Champion Cardinals ready to be the hunted

Champion Cardinals ready to be the hunted

Champion Cardinals ready to be the hunted
There was no way to know that the run of stability -- one that had long sustained and largely defined the organization -- was poised to end before the celebration ever could.

There was no way to grasp the significance of the private moment manager Tony La Russa and first baseman Albert Pujols shared amid a champagne-centered party. No way to know that a period of extensive transition would soon interrupt the euphoria of the Cardinals' 11th World Series championship.

Indeed, that final Friday of October offered few clues of what was to come.

At the time, the possibility of losing one legend was a real one. The thought of saying goodbye to more than one, though, was mostly unanticipated. And yet, over the past 108 days, the Cardinals have indeed said goodbye to more than one.

In just days, the champions will open camp in Jupiter, Fla., as the hunted. It's their title to defend, their burden to shoulder the corresponding expectations. They'll also congregate under unfamiliar circumstances.

Gone are long-time manager Tony La Russa, superstar Albert Pujols and pitching coach Dave Duncan, as well as several key front-office members. It is turnover rarely experienced on the heels of a World Series championship.

"[After] everything we've experienced and all of the turnover we've had ... trying to get down to Jupiter is something we're all looking forward to," general manager John Mozeliak said. "I think there is a lot of optimism and hope that things will continue to be successful. The thing I like most [about the team] is that it's balanced. I think it's athletic. I think it's versatile. That's proven to be a pretty successful recipe for us."

Pujols has migrated west, signing a 10-year deal with the Angels that stirred myriad emotions in St. Louis. His exit followed that of La Russa, who walked into retirement on his own terms following a 16-year tenure in St. Louis.

Duncan's departure wasn't planned, but preparations were already in place for a fairly seamless handoff to Derek Lilliquist, who worked alongside Duncan last season. The transitory period was then further augmented as Mozeliak watched several of his closest confidants leave for various other front-office opportunities.

"We're going to have a good team. I think everybody knows that. It's going to be different not having Albert down there, not having Tony down there. But it's definitely going to be exciting."
-- David Freese

But to consider all these changes detrimental to the Cardinals' attempt at returning to the playoffs would be underestimating what -- or, more appropriately, who -- is left behind. An argument could actually be made -- and some players have already attempted to make it -- that the 2012 Cardinals roster is built to be stronger than the one that sent La Russa off on top.

"I think there is a lot of excitement around this ballclub with what happened at the end," starter Chris Carpenter said. "Guys are excited about this team, excited about the change, excited about [new manager] Mike [Matheny], excited about [Carlos] Beltran, excited about getting [Adam Wainwright] back. There is a lot of excitement going into this season."

The Cardinals' chances of repeating as champions -- a feat accomplished only three times, by two clubs, since 1979 -- will hinge largely on Wainwright's impact. His recovery from Tommy John surgery has been nearly flawless, and all indications are that the 30-year-old right-hander will progress through the same Spring Training buildup routine he has in the past.

At best, Wainwright's return reintroduces an ace into a rotation that already has one. Lower those lofty expectations a bit and Wainwright still significantly boosts the starting corps.

"I have an important job on this team, and I feel like I can make an impact," Wainwright said. "I think by the time the season rolls around, [the surgery] should be a distant memory."

A solidified starting rotation is complemented by a stabilized bullpen, headlined by closer Jason Motte. And then there's the offense, which, while absent of No. 5, includes a key new outfielder to complement other maturing, young hitters.

The inability to ink Pujols to a new deal left the Cardinals with the cash to re-sign shortstop Rafael Furcal and aggressively pursue Beltran. Beltran won't replicate Pujols' production, but if he stays healthy, he will be a key piece in a St. Louis lineup that returns Lance Berkman, Matt Holliday, David Freese and Yadier Molina.

"When you add a guy like Carlos Beltran, our offense is really going to be good," said Berkman, who will shift from right field to first base. "I'm still excited about this team. It doesn't spell the death now for the franchise that [Pujols] is not here."

Matheny's task of following in La Russa's footsteps would seem a daunting one. But Matheny makes it clear that he views his job not in the context of replacing a legend, but from the eyes of someone who believes he has been preparing for this position since his playing days.

How he fares as a tactician or molds his lineups and manages players only a few years younger than himself will all be answered over time. The fact that he inherits a largely experienced group of players should aid in the seamlessness of the job transition, too.

The club he leads onto the field in Miami on April 4 is likely to be considered the favorite to win the National League Central -- something it actually didn't accomplish en route to last year's World Series run.

The defending division-champion Brewers, already hurt by Prince Fielder's departure, stare at the possibility of also being without MVP Ryan Braun for almost one-third of the season. Should Braun's 50-game suspension be upheld, Milwaukee's chances of repeating seem slim.

The Cubs, Pirates and Astros are all in differing phases of rebuilding, though the Reds could provide formidable opposition after making what appear to be several upgrades.

Still, the division goes through the Cardinals. And know that the Cardinals, as changed as their identity might be, are eager to defend.

"We're going to have a good team. I think everybody knows that," Freese said. "It's going to be different not having Albert down there, not having Tony down there. But it's definitely going to be exciting."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.