The end came abruptly for the 2009 Cardinals: Matt Holliday dropped a routine fly to left—a ninth-inning gaffe that essentially handed Game 2 of the NL Division Series to the Dodgers—and two days later St. Louis was gone from the postseason. Suddenly an organization that had averaged 91 wins and claimed six division titles from 2000 through '09 faced a flurry of questions. Would manager Tony La Russa, whose contract was expiring, be back? Would Midas-touch pitching coach Dave Duncan leave with him? Was that also the end for Holliday after 10 otherwise brilliant weeks as a Cardinal?
The uncertainty didn't last long. In late October, La Russa and Duncan signed extensions, and two months later the club handed Holliday, who was acquired from Oakland in July, the largest deal in club history, $120 million for seven years. The signing kept together Holliday, Albert Pujols, Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright—"the best core of four guys in baseball," says an opposing NL Central general manager—and cemented the Cardinals as favorites in a weak division. "People talk about the Phillies as the class of the league," adds the G.M., "but you have to put St. Louis right up there."
"No disrespect to other teams in the past," Pujols, the first baseman and three-time NL MVP, said in March as he gazed around the clubhouse in Jupiter, Fla., "but this is probably one of the best we've had."
Yet this team is far from perfect. The bullpen lacks depth and cannot count on another All-Star season from streaky closer Ryan Franklin. The Nos. 3 through 5 starters—righthanders Kyle Lohse, Brad Penny and Kyle McClellan—scare no one. But St. Louis is proof that a star core can take an otherwise underwhelming team a long way. The top of the rotation boasts the two best pitchers in the division in Carpenter and Wainwright, who finished second and third, respectively, in NL Cy Young voting last year and were 21--2 with a 1.97 ERA against Central clubs. The rest of the division, meanwhile, will have to figure out how to handle the fearsome 3--4 combo of Pujols and Holliday. Holliday feasted on NL pitching, particularly within the division (.420 with nine home runs in 119 at bats). His presence in the cleanup spot means more chances for Pujols: After Holliday's arrival last season, Pujols's walk rate dropped from one per 4.4 plate appearances to one every 5.8. "It's like facing Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz when they were in Boston. There's no right way to approach them," says a rival NL Central pitcher. "You're hoping for the least damage possible. If one doesn't get you, the other probably will."
The Cardinals didn't add any significant pieces in the off-season, but they didn't have to. The winter passed with Chicago and Milwaukee, St. Louis's closest challengers, making no notable upgrades—unless you believe Chicago's jettisoning of malcontent Milton Bradley will translate to better chemistry and more wins on the North Side, or that 33-year-old journeyman Randy Wolf, the Brewers' new No. 2 starter, is a difference maker for the team. The Astros, one of baseball's oldest teams in 2009 (six of eight regulars were at least 33), are making a desperate run at the division title; rather than replenish a depleted farm system, Houston added expensive, nonimpact veterans, among them starter Brett Myers, third baseman Pedro Feliz and reliever Brandon Lyon.
The clock is ticking for St. Louis's rivals. Chicago's Alfonso Soriano, Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez are all in their 30s, and Lee, the most productive of the three, could be a free agent at season's end. In Milwaukee, G.M. Doug Melvin may soon find he has no choice but to trade first baseman Prince Fielder, who's headed for free agency after the 2011 season. The team best set up for the future isn't Pittsburgh—which despite loading up on prospects for the last two years is still short on talent—but Cincinnati. The Reds have promising young arms (Aroldis Chapman, Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey, all under 25) and a nucleus of young, emerging position players to build around, namely rightfielder Jay Bruce, first baseman Joey Votto and centerfielder Drew Stubbs.
The Cardinals have a big concern of their own: Pujols's future in St. Louis. Unless he signs an extension before the end of the 2011 season, he'll be be a free agent at age 31. For now, though, Prince Albert is still in St. Louis, and his team is still royalty in the division.
Photograph by CHUCK SOLOMON
TRENDING UPWARD Three-time National League MVP Pujols gets more good pitches to hit with Holliday batting cleanup behind him.