Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 4/5/12

2012 Outlook – 60 (8th)

One down, 161 to go, right?

I think the assumption around baseball was if Albert Pujols left the Cardinals, he would leave a husk of a team behind him. If his teammates didn’t prove their worth enough throughout their playoff run in 2011, they’ll get ample chance to do so in 2012. They should be up to the challenge, as this roster was especially well suited to replacing a departing first baseman. With Lance Berkman moving in from right field to a more suiting first base and Carlos Beltran filling the hole left by Pujols, the Cardinals’ offense has a chance to repeat as the best in the National League (as measured by both runs scored and wRC+).

Throw in more games from David Freese (just 97 last year), Rafael Furcal (and therefore less Ryan Theriot) and Allen Craig (either off the bench or as an intriguing second base option) and one can make a good argument that the Cardinals can replace Pujols’s sheer star power with depth in the lineup that is unrivaled in the National League. It is a team that is solid defensively across the board as well, particularly with Daniel Descalso at second base instead of Craig.

The pitching staff contains the question marks for the Cardinals this season, particularly with regards to health. Chris Carpenter is 37 and already without a timetable for return from a shoulder injury involving nerve damage — a dreaded diagnosis for any pitcher and any organization. Adam Wainwright returns, but any season coming off Tommy John surgery is usually a worrisome one. When healthy, a top three of Carpenter, Wainwright and Jaime Garcia is devastating; the question is how often it will be those three and not, say, Garcia, Kyle Lohse and Lance Lynn or Jake Westbrook — a far less intimidating prospect.

The bullpen didn’t have a set closer for much of the season but Jason Motte has emerged with one of the major league’s toughest fastballs as an excellent closer. There are plenty of solid relief pieces around him as well, chief among them Fernando Salas and Mark Rzepczynski, and Eduardo Sanchez should make his way up from the minors at some point. Simply not having Ryan Franklin on board should serve as addition by subtraction.

The absence of Dave Duncan this season could play a factor — can Mike Matheny and Derek Lilliquist perform anywhere close to the same alchemy Duncan routinely managed with leaden pitching arms? And of course, it would be remiss to leave out Tony LaRussa‘s departure — he was masterful with his bullpen management in the postseason (particularly in the final two series) and has been an important force in that city for years.

Still, even with the turnover in management, between an excellent offense and the quality pitchers on the roster, the Cardinals certainly have enough to compete with the Brewers and Reds for the NL Central crown. The Cardinals are justifiably the favorites in this three-headed race in many circles and should have an excellent chance at grabbing a Wild Card slot should they fail to win back the division title.

2013+ Outlook – 53 (12th)

We do not doubt the producing potential of the Cardinals’ minor league system. St. Louis has three big-time pitching prospects in Shelby Miller (a top-five prospect overall), Tyrell Jenkins and Carlos Martinez. There can be some questions about the depth, but there are quality position player prospects as well, including Oscar Taveras, Kolten Wong and Zack Cox. The Cardinals have routinely owned a solid system and there is little reason to expect the current instance to be any different.

The Cardinals biggest issue is the age of their core and the money that will be spent on it. Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran, Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina, Rafael Furcal, Jaime Garcia and Skip Schumaker — an eight-player group — will be owed roughly $81.5 million next season, just $27 million less than the current payroll, the Cardinals’ highest ever (just edging out last season’s). Luckily, many of their players are still in pre-arbitration, and some $40 million of that comes off the books in 2014 — as many of the (currently) secondary players enter expensive arbitration seasons.

The Cardinals will therefore need that loaded system to deliver some cheap talent to the major leagues, and soon. The future of the organization won’t be quite so simple without the reliable talent of Albert Pujols, but John Mozeliak and crew has put the pieces in place to live up to the challenge.

Revenues – 54 (8th)

Flags fly forever. And on their way to the stadium, they bring cash. Still, the Cardinals very much profile as a mid-market team, not a large market one. The franchise is ranked 11th in terms of overall value by Forbes, but could be held down by a middling metro area population (2.6 million) and more importantly, a TV deal that will not expire until 2017.

The Cardinals should not have trouble packing Busch Stadium, though, and can keep the gate receipts flowing like few other teams. St. Louis has finished third in attendance in the National League every year since 2007 and has a good shot to do so again in 2012 (finishing behind Philadelphia and San Francisco) and would only fall to fourth if the Dodgers’ fanbase is galvanized by the new purchase of the team — that is, through no fault of their own.

St. Louis will never challenge teams like the Red Sox or Yankees in terms of payroll, but they should have enough of a budget to compete with the smaller markets in the division. Their revenue stream can’t quite approach that of the Cubs, but the competitive advantage for Chicago isn’t too much to overcome — just see the last century or so.

Baseball Operations – 54 (T-8th)

The Mozeliak years in St. Louis began somewhat tumultuously, as the franchise missed the playoffs in three of the new general manager’s first four seasons — something that hadn’t happened since missing three straight from 1997-1999. But Mozeliak inherited an old team in the one that was victorious in the 2006 World Series, and one that managed just 83 regular season wins the season before at that. Although he was handed many of the bigger pieces (Pujols, Wainwright, Carpenter), he added two of the biggest contributors to the 2011 World Series through free agency in Matt Holliday and a real steal in Lance Berkman. He acquired David Freese in a little-heralded trade in 2007, giving up much-loved veteran outfielder Jim Edmonds — a shrewd trade, as Edmonds was largely ineffective for his remaining MLB career.

His two biggest contracts do have a high bust potential, as both Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina will make eight figures well into their 30s, partially leading to the concentration of big-money deals the Cardinals are responsible for over the next two seasons. His decision to trade Colby Rasmus could be a big long-term loss if he finds his way in Toronto, but again, flags fly forever. Was the World Series possible without the contributions of Edwin Jackson, Mark Rzepczynski and Octavio Dotel? Possibly, but as the final day of the season taught us, every little bit counts.

Largely, under Mozeliak, the Cardinals have maintained a level of solid talent — even in missing the playoffs, the Cardinals won 86 games in both 2010 and 2008. The post-Pujols years will provide a tougher test and give us a clearer look at Mozeliak and his crew’s abilities as decision makers and player developers, but the Mozeliak administration has given us little reason to believe they will fail.

Overall – 56 (6th)

The Cardinals have no specific strength of their organization, no one area in which they clearly outclass the league. But they have been above-average in every aspect a franchise needs to succeed, and for that, they have been rewarded with consistent playoff appearances and two World Series championships in the past decade. Even with Albert Pujols gone, the Cardinals have a solid core of players, a good minor league system, and the resources and personnel necessary to keep them in place — an excellent recipe for continued success.

That is, as long as they can avoid the curse of the #6org.


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