Departures won't minimize Cards' title defense

Departures won't minimize Cards' title defense

Departures won't minimize Cards' title defense
The absences are bound to be conspicuous.

For the first time since 1995, the Cardinals are poised to take the fields in their Jupiter, Fla., complex without Tony La Russa in charge of the day's Spring Training activities. There will be no Dave Duncan, either, whose tenure with the organization had extended just as long.

And, of course, Albert Pujols will be preparing for his season two time zones away.

Transition may have defined the organization's offseason, but it doesn't minimize the fact that the Cardinals will arrive at Spring Training eager to defend as World Series champions. They'll gladly take the position as the hunted among baseball's 30 clubs.

It would also be entirely unjust to let three key departures overshadow what's left. Because what remains is still quite impressive.

Seeing Adam Wainwright back on the mound will be significant and a potential boon for the starting rotation. The bullpen is much more settled than it was for most of last season. And the additions of Carlos Beltran and Rafael Furcal for a full season will add a new dynamic to an offense that should still be plenty potent.

"Losing Albert is tough, obviously, but 25 guys win a championship. Not one," third baseman David Freese said. "We're going to have a good team. I think everybody knows that. It's going to be different not having Albert down there, not having Tony down there. But it's definitely going to be exciting."

Despite the turnover, plenty of prognosticators are still picking the Cardinals as favorites to win the division -- something they didn't even manage to do during last year's magical season. That's a testament to the depth of the organization and the work of general manager John Mozeliak this winter.

What follows is an overview of the organization as the Cardinals prepare for the start of Spring Training:

Pitchers and catchers report

Feb. 18

Full squad reports

Feb. 23

First Spring Training game

Home vs. Marlins, March 5 at 12:05 p.m. CT

Opening Day

Away vs. Marlins, April 4 at 6:05 p.m. CT

Triple play: Three questions that need answers

1. What will be the immediate impact of three key departures?
There will undoubtedly be a void without Pujols in the lineup, though it remains to be seen whether or not the Cardinals can make up for that production in other ways. Expect a new offensive identity to begin to form over the next few weeks. It's not as easy to quantify the impact La Russa and Duncan had on this organization, though their absences are bound to have a ripple effect. How substantial that effect is will play a substantial role in the Cardinals' attempts to repeat as world champions.

2. Can Adam Wainwright return to pre-surgery form?
Wainwright is less than 12 months removed from Tommy John surgery, though his rehab from the procedure seems to have gone as well as anyone could have hoped. Still, it would be unfair to expect Wainwright to immediately return to a place where he pitches like a staff ace. The Cardinals are going to be cautious of his innings load, but they might have a hard time holding Wainwright back if he feels good. Wainwright is a huge wild card in a rotation that would be pretty formidable if he returns strong.

3. How will Mike Matheny fare as Tony La Russa's successor?
The Cardinals made a somewhat surprising hire in November when they tabbed Matheny as the franchise's next manager. Matheny took the job having had no experience managing in the Minors or coaching in the Majors, though he was widely respected during his playing days. Matheny played under La Russa for five seasons, so don't be surprised if some of his managerial philosophy was gleaned from his predecessor. He has the added challenge, too, of managing players who are not much younger than the 41-year-old former catcher.

2011 record
90-72, second in the National League Central; Wild Card winner; World Series champion

Projected batting order
1. SS Rafael Furcal:
  .231 BA, .298 OBP, .348 SLG, 8 HR, 28 RBIs in 2011
2. RF Carlos Beltran:
  .300 BA, .385 OBP, .525 SLG, 22 HR, 84 RBIs in 2011
3. LF Matt Holliday:
  .296 BA, .388 OBP, .525 SLG, 22 HR, 75 RBIs in 2011
4. 1B Lance Berkman:
  .301 BA, .412 OBP, .547 SLG, 31 HR, 94 RBIs in 2011
5. 3B David Freese:
  .297 BA, .350 OBP, .441 SLG, 10 HR, 55 RBIs in 2011
6. C Yadier Molina:
  .305 BA, .349 OBP, .465 SLG, 14 HR, 65 RBIs in 2011
7. CF Jon Jay:
  .297 BA, .344 OBP, .424 SLG, 10 HR, 37 RBIs in 2011
8. 2B Tyler Greene:
  .212 BA, .322 OBP, .288 SLG, 1 HR, 11 RBIs in 2011

Projected rotation
1. Chris Carpenter, 11-9, 3.45 ERA in 2011
2. Adam Wainwright, did not pitch in 2011
3. Jaime Garcia, 13-7, 3.56 ERA in 2011
4. Kyle Lohse, 14-8, 3.39 ERA in 2011
5. Jake Westbrook, 12-9, 4.66 ERA in 2011

Projected bullpen
Closer: Jason Motte, 9/13 saves, 2.25 ERA in 2011
RH setup man: Fernando Salas, 2.28 ERA in 2011
LH setup man: Marc Rzepczynski, 3.34 ERA in 2011

The new guys
OF Carlos Beltran: Signed to a two-year, $26 million contract, Beltran is not expected to replace Pujols' production in the lineup. However, the Cardinals do need the veteran outfielder to make up for a good chunk of that lost offense. Beltran stayed healthy in 2011 and showed no ill effects of his 2010 knee surgery. Health will again be key for Beltran, who could be used in right or center, and who could hit anywhere from second to fifth in the batting order.

