The 2012 St. Louis Cardinals?

As if the lack of a contract extension for Albert Pujols wasn’t bad enough news for Cardinals fans, they shortly thereafter learned stud pitcher Adam Wainwright will be lost for all of 2011, and possibly longer, as he rehabs from Tommy John surgery. This development put the team’s 2011 performance in doubt, but what about next season? What could the 2012 Redbird team look like?

St. Louis still has a chance to sign Pujols to a new mega-deal, but with him heading to free agency this fall, their exclusive window to do so is apparently gone.

The team holds $9 million and $12 million options on Wainwright for 2012 and 2013, respectively. What once looked like an easy call—lock him up for two more reasonably-priced seasons—is now much less certain. Will Wainwright fully recover and be the pitcher he was in 2009 and 2010, when he was a top-three Cy Young award vote getter?

In addition to these two stars, St. Louis holds a $15 million option for Chris Carpenter‘s 2012 campaign with a $1 million buyout.

It’s entirely possible to envision a scenario where the Cardinals head into the 2012 season with none of these three players on their roster. First, imagine Pujols signing elsewhere this coming winter. While it’s technically possible to estimate the impact his loss would have on the team’s on-field performance, when you’re talking about one of the greatest hitters in baseball history, the sabermetrics can only capture so much. Still, assume Pujols’ departure costs the team something on the order of 7-8 wins in the standings.

Do the Cardinals attempt to replace their superstar first baseman and continue to seek the division crown, or do they take the opportunity to tear down the team to its foundations and begin again? If they choose the latter option, letting Wainwright and Carpenter go would save plenty of coin. After all, why spend $24 million in 2012 on two pitchers who probably will only help to keep the team around .500?

If this nightmare scenario occurs, what would be left for the Cardinals to use to construct their 2012 squad?

Well, there’s Matt Holliday and the five years that would remain on the seven-year, $120 million deal he signed before the 2010 season. While St. Louis could consider trading him away, too—and there probably would be a few interested parties—he’ll most likely stay on the roster as someone the casual fans can recognize.

In center field would be Colby Rasmus, the youngster everyone in the Gateway City is waiting to blossom into a premier talent. His age and price tag definitely will keep him around. (It was tempting to consider the Cards parting with Rasmus in deference to manager Tony La Russa’s whim, but if Pujols, Wainwright and Carpenter are gone, La Russa almost certainly would bail.)

In right field, replacing the desiccated remains of Lance Berkman, would be John Jay, he of the blistering six weeks in mid-2010. Allen Craig likely would serve as his platoon partner, or perhaps as the man tasked with filling the impossibly-large shoes left by the Cardinals’ departed first baseman.

Overall, this is a fairly strong outfield, with a nice balance of left- and right-handers, good batting skills and solid defense. Many other teams would be happy to run this group out onto the pasture every day.

The infield probably would be populated by David Freese at third base, perhaps Ryan Theriot at shortstop after being re-signed, Skip Schumaker at second base and the aforementioned Craig, Mark Hamilton or possibly Berkman at first base.

Daniel Descalso, Tyler Greene, Nick Punto, Zack Cox, Mark Hamilton and Peter Kozma all could be in the mix at various positions, but the point is crystalline: would any of these infielders strike much fear into opposing pitchers? The answer is clearly and emphatically, “No!”

Yadier Molina‘s $7 million option will be picked up, meaning he and his backups—Gerald Laird? Bryan Anderson?—will combine to provide strong defense and adequate offensive performance.

Count catcher as a spot, along with the outfield, that would be a positive of the 2012 Cardinals. Still, the overall result is a mediocre group of hitters and defenders, leaving the pitching to attempt to pick up the offense’s slack.

Does a rotation selected from among Jaime Garcia, Jake Westbrook, Kyle Lohse, Kyle McClellan, P.J. Walters, Lance Lynn and Shelby Miller sound imposing?

The Incompleat Starting Pitcher
The end of the nine-inning start and how we got here.

You can dream and see Garcia stepping into the ace role, Miller bursting onto the scene as a co-No. 1, Westbrook coalescing into a solid No. 3 man, Lynn forcing his way into a rotation slot and Lohse, McClellan and/or Walters soaking up innings at the back end. But is this a scenario anyone can actually count on? Not likely.

