ST. LOUIS -- When a three-time MVP departs, it sure is nice to have a six-time All-Star waiting in the wings to take his spot.
Albert Pujols, the Cardinals' offensive anchor and the club's first baseman for the past eight seasons, left for greener pastures this winter. Conveniently for the Redbirds, they had Lance Berkman at the ready to slide from right field to first base. With David Freese expected to be healthy and effective in 2012, it appears that the corners will once again be well-manned at Busch Stadium.
No one, of course, can fully replace Pujols' production. He's been the league's best hitter over the past decade, and even Berkman doesn't typically reach the offensive heights that Pujols does. But in Pujols' absence, Berkman projects as one of the two or three best offensive first basemen in the National League. And across the diamond, Freese is coming off a historic October and a regular season where he was very effective when healthy.
They figure to bat fourth and fifth in a deep and potent lineup when the season starts, and the Cardinals are counting on them for significant production.
"It's just going to be different," Berkman said of the Cardinals' new mix. "It may not necessarily be better or worse, but I think it will be different whenever you subtract guys and add some new faces. It just takes a while for everybody to settle in and everybody to come together. Hopefully that happens sooner rather than later."
Berkman likely won't be the defender at first base that Pujols was, but he's played the position plenty and should be able to hold his own. Freese has the ability to be a plus third baseman, and might finally get to show it in 2012.
In recent years, he's been slowed and at times shelved due to ankle problems. This time around, he feels he's healthier and more mobile than he's been in a long time.
"I think 2012 is definitely going to be different," Freese said, "in the sense that it will be just, 'David, go play.' Each day, each year I get more healthy. There is still room for improvement, and that's what is exciting."
Berkman likewise has no worries about health. Though he told reporters a year ago that the outfield would be easier on his sometimes troublesome knees, he admitted in January that that was mostly spin.
Behind them, the options vary. Daniel Descalso, who became Freese's defensive caddy late in 2011, could figure in that role again in '12. But he also may have a more prominent job, since he'll be competing for starting second-base duties. Tyler Greene, also in that mix, could back up some at third as well. It's clear, though, that more innings and games will be asked of Freese in 2012 than in 2011.
At first, it's more of a question mark. When Allen Craig returns from injury -- which could happen any time from Opening Day to sometime around the first of May -- he likely slots in as the alternative to Berkman, especially against left-handers. For the first month, though, it's unclear. An opening could exist for someone like Mark Hamilton, who slugged at Triple-A last year, to make the club, or the Cardinals could mix and match with players like backup catcher Tony Cruz.
As for the future, the Cardinals are stocked. Two of the club's top prospects are corner infielders, and that doesn't count Craig, who could be headed to first base at some point in the future.
Zack Cox, a first-round Draft pick in 2010, handled himself very well in his full-season professional debut last year and should be headed to Triple-A Memphis. He's a polished hitter whose ultimate position may not be known yet, but as of now Cox is a third baseman. This is a big year for Cox, who is already on the 40-man roster.
Across the diamond there's Matt Adams, the reigning organizational player of the year following a huge season at Double-A Springfield. Like Cox, Adams appears ticketed for Memphis, and like Cox, it's not entirely clear where he fits in the organization's future plans. Even if Berkman doesn't return in 2013, Adams could well be blocked by Craig, and there's really no other position where he could play.
Still, it's better to have options than not to, and despite Pujols' departure, the Cardinals do in fact have options.
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.