Opening Day is finally here as the Cards kick things off in Cincinnati. Most experts are picking the Cards to win the Central, with some predicting World Series berths or even the 11th Championship. Can the Cards get Ring #11? I think there are three primary keys to what the answer of that question will be:
1. Chris Carpenter - Much has been made of his injury history, but I don't think it is overstated. Bottom line is this: the Cards acquired him before the 2003 season. Every year that Carp has been healthy and pitched a full season or close to it, the Cards have won the NL Central. In the years he hasn't pitched - 2003, 2007 and 2008 - the Cards have been home for the playoffs.
2. Bullpen/Closer Role - I've expressed a number of times on this site my lack of confidence in Ryan Franklin heading into 2010. I hope I am wrong, but I believe at some point this year, LaRussa and Duncan are going to have to swallow hard and consider making a change at closer. Whether that is Jason Motte, Kyle McClellan or someone else is difficult to say, but how they handle potential struggles by Franklin could be a defining moment for the 2010 Birds. If the bullpen performs like it did in 2008 with blown saves aplenty, Ring #11 will be a pipe dream.
3. Bench contributions - I believe the Cards starting lineup is going to generate offense and lots of it. Situational hitting needs to improve from 2009, but with Pujols and Holliday anchoring the lineup, this team will produce runs. I believe that both Rasmus and Ludwick are going to come up with big years as well. The issue is going to be how the bench steps up when/if there are injuries and how they produce as a unit. On most championship teams, you can always point to key role players/bench guys that helped fuel a playoff run. With young players such as Allen Craig, Nick Stavinoha and Joe Mather anchoring the Cardinal bench this year, how they perform and fill in when needed will be critical.