St. Louis Cardinals
With the Cardinals wallowing 10.5 games back in the wild card race, several veterans convened a team meeting in late August to stress making the most of a misspent season. Two months later they did more than that. They made history. The Cardinals won 34 of their final 50 games (including the postseason) and punctuated baseball’s most improbable comeback with the franchise’s 11th championship. Down to their final strike twice in Game 6, the Cardinals rallied to win and then defeated the Texas Rangers in Game 7 of a captivating World Series. That’s when things really got interesting. Tony La Russa retired after 16 years with the Cardinals as the club’s winningest manager. Three-time MVP Albert Pujols left behind a legacy of 11 uncanny seasons for a record $250 million contract with the Angels. Their departures signaled the sudden end of one of the franchise’s greatest eras, but not the end of its ability to pursue another title. Mike Matheny, without a day in the dugout as a coach or manager, took over and redirected the conversation from who was leaving to who was returning. Matt Holliday, Lance Berkman and newcomer Carlos Beltran will power the lineup, and ace Adam Wainwright is back after missing all of 2011. Despite the loss of two icons, the Cardinals enter 2012 with a team that they believe can win again. Just without all the drama.
The news that threatened to derail the Cardinals’ summer before it started came last February: Wainwright needed season-ending elbow surgery. Now, one year later, Wainwright returns this spring to complete a rotation set to defend a World Series title. Plans for a reunion with Chris Carpenter, who shouldered a league-high 237.1 innings and won four playoff games, has been put on hold — not by Wainwright’s health, but Carpenter’s. The ace is dealing with a nerve issue, not unlike what has sidelined the big rightnahder in the past. The Cardinals hope it is a temporary setback, but with Carp you never know. Carpenter is 44–22 with a 3.02 ERA in the past three seasons, so he will be missed. Jaime Garcia is working to minimize his habit of letting minor trouble mushroom so that he can emerge as the division’s top young lefty. Kyle Lohse went 3–0 with a 1.72 ERA during the final month to lead the rotation in wins (14) and ERA (3.39). He has been named the Opening Day starter. Jake Westbrook’s inconsistency kept him from 200 innings. Lance Lynn has earned the right to fill Carpenter’s shoes. Even without their 2011 ace, this is not a bad rotation.
The trade that fortified the Cardinals for the postseason did so by sending outfielder Colby Rasmus to Toronto and reshaping a beleaguered bullpen. The Cardinals had been sabotaged by blown saves — they’d finish with 26 — and to mend the ruptures they added four arms: lefties Marc Rzepczynski and Arthur Rhodes, righty Octavio Dotel, and Kyle McClellan, transplanted from the rotation. By October, the bullpen became a force, posting a 3.31 ERA in the playoffs and inspiring La Russa’s 75 pitching changes, a record for a single postseason. Vets like Dotel are gone, leaving closer Jason Motte to anchor an October-tested, though still green, pack of burgeoning arms. Rzepczynski, McClellan, Fernando Salas and Mitchell Boggs are the keys to success here.
When Rafael Furcal arrived from the Dodgers on the trade deadline, he did more than introduce the rallying cry for getaway day victories — “Happy Flight!” He also brought a steadfast glove. Mileage has made him less of a dynamo on offense, but Furcal remains a top-flight shortstop, a safety net that the Cardinals’ groundball staff requires. Furcal returns on a two-year deal at a position that’s been in flux since David Eckstein left four seasons ago. Second base should be so stable. Skip Schumaker, the incumbent, returns, but the Cardinals have identified Daniel Descalso for regular playing time. Schumaker is dealing with an oblique injury, so Descalso is the man for now.
When the Cardinals pushed in September to re-sign Berkman for another season, their motivation went beyond rewarding his comeback summer. He was insurance. Berkman offered an All-Star alternative at first base if Pujols vacated. The veteran switch-hitter is a worthy replacement after finishing seventh in NL MVP voting and fueling the Cardinals with his best offensive season since 2008. In World Series Game 6, Berkman’s single tied the game in the 10th inning to set up David Freese’s winning homer in the 11th. Now healthy, Freese has the potential to help replace lost offense. Including the postseason, Freese had 12 homers, 58 RBIs and a .525 slugging percentage in his final 77 games. The Cardinals no longer have to squint through the injury report to see the makings of their next impact hitter.
The gamble of signing a former rival late in his career paid off so handsomely with Berkman that the Cardinals are trying it again. Enter Beltran. The switch-hitter became the Cardinals’ chief target when Pujols left because he fit immediate needs. Beltran is the first player outside the organization to sign a multi-year deal during general manager John Mozeliak’s stewardship. Beltran augments what already was the NL’s most productive outfield. Holliday’s 2011 was complicated by unlucky injuries (example: a moth flew in his ear), and yet the only left fielder to out-produce him was MVP Ryan Braun. Jon Jay seized the everyday job in center with savvy and a swing that will make him a high-average hitter in any role. Allen Craig’s breakout as a power complement to Holliday will be delayed by knee surgery. That puts Beltran in right to start the year, in center at times through the year, and in position to match Berkman with an All-Star year.
Accustomed to getting elite play from him behind the plate, the Cardinals saw what could be a breakout year at the plate for 29-year-old Yadier Molina. The Gold Glove Award winner set new career bests in average, homers and RBIs. His career-best .465 slugging percentage was 100-plus points better than his career .361. Molina tied for the lead in the majors in starts (131) and finished third in innings caught (1,150), and for only the second time in five seasons he avoided knee troubles at season’s end. Molina signed a five-year extension that will pay him upwards of $70 million beginning in 2013.
