The arrival of Yadier Molina was much heralded, and you can't say he disappointed. Molina, the younger brother of Angels tandem Bengie and Jose, clearly will continue the defensive legacy Mike Matheny left behind, and Molina has the higher offensive upside. That part didn't pan out completely in his first full season when it was interrupted by a broken hand, but he can hit. The Padres found out down the stretch just how valuable Ramon Hernandez can be. After missing a month following wrist surgery, Hernandez returned with clutch offensive performances while providing his masterful direction of the pitching staff. The Padres are thankful they found Miguel Olivo in the meantime, but Hernandez is among the best in baseball.
FIRST BASEEDGE: CARDINALS
While others emerged as Triple Crown threats, all Albert Pujols did was have his normal year -- and that means being a Triple Crown threat again. Pujols continued to build his resume as one of the game's ultra-elite, an offensive powerhouse who has become an excellent fielding first baseman. Two words suffice: Total stud. The trade of Phil Nevin was a watershed moment in the Padres' season -- a former team MVP was basically shown the door. The troika of Robert Fick, Mark Sweeney and Xavier Nady took over, and the combination has provided the Padres with a different brand of stability at the position.
SECOND BASEEDGE: CARDINALS
Mark Grudzielanek was perceived as an upgrade at second base, and he's definitely lived up to that promise. He's been battling knee and back issues down the stretch, but he delivered 134 games of strong play at second this year for the Cardinals, setting a career best in RBIs and leading all NL second basemen in fielding percentage. For the Padres this was quite the dropoff from the last two years , when Mark Loretta was the team MVP and earned an All-Star nod. First, there was a slow start. Then came a thumb injury that put him out for two months. However, he's starting to show his normal pop at the plate and dexterity in the field.
THIRD BASEEDGE: PADRES
Sure, the Cardinals miss Scott Rolen terribly. That's a given. But Abraham Nunez definitely softened the blow. Nunez, a non-roster invitee in Spring Training, stepped up once Rolen was gone for the year and delivered clutch offensive performances and solid defense. A totally different player than Rolen, obviously, but he's turned into quite the backup plan. The Padres sought a third baseman with some pop from the right side, and they got that in Joe Randa. No, he hasn't continued what started out as a career year in Cincinnati. Randa has shown some more consistency at the plate down the stretch and provides the Padres with some much-needed run production down in the order.
David Eckstein was exactly as advertised: a shortstop and leadoff hitter who brings instant energy, and some very strong play, to both sides of the game. With numbers very similar to what he put up as a core player in the Angels' 2002 run to the World Series title, Eckstein has fit right in with St. Louis. Two broken digits -- one finger, one toe -- made for a difficult second year for Khalil Greene. Through it all, he proved to be clutch at the plate while giving the Padres one of the most athletic shortstops around. A study in steady, Greene hit the same as his rookie season in 50 fewer at-bats and raised his game down the stretch.
LEFT FIELDEDGE: CARDINALS
There's a reason Reggie Sanders found a home after a nomadic existence for several years, jumping from team to team. The Cardinals know a good thing when they see it. He missed about two months with a broken leg, and the Cards got good work out of John Rodriguez and So Taguchi in his absence. Coming into the season, Ryan Klesko was primed for a return to offensive glory, healthy and letting his swing fly. But he struggled and eventually played himself out of the lineup. He's been in the No. 2 spot some, but power is his game and the Padres need him to find it to have October success.
In Jim Edmonds, the Cardinals have a surefire highlight reel and excellent power numbers over the course of the season. A three-time All-Star, Edmonds anchors the middle of the Cardinals' lineup and provides protection to Pujols. He's looked to for even more with Rolen out of the picture. Dave Roberts is a good fit for PETCO Park, as expected. The only thing that has kept him from helping the Padres more has been his health -- though that was somewhat expected, too, based on his history. When he's in the lineup, Roberts provides a special spark at the top and range in the outfield.
RIGHT FIELDEDGE: PADRES
When the Cardinals have had Larry Walker at full strength, he's the guy who was so very valuable in the run to the World Series a year ago. But neck pain has kept his status pretty much on a day-to-day basis. Walker looked strong in limited duty down the stretch, and he'll be backed up admirably by Rodriguez and John Mabry. It became quite clear over the long haul that Brian Giles is the rock around which the NL West championship was built. Out there every day, often playing through pain, Giles got on base and delivered athleticism and clutch power, even if not a lot of homers. The Padres wouldn't be here without him, that's for sure.
No National League team had a better ERA than the Cardinals, and closer Jason Isringhausen led the way with a career best. Holdovers Ray King and Julian Tavarez pretty much did what was expected of them, as did Cal Eldred as part of an experienced group of relief men. Al Reyes worked his way into a key role as well. The bullpen was the one element the Padres leaned upon the most all year long. The Padres added a veteran presence in the middle to augment one of the game's best late-innings trios. With closer Trevor Hoffman ably set up by Scott Linebrink and Akinori Otsuka, the Padres also got excellent work out of veterans Rudy Seanez and Chris Hammond.
Not only surviving but thriving without Rolen for most of the year, Walker for about half and Sanders and Molina for big chunks tells you all you need to know about the Cardinals' bench. From Taguchi and Rodriguez in the outfield to Hector Luna in the infield to catcher Einar Diaz and veteran bench guy Mabry, the Cards' bench retained a sense of excellence this year in St. Louis. The Padres had their bench pretty well settled heading into the season, but everything changed and Mark Sweeney and Eric Young were joined (or in Young's case, replaced for a couple of months) by the likes of Damian Jackson and Fick, who both delivered in big ways. Outfielder Ben Johnson came up late and got a lot of opportunity to show what he can do, and he's a viable option to start against a lefty.
Tony La Russa's record speaks for itself. One of the best ever and almost certainly the most prepared ever, LaRussa moved into third on the all-time managerial wins list this season. His 43 postseason wins are second only to Joe Torre and Bobby Cox. Beyond that, his attitude that nothing short of October will do echoes through the clubhouse. This might have been the biggest challenge of his managerial career, and you have to give Bruce Bochy credit for how he handled it. He tried everything to get his team rolling, but perhaps more important kept a sense of calm when others might have panicked. His performance was much better than his team's record shows.
The Cardinals are the better team pretty much any way you look at it, and they add a huge edge in postseason experience to the mix. They might not have had a chip on their shoulder since losing to Boston in the World Series, but they've clearly been focused on returning for another try. The Padres remain a dangerous team in October in large part because they still haven't played their best baseball -- they're capable of playing at a very high level if their offense can get rolling. They're a close team that has been through a lot this year, and that could be to their advantage.
John Schlegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.