Adam Wainwright

Springtime Storylines: Will the St. Louis Cardinals survive the loss of three legends?


Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: The New-Look Redbirds.

The Big Question: Will St. Louis be able to defend its World Series title this year in the absence of Pujols, La Russa and Duncan?

For the Cardinals, the 2011 season was a whirlwind. They were 10 1/2 games out of a playoff spot in late August, they had to get through the Phillies in the first round, they were supposed to be out-slugged by the National League Central champion Brewers in the second round, and they were down to their last strike twice in a wild World Series with the Rangers.

But the craziness didn’t stop when Allen Craig caught the final out in Game 7. A day after the Cardinals paraded the World Series trophy through the streets of downtown St. Louis, Tony La Russa announced that he was ending his 33-year managerial career. A month later, longtime first baseman and franchise icon Albert Pujols agreed to terms on a 10-year, $250 million free agent contract with the Angels. And just before the start of spring training, pitching coach and likely Hall of Famer Dave Duncan informed the Cardinals’ decision-makers that he was stepping away from the game for at least a year to be with his ailing wife.

Three giants of the industry, gone in one short winter. And yet the Redbirds seem unlikely to skip a beat.

The return of ace right-hander Adam Wainwright, who missed the entire 2011 season following Tommy John surgery, should help ease some of the pain brought on by Pujols’ departure. Wainwright was worth a whopping 6.1 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) in 2010 according to FanGraphs. Pujols was worth 5.1 fWAR in 2011.

The arrival of Carlos Beltran will also be big. He’s a full two years removed from microfracture knee surgery and has been improving offensively the further away he gets from that procedure. In the second half last season, the 34-year-old outfielder batted .325/.398/.562 with nine home runs and 26 RBI in 53 games.

The Cards were dealt a tough hand this winter, but they were able to come up with — or happen into — high quality solutions. And they should be right near the top of the National League Central standings as usual.

What Else Is Going On?

  • Replacing La Russa will be Mike Matheny, a former catcher for the Brewers, Blue Jays, Cardinals and Giants. There’s no way to know how he’ll operate as an in-game strategist because he enters the job with zero managerial experience. But his opened-mindedness to new ideas is, in a word, refreshing. “I know Bill James,” Matheny told reporters at December’s Winter Meetings. “I’ve done my share of research and realize that there is an advantage to it. … I’m willing to do anything if it gives us a better chance to win. I’ll take whatever information I get. That’s really the long and short of it; it’s really no more complex than that. If something becomes available to me that gives us a competitive edge, I’ll be all over it.”
  • The Cardinals signed catcher Yadier Molina to a five-year, $75 million contract extension this spring. It might seem like an extreme overpay for a guy with a .274/.331/.377 career batting line. But Molina is the best defensive catcher in baseball and his ability to prevent runs — both by controlling the running game with lightning-quick throws and by blocking pitches with unteachable instincts — makes him more valuable than most publicly available metrics would suggest. The 29-year-old Puerto Rican is also coming around offensively, having batted .305 with an .814 OPS, 14 home runs and 65 RBI in 139 games last year.
  • Under former general manager Walt Jocketty, the St. Louis farm system was used mostly to fund trades and rarely produced elite-level prospects. But that has all changed with the arrival of John Mozeliak, who has introduced a better-streamlined organizational philosophy and put more emphasis on the amateur draft and international free agent market. The Cardinals are suddenly stacked in the minors, with top prospects like right-handers Shelby Miller and Carlos Martinez, second baseman Kolten Wong, outfielder Oscar Taveras and first baseman Matt Adams inching closer and closer to the major leagues. There’s nothing better than cost-controlled talent, and St. Louis should soon have it in abundance.

How Are They Gonna Do?

If Rafael Furcal, David Freese, Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman can stay relatively healthy, the offense could be as good as any in the National League. And if left-hander Jaime Garcia continues to develop, right-hander Kyle Lohse remains a steady mid-rotation presence and veteran sinkerballer Jake Westbrook bounces back from an ugly 2011, the Cardinals should be able to breeze through two months sans Chris Carpenter. St. Louis will finish first in the National League Central, just inching out the Reds and Brewers.

