ST. LOUIS – One of the many perquisites that accompanies a World Series championship is the adoration of complete strangers. Nearly every person St. Louis Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak walked by Friday night echoed a refrain he's bound to hear for days, weeks, maybe months – "Congrats, Mo" – and he said thanks, not because he knew the people but because he's just folksy enough to mean it.
The boldest of Mozeliak's new friends felt compelled to follow up their salutation with a query, one that, amid the title ecstasy, he hadn't allowed himself time to consider: "Can we do it again?" An innocent question on its face, it came loaded with assumptions and implications, like winning this one was little more than a stroll in the park.
Thing is, were Mozeliak given truth serum, he would answer in the affirmative. Because the Cardinals are well-positioned for a another run here, maybe a few more, particularly if Albert Pujols(notes) re-signs and the Cardinals' farm system, among the best in baseball, continues to graduate top-shelf young talent.
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"I feel like if he comes back, we'll be just as good, if not better, next year," Cardinals outfielder Lance Berkman(notes) said. "I think this team is set up for a couple years to make a couple runs at it."
Berkman quickly couched his boldness.
"You never can tell," he said. "It's a crazy sport."
True enough. Crazy enough that last year's champions, the San Francisco Giants, bungled a chance to defend their title before October even began. Their run was just as inspired as the Cardinals'; it just wasn't as sustainable.
San Francisco's opponent last year, on the other hand, was the Texas Rangers, whom the Cardinals ousted Friday night in Game 7, less than 24 hours after the Rangers twice were within one strike of their first championship in the franchise's half-century-long history. The Rangers, too, are strong enough in the clubhouse, front office and farm system that a rematch between these teams, while unlikely because of the variance short-series baseball induces, is well within the realm of possibility.
Which team is in better shape could depend on the outcome of the three highest-profile free agents this offseason, Pujols, first baseman Prince Fielder(notes) and, presuming his team in Japan posts him, starting pitcher Yu Darvish. The Cardinals vow to do everything it takes to ensure Pujols returns. Whether that includes resolving to stretch their payroll for the rest of the decade is the big question, for his return at between $25 million and $30 million per season would necessitate that.
Absent Pujols – only the best player in baseball for the last 11 years – the Cardinals would remain formidable enough with the return of ace Adam Wainwright(notes) from Tommy John surgery and World Series stalwart Chris Carpenter each signed for two more years at a well-under-market $21 million. Add Jaime Garcia(notes), Kyle Lohse(notes), Jake Westbrook(notes) and the impending arrival of Shelby Miller(notes) – he of the 95-mph fastball and 2.70 ERA at Double-A in his age-20 season this year – and their starting pitching is a wellspring of talent. The bullpen ain't shabby, either: Jason Motte(notes), Mark Rzepczynski, Fernando Salas(notes), Eduardo Sanchez(notes), Mitchell Boggs(notes), Kyle McClellan(notes) and Lance Lynn(notes). Combined price tag: about $6 million, or five weeks of Pujols.
The lineup would suffer without him, of course, though Berkman returns for another season, NLCS and World Series MVP David Freese(notes) comes off the postseason of a lifetime and playoff star Allen Craig(notes) would see regular duty. Middle-infield issues remain, as they have almost the entirety of manager Tony La Russa's 16-year reign in St. Louis. First-round pick Kolten Wong, a mover, could fill the second-base hole by the middle of the season, and without Pujols, Jose Reyes(notes) would look mighty nice, if expensive, at shortstop.
It's one of those seminal offseasons, the sort Mozeliak understands will entail more time agonizing over a future he can't predict. Pujols turns 32 in January. He wants a contract into his 40s. Even the greatest players decline by then. But he is Albert Pujols, and this is St. Louis, and it would be like divorcing peanut butter from jelly.
"On Monday," Mozeliak said, "I'll start looking at a lot of things."
The Rangers already are. Like, how, with this mighty roster, did they still fall short? And how, after twice the bridesmaid, can they throw the damn garter?
The temptation is to do what everyone with disposable income and the crushing depression of failure wants to: spend, spend, spend. The Rangers' evolution from medium-revenue disappointment to big-revenue powerhouse is well under way thanks to a new television deal worth $80 million per season and the stewardship of owner Nolan Ryan and general manager Jon Daniels. They could afford Pujols, Fielder or Darvish. The question is which they want, if any.
Gone, in all likelihood, is their top starter, C.J. Wilson(notes), who, despite a postseason ERA of 5.79 and 11 walks in 12 1/3 World Series innings, will get paid like an ace. Free agency triggers the salivary glands of eager executives, and while Wilson may not get a deal like his spiritual equivalent, Barry Zito(notes), he will exceed $80 million and could crack nine figures.
Between his posting fee and contract, Darvish almost surely will break the $100 million ceiling like the last ace to come from Japan, Daisuke Matsuzaka(notes). In spite of the disaster Matsuzaka has been, scouts continue to rave about Darvish. Daniels went to Japan this season to watch him pitch. A dozen other teams covet him. With CC Sabathia's(notes) return to New York almost a certainty, Darvish would become the best starter available and the sort to join a 2012 rotation with Colby Lewis(notes), Derek Holland(notes), Matt Harrison(notes) and … well, that's a great question.
The Rangers considered moving Neftali Feliz(notes) from closer to the rotation during the spring and relented, and he seems stuck in the Jonathan Papelbon(notes) situation, where he's so good in the ninth inning – minus Game 6 of the World Series – taking him out of the role leaves too big a hole. Alexi Ogando(notes), who was aces in the rotation at the beginning of the season before wearing down, could return there or flip spots with Feliz. Mike Adams(notes) is a closer waiting to happen. And with a loaded minor league system – shortstop Jurickson Profar's scouting reports glowed alongside Bryce Harper's,(notes) Leonys Martin(notes) could start in center field next season and Martin Perez(notes) is a rotation piece in waiting – the Rangers have used their money well in the draft and internationally.
The 2012 offseason is the more troubling one for them, with Josh Hamilton(notes), Mike Napoli(notes) and Lewis due to hit free agency. While no albatross, two more years of Michael Young(notes) at $16 million each hinders the Rangers' flexibility some. As long as they use their free-agent dollars judiciously – Adrian Beltre(notes) at $90 million over five years looks like a bargain today – the Rangers' reputation for shrewd management will hold.
Such standing is well-earned. To beat the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Tampa Bay Rays and the other powerhouses of the American League in consecutive seasons is no fluke. The Cardinals belong in similar company, particularly with a second championship in six years. They're franchises that go for titles and build futures, the most difficult sort of balancing act in baseball, and the difference between them came down to one out Thursday and one game Friday.
"Hard to believe," Mozeliak said over email the day after his first title as GM. He still was high on glory, the kind of buzz that will last days, weeks, maybe months for everyone else.
Not him. On Monday, it's back to work, ready to do it one more time.