Monday, April 2, 2012

A New Deck of Cards in St. Louis

Posted By on Mon, Apr 2, 2012 at 8:59 AM

The St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series (for the first time) in 1926, a seven-game thriller over the mighty New York Yankees. With celebration still in the air the following winter, the Cardinals parted company with a player and manager destined for the Hall of Fame. Baseball has been played in St. Louis for 85 years since that tumultuous transition. And the Cardinals have won 10 more championships.

If the turnover after the 1926 Series reads as familiar to Cardinal fans, it should be. After winning their 11th championship last October (another seven-game thriller), the Cardinals lost manager Tony LaRussa (to retirement) and iconic first baseman Albert Pujols (to the Los Angeles Angels via free agency). The biggest difference between this offseason and that of 1926-27, of course, is that the manager and player lost 85 years ago were the same man: Rogers Hornsby. (Hornsby was traded to the New York Giants for another future Hall of Fame second baseman, Frankie Frisch.)

When you add the departure of pitching coach Dave Duncan (who stepped down to support his wife in her battle with cancer) to the story line, you have what must be called the most significant on-field transition in the 120-year history of the National League’s most successful franchise. And if you think Duncan won’t be missed on the field, remember Kent Bottenfield won 18 games under his tutelage. Garrett Stephenson won 16 and Todd Wellemeyer 13. Duncan has been to pitchers what Gunther Gebel-Williams was to tigers.

The achievements and tenures of Pujols (11 years in St. Louis), LaRussa and Duncan (16 years each) make them virtually impossible to replace, short-term. Mike Matheny has taken over managerial duties, Derek Lilliquist will coach pitchers, and veteran Lance Berkman will take over at first base. Berkman may be a Cardinal for life after his heroics in Game 6 of last year’s World Series, but he’ll never be described as Pujolsian.

So what to expect as St. Louis attempts to repeat (something this decorated franchise has never done)? The absence of Pujols from the third spot in the batting order will seem, for a while, like removing one of the two birds from the Cardinals’ jerseys. He’s among the few baseball players who shape the way a team’s fans cheer. Seeing a player not wearing the number 5 on his back stepping to the plate as the third batter in the bottom of the first inning at Busch Stadium will be jarring for a while. And the first time a St. Louis pitcher is replaced by a manager not wearing the number 10 . . . well, welcome to a new era, Cardinal fans.

There are additions worth noting. Adam Wainwright returns to anchor the starting rotation after a season lost to Tommy John surgery. A winner of 39 games over the 2009 and 2010 seasons, Wainwright will actually fill the void left by Chris Carpenter (sidelined with a nerve condition in his neck) as the season opens. Six-time All-Star Carlos Beltran signed as a free agent and hopes to replace some of the lost Pujols pop in the batting order. Once a Gold Glove centerfielder, Beltran will spend as much time in right field (as Allen Craig recovers from knee surgery) as he will in center for St. Louis.

Recent health concerns will chase six key Cardinals into their title defense: Carpenter, Wainwright, Craig, Beltran, third-baseman David Freese, and shortstop Rafael Furcal. The rise of the club’s farm system should provide depth the team didn’t enjoy just three or four years ago. (One of the top hitters in Memphis last season, Matt Carpenter, will be on the Cardinal bench for Opening Day.) If significant playing time isn’t compromised by ailments, the Cardinals should vie with Cincinnati for leadership of the National League Central, one of baseball’s weakest divisions. (In addition to losing Pujols, the division subtracted Prince Fielder, who signed with Detroit.)

Fans of all 30 major-league teams have much to cheer on Opening Day: a clean slate, optimism, the aroma of hot dogs roasting. Fans of the world champions will find a team easy to cheer, even with cosmetic — and structural — change unlike any the franchise has seen before.

The Cardinals open their 2012 season Wednesday at the new ballpark of the Miami Marlins.

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