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

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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.

Bradley Zimmer to miss 8-12 months after shoulder surgery

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Indians outfielder Bradley Zimmer is out for the year after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder, the team announced Saturday. The projected recovery timetable spans anywhere from 8-12 months, which puts Zimmer’s return in the second half of the 2019 season, assuming that all goes well.

Zimmer, 25, had not made an appearance for the Indians since June 3. He racked up a cumulative nine weeks on the major- and minor-league disabled lists this season and will have finished his year with a .226/.281/.330 batting line, seven extra-base hits, and four stolen bases in 114 plate appearances.

The outfielder reportedly sustained his season-ending injury during a workout in Triple-A Columbus, where Cleveland.com’s Joe Noga says Zimmer began feeling discomfort in his shoulder after completing a set of one-handed throwing drills. Comments from club manager Terry Francona suggest that the Indians have every reason to believe that he’ll make a full recovery by next summer, though it’s not yet clear whether or not he’ll need additional time to readjust to a full workload when he takes the field again.