Skip to content

Springtime Storylines: Will the St. Louis Cardinals survive the loss of three legends?

Apr 3, 2012, 2:30 PM EDT

Adam Wainwright AP

Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: The New-Look Redbirds.

The Big Question: Will St. Louis be able to defend its World Series title this year in the absence of Pujols, La Russa and Duncan?

For the Cardinals, the 2011 season was a whirlwind. They were 10 1/2 games out of a playoff spot in late August, they had to get through the Phillies in the first round, they were supposed to be out-slugged by the National League Central champion Brewers in the second round, and they were down to their last strike twice in a wild World Series with the Rangers.

But the craziness didn’t stop when Allen Craig caught the final out in Game 7. A day after the Cardinals paraded the World Series trophy through the streets of downtown St. Louis, Tony La Russa announced that he was ending his 33-year managerial career. A month later, longtime first baseman and franchise icon Albert Pujols agreed to terms on a 10-year, $250 million free agent contract with the Angels. And just before the start of spring training, pitching coach and likely Hall of Famer Dave Duncan informed the Cardinals’ decision-makers that he was stepping away from the game for at least a year to be with his ailing wife.

Three giants of the industry, gone in one short winter. And yet the Redbirds seem unlikely to skip a beat.

The return of ace right-hander Adam Wainwright, who missed the entire 2011 season following Tommy John surgery, should help ease some of the pain brought on by Pujols’ departure. Wainwright was worth a whopping 6.1 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) in 2010 according to FanGraphs. Pujols was worth 5.1 fWAR in 2011.

The arrival of Carlos Beltran will also be big. He’s a full two years removed from microfracture knee surgery and has been improving offensively the further away he gets from that procedure. In the second half last season, the 34-year-old outfielder batted .325/.398/.562 with nine home runs and 26 RBI in 53 games.

The Cards were dealt a tough hand this winter, but they were able to come up with — or happen into — high quality solutions. And they should be right near the top of the National League Central standings as usual.

What Else Is Going On?

  • Replacing La Russa will be Mike Matheny, a former catcher for the Brewers, Blue Jays, Cardinals and Giants. There’s no way to know how he’ll operate as an in-game strategist because he enters the job with zero managerial experience. But his opened-mindedness to new ideas is, in a word, refreshing. “I know Bill James,” Matheny told reporters at December’s Winter Meetings. “I’ve done my share of research and realize that there is an advantage to it. … I’m willing to do anything if it gives us a better chance to win. I’ll take whatever information I get. That’s really the long and short of it; it’s really no more complex than that. If something becomes available to me that gives us a competitive edge, I’ll be all over it.”
  • The Cardinals signed catcher Yadier Molina to a five-year, $75 million contract extension this spring. It might seem like an extreme overpay for a guy with a .274/.331/.377 career batting line. But Molina is the best defensive catcher in baseball and his ability to prevent runs — both by controlling the running game with lightning-quick throws and by blocking pitches with unteachable instincts — makes him more valuable than most publicly available metrics would suggest. The 29-year-old Puerto Rican is also coming around offensively, having batted .305 with an .814 OPS, 14 home runs and 65 RBI in 139 games last year.
  • Under former general manager Walt Jocketty, the St. Louis farm system was used mostly to fund trades and rarely produced elite-level prospects. But that has all changed with the arrival of John Mozeliak, who has introduced a better-streamlined organizational philosophy and put more emphasis on the amateur draft and international free agent market. The Cardinals are suddenly stacked in the minors, with top prospects like right-handers Shelby Miller and Carlos Martinez, second baseman Kolten Wong, outfielder Oscar Taveras and first baseman Matt Adams inching closer and closer to the major leagues. There’s nothing better than cost-controlled talent, and St. Louis should soon have it in abundance.

How Are They Gonna Do?

If Rafael Furcal, David Freese, Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman can stay relatively healthy, the offense could be as good as any in the National League. And if left-hander Jaime Garcia continues to develop, right-hander Kyle Lohse remains a steady mid-rotation presence and veteran sinkerballer Jake Westbrook bounces back from an ugly 2011, the Cardinals should be able to breeze through two months sans Chris Carpenter. St. Louis will finish first in the National League Central, just inching out the Reds and Brewers.

