Perhaps no team in all of baseball had to endure more off-season turnover than the St. Louis Cardinals, one of baseball’s most iconic franchises. Just days after cashing in on a late season surge that concluded with the 11th World Series title in team history, the organization learned that long-time manager Tony La Russa would not be returning for a 17th season in the dugout. Weeks later, that shocking revelation was followed up by an even more shocking revelation: Albert Pujols, face of the Cardinal franchise since he burst onto the scene as a rookie in 2001, was leaving for Anaheim. Not interested in letting these obstacles knock them off course, the organization moved on aggressively, replacing La Russa with the team’s former backstop, Mike Matheny, and brought in veteran switch-hitting slugger Carlos Beltran to replace some of the production lost with Pujols’s departure. Despite heavy off-season casualties, expectations remained high in the city of St. Louis.
Through April, the defending champs looked like they hadn’t taken the same amount of time off their opponents had; they would go on to finish the month with a 14-8 record and a run differential of plus-53. Unfortunately for Cardinal fans, the rest of the season was largely a disappointment by comparison. A team that was constantly hit by injuries and a barrage of tough one-run and extra inning losses never found traction. As late as September 16, they were just six games above the .500 mark, but a strong finish against what largely consisted of weak opponents lifted their record to the final, respectable mark of 88-74.
No player better symbolizes the Cardinals’ season as a whole than Beltran, who boasted a robust .924 OPS at the break only to slump in the season’s middle months and drop all the way down to his final season total of .842, a number that could have been worse were it not for a strong finish at the very end. Sound like a familiar theme? It was still a solid finish for Beltran, who contributed 3.6 WAR total according to FanGraphs. The best story for the Cardinals offensively, however, belonged to catcher Yadier Molina. The 30-year-old catcher had a breakout-following-a-breakout season in 2012, posting career highs in just about every offensive category you can think of. In addition to playing his usual outstanding defense, Molina clubbed 22 home runs, drove in 76 runners, hit .315, and even stole 12 bases at an 80% success rate. There was virtually nothing he didn’t do for his team, and the WAR total confirms it (he led the team with 6.5 per FanGraphs).
Elsewhere in the lineup, Matt Holliday put together another fine season (.877 OPS), and was even generating some MVP talk for a little while before a slow finish put a stop to that. Allen Craig and David Freese also made significant contributions one season removed from their coming out parties in last year’s post-season stretch. The Cardinals had planned on using Lance Berkman at first base this season to replace Pujols, but since knee injuries ultimately limited The Big Puma to just 97 plate appearances, the bulk of that time went to Craig instead, and the 28-year-old made the most of it. Off the bench, Matt Carpenter proved himself useful in his rookie season by showcasing surprising gap power and the ability to play all four corner positions adequately.
On the pitching side of the equation, things weren’t quite as steady. The bullpen looked to be the team’s lone weakness at the onset of the season, but just as it worked out in 2011, it began to establish itself as a strength by season’s end thanks to young power arms like Trevor Rosenthal, Shelby Miller, and the trade deadline acquisition of Edward Mujica from the Marlins in exchange for former first round draft pick Zack Cox. Jason Motte was outstanding in his first full season as the team’s official closer — a title La Russa would never openly bestow upon him in 2011. All told, Motte saved 42 games with an ERA of 2.75 and struck out over five times as many batters as he walked.
As for the starting rotation, it remained a productive group all season long despite lingering issues with long-time Cardinal Chris Carpenter — who would go on to make just three regular season starts, all at the end of the season — and Jaime Garcia, who the team now suspects may need shoulder surgery. The team was able to cope with these losses thanks to a career season from Kyle Lohse (16-3, 2.86 ERA), who may be set to get a very nice free agent deal, the surprise emergence of Lance Lynn, and a successful comeback from Tommy John surgery from former 20-game winner Adam Wainwright (4.4 WAR, led all St. Louis pitchers). Rookie Joe Kelly also filled in effectively both as a starter and a reliever, and his contributions cannot be overlooked.
In a way, the way it ended for the Cardinals was perfect; the team had a 3-1 series lead in the NLCS against the Giants, expectations for a return trip to the World Series were high, and it’s at that moment the team couldn’t figure out how to get that last win. Were it not for the added Wild Card berth that was just introduced for the 2012 season, they would never have even gotten the chance to defend their championship in the playoffs at all. An excellent run differential over the course of the regular season does not fully diminish the sting of finishing just 14 games over .500 despite playing in a division with two of the very worst teams in all of baseball. That said, the the team seems poised to continue competing for the division title in the coming seasons, as the core remains strong and a number of exciting prospects are ready to make an impact in the near future. It’s not easy to find a new identity after losing a long-time manager and franchise legend, but it appears the Cardinals are prepared to give it their best shot.