If you listen to the various pundits out there, the St. Louis Cardinals are predicted by many to finish no better than second to the Cincinnati Reds. Even the Post-Dispatch's Jeff Gordon is calling this a "transition" year for the Cards, as they deal with season-ending injuries to Rafael Furcal and Chris Carpenter, while also breaking in youngsters like Shelby Miller and Matt Carpenter.
While its true that the Cardinals are going through a transition phase, I do not think that should preclude them from competing for the NL Central title.
First of all, the Cardinals finished with the second best offense, in terms of runs scored, in the NL last year and I do not see them slipping any this year. Allen Craig will be hitting from day one this year and, once David Freese is healthy, Matt Carpenter will shift over to second to boost the offense at that position. The loss of Rafael Furcal hurts a little, but after his strong April and May last year, he was really a non-factor.
On the pitching side, the Cardinals lost "ace" Kyle Lohse and many people are putting the onus on Shelby Miller to replace him. However, the Cardinals are counting on Adam Wainwright to be their ace and he showed in the second half last year (7-5 with a 3.28 ERA) that he is more than capable of reclaiming that status. Thus, Miller just needs to give the Cardinals what Wainwright produced last year, which was roughly a league-average 3.94 ERA (97 ERA+) over 198 innings. He may not be able to handle the innings load, but I think he can be at least a league-average pitcher and someone like Joe Kelly can make up the extra innings.
The bullpen took a bit of a hit with the loss of Jason Motte for the foreseeable future. There is no timetable for his return, which has many concerned. However, the Cards are still in good shape as Mitchell Boggs should be able to step in and fill the void, with Trevor Rosenthal as the new setup man. In addition, last year's acquisition, Edward Mujica, should help and Fernando Salas appears to have regained his 2011 form.
Finally, with the top farm system in baseball, the Cardinals can tap into the system to add depth throughout the year. Spring phenom, Michael Wacha, is only one step away should Kelly falter. Carlos Martinez could be ready to help out by mid-year. Oscar Taveras is ready should any of the outfielders suffer an injury and we cannot forget about the less heralded prospects, such as control artist Seth Maness and on-base machine Mike O'Neill, who could also have an impact at the major league level.
Let others doubt the Cardinals or call it a transition year. I think the talent is there to surprise a lot of those people, including the Reds.