Flags fly forever. The St. Louis Cardinals went on a magical run that transformed them from wild card also-rans on September 1st to World Series Champions on October 28th. Now, though, GM John Mozeliak is facing a winter full of uncertainty. Tony La Russa retired immediately after the World Series and Albert Pujols will be a free agent in a few days’ time. If Pujols doesn’t come back, the 2012 Cardinals will barely resemble the 2011 champs. If he does return, what’s to stop them from repeating?
WHAT WENT RIGHT
Before the season even began Adam Wainwright, the NL Cy Young runner-up in 2009 and third-place finisher in 2010, went on the shelf for Tommy John surgery. On August 25th, the Cards were 10 1/2 games behind the Braves for the NL’s last playoff spot. Facing elimination in Game 6 of the World Series, the Cardinals were down to their last strike with a two-run deficit in the ninth and down to their last strike with a one-run deficit in the tenth. They’re the champs now. A lot of things went very, very right for this club in 2011. If you’re looking for specifics, Lance Berkman revived his career in Cardinal red, David Freese had a huge breakout season, and at the trade deadline Mozeliak added Edwin Jackson to a desperately thin rotation and gave Tony La Russa the relievers he needed to navigate the NLCS.
WHAT WENT WRONG
Wainwright’s injury, of course, and though the Rasmus trade worked out with the emergence of John Jay and the boost Jackson and Marc Rzepczynski gave was huge, but trading him was hardly optimal given his age and potential. The biggest thing that went wrong may prove to be not locking Pujols up in spring training. I still think it’s likely he remains with the Cardinals, but anything can happen on the open market. Other than that though … World Series Champions! It’s hard to nitpick when you get to hold up the Commissioner’s Trophy.
David Freese was supposed to be the Cards’ starting third baseman in 2009, but he only played 87 games with the big league club between 2009 and 2010 due to ankle injuries that cost him a ton of time. He managed 97 games this year and had a minor breakout during the season (10 homers, .297/.350/.441 line at the plate), but he came alive in the playoffs. In 18 playoff games, he hit five homers and put up an insane .397/.465/.794 line. Three of those homers came in the NLCS, which gave him the MVP award in that series. One was a walkoff in Game 6 of the World Series, which when coupled with his two-out, two-strike, two-run game tying triple and his game-tying two-run double early in Game 7 gave him the MVP of that series. The Cards can say that they expected more out of Freese than they got in 2009 and 2010, but who expected all of this?
I’m going to stick with Rasmus. I hate to beat a dead horse, but the kid hit 23 homers as a 23 year old last year and now he’s in Toronto and all the Cardinals have to show for him is Marc Rzepczynski. Well, and World Series rings, of course. So I guess we’ll say that the trade was necessary in the long run, but seeing such a promising prospect struggle, fall out with the manager, and get traded is probably a little disappointing anyway. Yeah, I’m grasping for straws here. What’s disappointing about a World Series winner? Not much else.
Since 2004, the Cardinals have been the cream of the crop in the NL. The two most identifiable members of all of those teams have been Tony La Russa and Albert Pujols. La Russa is retired now and it’s possible Pujols will follow him out the door. Who can even imagine a St. Louis team without both of them? Behind Pujols, Edwin Jackson, Rafael Furcal, and Nick Punto are both free agents. Not nearly as important, but they’ll leave holes on the roster in their wake. On the bright side, the Cards have Lance Berkman inked for another year and they can except to have Adam Wainwright back. Most teams dream of adding an Wainwright-type pitcher in the off-season, the Cardinals get him for free assuming he’s back to full health.
There will certainly be holes on this team to be filled in 2012. They’ll probably do their best to find time for Allen Craig. If Pujols leaves, there’s room for him in the outfield with Lance Berkman sliding to first. If he doesn’t, he might be able to play second or split time with John Jay in center, though he hasn’t played either position much. They need a shortstop, too, with Furcal and Punto leaving. Tyler Greene may press for playing time at that spot, though he’s 27 and hasn’t shown much at the big league level quite yet. Still, with Pujols back the pieces are generally in place for another post-season run, especially with Wainwright’s return. Without him, things will be much murkier.