Can the Cardinals pull off a repeat?

Can the champion Cardinals pull off a repeat?

ST. LOUIS -- If we all learned one lesson from the St. Louis Cardinals' improbable run to the 2006 World Series championship, it should be this: If you're good enough to get there, you're good enough to win it. Once the playoffs start, anybody can beat anybody.

So if the question is whether the Cardinals can repeat, then the answer is an unhesitating, unqualified "yes." They can win the National League Central, so they can win the World Series.

Will they win the big prize for a second straight year? That's another matter entirely. No team has repeated since 1999-2000, and it's not because there haven't been some worthy defending champions. It's because getting to October is one thing; winning three straight series once you get there is something else altogether.

It's not about repeating, per se. It's about winning consistently for six months, and playing your best for three weeks.

"It's different, because you're going to have people congratulating the club," manager Tony La Russa said of the challenge facing his team. "And that's going to be great, but you can't get distracted with that.

"Everybody's going to be disappointed if we're not in the hunt again. So the coaches and all of us that are associated with the club are really going to be trying to turn the page."

But how well equipped are the 2007 Cardinals to win a fourth straight division title, and thus put themselves in position for a postseason run? Better than you might think. Even with dramatic improvements all over the NL Central, the road to the playoffs will go through Busch Stadium.

The Redbirds return their starting offense from the end of 2006 almost intact. Adam Kennedy steps in at second base, filling a spot that was held by the Hector Luna-Aaron Miles platoon for four months and by Ronnie Belliard at the end of the year. Chris Duncan gets a full season of at-bats.

Those changes should represent upgrades over the course of a full season. Otherwise, the remaining spots in the lineup are unchanged from the offense that was solid, if unspectacular, in 2006.

A bullpen that emerged as a major asset in the 2006 playoffs has added some bodies, but also may lose Adam Wainwright to the starting rotation. Still, it's a deep unit, with all sorts of ways to get outs.

The question comes in the starting rotation, but any downgrade probably has been overstated. Much of the St. Louis rotation was in flux for most of the 2006 season -- Sidney Ponson struggled and was let go, Anthony Reyes was up and down, and Jason Marquis scuffled nearly all year.

So while the reconfigured group may have its lumps, the 2007 rotation might also have the potential to outdo its '06 counterparts.

Nothing is a guarantee. Injuries could wreck the Cardinals. The Astros, Cubs or Brewers could surprise and steamroll the division. But the Cardinals have every chance of getting to the postseason. And when you get there, you can win it.

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.