  1. churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Apr 3, 2012 at 2:53 PM

    Yes, because is there a more overrated personality in MLB than Tony LaRussa?

    • stlouis1baseball - Apr 3, 2012 at 2:57 PM

      In the case of TLR…I choose to believe what his former players and peers in the business have to say as opposed to what someone posting on blog “thinks.” After all…success breeds jealousy.

      • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Apr 3, 2012 at 3:04 PM

        Thanks for the insult. Makes me take your comment all the more seriously.

        Point out some things that he himself did that made an impact on the baseball field? I’ll be here waiting. Because far too often managers get a ton of the credit when things go right, even if every other manager would have done the same thing, and not enough blame when things go wrong.

      • stlouis1baseball - Apr 3, 2012 at 3:15 PM

        Insult? Not my intention at all. I apologize if you took it that way.
        Merely pointing out that players love playing for him and he is highly respected among his peers. This is the bench mark that I use to gauge my thoughts and/or opinions of the man.
        And again…success breeds jealousy. It really is as simple as that. The guy is a hard ass. Can be very difficult to interview. But this really has no bearing on his accomplishments. The accomplishments are what stand out. 1st thing that comes to mind is his role in developing the Closer role. Among the many regular season, playoff and world series wins.
        2011 was just the latest example. Staff Ace out the entire year. (8 – 9) 3rd Baseman used. (6 – 7) different SS used. (4 – 5) different 2nd Baseman used. Pujols injured for a Month. Berkman missed several weeks. Closer released in June. Bullpen by committe. Pitching coach out the entire month of September (WHEN THEY WENT 23 – 9 TO CLOSE THE REGULAR SEASON). Who do you think was pulling the strings Church?
        But other than that….yeah…he hasn’t done much.

      • Kevin S. - Apr 3, 2012 at 3:35 PM

        Curious on what you think Scott Rolen, JD Drew, Brendan Ryan, Colby Rasmus and Ozzie Smith have to say about TLR.

      • paperlions - Apr 3, 2012 at 3:36 PM

        Baseball managers pulling strings….one of the great myths of modern times. Baseball teams with talent win no matter who is managing them….baseball teams without talent lose no matter who is managing them…that is why manager records vary so much through the years as the talent on their teams changes, and why teams that are talented and switch managers keep winning.

      • ajcardsfan - Apr 4, 2012 at 12:24 PM

        Kevin, out of all of those players, I only find I still like one – Ozzie Smith so I could care less about the others’ opinions of TLR, who I like lol. Especially JD Drew, I’ve always despised him. I was happy when he left, I think he went to the Braves?

    • spudchukar - Apr 3, 2012 at 8:45 PM

      What the hell does “overrated personality” mean?

  2. mybrunoblog - Apr 3, 2012 at 3:05 PM

    As a baseball fan I’m still disappointed pujols left st. Louis.
    I think that while it doesn’t tarnish his historic accomplishments it takes away something from his legacy. He becomes a bit of a free agent baseball mercenary.

    • stex52 - Apr 3, 2012 at 10:32 PM

      That’s just the game now. Part of how players measure their relative worth by how much they can get paid. Pujols knew he is one of the very best and he wanted to be paid like it. Fortunately, I think the organization is in a position to weather it and still win.

  3. stlouis1baseball - Apr 3, 2012 at 4:01 PM

    Kevin: You aren’t seriously trying to use B. Ryan, Colby Rasmus and J.D. freaking Drew to try to prove your point. You would have been far better off using Scott Rolen and Ozzie Smith ONLY.
    But of course…the other malcontents make your point sound a little better huh?
    Scott Rolen: As a fellow Hoosier who has followed his entire career from travel ball through MLB it pangs me to point out TLR isn’t the first Manager he has had issues with. With TLR…it was all about hiding his injuries during the 2006 run. TLR flat out called him out on it when it was obvious the dude could barely swing a bat. They have since kissed and made up. Just for the record…I have a Scott Rolen #27 jersey hanging in my closet I would be happy to sell you.
    The Wizard: My favorite player. Tough situation. He was on the downside of his career and didn’t want to split time with Royce Clayton. It pissed Ozzie off. But Tony is all about winning.
    I will give you Ozzie cause’ I am still pissed at TLR for that.
    Sooooo…you are ONE out of FIVE. Come again Junior.

