Cardinals are in limbo until Pujols' decision

Chris Carpenter heads a Cardinals starting rotation that is a team strength

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.

2010 record: 86-76
Finish: Second place, NL Central
2010 final payroll: $98.4 million
Estimated payroll on opening day: $100 million

Offseason action

Albert Pujols(notes) is the Cardinals' greatest blessing, has been for a decade, and everybody knows it. But for the past few months and until his future with the franchise is resolved, he also is their greatest curse.

The uncertainty surrounding negotiations for an extension that could give the slugging first baseman the most lucrative contract in baseball history casts a cloud over every other roster decision, every dime the team spends or won't spend.

The Cardinals are reluctant to jump in and pluck disgruntled Michael Young(notes) from the Rangers, given the money he's owed, even though they have potential needs at second and third base. They weren't in on Adrian Beltre(notes) because of the asking price. They couldn't upgrade from shortstop Brendan Ryan(notes) – banished to the Seattle Mariners because of goofball behavior – and settled on inexpensive veterans Ryan Theriot(notes) and Nick Punto(notes) to fill out the infield.

For the sorely needed power bat to hit behind Pujols and Matt Holliday(notes), they signed a round peg for a square hole, bringing in 35-year-old Lance Berkman(notes) on a one-year, $8 million deal. Berkman will be the right fielder, a position he hasn't played regularly since 2004. Ryan Ludwick(notes) was inconsistent before being dealt to the San Diego Padres last summer, but Berkman might be broken down.

The shrewdest move was to re-up starter Jake Westbrook(notes) for two more years at $17.5 million. Like most Cardinal mound acquisitions, he responded well to pitching coach Dave Duncan's tutelage after being acquired from the Cleveland Indians last summer and fits in nicely behind co-aces Chris Carpenter(notes) and Adam Wainwright(notes), and left-hander Jaime Garcia(notes).

Reality check

The Cardinals finished behind the Cincinnati Reds in the National League Central and missed the playoffs for the third time in four years in 2010. This year, they stand a better chance of backpedaling into third than winning the division because the Milwaukee Brewers added top-flight starters Zack Greinke(notes) and Shaun Marcum(notes) and are a better offensive team from top to bottom.

Several what-ifs need to tilt in the Cardinals' direction for them to overcome the Brewers and Reds. Third baseman David Freese(notes) must come back from surgeries on both ankles and re-establish the promise he showed in the first half of 2010. Kyle Lohse(notes) must earn a significant portion of the $11.85 million he'll be paid as the fifth starter. Second baseman Skip Schumacher needs a bounceback year with the bat.

The bullpen could be an adventure, although the expertise of Duncan and manager Tony La Russa – as well as the ability of Carpenter and Wainwright to go deep into games – mitigates the lack of depth. The farm system doesn't offer much immediate help.

Perhaps most of all, center fielder Colby Rasmus(notes) must remain outside La Russa's doghouse and continue his ascent into the upper echelon of big-league center fielders. La Russa doesn't suffer goofballs and malcontents lightly (see: Brendan Ryan), and neither does Pujols, who told Yahoo! Sports last September that Rasmus needed to "shut his mouth and play the game."

That's a lot of what-ifs, but they all pale in comparison to the one the St. Louis faithful are fixated on: What if Pujols doesn't sign an extension, becomes a free agent after the 2011 season and leaves? Worse yet, what if he signs with the reviled Chicago Cubs?

Until the answer is clear, the Cardinals' future is cloudy because general manager John Mozeliak can't spend money earmarked for Pujols. And that might mean sacrificing another season.

Cardinals in haiku
Tony La Russa
Saves cats but not Cardinals
Unless Pujols purrs

Next: Boston Red Sox