ST. LOUIS -- Hard to believe, but losing Albert Pujols might just end up being a plus for the St. Louis hitters. A bigger barrier toward the Cardinals repeating could be a rotation that got one big arm back yet has another on the shelf.
The money the World Series champions would have devoted to Pujols, who signed a 10-year, $240 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels, paid for rejuvenated veterans Carlos Beltran and Rafael Furcal.
It’s a win-now backup plan that’ll make filling out lineup cards easier for first-time manager Mike Matheny, in the dugout spot occupied for so long by Tony La Russa.
Matt Holliday is a natural successor at Pujols’ No. 3 spot, and there’s NL comeback player of the year Lance Berkman, postseason studs David Freese and Allen Craig, plus Gold Glove catcher Yadier Molina has an under-appreciated bat.
“You’re not going to replace Albert,” Holliday said. “You have to look at our team as an offense now, not with Albert gone. Just look at what we have, which I think is plenty.”
And don’t forget this: Before their September charge coinciding with the Braves’ collapse, 2011 was a flop. Wire to wire, most players have room for improvement.
They know better than to expect they can duplicate any of the September and October heroics. They rallied from 10 ½ games back in the NL wild card on Aug. 25, knocked off Phillies ace Roy Halladay in Game 5 of the NL division series, upset the Central-winning Brewers in the NL championship series, and provided one of the most stirring comeback stories against Texas in Game 6 of the World Series on the way to beating yet another favored team.
“It’s going to be hard to top that, the fashion that we did it,” Freese said. “You’ve got to understand that first and not try to outdo it.”
The Cardinals want to clinch the Central with time to spare in 2012, not sneak into the playoffs on the final day of the season.
“Honestly, I hope the regular season is easier on us,” Freese said. “It’s everyone’s goal to win the division like Milwaukee did last year and not go into the playoffs comfortably, but solidify yourself as the division champ.”
The biggest question for a team that on paper appears to have no holes will be health, all over the roster.
Recurring neck and shoulder issues have put postseason ace Chris Carpenter’s early-season availability in doubt. The team expects the brilliant but often-injured Carpenter to start the year on the 15-day disabled list, and he’ll be 37 in April.
Promising rookie Lance Lynn will fill Carpenter’s spot in the rotation with Kyle Lohse, who led the rotation with 14 wins and a 3.39 ERA, getting the nod on opening day April 4 at Miami.
Returning ace Adam Wainwright has had no problems in spring but since he’s a little more than a year removed from reconstructive elbow surgery, general manager John Mozeliak has said the right-hander won’t be pushed.
Freese has a history of ankle woes and has yet to play 100 games in a season. Craig is coming off kneecap surgery and may not be ready for opening day.
Skip Schumaker, cast in a super utility role this year, will begin the season on the DL with a pulled side muscle. The clock is ticking on Beltran and Furcal, each 34, and both with durability issues in recent seasons, and Berkman is 36.
Fifth starter Jake Westbrook is 34 and coming off a year so disappointing he was left off the roster for the first two rounds of the postseason. Westbrook shed 20 pounds in the offseason, giving him a better shot at making an impression in the final year of his contract, and if the Cardinals make the postseason, playing a vital role.
“If that opportunity comes about again, I want to have the year where they have confidence to throw me out there,” Westbrook said. “I have a lot of motivation, especially as I’m getting older, to get back to where I’m capable of pitching.”
The 42-year-old Matheny is not much older than a lot of the team’s stars, indeed losing his job to Molina after 2004. Though he has no managing experience, Matheny seemed a natural in spring training while projecting a calming presence.
The hire was an about-face after a highly successful 16-year run by La Russa, who retired as No. 3 on the career managing victory list behind only Connie Mack and John McGraw.
On a daily basis early in spring training, Matheny fielded questions about whether following La Russa’s long-running act was a fair challenge. Day after day, Matheny said, in essence, that he knew what he was doing.
“I’ve got a job to do, and for me to get focused on trying to be somebody else, it’s a waste of all our time,” Matheny said. “You can talk about pressure, you can talk about whatever you want, and it can become a distraction to these guys if it’s continually jammed down their throat.”
Matheny won three of his four Gold Gloves with St. Louis from 2000-04, and rejoined the organization after his career was ended by concussions. The previous two seasons, he was a special instructor working with catchers.
The pitching coach is a neophyte, too, but with an asterisk. Derek Lilliquist replaces longtime La Russa aide Dave Duncan, who is taking an extended leave of absence to tend to his wife following surgery to remove a brain tumor.
The laconic Lilliquist proved himself under fire late last season, guiding the staff during its September run after beginning the year as bullpen coach.
Now, there’s no Pujols, no La Russa, no Duncan. It’s their time.
“If you want to sit and dwell on all these other issues, all these different ideals that you can conjure up, you’re going to be worthless,” Matheny said. “So, I’m not going that way.”