And now? They are coming off a season in which their achievements were still notable. They overcame a wave or early injuries, qualified for the postseason and eventually came within one victory of another World Series appearance. Their current needs, compared with those of the competition, are modest and manageable -- another left-handed reliever (they had reportedly agreed to a deal with veteran Randy Choate), middle-infield depth, maybe a right-handed-hitting outfielder.
As it turned out, they were fine in the first post-Albert season. There were times when the offense didn't accomplish everything that it could, but on balance, this is still one of Major League Baseball's elite teams.
The Cards lived on in the post-Tony era, too. This is not a comparison to La Russa, because he is essentially incomparable. He was replaced by a first-year manager. Based on the reaction to this development in some quarters, you would have thought this development was a sin against nature.
But the Cardinals' new manager, Mike Matheny, demonstrated that he was not merely an adequate replacement. With the qualities of intelligence, empathy, determination, persistence and patience, Matheny showed why he could become one of the exceptionally good managers.
Not that Matheny will accept an ounce of credit. Add genuine modesty to the list. Asked at the Winter Meetings for an evaluation of his work in 2012, Matheny responded:
"You know, I'm proud of how our guys responded at the end. All season long, I believed that they never gave up. Right at the end, I saw them push it into another gear to make it real exciting for our fan base and for us as a club.
"The reason I bring that up is that there has to be an atmosphere to allow that to happen. My philosophy going into this was to not get in their way. I think, as we look back, we were one game away from a National League pennant. And I must not have gotten in the way too much. I think that's the best evaluation I can give."
Matheny went on evading credit in this fashion, and when the verb "deflect" was used to describe what he was doing with the credit, he seized on that.
"Deflection is the right response here," Matheny said. "I do believe our guys were prepared. I do believe that we didn't miss a lot of opportunities. I know I made mistakes.
"But I also want to deflect [credit] to the coaching staff I had. I gave my [coaching staff] a lot of responsibility, because I needed the help. I believe that -- with their expertise -- that I would have been a fool not to take advantage of it. A lot of the things that were done right, I know was a group effort. For me to sit up here and tell you that as a manager, those were all buttons I was pushing all on my own would be a completely false statement. I'm real proud of how our coaching staff came together and took responsibility, helped us move forward, helped me move forward.
"And then, also, there was the leadership we had within our clubhouse, which was invaluable. We had some guys who realized, 'We've got a manager who hasn't done this before; we've got to police inside this clubhouse.' They did a terrific job of it."
Matheny was then asked what the managerial areas were in which he could improve.
"All areas," he said. "I truly believe that I can improve. ... I wanted the players, as they left the season, to feel that they can improve in all areas. I mean, that's the nature of competition. That's the nature of learning. That's the nature of this game, is that there's so much. I've used the analogy, I've said it's like drinking from a fire hose. That's really what this can be, because there's so much coming at you. In a game, there's so much going on.
"I really believed that I learned a great deal. I have a great deal more to learn. And I also know that the people around me, they grew. I know that I have that responsibility, not only to our players, but our staff, to get better and to help them achieve what they're trying to achieve long term.
"There's so much, there's so many facets to this position. I know if [Tigers manager] Jim Leyland was sitting here right now and you asked him that question, I'm sure that he would say he wants to learn more. That's the nature of this position."
In his first season, Matheny discovered that he liked this job as much as he imagined he would. So he wants to keep doing it as long as possible.
"There's no question of it, and no apologies, I love what I do, without question," Matheny said, adding with a small smile: "Now, whether it's the right place for me to be or not isn't always my decision. But to me, I truly enjoy doing this.
"And getting a good taste of postseason play in your first season, you get a little bit of that reward that you realize is so important, so exciting to the whole organization and the fans. And then being that close and coming up short brings around the reality that it was really good but it could have been a whole lot better."
That is where the Cardinals find themselves, one year out from the departures of the seemingly irreplaceable Pujols and La Russa. Their outlook is really good, but their future could be even better.