also signed free agent Jeff Suppan. Prior to 2004, Suppan was pretty much the definition of a league average pitcher, with some good years and some bad, but mostly just an innings eater. It's not out of the question for him to put together a career year at age 29 though, so he may continue the success that has helped him go 8-5 with a 3.33 ERA.

    As part of the J.D Drew trade, the Cards got back Braves prospect Jason Marquis. There was a time not too long ago that people assumed that any traded Braves prospect wouldn’t amount to anything. I think after Marquis, and Odalis Perez, we can adjust that theory slightly.

    Woody Williams will be turning 38 this year, and only has the end of his career to look forward to. Considering Matt Morris hasn't had his curveball working since the '03 All-Star break, the Cardinals absolutely need Carpenter, Marquis, and Suppan to continue their pace. A relapse by any of the three and the Cardinals will slowly sink back towards the pack. A relapse by two of them and the Cardinals will soon be seeing the Cubs in the rear view mirror.

    Like the 2002 Anaheim Angels, who I compared them to, the Cardinals are having a number of unexpected, fluke, or career seasons. For every Scott Spiezio, and Adam Kennedey on offense, the Cardinals have a Rolen and a Womack. Carpenter, Suppan, and Marquis are just the Ramon Ortiz, Jarrod Washburn, and John Lackey of the 2002 Angels. Whether or not Marquis starts and wins game seven of the World Series remains to be seen, but the Cardinals have at least put themselves in place to give it a shot.

    If it were my team, I wouldn’t want success to be so heavily dependent on three average guys in the middle of great seasons, but its worked before and there is no reason why it can't work again. If I were a betting man (unfortunately I am), I wouldn't want to bet on this team being the next version of the '02 Angels, but stranger things have happened.