    • ajcardsfan - Apr 4, 2012 at 12:28 PM

      St. Louis we think alike, although I can honestly say I only still like Ozzie out that group. He was my favorite player growing up, with Pagnozzi as my 2nd favorite.
      I don’t hate, but I don’t like Rolen anymore, just because he hid his injuries, and I know that he was just trying to keep making money.
      Ryan I’m very indifferent about, Rasmus is a cry baby and should have learned to shut up. And well…JD Drew is the only person I’ve seen get booed by Cardinals fans while wearing the Cardinal Jersey…lol

      • stlouis1baseball - Apr 4, 2012 at 12:54 PM

        I am with you 100% AJ. Ozzie is my all time favorite. Being a fellow Hoosier…I have followed Rolen since he was in high school. He actually still hits in my hometown in the off-season. He is friends with the long time local High School Coach. I was far more dissapointed in Rolen however as a result of him hiding his injury. During the playoff run no less. But it’s a lot easier for the TLR haters to blame Tony for that (my Father included).

  4. umrguy42 - Apr 3, 2012 at 4:32 PM

    I won’t claim that the team is better right now for it, and I’m still upset he left, but I’m still preferring to look on the positive and hope that by not signing Pujols to that monster deal, the Cards really *can* keep themselves flexible to do more down the road as needed to keep winning.

  5. stlouis1baseball - Apr 3, 2012 at 5:02 PM

    Paper: You and I will never agree on this topic (as well as several others). I am not sure why you even wasted your time responding. Come to think of it…why in the hell am I responding now? Hahaha!

    • paperlions - Apr 3, 2012 at 7:21 PM

      Not sure :-)

      As soon as there is any evidence whatsoever that managers make a difference to baseball teams winning, I will change my mind. Right now, no such data exists….indeed, the evidence there is strongly suggests that managers can do far more damage than they can do good. Who wins baseball games is up to the players.

      • spudchukar - Apr 3, 2012 at 8:47 PM

        Earlier today is was chance that determines outcomes not players. Please make up your mind.

      • paperlions - Apr 4, 2012 at 7:10 AM

        Spud, if you don’t understand what chance is, and how it effects every day life….well….I’m sorry. Suffice it to say that events vary around a mean with chance accounting for variation in measurement of the true parametric value. Players ability is a large determining factor in the outcomes of games, chance determines the outcome of particular events, with larger sample sizes being better representatives of parametric values than smaller sample sizes.

        A player that hits a lot of line drives will have more hits than players that hit a lot of fly balls or ground balls, because those types of hit offer fielders less chance to turn them into outs. But every line drive won’t be a hit, some will be right at fielders, and every pop up won’t be an out, some will fall in. Hitters that hit more line drives will have more hits…..over the long run, not necessarily during a single game.

  6. okwhitefalcon - Apr 3, 2012 at 5:10 PM

    I think the Cards could have a tough rode ahead of them, I like the roster they’ve put together and think they’ve got a shot to be really good based on health.

    As Drew mentioned above, cost controlled talent is great – if that talent translates to the big leagues.
    There’s no “can’t miss” guys mentioned, a couple have high ceilings in Miller and Tavares. The jury is out on Martinez as to if he can start or will be a bullpen guy, Wong’s a closer comp to Luis Alicea than he is Dustin Pedroia and Adams is probably closer to Jm Lindeman than the last first basemen the Cards developed on their own. Point is, we just don’t know if any will pan out or not though it will be fun to watch.

    LaRussa being gone is a factor, his ability to lead and influence on the owner will be tough to replicate.

    This future of the franchise ultimately resides at the feet of Bill Dewitt, if he provides the economic support to procure talent and hold onto core players, they’ll be just fine.

    If not, they won’t.

