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October 31, 2011

Kiss'Em Goodbye

St. Louis Cardinals

by Ben Lindbergh, Kevin Goldstein and ESPN Insider

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Kiss 'Em Goodbye is a series focusing on MLB teams as their postseason dreams fadewhether in September (or before), the league division series, league championship series or World Series. It combines a broad overview from Baseball Prospectus, a front-office take from former MLB GM Jim Bowden, a best- and worst-case scenario ZiPS projection for 2012 from Dan Szymborski, and Kevin Goldstein's farm-system overview.

Today we bid farewell to the St. Louis Cardinals, a team that kept the baseball world on the edge of its collective seat for the past six weeks.

Projected 2012 Lineup
The lineup obviously changes if Albert Pujols leaves in free agency, but otherwise the Cardinals need to find a long-term solution at shortstop, and Jon Jay would be best served as a fourth outfielder. With a healthy Adam Wainwright in 2012, St. Louis' rotation shapes up nicely.

Batting order
SS: ?
CF: Jon Jay
1B: Albert Pujols
LF: Matt Holliday
RF: Lance Berkman
C: Yadier Molina
3B: ?
2B: Skip Schumaker

SP: Chris Carpenter
SP: Adam Wainwright
SP: Jaime Garcia
SP: Kyle Lohse
SP: Jake Westbrook

Signs of hope: The Cardinals overcame the highest double-play rate in baseball and outscored their opponents by 70 runs with the aid of the senior circuit’s most powerful lineup, finishing with a league-best .272 True Average (TAv). St. Louis had strong bats everywhere but in the middle infield, as every Cardinal with at least 150 plate appearances save for Skip Schumaker and Ryan Theriot finished with a TAv above the .260 league average. Strong showings by Allen Craig and Jon Jay gave the Cardinals considerable flexibility, and while the team’s three heaviest hitters were all on the wrong side of 30, a career year by Yadier Molina and another encouraging, albeit injury-prone, performance from David Freese (who added five home runs and two series MVP awards in October) held up the 20-something contingent’s end of the bargain.

Signs of disaster: “Disaster” might be a strong word to describe the ills that befell a team that went all the way, but the Cardinals’ season did come close to running off the rails. After losing their ace, Adam Wainwright, in spring training, St. Louis struggled at times on the mound, finishing with a 4.45 Fair Run Average that ranked eighth in the league. The staff was especially shaky before reinforcements arrived in the Colby Rasmus trade, most notably in the bullpen, where closer Ryan Franklin blew four saves in five opportunities before being relieved of his duties. It didn’t help that the Cardinals had the sixth-worst defense in the NL, converting just 70.4 percent of balls in play into outs, which almost ended their season in Game Six of the World Series. These weak spots conspired to keep the Cards 10.5 games behind the Braves as late as August 25, when it appeared that they had almost no chance of making the playoffs; their unlikely comeback had as much to do with Atlanta’s collapse as it did their own 18-7 finish. The Cardinals also fielded the NL’s oldest collection of pitchers and its fourth-oldest assortment of hitters, which might make their success difficult to sustain.

Signs you can ignore: Albert Pujols hit .267/.336/.419 with nine home runs through the first two months of the season. The slugger hadn’t had a single sub-800 OPS month (let alone two consecutive ones) with more than 10 games played since July of his rookie year, so his early- season struggles prompted worries that age or contract concerns had caught up to him. However, Albert hit .318/.383/.613 the rest of the waya level of production in line with his career rates given the lack of offense league-wide. The overall record reveals a .312 TAvthe lowest mark of his careerbut while the Machine might be obsolete someday, Pujols’s post-May performance and five playoff homers suggest that he’s not yet at the end of his historic offensive onslaught. The only question is whether he’ll continue it as a Cardinal. Ben Lindbergh

Bowden's Bold Move
The Cardinals head into the offseason with the goal of resigning future Hall of Famer Pujols to a long-term contract. The bold move I would make is signing him to an eight-year, $216 million contract with club options for years nine and ten without a buyout. Just in case that doesn't work out, the Cardinals should stay in touch with agent Scott Boras regarding Prince Fielder.

If the Cardinals aren't able to sign Pujols or Fielder, I think they should look at improving the closer position long term. That seems to go against the club's philosophy, though, as the front office would rather hope Jason Motte and Fernando Salas develop into inexpensive solutions rather than spend money on the ninth inning.

However, signing a proven closer would allow St. Louis to move Salas and Motte to the seventh and eighth innings, respectively, giving the team more depth late in games. Jonathan Papelbon, Heath Bell, and Francisco Rodriguez should be near the top of their list of free-agent relievers, while Joakim Soria, Joel Hanrahan, and Carlos Marmol should be at the top of their trade target lists. Jim Bowden

Hopes and Fears
Best-case scenario ZiPS projection: 92-70

I'm assuming a 50 percent chance of Pujols returning to St. Louis, so this number could go up or down depending on how one of the biggest decisions in Cardinals history goes. With the signing of Berkman for 2012, the rest of the offense will return. Even with the possible loss of Pujols, the team should score a lot of runs in 2012. The pitching staff will determine the ceiling of the 2012 Cardinals. Chris Carpenter is coming off his weakest season in a decade, Adam Wainwright is returning but is an uncertainty, and Kyle Lohse has never really put up two good years in a row. With a bit of luck, a returning Pujols, and Shelby Miller terrorizing minor leaguers and pushing Jake Westbrook out of a job, and the Cards could beat that projection.

Worst-case scenario: 78-84
It's hard to imagine the rails coming off the team so soon after a title, but the offense isn't particularly young now and certainly won't be any younger next year, if I remember how time works. Berkman has suffered injuries that have sapped his offense before (just ask the Yankees), and most of the other big parts of the offense are on the wrong side of 30. A crash isn't imminent, but it's something to keep in the back of the mindSt. Louis' season would've ended a month ago if it was merely the No. 2 offense in the NL this year.

The pitching rotation looks good if everything works out, but every member of the rotation has had major arm injuries at some point in the past four years. That said, the Cards are very unlikely to be a bad team and fight with the Astros for last place, but it's not a stretch to imagine a scenario in which the team ends up with the same fate as last year's NL Central champs, the Cincinnati Reds. Dan Szymborski, Baseball Think Factory

Organizational Future
While the Cardinals were a big shock at the big league level with their late-season surge, their minor league system took an equally surprising step forward with many prospects going from guys with a chance to very real prospects. They are joined by a strong 2011 draft to provide depth soon. Right-hander Shelby Miller remains on pace for a 2012 big league debut with All-Star possibilities down the road, but he's no longer the only game in town, as Dominican fireballer Carlos Martinez joined him as a potential impact arm. On the position side, first baseman Matt Adams won Texas League MVP honors, and outfielder Oscar Taveras flirted with .400 in the Midwest League. The system is very much looking up, and the Cardinals will need it to reinforce what is a rapidly aging major league club. Kevin Goldstein, Baseball Prospectus

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here
Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

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