This time last year, the St. Louis Cardinals were the reigning World Series champions. That one's easy. We were still watching David Freese videos with alarming frequency, but the #12in12 hashtags had mostly gone into storage until April.
All that's broad offseason stuff, though—I'm more interested in where we were last January. January's an awkward baseball month; pitchers and catchers aren't quite close enough to start the countdown, and the momentum the Winter Meetings generate has been used up, and you're left to talk about the team the general manager has just finished assembling. So here's what we were talking about back then; maybe it'll help us figure out what we should be talking about this month.
The Old Injured Guy rotation had just come into focus
The space around the Albert Pujols deal—the worries about the Marlins, the Winter Meetings talk, the existential angst, the questions about what to do with the Pujols Dividend—has already expanded a month in both directions, in my mind, which is why it's odd to see that Pujols signed with the Angels on December 8 and Carlos Beltran signed with the Cardinals on December 23.
On January 1, then, azruavatar wrote about Beltran as a core player. The Beltran deal—and the Rafael Furcal extension a few days earlier—solidified the identity of the 2012 offense: A bunch of injury-prone and/or old guys taking roughly starter-sized slices of at-bats wherever they were.
That was accurate, read broadly, but not in the clockwork way I imagined it; Carlos Beltran and David Freese managed to stay mostly healthy, while Lance Berkman barely played at all. That meant Allen Craig became a de facto starter, playing 27 games in the outfield and 90 at first, and Matt Carpenter (35 1B, 5 2B, 28 3B, 18 OF) became the designated substitute-hitter.
Meanwhile, on the infield—
Tyler Greene was the starting second baseman, probably
That was in doubt by the end of Spring Training, and by the time the Cardinals traded him for the right to not think about Tyler Greene anymore he'd played just 47 games there, a number eventually topped by Skip Schumaker (59) and Daniel Descalso (83.)
All that happened shortly before Rafael Furcal's season-ending injury and the Cardinals' related conclusion that Daniel Descalso wasn't really a shortstop after all, and that weird conspiracy of replacement-level infielding was the necessary condition for Pete Kozma's, 25-game impression of Nomar Garciaparra.
Chris Carpenter was going to pitch
The knock-on stuff from Chris Carpenter's absence is reason-enough to throw up your hands and retire from prediction-making. Lance Lynn became a starter, and then a great starter, and then a starter everyone was a little worried about; Joe Kelly became an interesting guy with a 97-mph sinker, instead of a boring guy with a sinker you'd heard about; Trevor Rosenthal sneaked into the bullpen; Shelby Miller got a chance to escape from prospect jail.
All the prospect lists we just finished talking about are filled with pitchers whose place on the ladder was altered by Carpenter's absence. It'll happen again in 2013.
You could predict a few months out that Lance Berkman or Chris Carpenter will be hurt, or that Tyler Greene will not successfully win the second base job. But the next step—who steps up, how they do it, and when the Cardinals decide to, say, start Pete Kozma instead of making a Rafael-Furcal-style acquisition—makes things difficult.
The obvious questions here are in the middle infield; one of Ryan Jackson, Kolten Wong, or Greg Garcia could push his way into the middle infield picture if Daniel Descalso starts slowly or Rafael Furcal doesn't stay healthy. Or Pete Kozma could slug .560 again. But every January there's still a lot of practice-field injuries and managerial whims keeping us from actually knowing what the team will look like in May.