The front of the Cardinals rotation is set, with dueling Cy Young contenders Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright forming one of the most intimidating one-two pitching punches in all of baseball. The only question mark for either is health, and prognosticating injuries is a fool's errand. Brad Penny, the Cards' latest project for Dave Duncan, is a lottery ticket. He could be worth his weight in gold (that's a lot of gold), or he could repeat his awful 2009 stint in Boston. The fifth starter is Jaime Garcia, and you never want to bank too heavily on the performance of a rookie, particularly a rookie pitcher.

What the Cards need from Lohse is a stabilizing influence in the middle of the rotation. They need him to be the guy they're paying him to be. His 2009 season was counterbalanced by Joel Piñeiro's unfathomable conversion from piñata to Dead Ball Era Superstar, but Piñeiro is gone. Another dud from Lohse will be much harder to weather in 2010.

On the other hand, if Lohse can regain his confidence, health and control, the Cards' rotation could move from solid to elite. The talent is there at the top, and there's a pair of intriguing arms at the back. All the rotation really needs is Kyle Lohse to function like the Dude's rug and tie the whole thing together.

Squeeze play: Kyle Lohse and Ryan Franklin at the Winter Warmup.
Bill Greenblatt/UPI
Squeeze play: Kyle Lohse and Ryan Franklin at the Winter Warmup.

Ryan Franklin Ah, the scary player. Of all the unknowns that could upset the Cardinals' apple cart, none looms so large as the Bearded One. To see the effect an unsettled closer's role can have on even a high-quality ballclub, one need look no further than the Cards' own recent history.

In 2003 the Cardinals had one of the most powerful offenses in all of baseball. It was the first year of the MV3, with Pujols, Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen forming the engine of a run-scoring vehicle of awesome proportions. The bullpen that season, though, was awful, particularly early on when Jason Isringhausen was on the disabled list. The Cardinals missed the playoffs that year, as the pitching corps proved unable to hold the leads the offense created.

In both 2004 and '05, there was stability at the back end of the bullpen, with Isringhausen enjoying two fine seasons and Julián Tavárez handling the lion's share of setup duties. The next season, 2006, Izzy began his death spiral and very nearly pulled down the Cardinals along with him. Once Adam Wainwright was installed as closer, the bullpen stabilized, and leads became reason for optimism once more, rather than a sense of impending doom.

The most recent season sunk by a leaky bullpen was 2008, when Isringhausen again spent half his time battling injuries and the other half battling homeritis. The 2008 club led all of baseball in blown saves, and a season that could very well have ended in a wild-card berth instead ended in angry talk-radio rants. Last year Franklin was outstanding for most of the season, going whole months without giving up even a single run. Unsurprisingly, the team contended and ultimately won. The 'pen may not have been the biggest reason the Cards were once again the class of their division last year, but it certainly preserved the work the rest of the team did.

Really, that's the way bullpens in general, and closers specifically, tend to function. A great closer cannot make a bad team anything but bad, but there's no faster way to bring down a high-flying club than by losing leads late.

We saw Ryan Franklin at his best last season, when he seemed nearly untouchable, and we saw his slow implosion late in the season. He was awful in September, posting a 6.75 ERA and allowing opponents a 1.007 OPS. Think of it this way: In the month of September, Ryan Franklin essentially turned every hitter he faced into the Cardinals' version of Matt Holliday. And when the actual Cardinal Matt Holliday dropped a line drive in the playoffs, Franklin collapsed. The Nutshot Heard 'Round the League received all the focus, but Franklin needed to retire only a single hitter to preserve the win. Instead he allowed the next five hitters to reach base and the Cards' playoff hopes to slip away.

If the Cardinals want to be the elite club their top-end talent suggests they should be, there may be no more important player on the team than Ryan Franklin. The offense should plate plenty of runs, and at least two-fifths of the rotation should hand a lead to the bullpen nearly every time out. If those leads hold, the Cardinals will win. A lot.

If September 2009 Franklin shows up, though, it may not matter just how many of those states are already colored in. More than any other player on this year's squad, Ryan Franklin could swing the whole thing either way.

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