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Brian Walton's news and commentary on the St. Louis Cardinals (TM) and their minor league system

The Cardinal Nation Blog top stories of 2010 #1: The collapse

The St. Louis Cardinals were expected to repeat as division-winners in 2010. Instead, they missed the playoffs entirely.

In a way, my selection of the biggest story of the St. Louis Cardinals’ 2010 may appear a bit anti-climactic. In my line of thinking, the finish to any given season is positioned by default to become the top story of the year, but needs to proven by the actual events. In 2010, I think it definitely came to pass.

Unlike many other stories in the top 20 countdown, this one took six months to unfold. It was more of a long, tortuous story than one that arrived with a bang.

There has been and will continue to be plenty of opportunity to debate when the turning point in the season occurred, what the biggest contributors to the downfall were, when the season was truly lost and so on (see poll below and reader top story voting that begins here Tuesday).

Yet, standing back, the biggest story of the year is clearly that the favorite in a weak division, anchored by some of the very best players in Major League Baseball and led by a future Hall of Fame manager, underachieved to the extent they sat home in October for the third time in four years.

Sure, there were injuries and setbacks along the way, but were they really any more extreme than other clubs had to face? The Cardinals’ core players generally remained healthy and productive throughout the season.

The Cardinals got out of the gates quickly, building a five-game lead in the National League Central by May 3. Two weeks later, even before injuries to Brad Penny, Kyle Lohse and David Freese, they had fallen into second place. The Cards and Cincinnati Reds battled back and forth for the next 2 ½ months. St. Louis gave up the lead for good on August 14 and by September 1 was eight games out.

It appeared the club spent the season on perpetual cruise control, unable to step on the gas when a burst of energy was needed. This was most evidenced by a demonstrated ability to play well when the competition was at its highest level, yet perform at their absolute worst when facing the poorest teams – a fatal condition even the manager could not explain.

Optimists will point out that the 2010 Cardinals finished at 86-76, ten games over .500, just five games behind Cincinnati. However even the most cursory peek under the surface exposes the flimsiness of that façade. The record was buoyed by a season-closing 9-2 stretch, salvaging a winning season during what was essentially garbage time.

The ugly truth is that St. Louis could not consistently beat the teams they were supposed to beat. They stumbled to a confounding 46-50 mark (.479) against clubs that finished with a losing record.

Despite residing in what many believe is MLB’s weakest division, NL Central foes Milwaukee, Chicago and Houston claimed series wins over St. Louis, victories the Cardinals should have gobbled up and would have in other years.

Down the stretch, the team had absolutely nothing left. From August 14 through September 22, they went into an embarrassing 3-20 freefall against losing clubs as any faint post-season hopes completely evaporated.

Why could the Cardinals not play .606 ball (40-26) against all teams like they did against the very best? If they had, 2010 would have been a 98-win season, the best by any club in baseball.

Was it the personnel, or if not, what was it?

What can be learned from this?

Rather than rehash each of the many twists and turns of the past season, since they were already covered in detail in the rest of the top 20 countdown, I prefer to look ahead to 2011.

The Cardinals made the decision to essentially keep in place the same team and management for next season, with some “chemistry” adjustments. The club’s core players are either a year more experienced or simply a year older, depending on your perspective.

Compared to the roster that began the 2010 campaign, these are the major changes implemented since:

Changes among supporting players:

Other changes projected but not yet formalized:

Decide for yourself if you think these moves and expected moves are enough to reroute the Cardinals’ course for 2011.

Remember that the rest of the NL Central isn’t standing still. The Reds return the vast majority of their up-and-coming division-winning squad from last season and always offensively-potent Milwaukee has moved aggressively to address their starting pitching deficiency.

Link to The Cardinal Nation Blog’s top 20 stories of the year countdown

In honor of the completion of my annual top 20, I am including two polls, one looking backward, the other looking ahead.

What was the single biggest contributor to the downfall of the 2010 Cardinals?

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What will be the top three teams in order in the 2011 NL Central?

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