December is traditionally the first full month of the offseason where news of last year is over and done with and nearly all the focus of the Major League Baseball world shifts once and for all to next year. The St. Louis Cardinals may have a lot of familiar faces returning for 2012, but this franchise has, in the span of a few weeks, undergone change of epic proportions. It’s something Cards fans have not witnessed since Bill Clinton’s first term as President of the United States.
First, some accolades are in order. The Cardinals are the only team to play in three World Series in the last 10 years, and are one of two to win it all twice. Except for a couple of lean years in 2008-09, 2003, and 1997-99, the Cardinals have been in the playoffs. They dominated the National League like the Atlanta Braves did when they rattled off their 13 division titles in a row. The difference being, of course, that the Cards won one more Fall Classic.
It would be foolish over-credit Tony La Russa for this run, but it would be equally foolish to under-credit him too. The fact of the matter is La Russa instilled a brand of baseball here that his players were able to parlay into historic success. And now that brand is gone. Well, maybe not gone entirely. New manager Mike Matheny thrived under La Russa, after all, and most of the coaching staff La Russa employed is still around. But Cardinal Baseball is going to be very different for the first time in 16 seasons. That’s a really, really long time.
Next, consider the players. Colby Rasmus, who we all hung so much hope on for the five or six seasons he was property of the Cardinals, is gone forever. Last year at this time we were worried about whether or not Albert Pujols would re-sign with the team. I guess some things never change. But how much better does this team look with guys like Lance Berkman, Allen Craig, Daniel Descalso, Jason Motte, and David Freese all guaranteed to be on the 25-man roster in 2012? It’s not enough to make you say “Albert who?” but it sure doesn’t seem like the team would fold without Pujols anymore, does it?
This time last year, no one thought about what the rotation would look like without Adam Wainwright. Even if he isn’t 100% by Opening Day, the prospect isn’t all that scary anymore, is it? And it makes having him back seem like winning the lottery.
John Mozeliak did what it took to build the 2011 championship team, and he deserves a ton of credit. He knew what the Cards’ needs were, and he addressed them accordingly. Some may have had their doubts about him, and there’s always the chance that Rasmus develops into a star that the Cardinals mortgaged for one year of glory. But Mo’s shrewdness can no longer be doubted. The roster is in good hands. He will go into the Winter Meetings and pick up the players needed. Even if it doesn’t look like they’ll work, and maybe guys don’t pan out, he’ll make the adjustments. This front office is not populated by fools. The 2011 team is a testament to that.
We witnessed one of the greatest eras in St. Louis Cardinals history, and the page has officially turned. But even though some faces have changed and some may still change, the story ends the same way: a success. It’s Cardinal Baseball through and through. Sometimes patience is needed, but the payoff sure is sweet.