Cardinals’ health challenges a concern

I’m worried about the St. Louis Cardinals — and not just because they’ve lost first baseman Albert Pujols, manager Tony La Russa and, at least for the time being, pitching coach Dave Duncan.

Those departures alone are enough to give one pause about the defending World Series champions, but my concern runs deeper.

This is a physically fragile club. Free-agent right-hander Roy Oswalt, with his history of back trouble, would be yet another question if the Cardinals signed him.

“We feel good about our depth, but clearly injuries will always test a club’s roster,” Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak says. “As with all teams, health will be very important to our success.”

The Cardinals, of course, overcame the loss of right-hander Adam Wainwright for all of last season as well as the temporary absences of Pujols, left fielder Matt Holliday, third baseman David Freese and others.

But the dynamic will be different in 2012.

When injuries struck in the past, La Russa’s motivational and tactical skills helped cushion the blow. Now, the Cardinals will be under the less-certain leadership of Mike Matheny, who will be managing for the first time.

St. Louis, mind you, still possesses enough talent and depth to win the feeble NL Central and maybe even repeat as league champions. The Cincinnati Reds could be the Cardinals’ only serious competition in the division if Milwaukee Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun is required to serve a 50-game suspension for violating the sport’s drug policy.

Still, it’s easy to see how things could go awry for Matheny and new pitching coach Derek Lilliquist.

Start with the top of the rotation.

• Right-hander Chris Carpenter, who turns 37 on April 27, worked a career-high 273 1/3 innings in 2011, including postseason.

• Wainwright, coming off Tommy John surgery, expects to be part of the Opening Day rotation, but may need time to regain his arm strength.

• Left-hander Jaime Garcia did not reach 200 innings in either of his first two full seasons, and may prove little more than a six-inning pitcher long term.

Now consider the position players, a group littered with one health risk after another:

• First baseman Lance Berkman, who turns 36 on Feb. 10, is coming off his first healthy season since 2008.

• Outfielder Carlos Beltran, who turns 35 on April 24, appeared in 142 games last season but averaged only 81 in the previous three.

• Shortstop Rafael Furcal, 34, appeared in only 87 games in 2011 and 97 in ’10.

• Holliday, 32, appeared in 124 games last season, his fewest since 2005.

Even two of the Cardinals’ younger regulars — Freese, 28, and right fielder Allen Craig, 27, have yet to play 100 games in a season. And Craig, coming off surgery to repair a fractured right kneecap, is doubtful for Opening Day.

Now for the good news:

• Skip Schumaker, who batted .299 with a .353 on-base percentage after the All-Star break, will provide depth at several positions in a super-utility role.

• Most of the Cardinals’ relievers are in their prime or pre-prime, and the team projects to be reasonably healthy at three of the four up-the-middle positions.

• Yadier Molina, 29, is one of the game’s most durable catchers. Jon Jay, who turns 27 on March 15, should get most of the time in center field. Tyler Greene, 28, and Daniel Descalso, 25, will compete at second base.

Greene is an example of a player who might thrive under Matheny; La Russa created pressure on young players, and Greene did not always handle it well.

Ask Colby Rasmus, whom the Cardinals traded last season to the Toronto Blue Jays — La Russa was not for everyone. But on balance, were the Cardinals better with him or without him? Please.

Lest anyone forget, the Cardinals trailed the Atlanta Braves by 10 1/2 games in the wild-card race last Aug. 25. Their 90 wins were the fewest of any postseason qualifier, and only a historic collapse by the Braves put St. Louis in position for its magical October run.

I’m not discounting the Cardinals’ accomplishments; they jelled at the right time and proved a fierce, resilient club. But the reality is, they barely made it to the postseason. They lost three potential Hall of Famers — La Russa, Pujols, Duncan. And their roster, from a health standpoint, might be the biggest house of cards of any in the majors.

See why I’m worried?