Questions linger for Cards as they aim to repeat

Beltran's production, Wainwright's return to club will be critical
By Anthony Castrovince | Columnist | Archive 01/23/12 12:00 AM EST

How long does the shine of a championship last before the focus turns toward the future?
Well, in the St. Louis Cardinals' case, they had maybe an hour or so to bask in the brilliance of their seven-game stunner against the Rangers. And then came a stunner of another sort: Tony La Russa pulling all the players into the weight room and announcing his retirement.
And really, very little in the Cardinals' universe has been stable since.

La Russa is gone, and so is Albert Pujols. The great pitching coach Dave Duncan was expected to stay on new (and we do mean new) manager Mike Matheny's staff, but his wife's ongoing medical issue coerced him to take a leave of absence for the season. And in addition to having to replace one of the game's all-time most successful skippers and one of its all-time greatest sluggers, general manager John Mozeliak also had to hire a new scouting director after Jeff Luhnow left the organization to become the GM of the Astros.
That's a tremendous amount of turnover for any team to endure, let alone a defending champ.
"It really is," Mozeliak said. "But I guess if you're going to face this crossroads, it's best to do it after a World Championship."
No question. No trouble is intolerable with a title in hand.
That said, while the Cards, health permitting, have a very realistic chance of bettering their 90-win total from 2011, they also have some very pertinent questions hanging over their collective head as they embark upon 2012.
Here are a few that come to mind:
1. How much will La Russa and Duncan be missed?
You can't put a number on it, in terms of wins and losses. But La Russa-Duncan was as impactful a pairing of managerial might and pitching coach prowess as has ever existed in the game, so there's no denying that their absence will have consequences.
Beyond his influence in getting the most out of his pitching staffs year after year (in his 29 seasons as a coach, 19 of his staffs ranked in the top half of the league in ERA), Duncan would have served as an important bridge in the La Russa-to-Matheny transition. His experience is invaluable, incalculable. And while talent ultimately dictates a team's direction and Matheny has all the attributes of an effective leader, there's no denying that losing the experience of La Russa and Duncan is a big deal.
2. Can Carlos Beltran "replace" Pujols' production?
The short answer, of course, is no. But the only free-agent option capable of Pujols-like performance at the plate was Prince Fielder, and the Cards were far from the only team that shied away from the type of commitment it would take to land him. With Beltran, they're paying $13 million a season and they granted him a no-trade clause, but the contract is an acceptable two years, not a heartburn-inducing 10.
So Beltran is aboard to man right field for however long Allen Craig is out, and he also feels physically capable of handling center field despite the many knee woes in his past. Beltran is an above-average defender in right, so shifting Lance Berkman to first base seemingly improves the Cards from a defensive perspective. But how about the offense?
Well, Cards fans can take pleasure in noting that Beltran's .910 OPS and 152 OPS+ last year both slightly bettered Pujols' .906 and 150 marks -- and Beltran posted those numbers while playing home games in two pitcher friendly parks, Citi Field and AT&T Park. And while Wins Above Replacement is a flawed stat in some measure, it's nonetheless worth noting that Beltran, according to data, posted a 4.7 WAR that was comparable to Pujols' 5.1 mark.
The trouble is, Beltran posted those numbers in a contract year, a year in which he was out to prove himself after playing a total of just 145 games over the previous two seasons. He'll be 35 this year, and there will be significant concern over how well his body (namely, his knees) will hold up in 2012. Then again, the same concerns were uttered about Lance Berkman going into his 35-year-old season, and that one turned out pretty well.
It's not entirely fair to view Beltran as Pujols' replacement in the lineup, but that will be the narrative. And it's going to be the No. 1 narrative in any analysis of the Cards' offense this season.
3. What can be expected of Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter?
All expectations must be tempered in Wainwright's first season following elbow surgery. Mozeliak has said he thinks 150-180 innings is a reasonable expectation for Wainwright's workload. Wainwright was quick to dismiss 150 innings as "half a season" and instead wants to treat 2012 as if he had a normal workload in 2011. But the club and the player both have to be smart in how they approach this season, and Mozeliak's expectation is probably the more realistic one.
So while the defending champs will be all the more dangerous in the rotation with their former ace back in tow, it's important to remember that said ace will have some restrictions in place after a year away.
As for Carpenter, he reclaimed the "ace" title in 2011, especially with his heroic performances in Game 5 of the NLDS and Game 7 of the World Series. But he pitched 273 combined innings along the way, and that's no small number for a guy entering his age-37 season.
Carpenter and Wainwright have the talent to be as dynamic a one-two punch as any in the league. But the innings that Carpenter pitched in 2011 and the innings that Wainwright didn't pitch in 2011 could have an impact on their performances in 2012.
4. Is age a factor?
It could be.
As mentioned, you've got a No. 1 starter and two middle-of-the-order bats aged 35 or older. You've got a 34-year-old starting at shortstop, in Rafael Furcal. World Series hero David Freese is in his prime, but he's never played 100 games in a big league season because of past ankle issues that the Cards can ill-afford to crop up again.
It is, therefore, incumbent upon Matheny to manage playing time in a manner that allows him to continually get the most out of an aging roster.
5. Heavy hangs the head that wears the crown?
It's plenty heavy when you lose people like La Russa and Pujols. And the Reds' particularly aggressive offseason figures to make them a legit roadblock on the road to October, no matter how much Fielder's departure and Ryan Braun's likely suspension hampers the NL Central defending-champion Brewers.
All that said, the fact that the Cards will enter 2012 with Beltran in the lineup, Wainwright in the rotation, Freese standing on two healthy ankles and their once-hazardous bullpen situation settled puts them in a position to improve on their 90-win total of a year ago. And with the Cubs ripping apart an already lackluster roster and the Astros in full rebuilding mode, the Cards remain in one of baseball's most winnable divisions.
It's never easy to repeat. And it's especially difficult with so much turnover at the top. But again, it's better to face these questions and these challenges in the wake of a World Series title.
"We're grateful for everything we got to experience," Mozeliak said. "We know all the impact all those people [who left] had in such a positive way. But we also know that nothing lasts forever, and we have to keep looking forward."