After several seasons of building their bench around inexperienced players to control costs and cultivate homegrown talents, the Cardinals may delay their usual search for a seasoned backup. They’ve developed their own experienced role players. Tyler Greene took several short tours as a utility infielder, and Descalso shined as defensive replacement and part-timer in 2011. Tony Cruz is a capable backup to Molina. Craig gives the Cardinals an offensive option as a fourth outfielder or first baseman. There will still be youngsters aplenty because the Cardinals aren’t shy about shuttling players between Triple-A Memphis and St. Louis. How Matheny intends to utilize his role players will help set the ideal bench blend and determine when (or if) the annual addition of a vet is necessary.
Mozeliak emerged from the defining stretch of his tenure with a team he redefined for the future. Within weeks of being unable to re-sign Pujols, Mozeliak moved aggressively to lock in Molina, Furcal and Beltran. In four seasons as GM, Mozeliak has made successful deals under duress (Scott Rolen for Troy Glaus), taken high-yield risks (Berkman), and pieced together a gutsy blockbuster (three-team Rasmus trade). With two headlining personalities moving out, Mozeliak is the club’s public voice surrounded by a roster and front office of his making. The biggest stamp Mozeliak put on the offseason was hiring Matheny. The former Gold Glove catcher landed the job on the Cardinals’ longstanding view he had potential to manage. Matheny is a commanding presence and already a confidant of many players. In his early days on the job, he mined La Russa and Whitey Herzog for their expertise and canvassed the organization, from its analytics department to its scouts.
A day after Pujols’ decision to leave, the new face of the franchise took stock of the team around him. Most clubs, Holliday said, would lose a Hall of Fame manager and the best hitter of his generation and “be sent reeling.” Yet, a sense of optimism prevailed. The Cardinals know they cannot replace Pujols, but they don’t believe they need to in order to remain competitive. A new era is being built around the pitching staff and the next generation of core players, like righty Shelby Miller, who can ease onto a strong roster. “If we’re not the favorite, I’d like to know who is,” Wainwright says. An offseason that could have created an identity crisis instead reinforced the Cardinals’ constant. No matter how profound the changes, their expectations to contend remain the same.
SS Rafael Furcal (S)
A nimble fielder with his signature rifle arm, Furcal still shows flickers of electric talent.
RF Carlos Beltran (S)
Six-time All-Star brings desired power/OBP blend for post-Albert Pujols lineup.
LF Matt Holliday (R)
Heir apparent to Pujols’ lineup spot is a former batting champ who teammates believe is poised to win an MVP.
1B Lance Berkman (S)
Charismatic presence and revived force on the field, Comeback Player of the Year returns for an encore.
3B David Freese (R)
His October heroics could be springboard into breakout season. If he stays healthy, he’ll stay productive.
CF Jon Jay (L)
For second straight season, Jay started in a part-time role, and production earned him a regular’s playing time.
C Yadier Molina (R)
Four-time Gold Glove winner had a career year at the plate with highs in BA (.305), slugging (.465), HRs (14).
2B Daniel Descalso (L)
Started 81 games, often finishing them as a defensive replacement at third. He may remain the second baseman even after Schumaker returns from injury.
OF Allen Craig (R)
With four homers in the postseason, Craig showed his promise and his pop – with a fractured kneecap. He’s still recovering from surgery.
2B/OF Skip Schumaker (L)
Glue guy landed a two-year deal this winter and a new position title from management: “super utility.” But a strained oblique will keep him on the sidelines for the first month.
INF Tyler Greene (R)
Overpowering at Triple-A, former first-round pick appears overwhelmed and uneasy in the majors.
C Tony Cruz (R)
Gained the trust of the rotation and proved versatile enough to play third and outfield.
OF Erik Komatsu (L)
Hasn’t played above Double-A but hopes to stick as club’s speedy extra outfielder.
OF Shane Robinson (R)
Until Craig and Schumaker return from injury, Robinson will have an opportunity to prove himself.
3B Matt Carpenter (L)
Owns a .300 average and .408 on-base percentage in the minors.
RH Adam Wainwright
Back from Tommy John, he expects to return to elite status that includes two top-three finishes in Cy Young.
LH Jaime Garcia
Rewarded for potential with a four-year extension with options that could keep him a Cardinal through 2017.
RH Kyle Lohse
Healthy after two years of nagging forearm trouble, righty led rotation in wins and ERA.
RH Jake Westbrook
Inability to command his signature pitch, the sinking fastball, kept Westbrook from grounding opponents.
RH Lance Lynn
Rookie emerged as a power reliever, but his durability makes him an attractive starter until Chris Carpenter returns.
RH Chris Carpenter
Ace owned October with four wins, including World Series Game 7 and shutout to clinch division series. He now owns a nerve problem that has shelved him for a while.
RH Jason Motte (Closer)
Hard-throwing righty seized the ninth during the September run.
RH Kyle McClellan
Started 2011 in the rotation before returning to familiar setup role he’ll likely hold this summer.
RH Fernando Salas
Rescued a hemorrhaging bullpen with his steady pulse and a team-best 24 saves.
RH Mitchell Boggs
Has the desirable high-voltage sinker and breaking ball that fits late-inning assignments.
LH Marc Rzepczynski
Advertised as the long-term prize of the Rasmus trade, “Scrabble” has the stuff to someday start.
LH J.C. Romero
Cardinals are banking on a rebound from the inconsistencies that defined 2011.
RH Scott Linebrink
Pedestrian 4.02 ERA and 1.375 WHIP over last five seasons.