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Cardinals Camp Report: Savvy stockpiling softens Pujols loss


The addition of Carlos Beltran's bat to a stocked lineup was a smart offseason move. (US Presswire)  
The addition of Carlos Beltran's bat to a stocked lineup was a smart offseason move. (US Presswire)  

JUPITER, Fla. -- The best thing to do if you're going to lose a legend or three, of course, is to win a stunning, completely unexpected World Series championship to garner all the possible goodwill and change the conversation.

For the Cardinals, it also helps to reside in arguably the country's best and most forgiving baseball town, but their surprise World Series victory, plus a few new big contracts and important imports, can't hurt either.

The thing to do, if you happen to lose Dave Duncan, who's maybe the best pitching coach of all time, is to lock up your catcher, who's baseball's best defensive backstop and a vital accompaniment to the excellent pitching staff. The Cardinals did just that by bestowing a new $75 million, five-year deal on Yadier Molina.

What's more, it can't hurt to hire a manager in Mike Matheny who, like Duncan, was a thinking man's catcher in his playing days.

The thing to do, if you lose Tony La Russa, a manager considered one of the greatest of all time, is to hire a manager that is already loved and respected by everyone in the clubhouse. Matheny, who is said by all who know him to bring an unusual combination of kindness and toughness, is that rare person who commands that type of adulation.

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The thing to do, if you lose Albert Pujols, one of the greatest players in baseball history, and this is obviously the really big one, is to acquire a combination of players that could in some sense come close to replicating the output of that all-time great. Maybe, if things fall right, anyway.

"There's no one denying how great Albert Pujols was," returning ace starter Adam Wainwright said. "I don't think you try to sign one person to replace Albert. I don't think that person exists. What we did was sign a few guys that can carry the burden.

"I'm really respectful of what Albert did here and how great he was, and is. He and Stan Musial are probably the greatest Cardinals ever. You can't minimize that. But he's done here. And what we do have is a great nucleus. I really believe we'll be better."

The Cardinals have a way of finding good fortune, so don't blame them if you detect a confidence you wouldn't expect, or even occasionally a hint of a matter-of-fact tone despite suffering one of the greatest personnel losses in any franchise's history with the defection of the Great Pujols to the Angels.

They are allowed such a luxury thanks to a city that loves its Cardinals no matter who fills the uniforms. Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt remarked down in Jupiter that the fans and media "have been very fair in the way they've reacted to his leaving," and DeWitt said, "They understand we made every effort to re-sign him and that we made an incredible offer that was topped by Anaheim."

Fantasy Writer
Sleeper ... Tyler Greene, 2B: Tyler Greene is the preseason favorite to win the starting job at second base and he could prove to be a late bloomer. Like teammate Allen Craig, he has impressive minor league power numbers, but he's had to wait until his late 20s to get a chance at a regular role in the majors. Greene's ability to draw walks and steal bases has already translated to the majors during his limited time with the Cardinals. If he can deliver double-digit homer totals like he has in the minors, Greene will suddenly be in high demand in standard mixed leagues.
Bust ... Kyle Lohse, SP: Coming off a 2010 season marred by forearm surgery and a 6.55 ERA, expectations were low for Kyle Lohse entering last year. However, he emerged healthy and put together his best campaign in three seasons. With a 14-8 record, 3.39 ERA and 1.17 WHIP, Lohse became a staple in standard mixed leagues, but he is not a strong bet to repeat his success. Lohse benefited from opponents hitting just .191 against him on ground balls, but that mark is likely to rise, especially with subpar middle infield defense behind him. Despite what his 2011 stats might suggest, owners who draft Lohse in standard mixed leagues this year will likely regret their choice. -- Al Melchior
Depth Chart | Cardinals outlook | 2012 Draft Prep

Most owners would just be happy to avoid tar-and-feather treatment after the exit of Pujols, a god in the Gateway to the West. The Cardinals offered about $200 million, give or take, and he didn't take it, choosing instead to go to sunny California for even greater riches -- $240 million to be precise. In any case, the Cardinals appear to have done what they can to move on, if that's even possible.

