Identity crisis? Not so fast, say Cardinals

Identity crisis? Not so fast, say Cardinals

Identity crisis? Not so fast, say Cardinals
The emotions, as strong as they once were, have since given way to the sobering reality that the upcoming season will begin and then end without the presence of first baseman Albert Pujols. And so will each one after that.

Yet Pujols, who once encompassed the identity of this ballclub, leaves behind an undaunted supporting cast-turned-future core. Those in this bunch talk little about who will be missing, though they also avoid promises of immediate and equal replacement production.

Their message instead is this: Be assured -- there are neither kinks in the team chemistry, nor reason to believe this club won't effectively weather Pujols' departure.

Pujols' shadow will be hovering over this franchise for a while longer. Such is the byproduct of greatness. But by the time full-squad workouts begin in Jupiter, Fla., later this month, know that those left in the Cardinals' clubhouse will have moved on. In fact, they already have.

"It's hard to replace a guy like that, but I still like our club," said Pujols' successor at first base, Lance Berkman. "I think we'll have a better pitching staff than we did last year. I think our bullpen is more settled than it was last year. And when you add a guy like Carlos Beltran, our offense is really going to be good."

Spring Training is always integral in developing clubhouse camaraderie. New faces work to fit in; old ones often assume augmented responsibility. Just as important for the Cardinals this spring, however, will be the formation of a new offensive identity.

There is the task of finding a new three-hole hitter (likely to be Matt Holliday), and the need to replace elite-level production. Be prepared for the latter to come cumulatively, as no individual is expected to replace a future Hall of Famer alone. But that's not to assume that a lineup sans Pujols cannot be as potent as last season's world championship one.

The Cardinals led the National League in team batting average (.273), on-base percentage (.341) and runs scored (762) en route to finishing second in the National League Central last season. Yet much of that production came without the services of players who will play key roles this year.

David Freese and Allen Craig -- both of whom missed chunks of time due to injuries in 2011 -- should be ready to take steps forward in their growth as Major League hitters. So, too, could other young hitters Jon Jay, Tyler Greene and Daniel Descalso.

"I do think when you look at the club as a whole, you are going to see guys now past their sophomore year," general manager John Mozeliak said. "Should expectations be higher on their performance? The likelihood is yes. You surround them with Holliday, Berkman and Beltran and it certainly looks good on paper."

Rafael Furcal didn't join the club until the end of July, and even after his arrival, Furcal's production was well below his standard. At 34 years old, Furcal isn't likely to produce career numbers, but he does give the Cardinals a prototypical leadoff hitter who should be a capable tablesetter in front of Beltran, Berkman and Holliday.

The ability to re-sign Furcal was directly tied to Pujols walking, as was the opportunity to invest in Beltran for the next two years. The Cardinals likely would not have added either veteran had Pujols stayed put.

Again, the expectations aren't that Beltran will be Pujols. But, if his knees hold strong, the 34-year-old outfielder should serve as another run-producing bat that new manager Mike Matheny can plug in just ahead of or behind Holliday and Berkman.

"I know Pujols is a hole maybe no one can fill," said Beltran, whose two-year contract will pay him $26 million. "But with myself, Berkman and Holliday, there are three guys there that can produce in the middle of the order. I'm just looking forward to going out there and do what I know I can do."

If healthy, those three, in any order, rival any middle-of-the-order threesome in the league. They've combined for 17 All-Star appearances and each averaged better than 24 homers/85 RBIs over the past eight seasons. Age -- all are in their 30s -- is of some concern. But if health proves not to be a factor, the Cardinals should find that this new offensive identity will, at least initially, grow out of this trio.

"It's just going to be different," Berkman said. "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."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.