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Cardinals buoyed by 1-2 punch

Steve Henson
Yahoo Sports

Editor's note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the offseason of every MLB team before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series is in reverse order of team quality and continues at No. 4 with the St. Louis Cardinals.

2009 record: 91-71
2009 finish: First place, National League Central
2009 final payroll: $101.8 million
Estimated 2010 opening-day payroll: $98 million

OFFSEASON ACTION

Back by popular demand, two Cardinals sluggers. And every effort will be made, presumably, to continue the employment of a third, although we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Left fielder Matt Holliday(notes), obtained via trade last July, was re-signed to a seven-year, $120 million contract, siphoning cash from possible upgrades in the infield and starting rotation but making most Cardinals fans ecstatic. Holliday, by all accounts, is similarly pleased.

Locals are also happy with the hiring of Mark McGwire as hitting coach. The baseball community at large has rejected McGwire's admission of and apology for steroid use because of his ridiculous assertion that the performance-enhancing drugs didn't enhance his performance. But within days, McGwire will be holed up in batting cages and in the far corners of the Cardinals' spring training complex in Jupiter, Fla., fine-tuning swings. Maybe his expertise will be worth a win or two over the long summer ahead.

Holliday, by all accounts, again is pleased, because McGwire has been his unofficial hitting instructor for years.

The large sum paid to Holliday meant little else could be upgraded. Brad Penny(notes), injured and inconsistent in recent years, will replace the healthy, steady Joel Pineiro in the starting rotation. Third baseman Mark DeRosa(notes), reserve outfielder Rick Ankiel(notes) and sage swingman John Smoltz(notes) will be replaced in-house.

Felipe Lopez(notes), whose spectacular quarter-season with the Cardinals in late 2008 still lingers in the memories of fans, could be a late sign as a reserve infielder.

REALITY CHECK

About that third slugger. It's Albert Pujols(notes), of course, and he will become a free agent after the 2011 season. He's the best hitter in baseball and will deserve to be paid commensurately. Translation: His contract will dwarf that of Holliday, who gets a straight $17 million each year through 2016. Put Pujols at $25 million and the Cardinals will be paying two players 42 percent of a $100 million payroll.

The Cardinals say they won't exceed $110 million even after paying Pujols, primarily because they are still paying off ballpark debt. Ticket prices are sure to increase. Third base will be occupied by the likes of long-in-the-tooth prospects David Freese(notes) and Tyler Greene(notes). Brendan Ryan(notes) would have to play himself out of the regular shortstop job. It's a good thing Ryan Franklin(notes) has become a reliable closer.

For now, though, the Cardinals employ Pujols at the relative bargain rate of $16 million. They are again favored to win a division in which the Cubs are scuffling and the Reds, Brewers and Astros would need everything to fall in place to contend. McGwire helps Julio Lugo(notes) rediscover that pull power he displayed in Tampa Bay once upon a time and it'll have been a banner offseason.

CARDINALS IN HAIKU
He's back and willing
to talk about the past, says
'roids were aspirin

Next: Philadelphia Phillies