Putting aside the emotion of watching an icon bolt, a case could be made that the return of Wainwright from Tommy John surgery and the signing of talented, rejuvenated veteran hitter Carlos Beltran in place of Pujols is a push. Maybe not a great case, but a case nonetheless. In a very unscientific survey, a few GMs and executives were consulted by CBSSports.com about whether they would consider making that very trade of Pujols for Wainwright and Beltran, and while none of them exactly jumped at that swap, a couple execs had to think about it for a second, anyway.

One competing National League executive said he couldn't make that trade because Pujols' value goes well beyond his glorious statistics, arguing that he is basically irreplaceable. That exec worried the remaining hitters in the middle of the order, most notably Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman, would be hurt by Pujols' absence and he further worried about the creeping age of three mid-30-something prominent Cardinals position players, referring to Berkman, Beltran and Rafael Furcal, who are 34, 34 and 36, respectively (Pujols is 32).

But that executive doesn't reside in St. Louis, where all things baseball have a way of working out.

They all say Matheny has the attributes to become a great manager, and Chris Carpenter, the Cardinals' other ace who closed out the Phillies in the NLCS and the Rangers in Game 7 of the World Series and happened to have been Matheny's teammate in both Toronto and St. Louis, said, "He's been fantastic. He's a fantastic competitor, manager and person. It's been very smooth." And third baseman David Freese, the local product turned World Series hero, said, "He was the guy to step in and keep the train moving."

Fortunately (a helpful adverb when writing about the Cardinals), Pujols' replacement at first base is Berkman, a clutch and calm veteran who is also among the World Series heroes and can handle it.

As for the lineup, of course there's no way to replace the modern-day Joe DiMaggio. But Beltran, imported for $26 million over two years after he posted a .910 OPS in turns in New York and San Francisco last year and turned down more lucrative chances in Cleveland and Toronto, is still a very nice hitter. They will also presumably get a full season from shortstop Furcal, a mid-year trade pickup last year when he wasn't completely healthy, and more at-bats from Freese, who missed nearly two months after fracturing his left hand last year, and Allen Craig, another of the Red October heroes (though Craig is still recovering from offseason knee surgery and is expected to miss a few weeks).

Indeed, there is still a lot to love about these Cardinals.

Holliday, the new main man, wasn't himself in the World Series as he silently suffered with a painful wrist.

"I expect a lot out of myself whether I'm playing with Albert Pujols or not. I expect to have a good year," Holliday said. "No one person is going to jump in and take Albert's spot. But that doesn't mean we can't have the No. 1 or 2 offense in the league."

That very feeling was enunciated in a few corners of their clubhouse, where Cardinals players all know how they had to sweat it out until the final day of the season last year, finally overcoming what was once a 10½-game deficit in one of the more remarkable comebacks in baseball history.

That is, until they came back in Game 6 of the World Series with two two-out, two-run rallies that were not to be believed.

That storybook finish resulted in the Cardinals' second unexpected World Series title in six seasons. Championships sometimes can carry the potential to sap some hunger from a team, and La Russa and Pujols aren't here to provide just the no-nonsense leadership to try to prevent that. Carpenter keeps a hint of that sort of tough mentality in what is otherwise undeniably a gentler, easier clubhouse.

Freese, the kid from Lafayette High in suburban Wildwood, Mo., who played the hero with a huge double and walk-off home run after threatening to be the goat with a dropped popup in Game 6, is a sunny personality who might develop into the new face of the franchise. Candidly, Freese said he imagined a St. Louis Post-Dispatch front page depicting his Game 6 gaffe in his mind when he turned around a Neftali Feliz pitch, then later a Mark Lowe pitch to change history.

"I'll never forget that moment," Freese said about the home run onto the center-field lawn. "Let's be honest, I think about it all the time."

Freese is smart enough to know history doesn't happen in exactly the same way twice. But that doesn't mean his drive is reduced one iota, he said. He claimed, after living it once, he wants it even more.

"That whole comeback ... that's never going to happen again," Freese said. "But you have to turn the page. People have short memories. And so do we."


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