Division picks: Champs have tough task

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — St. Louis Cardinals rookie manager Mike Matheny understands his challenge.

“The bottom line,” he said, “is we have to win.”

Knowing and doing are not the same thing.

The Cardinals parlayed the National League wild card into a world championship a year ago. Odds do not favor a repeat performance.

History isn’t kind, but then neither is the reality of the spring. Chris Carpenter, a key to the Cardinals’ rotation, opens the season with a lingering neck injury, and the Cardinals took a major gamble with a two-year deal to retain shortstop Rafael Furcal, who has spent two stints on the disabled list in each of the past two years.

There is not enough depth in the St. Louis organization to hide those concerns.

And if that’s not a big enough challenge, Matheny, who has never managed at any level of professional baseball, is taking over for Tony La Russa, whose 16 years in St. Louis resulted in 1,408 regular-season wins, nine postseason appearances, three NL pennants and two world championships.

There’s more. Only twice has a manager taken over a defending world champion and repeated, and both times the new manager had big league managerial experience — Alvin Dark with Oakland in 1974 and Bob Lemon with the New York Yankees in 1978.

There’s more. There has not been a National League team to claim back-to-back world championships since the Cincinnati Reds in 1975 and ’76.

It’s difficult to imagine the Cardinals falling below .500, particularly in a six-team division that includes the Houston Astros, Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs. A third-place finish seems likely, behind a Cincinnati Reds team that is scrambling to find a closer after Ryan Madson required elbow surgery and a Milwaukee Brewers team primed to repeat as NL Central champions despite the loss of first baseman Prince Fielder through free agency.

The Brewers are strong-armed, with the deepest rotation in the NL and a reinforced bullpen that has Francisco Rodriguez to handle the eighth inning ahead of closer Josh Axford.

NL Central forecast: Milwaukee, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Chicago Cubs, Houston.

NL EAST
The Miami Marlins are all dressed up, looking for somewhere to go in 2012. With a new name (Miami instead of Florida), new uniforms and a new stadium, Marlins ownership opened the checkbook and increased the payroll from $61.9 million to a club-record $93 million-plus.

With a season-ticket base that has hit 15,000, the Marlins hired manager Ozzie Guillen away from the Chicago White Sox, where his relationship with general manager Kenny Williams was marginal at best, and signed three free agents: shortstop Jose Reyes, left-handed starter Mark Buehrle and closer Heath Bell.

Can the Marlins buy happiness? Maybe, but if so, it will only be because the Philadelphia Phillies can’t cope with the extended absence of first baseman Ryan Howard (broken ankle) and second baseman Chase Utley (sore knees), their 3-4 hitters in the lineup. The Phillies, however, are built around pitching, and that’s still sound.

NL East forecast: Philadelphia, Miami, Washington, Atlanta, New York Mets.

NL WEST
In the 17 years of three-division play (excluding the 1994 strike season), the NL West is the only division in which no team has won three consecutive division titles. And it has seen only three back-to-back champions: Arizona (2000-01), San Diego (2005-06) and the Los Angeles Dodgers (2008-09).

Arizona would like to add a back-to-back title in 2012, but don’t count on it. Arizona was able to make the push last year despite the loss of shortstop Stephen Drew (broken ankle) for the final two months. This season will start like last season ended — Drew sidelined, and there is no date circled for his return. Drew never got into a game this spring training. It’s not realistic to feel the Diamondbacks can cover his extended absence for a second year in a row.

The Los Angeles Dodgers have unloaded the headache of the Frank McCourt ownership this spring, and in the final months of 2011, they unloaded the frustrations of failure. The Dodgers went 34-20 in the final two months of the season, a 17-11 August providing them their first winning month since June 2010. With the NL Cy Young Award winner (Clayton Kershaw) and MVP runner-up (Matt Kemp), they have the foundation to return to the top of the division.

NL West forecast: Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco, Arizona, Colorado, San Diego.

AL EAST
The Tampa Bay Rays have become baseball’s poster boy for parity.

There are no gimmicks for the Rays. They rely on the old-time approach, combining statistical research with player evaluations. And they have shown that even on a tight budget, a team can enjoy success.

The Rays have advanced to the postseason in three of the last four seasons — the same as the big-budget AL East-rival New York Yankees. They have both won two division titles in that stretch, and claimed one wild card.

The Boston Red Sox, meanwhile, are coming off back-to-back seasons without a postseason appearance. They are in upheaval after a management housecleaning in the wake of last year’s fiasco. And things haven’t gone well this spring. There has been tension between manager Bobby Valentine and general manager Ben Cherington, who was overruled by team president Larry Lucchino on the hiring of Valentine.

AL East forecast: Tampa Bay, New York Yankees, Toronto, Boston, Baltimore.

AL CENTRAL
Detroit Tigers owner Mike Ilitch showed he would spend what it took for his Red Wings to win a Stanley Cup, and the indication he is more intent to enjoy his Tigers winning a World Series. That’s why when Victor Martinez was lost for the season, Ilitch opened the budget to sign free agent Prince Fielder to a nine-year, $214 million contract.

The Tigers are certainly the class of a division gone bad. They were the only team in the division with a winning record last season, and that could be the case again in 2012.

The Tigers’ focus is on the postseason as they look for their first world championship since 1984.

AL Central forecast: Detroit, Kansas City, Chicago White Sox, Minnesota, Cleveland.

AL WEST
With the Texas Rangers winning back-to-back division titles — and advancing to the World Series both times — the Los Angeles Angels cleaned out the front office and opened up the checkbook. They signed free-agent first baseman Albert Pujols to a 10-year, $240 million deal, and left-handed pitcher C.J. Wilson to a five-year, $77.5 million deal.

Apparently the Angels haven’t learned from their past. When they have tried to buy happiness, they have wound up with disappointment.

In the first year of free agency, they splurged on the signings of Joe Rudi, Don Baylor and Bobby Grich, and finished that 1977 season with a 74-88 record, fifth place. The Angels tried a quick fix again in 1999, signing DH Mo Vaughn to a six-year, $80 million deal, the richest contract in baseball history at that time. They went 70-92 and finished in last place.

AL West forecast: Texas, Los Angeles Angels, Seattle, Oakland.