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For Pujols and Cards, no time like present

For Pujols and Cards, no time like present

For Pujols and Cards, no time like present
MILWAUKEE -- When the Cardinals made two trades in late July to fortify their 2011 playoff chances, the description of the deals as "win-now" moves was almost pejorative. Turns out, that characterization was downright clairvoyant.

With an opportunity to make the postseason, and the possibility of significant turnover looming in the offseason, the St. Louis front office spent the bulk of the past year building a roster to go as deep as possible this year. From signing Lance Berkman to a one-year deal in December to a pair of trades that netted Edwin Jackson, Octavio Dotel, Marc Rzepczynski and Rafael Furcal in July, it was clear the Cards had their sights set on late October of 2011.

They hit the target. Albert Pujols may walk after '11. Manager Tony La Russa's future is uncertain as well. But Pujols, La Russa and the Cardinals have capitalized on what was given them. A team built to win it all this year is four wins away from doing just that.

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"If you don't make it, you put the effort in," said the team's principal owner, Bill DeWitt Jr. "When you do some things that might be perceived as short-term, if it doesn't work out, well, you gave it your best shot and it just didn't work out.

"It's nice to be in a position with a good club to be able to go for it. Every year you go for it, you're not going to go to the World Series. That's just life in MLB. But if you give yourself the opportunity enough, you're going to get there enough."

Neither DeWitt nor general manager John Mozeliak will make the explicit connection to Pujols, but that question underlies everything. It's possible that the next week will represent Pujols' final days in a Cards uniform. If it does, though, no one can say his tenure was wasted.

Pujols is heading to his third World Series as a Cardinal, along with a core that includes La Russa, ace Chris Carpenter and catcher Yadier Molina. Pujols could be gone next year, but this year he's trying to win one more ring.

In typical fashion, Pujols was talking about the 24 men around him, the guys he helped carry to the Fall Classic, against the Texas Rangers beginning on Wednesday night at Busch Stadium.

"Everybody's got to contribute," he said. "This is not one guy carrying the whole ballclub. Twenty-five guys need to step up, big-time."

But Pujols was a central part, slugging away through the National League Championship Series against Milwaukee and helping drive an offense that is St. Louis' defining unit in 2011. The thought of life without him is not a pleasant one.

The Cardinals are better with Pujols. Whether it's explicitly spoken or not, if Pujols leaves, the equation changes. The window for winning may not close if he signs elsewhere, but it won't be nearly so wide open.

"He does so much to help a club win, and he's our focal point," said La Russa. "Our organization did a great job. You bring in Lance, you bring in Matt [Holliday], now all of a sudden we're deep in the middle, and that takes a little pressure off guys like [David] Freese. We're just deeper. But Albert is our pivot, is our anchor."

So as the year went on, this possible last year with Pujols, and the Cards remained in the hunt, the front office did some calculations. Mozeliak, DeWitt and Co. looked at what they had. They looked at the competition. And they decided to strike.

They traded Colby Rasmus, once thought of as a centerpiece of Cardinals clubs for years to come, in the deal that brought Jackson, Dotel and Rzepczynski. They brought in Furcal from the Dodgers for Minor Leaguer Alex Castellanos.

And they put off any looks to the future. Even as the Cards faded in the standings, La Russa refused to start playing for 2012. The front office had done its part to give him a roster to win. He was going to do his part to make sure he squeezed every last drop out of that roster.

"Our club took a lot of hits," La Russa said, "but at that point in our season, it was too early to say, 'Let's look at next year.' There was plenty of time in the next two or three weeks if we mugged it, but we had a better team after the trades. But we had to give it a chance."

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.

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