The 2012 Cardinals could look a good bit like the '11 Cardinals. And while fans have been frustrated by the current club's second-place standing in the National League Central, players and management believe that could be very good news indeed.
The organization is approaching a winter filled with questions, but it has already begun to answer them. Adam Wainwright's two-year contract option will be exercised, and Wainwright is expected to be healthy for 2012, adding a pitcher with Cy Young Award ability to the rotation. A new contract for Carpenter, meanwhile, means that five starters are set for next season -- Carpenter, Wainwright, Jaime Garcia, Jake Westbrook and Kyle Lohse -- with the club not expected to re-sign Edwin Jackson.
The questions, then, come elsewhere: the lineup and the bullpen. Especially the lineup.
Lance Berkman and Rafael Furcal are eligible for free agency, and Yadier Molina's contract includes a club option for 2012. One way or another, it's just about inconceivable that Molina won't be a Cardinal next year, either via the option or a new extension, but the other two are in question.
If the questions are answered in the affirmative, though, the Cardinals like their chances quite a bit.
"If we are able to bring back the members of this team with the right complements, yeah, I think we have a very strong chance to be successful," general manager John Mozeliak said. "But it's still going to hinge a lot on how Wainwright looks when he comes to Spring Training. We got some pretty dramatic performances from some people this year, and it still wasn't enough. So I think it's a great foundation, but I still think we have to figure out exactly what to do with the bullpen."
For Berkman, there's a solid fallback. Allen Craig has shown he can hit at the big league level, and even if he doesn't produce like Berkman in his peak years, he's a legitimate bat for a corner-outfield spot.
Shortstop is more difficult. The free-agent market doesn't offer many prizes, and the Cardinals' rise back into playoff contention has meant almost no opportunities for Tyler Greene. Greene has been impressive at Triple-A, but he has had great difficulty translating it to the Major Leagues.
So while Berkman has been the bigger impact player, Furcal might be the greater loss. Both have enjoyed their time in St. Louis, and the club has been likewise pleased with them. Berkman even indicated at the end of August that the Cardinals had already made it clear they would like to bring him back. But that doesn't mean deals will get done -- intent is one thing, negotiations are another.
What the Cardinals do with their lineup, then, will likely impact the bullpen. The club does not expect to make a serious push for a free-agent closer this winter, but it could well add to both the right and left sides of the relief corps. There's depth on the right side, and Jason Motte is emerging as a ninth-inning force, but one more arm certainly wouldn't hurt.
The left side has been in flux all year, though Marc Rzepczynski has pitched very well since coming from Toronto in a trade.
"The left side of our bullpen never worked as far as real consistency," Mozeliak said. "So I think there's still work to be done this offseason."
Hovering over all decisions, of course, is the biggest question that has faced this franchise in recent memory: Pujols' future. The Cardinals obviously will make every effort to sign the three-time National League Most Valuable Player, but the possibility certainly exists that he could be playing elsewhere in 2012. That would undeniably change the entire dynamic.
It likely won't change the first round of decision-making, however. The Cards have already acted aggressively to sign Carpenter, and recent history suggests they will be similarly proactive in the first two months of the offseason. It's quite possible that many of these questions will be answered before Pujols' negotiations come to an end.
So the challenge is to get as many of those situations solved, as well as possible, as quickly as possible. It may be a different-looking club, but it could be awfully similar. That would be fine with Carpenter.
"Absolutely, no question about it," he said when asked if the 2011 core could contend again in '12. "We battled through a lot of things this year with injury, starting in Spring Training with Adam. We dealt with what we had to deal with in spring. We started strong. ... You throw all of us together again, hopefully we can get on that roll and get it going. I think that that is a possibility."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.