Spring countdown: Cardinals carry on without La Russa, Pujols

9:20 AM, Feb 13, 2012   |    comments
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By Steve Gardner of USA TODAY

The World Series champion Cardinals certainly didn't stand pat this offseason -- although it was mostly by necessity, not by choice.

After two injury-plagued seasons, outfielder Carlos Beltran came back strong in 2011 -- making the NL All-Star team and hitting .300 with 22 home runs and 84 RBI for the Mets and Giants.CAPTIONBy Christian Petersen, Getty ImagesManager Tony La Russa announced his retirement after 16 seasons at the helm and slugger Albert Pujols chose to sign with the Los Angeles Angels as a free agent.

However, general manager John Mozeliak worked quickly to hire former Cardinals catcher Mike Matheny to take over in the dugout and then sign All-Stgar outfielder Carlos Beltran (pictured) to help make up for the loss on offense.

"You can't replace Albert, but when you look at the sum of our parts, we think we'll be able to score runs," Mozeliak says.

With Pujols in the cleanup spot, the Cardinals led the National League last season in scoring (4.7 runs per game), batting average (.273) and on-base-plus-slugging percentage (.766).

However, Beltran actually had a better on-base percentage (.385 vs. 366) and a better OPS (.910 to .906) last year than Pujols did. He'll likely hit in the No. 2 spot in the order - in front of Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman.

With Beltran starting in right field, Berkman will take over Pujols' position at first base, where he's more comfortable defensively. If Beltran's health holds up - and it did last year after two injury-plagued seasons - the 34-year-old could even play some center field.

The Cardinals will also get a boost from the return of former 20-game winner Adam Wainwright, who missed all of last season due to elbow surgery.

"When you look at the things you can do (to improve a pitching staff), he is obviously a huge asset for us," Mozeliak says.

Two years ago, Wainwright was 20-11 with a 2.42 ERA and finished second in the NL Cy Young voting. But he hurt his elbow last spring, underwent Tommy John surgery and then could only watch as his teammates rallied to make a historic run to make the playoffs on the final day of the regular season.

Wainwright is ahead of schedule in his offseason rehab and is on track to begin spring training on the same throwing program as the rest of the starters.

"My arm's feeling really good," he said at the Cardinals' Winter Warm-Up last month. "I'm actually kinda worried that I'm too far along, as opposed to the other way around. I feel fresh and ready to go."

With postseason hero Chris Carpenter joining Wainwright at the front of the rotation, the Cardinals have all five starting spots filled heading into spring training. However, they have considered signing free agent pitcher Roy Oswalt to provide added depth. ("You never turn down an opportunity to get better," Mozeliak says.) The two sides haven't come anywhere close to terms, but Oswalt is still a free agent.

If the Cardinals do feel the need to give their rotation a jolt, top pitching prospect Shelby Miller will be just a phone call away after dominating hitters at Class A and AA last year.

One other missing link to last year is longtime pitching coach Dave Duncan, who is taking a leave of absence to be with his wife as she recovers from brain surgery. Bullpen coach Derek Lilliquist will take over Duncan's duties.

That's quite a lot of turnover -- both on and off the field -- from last year's championship squad. Now Mozeliak and Co. are anxious to see how everything fits together.

"I do think about getting to spring training just because we have a lot of new faces," he says. "We're excited about that. Given the offseason we've had, we're anxious to get back out on the field."

 

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