LHP J.C. Romero: Romero joins Rzepczynski as the team's other lefty in the bullpen and is expected to hold mostly a specialist role. His 2011 season was a struggle, as he made more appearances in the Minors (40) than he did with two big league clubs (28). On the positive side, Romero did limit left-handed batters to a .231 batting average during those Major League appearances.

Prospects to watch
RHP Shelby Miller: Miller will be in big league camp, though he's not fighting for a spot in the Cardinals' Opening Day rotation. Rather, Miller is slated to move up to Triple-A Memphis, where he will continue to refine his secondary pitches and continue to mature. The Cardinals' Minor League pitcher of the year each of the past two seasons, Miller could make a push toward St. Louis before the 2012 season concludes.

RHP Carlos Martinez: Martinez, 20, was exceptionally impressive in the Dominican Summer League in 2010 and carried that success with him to low-A last year. He earned a midseason promotion after posting a 2.33 ERA and 50 strikeouts in 38 2/3 innings (eight starts) but did struggle at the next level up. Regardless, Martinez has three solid pitches already and is one of the most exciting arms in the system.

3B Zack Cox: A first-round Draft pick in 2010, Cox moved to Double-A after hitting .335 in 42 high-A games last year. He posted terrific numbers in July and August, though his extra-base hits total wasn't especially high. Some still wonder whether Cox will stick at third base, or if his future is at second. For now, though, the immediate plan is to keep him at the hot corner.

RHP Jordan Swagerty: Invited to participate in big league Spring Training for the first time, Swagerty played at three Minor League levels last year. If the Cardinals want to keep him in the bullpen, Swagerty could make a quick climb to St. Louis. In 36 games last year, Swagerty had a 1.83 ERA with 23 walks and 89 strikeouts in 93 2/3 innings.

1B Matt Adams: With Pujols out of the picture, Adams doesn't have to worry about being blocked by a future Hall of Famer. While Adams does sit behind Berkman this year, he can begin to make his push from Triple-A. Adams can hit for average and power, and he should benefit from working with hitting coach Mark McGwire this spring.

2B Kolten Wong: Many believe Wong is on a fast track to the Majors, and that seems plenty possible given that the Cardinals don't have an obvious long-term answer at second right now. A first-round Draft pick last year, Wong hit .335 with a .401 on-base percentage in 47 games. He walked 21 times, while striking out on just 24 occasions. He's likely to begin 2012 in high-A, and he could advance a level midseason if all goes well.

On the rebound
RHP Adam Wainwright: Wainwright is a huge variable for the Cardinals this season, as it's impossible to know just what to expect in his return from Tommy John surgery. At best, Wainwright is one of the league's most dominant pitchers. He likely won't pitch at that elite level immediately, but he should bolster the rotation significantly.

SS Rafael Furcal: Before being dealt to the Cardinals in late July, Furcal suffered through an injury-plagued first half with the Dodgers. A left thumb injury and an oblique strain limited Furcal to 37 games with L.A., where he hit just .197. Furcal stayed off the disabled list in St. Louis, though his production never did rise to his career levels. If Furcal can stay healthy, he should do a nice job filling the leadoff spot.

OF Allen Craig: A left groin strain and right knee contusion cost Craig nearly half of the 2011 season. That knee isn't fully recovered either, as Craig underwent November surgery to repair a fractured kneecap. The Cardinals are bracing for Craig to be absent for the first month of the season, and if that is the only time he misses all season, that shouldn't be too bad. Craig's power potential is intriguing, and if he's healthy, St. Louis is expected to find room for him to get regular outfield at-bats.

RHP Eduardo Sanchez: Utilized as a closer early last season, the 22-year-old rookie right-hander saw his season stall with a right shoulder strain. His stay on the DL lasted three months, leaving Sanchez the opportunity to make just one appearance after June 12. Now healthy, Sanchez will come to camp competing for a spot in the Cardinals' bullpen.

Long gone
1B Albert Pujols: No one's offensive presence is going to be missed more than Pujols'. After 11 seasons in St. Louis, Pujols followed the money to Anaheim, where he will likely finish out his Hall of Fame career. Pujols had been a fixture as the Cardinals' three-hole hitter and averaged 40 homers and 121 RBIs a year during his time in St. Louis.

RHP Octavio Dotel: Dotel helped stabilize an unsettled bullpen when he arrived at the Trade Deadline, and he played a key role in helping the Cardinals play deep into October. The Cardinals did have some interest in retaining the veteran reliever, but Dotel ultimately chose to head to Detroit. St. Louis should have enough other right-handed options to cover Dotel's departure.

RHP Edwin Jackson: Jackson arrived from Toronto with Dotel late in July and filled a key role in the rotation for the final two months of the regular season. He will pitch with the Nationals in 2012, though his departure landed the Cardinals an extra pick in between the first and second rounds of this summer's Draft.

INF Nick Punto: Punto was a role player last year, and he stepped in big during the team's September run. The Cardinals will miss his clubhouse presence and the versatility he provided on defense. But with Daniel Descalso and Skip Schumaker able to fill a similar role, the Cardinals were willing to let Punto go.

INF Ryan Theriot: The Cardinals non-tendered Theriot this winter, and he has since signed with the Giants. Theriot held starting shortstop duties last year until the Cardinals acquired Furcal. With Furcal coming back under a new two-year deal, St. Louis opted to cut Theriot to save some money.

Manager Tony La Russa/Pitching Coach Dave Duncan: Usually this section is limited to players, but it would be an obvious omission not to once more acknowledge the departures of La Russa and Duncan. They have been fixtures in the organization too long for their absences not to be felt.

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.