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Cardinals can contend without Pujols, La Russa

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

Editor's note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the offseason of every MLB team before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues with the St. Louis Cardinals.

2011 record: 90-72
Finish: Second place, NL Central
2011 final payroll: $113.2 million
Estimated 2012 opening day payroll: $111 million
Yahoo! Sports' offseason rank: 8th
Hashtags: #250milol, #withorwithoutpu, #TLR, #freeseframed, #beltranincenteryikes, #dunc'd, #catchersasmanagers, #brokendownfookie, #helpontheway, #trollinghaikus

Offseason action

The last World Series winner to undergo such a dramatic overhaul in the afterglow of its championship was the 2003 Florida Marlins, whose owners treated the ballclub like a foreclosed property. These Cardinals are different, torn apart for a wide swath of reasons, from economics to age to health to upward mobility.

To call them better for it is a stretch; to call them worse is the same. Considering that over a two-month period, St. Louis lost the best player in baseball, one of the game's best managers, arguably the best pitching coach and among the best scouting directors, the ability not just to maintain a semblance of continuity but to turn such losses into an otherwise productive offseason is a testament to how general manager John Mozeliak made this team his own.

The Cardinals wanted to re-sign Albert Pujols. They didn't want to carry an annual payroll of $125 million through the next decade. Whether that was a short-sighted decision only time will tell, though the Cardinals ought feel good knowing they won't be paying $30 million for a 41-year-old in 2021.

Tony La Russa's retirement and Dave Duncan's resignation to helping his on-the-mend wife leave an immense cultural vacuum in the Cardinals' clubhouse. La Russa was their mental emperor, and even if his mentality often bordered on ridiculous, replacing that takes someone special. It's why Mozeliak hiring Mike Matheny, who never has managed before, made sense: go for the highest-upside candidate, the one whose characteristics connote potential greatness and ties to the organization make the transition more seamless than one to, say, Terry Francona. A bridge year with this sort of team is unnecessary and counterproductive.

Gone, too, is Jeff Luhnow, the scouting director that owner Bill DeWitt plucked from corporate America and watched turn the Cardinals into something of a player-development machine. Their minor league system churned out a wave of talent that helped them win this year, and more of Luhnow's spoils are on the way.

Before that arrives, the Cardinals may enter 2012 with a better team than they did in 2011. Signing outfielder Carlos Beltran should help with some of the offensive crater left behind by Pujols, though Allen Craig's return from right-knee surgery could force Beltran into center field duty, which may be more than his chronically hurt knees can take.

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Giving the desiccated body of shortstop Rafael Furcal a two-year deal was the Cardinals' head-scratcher of the offseason, a move justified by neither his play with St. Louis last season nor his body's likelihood of holding up. While Tyler Greene is 28, he did rip up Triple-A last season and could've benefitted from more of a shot than La Russa ever gave him.

While Edwin Jackson, Octavio Dotel, Arthur Rhodes and Nick Punto were part of the Cardinals' championship fabric, the team won't miss their departures. The Cardinals' rotation, bullpen and utility role are just as good without them.

Reality check

The balance between contention and integration of the next generation is tricky for any successful GM to strike, and Mozeliak's attempt at it carries a fair amount of risk. He may show more faith in his team's trainer, Greg Hauck, than any other GM in the game. Because among Furcal, Beltran and Lance Berkman, the Cardinals have three 34-and-older everyday players with injury histories, and Craig, David Freese and Matt Holliday have missed significant time as well.

Just as easily as the Cardinals' season could go boom – an Adam Wainwright-Chris Carpenter-Jaime Garcia-Kyle Lohse rotation with star-in-waiting Shelby Miller potentially joining at midseason, plus a deep, young, hard-throwing bullpen beats anything Cincinnati or anyone else in the NL Central can muster – it's got the potential to bust out with a mistimed injury or two.

The focus will gravitate toward Matheny – how he handles the players, the responsibilities, the in-game situations. Not only does he need health, the leaps forward from Freese and Craig in October must translate to April and beyond if the Cardinals want their offensive production to avoid leaking runs.

The final smush of caulk should come from Holliday, whose $17 million-a-year deal now represents the Cardinals' only significant long-term commitment. Injured all season – starting with an appendectomy right after hitting an opening day home run, ending on the bench for Game 7 of the World Series with a bum right wrist and watching a moth fly into his ear and get stuck in between – Holliday is healthy again and ready to assert himself as a pillar in the clubhouse as much as the lineup.

Mozeliak has built a team that should contend for years, not just because of a nice payroll and great fans but solid principles and smart management. Pujols at $210 million – the Cardinals' final offer – made sense only because of who he was and what he meant to St. Louis.

[ Fantasy: Five Pressing Questions for St. Louis Cardinals ]

Since 1901, nearly 4,000 position players have played into their age-32 season. Of those, only 32 have produced more than 30 Wins Above Replacement from 32 to 41 years old, according to Baseball-Reference.com. Just six – Barry Bonds, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Tris Speaker – have cracked 50 WAR. And if a marginal win is worth $5 million, 50 is the magic number for Pujols' on-field production to fulfill the $250 million deal the Los Angeles Angels gave him. He compares favorably with those players. So have plenty more through their 32nd birthdays.

Perhaps his presence justified Fox executives giving the Angels $3 billion to televise their games for the next 20 years, which enhances his value to Los Angeles. But the Cardinals are the Cardinals, and they always will be the Cardinals: St. Louis' team, a valuable commodity with or without Pujols. He's gone. They're going nowhere. Championship No. 12 certainly is likelier than anyone thought No. 11 would be.

Savior

Anybody with his own Pappy's Smokehouse swag is a savior of all things delicious, and the fact that Adam Wainwright can complement that distinction with a surgically repaired-and-ready-to-go right arm makes him a Renaissance man, St. Louis-style. The Cardinals' championship looks all the more impressive considering it came without the right-hander who finished second and third on the previous two Cy Young ballots. Even if he's not at full strength – most Tommy John survivors take a year to rediscover their command, a strong suite of Wainwright's before surgery – he's still a commanding presence on the mound and in the Cardinals' clubhouse. Pray for Wain? Consider it answered.

Cardinals in Haiku

Good or bad, one truth
Holds: Cardinals fans are still
The most obnoxious

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