Baseball Prospectus’ Pre-season Projection: 83-79, third place
Actual record: 91-71, first place

In about half a week, this team went from “perceived to have a good shot to win the NL” to “searching for an identity.” Baseball’s funny like that.

Buster Olney of’s Take

What went wrong: The Cardinals stunned the Cubs and the rest of the NL Central and ran away with the division, but late in the season and in October, opposing teams began taking a different approach in pitching to Matt Holliday-and Holliday’s struggles impacted Albert Pujols, who did not hit a home run in the last 32 days of the Cardinals’ season.

Biggest puzzler on the drawing board: The Cardinals already have significant contractual obligations with Pujols, Chris Carpenter, Kyle Lohse, Adam Wainwright, and others. While they could re-sign Holliday, the left fielder will have to be willing to take less than what he might get on the open market to stay in St. Louis. And any contract talks with Holliday could have a major impact, moving forward, on the forthcoming talks with Pujols-if the Cardinals pay Holliday as much as they pay Pujols, they’ll set a very high market for their first baseman. The Cardinals will learn quickly whether Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan will come back to their staff.

The Baseball Prospectus Take

Absent from the postseason since Tony La Russa piloted a rickety 83-win team all the way to a World Series title in 2006, the Cardinals were ticketed for third place in the NL Central by PECOTA, with a 14.7 percent chance of winning the division and an 8.6 percent chance of taking the Wild Card. Neither their lineup nor their pitching looked particularly imposing, even in the context of playing in a pitcher’s park. Projected for eighth in the league in scoring, the offense appeared to have plenty of power thanks to Pujols’ presence, but it nonetheless looked to be yet another stars-and-scrubs collection. Forecast for ninth in run prevention, the pitching staff had question marks, particularly at the front end, where Wainwright was the only starter whose raw forecast called for more than 100 innings with an ERA below 4.40.

Instead, the Cards won the Central by the largest margin of any NL division champion (7½ games), turning a crowded four-team race into a laugher thanks to Cy Young-caliber seasons from Wainwright and Carpenter, another monster season by Pujols, and some timely in-season upgrades for the offense, most notably the July 24 trade which brought Holliday from Oakland. Holliday hit a searing .353/.419/.604, and the Cardinals had the league’s best record (39-25) after his arrival.-Jay Jaffe, Baseball Prospectus

Key stats: 62 starts, 425 2/3 innings, 2.45 ERA, .650 SNWP

That’s what the Cardinals got from Carpenter and Wainwright, and after the pair combined for just 23 starts last year, it was their performances which were the main reason the Cardinals outdid their PECOTA projection by eight games. After pitching just 21 1/3 innings in 2007-2008 due to various elbow miseries, Carpenter rebounded to go 17-4 while posting the league’s top ERA (2.24) and SNWP (.673), with microscopic walk and homer rates (1.8 per nine and 0.3 per nine, the latter tops in the league) further underscoring the fact that he was back in Cy Young form. Wainwright, who missed two and a half months with a finger tendon injury in 2008, emerged as an ace thanks to improved command his curveball, which enabled him to smother righties (.217/.255/.290). He led the league with 19 wins and 233 innings while ranking fourth with a 2.63 ERA and 212 strikeouts.

As strong as those seasons were, it’s worth pointing out that both pitchers may have been helped by pitcher-friendly Busch Stadium III and a weaker than average slate of opposing hitters. Wainwright put up a 2.05 ERA at home, 3.39 on the road; Carpenter faced hitters who were an average of 18 points of OPS worse than the league average, the 15th easiest in the league among NL qualifiers.-Jay Jaffe, Baseball Prospectus Rumor Central

Trades: One player is 33, coming off hip surgery, and made $32 million in 2009. The other is 29 (more or less), in great health and made $16 million in 2009. Yes, it’s A-Rod and Albert. The “problem” for the Cardinals is that the club has an option on King Albert for 2011, but you better believe they won’t go into that season clueless as to whether they can retain him. A club confident it can sign Pujols for close to A-Rod money (perhaps $24-30 million per season) might offer a monster package. The Cards may be favored to retain if odds were posted today, but at 25-30 percent of total team payroll? A-Rod’s deal might seem utterly ludicrous to most, but in 2011, it’ll make up less than 15 percent of the Yankees‘ payroll.

Buzz: Yeah, yeah. La Russa’s future is unclear. But if Duncan leaves, what does that do to the St. Louis staff, a reclamation project All-Star team? For instance, if Duncan bolts, why would free agent Joel Piniero stay? In fact, you could guess that Duncan’s landing place night become a favorite to land one of his pupils. Need some good news? Well, John Smoltz wants to come back!

Who 2 Watch 4: Allen Craig, LF

One of the more disturbing aspects of the Cardinals’ egg-laying performance in the NLDS is the implications for the team’s future, as St. Louis mortgaged quite a bit of it for this year, trading away five good-to-very-good prospects at the upper levels for Holliday and Mark DeRosa. All five have a chance to contribute at the big league level as early as this coming year, but none of them will be doing it for St. Louis. If Holliday chooses to ply his trade elsewhere, the Cardinals might end up giving Allen Craig the first shot at filling the job in left field. An eighth-round pick in 2006, Craig has received little fanfare, but he’s performed at every level, including a .322/.374/.547 line for Triple-A Memphis in 2009 that included a remarkable second-half, during which he hit .405 with 18 home runs in 195 at-bats.-Kevin Goldstein, Baseball Prospectus

Draft recap

Signed: 44 of 50
Spent: Just over $4 million
Hits: Shelby Miller, RHP (19th overall): Miller could have just as easily been the third or fourth overall pick. and ranked as Keith Law’s fifth-best draft prospect. He possesses a mid-90s fastball and potentially plus curve ball with a ceiling as the next great pitching ace to come out of the state of Texas.
Miss: Robert Stock, C (67th overall): If the Cardinals are betting on Stock as a pitcher, they probably could have done better with lefties Jake Eliopoulos or Steven Matz; right-hander Alex Wilson was still available, too.-Jason A. Churchill,

The Bottom Line

With Holliday, DeRosa, Troy Glaus, and Rick Ankiel all free agents, the team will need to find a heavy hitter or two this winter to keep the lineup from feeling like “Albert and the Seven Dwarves” again. As the Cardinals fill their holes, they’ll especially need to emphasize plate discipline, given that Pujols and mid-season acquisition Julio Lugo were the only regulars to walk at least once for every 10 plate appearances. Furthermore, La Russa and Dave Duncan’s possible departure might present real problems for this franchise, given the skill both have shown at squeezing the most out of veteran rosters-and particularly rotations-assembled amid the limitations of a mid-market payroll.-Jay Jaffe, Baseball Prospectus

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