LOS ANGELES • Dominant regular seasons failed to fulfill the Cardinals in 2004 and 2005, when 205 wins gained them a World Series berth, and subsequent sweep, and an NLCS exit against a divisional rival.
Complicated seasons in 2006 and 2011 saw the Cardinals reach the postseason with 83 wins and as a wild card that required a 23-9 rush to extricate themselves from 4½ underachieving months. Once into October, those teams became dynamos that disposed of the favored Detroit Tigers and Texas Rangers.
Just as the ’06 team benefited from a flimsy National League Central and last year’s bunch took advantage of the Atlanta Braves’ epic collapse, these Cardinals are poised to take advantage of an expanded postseason format that allows for a second wild card. True to form, the Cardinals have lost eight of 10 while sharing the final wild card spot with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
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Each of its recent World Series championships convinced the Cardinals that their aging roster was still poised for continued success. The belief prefaced a disastrous 2007 season that began badly in spring training and became complicated by front-office intrigue, off-field incidents and vulnerable starting pitching. A decision to extend sore-shouldered Mark Mulder proved ruinous. Chris Carpenter endured elbow surgery. General manager Walt Jocketty was fired.
The Cardinals similarly believed last season’s core capable of continued success – and perhaps it still is. Many in the front office and clubhouse thought the media attention given Albert Pujols’ departure via free agency overblown. Some believed Pujols’ exit might actually enhance team chemistry.
A world championship provided management sufficient capital to name a first-time manager as successor to Tony La Russa. In some ways, it also offered the club enhanced leverage to withstand any blowback for its reluctance to retain Pujols, who quickly became cast as a villainous figure by many within a jilted fan base.
This year’s team has operated without Pujols as well as without Carpenter and last season’s right fielder, Lance Berkman. It also has carried the largest payroll in club history – more than $116 million.
In numerous ways this team is a transitional one. John Mozeliak’s hire in October 2007 coincided with a greater emphasis on self-sufficiency through player development and amateur scouting. The retention of veterans Berkman, Carpenter, Carlos Beltran, Rafael Furcal and Jake Westbrook occurred via short-term deals, albeit with some risk.
Next season translates into another incremental step as a "gap season" at Memphis further impacts the major-league roster.
If last winter represented tectonic shifts within the manager’s office, coaching staff and the No. 3 spot in the batting order, this winter will be less deviating.
"It’s a lot different situation. We have been able to learn a lot about what our current club is able to do. I think we saw a steady flow of minor league players who are knocking on the door at the major league level," Mozeliak notes. "The feeling is we have a really strong internal solutions, which is a good place to be. It doesn’t mean we’re going to ignore other markets. But we have a good internal base."
Commitments to Carpenter, Westbrook, Adam Wainwright and Jaime Garcia suggest a single rotation spot in play. Should the club pen Lance Lynn as well, the turn is complete.
The Cardinals are dedicating this month not only to reaching the postseason but also to determining if Carpenter can be counted upon for next season. Carpenter said last week he believes he already has answered that question affirmatively. This spring, however, demonstrated the unpredictability that accompanies a chronic nerve condition that still causes some loss of sensation even after July surgery to alleviate thoracic outlet syndrome.
The Cardinals have shown no inclination in engaging pending free agent Kyle Lohse in discussion about an extension. Lohse’s agent, Scott Boras, already has put together an extensive book on Lohse to be distributed to various team executives. The average annual value Lohse likely commands represents less of an obstacle to his current organization than the term that will go with it.
Mozeliak already has approached Wainwright about beginning talks about an extension. (Wainwright is currently on the first installment of a two-year, $21 million option.) The runner-up for the 2010 NL Cy Young Award prefers to wait until after the season. He, too, may find more pushback on length.
"When you look at our roster and what we need to be thinking about, there aren’t really massive decisions that have to be made," he says. "Obviously we still want to do some things about how we can get better. That’s ongoing. But I see it as more fine-tuning."
The Cardinals haven’t committed long term to a middle infield since the days of Fernando Vina and Edgar Renteria. Furcal’s recent elbow sprain could still necessitate surgery requiring a 6-8 month rehab.
Mozeliak concedes that the matter of depth at the position is "a tough one to answer" given Furcal’s uncertain status. The club believes it has personnel to man the position on a spot basis but retains misgivings about giving anyone under control extended exposure there.
Second base remains a point of intrigue as Daniel Descalso, Skip Schumaker, Pete Kozma and even corner utility player Matt Carpenter have received time. The club is unlikely to pursue a long-term alternative as prospect Kolten Wong approaches.
Position prospects Wong, Oscar Taveras and Greg Garcia were left alone at Double-A Springfield in order to enhance familiarity with one another. Taveras, who projects as a corner outfielder, is blocked next year by Matt Holliday and Beltran but would be an appealing option in case of an emergency.
The Cardinals can safely project an opening day lineup now under contract. Allen Craig has assumed the majority of playing time at first base in Berkman’s absence. David Freese is first-time arbitration-eligible. Center fielder and leadoff hitter Jon Jay may also achieve arbitration status with less than three years’ major-league service.
"We don’t have a ton of openings," says Mozeliak. "We didn’t promote a lot from AA to AAA because of their success at Springfield. But you could certainly imagine that Taveras, Wong and Garcia could have warranted a promotion to AAA. I think they’re a lot closer than the classification would suggest."
Depth among position players is a more salient issue, especially with numerous players who have dealt with injuries repeatedly throughout their careers. Shortstop is the most pressing question, Mozeliak concedes.
"When you lose a starting shortstop it’s typically a problem unless you have something in the pipeline," Mozeliak says before citing Kozma, Ryan Jackson and Garcia. Jackson, tagged in spring training as the top defensive infielder at AA and AAA, has received scant playing time this month because the club publicly rates Kozma better at shortstop. Pairing Kozma and Matt Carpenter as a contender’s double-play combination would have been unthinkable in March.
To a club committed to organizational answers, the unthinkable can represent creativity. Whatever the definition, next year’s Cardinals will be far more similar than different from this year’s edition.