A more realistic take is that St. Louis would have a No. 2-type starter in Garcia, Westbrook as a No. 4, Lohse as a ($12 million!) No. 5 and a couple kids in Miller and Lynn still finding their way in the bigs. There’s enough variability to see this as a slightly above-average rotation, but a slip-up by Garcia or the youngsters—or another TJ procedure thrown in somewhere—just as easily could drop the starting staff to the lower half of the league.

Bullpens are inherently fickle, so trying to predict how well St. Louis’ will be in 2012 is akin to throwing darts blindfolded. Besides, it’s the previously-discussed players who will have the most significant impact on the team’s fortunes.

The Cardinals are a generally mediocre squad at this point. However, no free agents—aside from the potential re-signings of Theriot and Berkman—have been discussed, so that path to relevance still remains unpursued. Will St. Louis open its pocketbooks and bring in some free agents to try pushing this 70-75 win team closer to the playoff promised land of 90-plus victories?

Using an estimated (and probably conservative) $4 million per free agent win, it would cost $60-$80 million to make the 15-20 win jump to 90 victories. If the Cards wouldn’t spend that money on their own known quantities, it’s unfathomable they would throw around that much money to bring in outside talent.

General manager John Mozeliak and the rest of St. Louis’ upper management team have some extremely difficult decisions to make in the next year. The fate of the franchise for many seasons to come could hinge on the calls they make between now and next spring. It’s an uneviable position in which to be, but that’s why they get paid the big bucks. Millions of fans around the central U.S. and beyond wait anxiously to see how things play out in the shadow of the Gateway Arch.

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Greg has been a writer and editor for both The Hardball Times website and Annual since 2010. In his dreams, he's the second coming of Ozzie Smith. Please don't wake him up.
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The beginning of your article and how the Cardinals could possibly let Pujols, Carpenter and Wainwright go certainly is a possibility. But, the way you see the 2012 Cardinals rounding out after those moves is just crazy. The Cardinals are not the Brewers, Pirates or Royals. They win and they spend money to win. The Cardinals draw 3 million fans a year and lowering the payroll to the 6o-70 million dollar range for one year and winning 75 games would be disastrous. The fans would never ever stand for such a lack of effort to win on the part of… Read more »

Even if the Cardinals believed that Wainwright won’t come back as the same caliber of pitcher, at $21 million over two years, you’d have to think there would be a half dozen teams salivating to take that chance he will be.

I’m pretty sure Wainwright doesn’t have a NTC so the Cards would pick up the options and trade him for a couple B prospects (something in the vicinity of the Garza return).

They won’t just let him go out there as a free agent for the Red Sox, White Sox, Cubs to snag up.

Greg Simons
Greg Simons
@Ted – yes this is a gloom and doom view of what 2012 could be like for the Cardinals, and it is unlikely to happen.  However, every team retrenches at some point (even the Yankees have been bad in the past), and this could be the time to do it. Their minor league system is one of the worst in the game, so this could be a chance to improve through over-slot draft picks and international free agents. I’m sure St. Louis would sign some solid free agents, but the prospect pursuing 82-85 wins via another Kyle Lohse-type deal or… Read more »
eric arvidson
eric arvidson
Greg   The Cardinals are too savvy a team to walk into the “doomsday” scenario you envision! They will spend the money needed to survive losing Pujols. And yes, I think they fiscally need to lose him. I actually think they will be a more well rounded team with his loss. As the Indianapolis Colts have discovered, keeping a “Manning” doesn’t automatically make you a winner! And why wouldn’t they resign their pitchers? As Hudson for the Braves has proven, TJ surgery has actually made many a pitcher better! (Don’t even get me started on parents trying to get TJ… Read more »
Greg Simons
Greg Simons

Eric, as a Cardinals fan, I hope I’m wrong and you’re right.  And as I said to Ted above, I think this is an unlikely scenario.

A significant concern I have, though, is that if they lose Pujols and cut bait on their expensive pitchers, they might overpay to bring in Prince Fielder and a couple No. 3 pitchers just to show they’re doing something.  Kyle Lohse’s four-year, $42 million contract is Exhibit A that St. Louis, like every other team, makes some notable mistakes.