  7. ymann19 - Apr 3, 2012 at 9:11 PM

    Tony Larussa is got lucky to win both world series tittles in St Louis! The tigers pitchers blew a few big plays with throwing errors. The Rangers Manager screwed up when he didn’t have a no doubles defense on when Freese hit his triple then he left old man Oliver to long. Larussa won by default!

    • stlouis1baseball - Apr 4, 2012 at 12:58 PM

      Ymann19: To that…all I can say is…hahaha! Oh…one more thing…hahaha!

    • salvomania - Apr 4, 2012 at 4:48 PM

      Right on ymann, they were lucky.

      Just like the Yankees were lucky to beat the Cardinals in the 1928 and 1943 World Series, and the A’s were lucky to beat the Cardinals in the 1930 World Series, the Tigers were lucky to beat the Cardinals in the 1968 World Series, the Royals were lucky to beat the Cardinals in the 1985 World Series, the Twins were lucky to beat the Cardinals in the 1987 World Series, and the Red Sox were lucky to beat the Cardinals in the 2004 World Series.

  8. spudchukar - Apr 3, 2012 at 9:28 PM

    Who knows the answer, not me. I took the time yesterday to look through the prospective depth charts of all major league teams, and came away considerably more optimistic. Like most teams the Cards have questions, but unlike most teams they have multitude of quality, and sometimes proven answers.

    There are some butt ugly teams entering 2012. For instance I have no idea who is going to win the NL West. The Dodgers probably aren’t in the mix, but as for the 4 others it is a crap shoot.

    Both the AL and NL Easts have 4 teams that could very well win the division and provide both wild cards.
    Texas and LA should make for an interesting race with the loser almost assured of a wild card since the other 2 teams are so weak.

    As for the NL Central I look for a two-way battle. Milwaukee lost Fielder and did little to replace him. Ramirez may help but he will cost them defensively. Gamel has always failed at the big league level, so he certainly cannot be counted on to excel. Similarly the Cards lost Pujols, but added Beltran a better trade off than Milwaukee. St. Louis also has a SS for the entire season, a solid bullpen that was lacking in the first half in 2012, and the second base alternatives certainly cannot be worse than Schumaker.

    I can try and not be biased, but that would be fooling no one, but without Carpenter I say it will be a dog fight with the Brewers, with him by June, the Cards should be looking at 95 wins. The Pirates will be better, and may just surpass the Reds, who I just cannot see contending for the title.

    Yes, I am dissin’ the Reds, but they have so many holes, with so few legitimate answers that I just can’t see them contending. Can Rolen stay healthy enough and contribute, and if not then who would fill in. Is Cozart for real, mighty small sample. Will Phillips pout, now that he will not be offered a long term deal? Is Mesaraco ready, especially offensively? Can Latos be successful in the bandbox GAB. Leake, Bailey, and Chapman have all struggled and not lived up to expectations. Heisey/Ludwig and Stubbs, all troubled by contact issues, and OBP. Today they signed Simon who was released by Baltimore. And of course they are now saddled with a Cub set-up man as closer. If it all works out maybe, but what are the odds of that happening, especially with players who have to date floundered?

    I sincerely believe this, whoever comes out of the Central will be odds on to play in the WS, against the Rays, who should be the prohibitive favorite.

  9. stex52 - Apr 3, 2012 at 10:28 PM

    I can think of a lot of examples of managers who have hurt their teams over the last few years and fewer who might have helped. In general I subscribe to the belief that the manager’s job is highly overrated.

    Having said that, a lot of players whom I respect have talked about how much they liked playing for TLR. I got tired of him, but apparently his players didn’t.

    • stlouis1baseball - Apr 4, 2012 at 1:00 PM

      You got it Suzy. That is exactly my point. What is players and peers feel about him is far more indicitive of the job he did than anything else.

Leave Comment

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Not a member? Register now!

Top 10 MLB Player Searches
  1. C. Correa (2569)
  2. G. Stanton (2556)
  3. H. Ramirez (2533)
  4. G. Springer (2513)
  5. B. Crawford (2327)
  1. M. Teixeira (2316)
  2. H. Pence (2235)
  3. J. Baez (2224)
  4. J. Hamilton (2183)
  5. Y. Puig (2132)