Trevor Cahill considering the Pirates as a potential destination

Trevor Cahill
AP Photo/Paul Beaty
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ESPN’s Buster Olney reports that free agent pitcher Trevor Cahill is looking for a one-year, bounce-back deal. The Pirates are one of the potential teams he is considering.

It’s no surprise that the Pirates are on Cahill’s list. Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage has garnered a reputation as a miracle worker after turning around the careers of a handful of pitchers, including Edinson Volquez, Francisco Liriano, and J.A. Happ. Volquez parlayed a one-year, $5 million deal with the Pirates into a two-year, $20 million deal with the Royals last December. Liriano signed with the Pirates on a one-year, $1 million contract and turned that into a three-year, $39 million deal. Happ, dealt to the Pirates from the Mariners at the most recent trade deadline, just signed a three-year, $39 million contract with the Blue Jays.

Cahill, once a highly-regarded pitching prospect, has scuffled over parts of seven seasons in the majors. The 27-year-old owns a career 4.13 ERA with a 754/427 K/BB ratio in 1,083 2/3 innings. Cahill had some brief success after signing with the Cubs as a free agent in mid-August, compiling a 2.12 ERA in 11 appearances out of the bullpen.

Blue Jays narrow GM search to two candidates: Tony LaCava and Ross Atkins

Tony LaCava
AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

Jon Heyman of CBS Sports reports that the Blue Jays have narrowed their search for a new general manager down to two candidates: current interim GM Tony LaCava, and Indians vice president of player personnel Ross Atkins. Former Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos resigned last month.

LaCava was promoted to interim GM on November 2 and has already made a handful of moves along with new president Mark Shapiro. The club acquired Jesse Chavez in a trade and signed pitchers Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ to multi-year deals.

Atkins worked under Shapiro in the Indians organization for 15 seasons, so it is no surprise that he is a finalist for the open GM position.

The Diamondbacks met with Johnny Cueto’s agent

AP Photo/David Goldman
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Update (7:58 PM EST): Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic reports that Diamondbacks GM Dave Stewart met with Cueto earlier this month in the Dominican Republic and made a contract offer that the right-hander turned down. The Diamondbacks maintain interest in the free agent.


Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports reports that the Diamondbacks spoke with Bryce Dixon, the agent of free agent starter Johnny Cueto. However, Rosenthal notes that Cueto’s price tag is expected to exceed the Diamondbacks’ comfort level.

Cueto, 29, is one of a handful of highly touted starting pitchers in this offseason’s free agent class. He is joined by David Price and Zack Greinke, among others. Jordan Zimmermann inked a deal in the neighborhood of $110 million over five years with the Tigers on Sunday morning, which will serve as a barometer for Cueto.

Cueto finished the 2015 regular season, between the Reds and the Royals, with a 3.44 ERA and a 176/46 K/BB ratio over 212 innings. He made 13 shaky starts with the Royals, but outside of a shellacking in Game 3 of the ALCS against the Blue Jays, pitched well in the post-season. Cueto pitched a complete game in Game 2 of the World Series against the Mets, helping put the Royals up two games to none at the time.

As a result of switching teams during the season, Cueto was not eligible to receive a $15.8 million qualifying offer. This means that Cueto, unlike Zimmermann for example, does not come attached with draft pick compensation.

Red Sox president Dave Dombrowski is reportedly trying to trade Hanley Ramirez

Hanley Ramirez
AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File

Nick Cafardo provides this interesting nugget in his Sunday notes column at the Boston Globe

Hanley Ramirez, 1B-DH, Red Sox — There’s now talk in the front office that Dave Dombrowski is trying to move Ramirez in a deal. The Mariners, Orioles, and Angels seem to be the targets, and all three make sense.

Cafardo notes that “there are huge hurdles to cross” before a trade could happen — like how much of Hanley’s remaining salary the Red Sox would have to eat and what positions the soon-to-be 32-year-old is able to play defensively at this point in his career.

Boston’s higher-ups have asked Ramirez to learn first base and drop 20 pounds this winter. Whatever team is looking to acquire him would probably have to be comfortable with him serving primarily as a designated hitter.

Hanley is owed $68.2 million over the next three seasons and he carries a $22 million vesting option for 2019. He batted just .249/.291/.426 in 105 games this past year.