Offseason Outlook: St. Louis Cardinals

Congratulations to the Cardinals for winning a thrilling World Series after an unexpected surge to the playoffs. Their offseason revolves around re-signing Albert Pujols, who is on the brink of free agency for the first time in his career.

Guaranteed Contracts

Arbitration Eligible Players (estimated salaries)

Free Agents

The 2011 Cardinals overcame odds, injuries and three worthy playoff foes to win the 11th World Series in franchise history. Their improbable championship is worth savoring, but it's now time for action, not reflection. Albert Pujols is hours away from free agency and the Cardinals also face uncertainty on the bench, since manager Tony La Russa has announced his retirement.

Fortunately for the Cardinals, their offseason preparations began in September when a playoff berth — let alone a World Series title — seemed improbable. Lance Berkman and Chris Carpenter signed extensions last month and the club has had preliminary discussions about retaining Rafael Furcal. Highly-regarded pitching coach Dave Duncan will return as well. But that's all secondary for now.

Pujols isn't simply the best free agent of the offseason, he's a Cardinals icon who will be enshrined in Cooperstown as soon as he's eligible. Even in a so-called off-year, Pujols posted a .299/.366/.541 line with 37 home runs. He punctuated the season with a dominant playoff run: five home runs and a .353/.463/.691 line, including a three-home run game in the World Series.

The Cardinals appear to have offered Pujols a nine-year deal worth more than $200MM before the season, but he didn't sign. Having waited this long, the 31-year-old will surely test free agency, where he will pique the interest of many teams. While the Rangers, Mariners, Orioles and Nationals could all have interest, the best fit of all may be in St. Louis. The Cardinals aren't going to offer Pujols more than the $275MM Alex Rodriguez got from the Yankees four offseasons ago, and no one else will, either. But if the Cardinals offer Pujols a $200MM contract again, he can sign for more than any player in baseball history except Rodriguez without having to leave St. Louis.

Zero National League teams outscored the Cardinals, despite a Major League-leading 169 double plays. If Pujols returns, their offense figures to be among the league's best once again. If he leaves, they could make Allen Craig an everyday outfielder and move Berkman to first base while collecting draft picks for Pujols.

The Cardinals already exercised their option Yadier Molina, but with Gerald Laird hitting the open market, they could look for a backup catcher. Yadier's brother, Jose Molina, will be available this offseason.

Furcal and Nick Punto will hit free agency, so the Cardinals will need middle infielders. If the Cardinals don't re-sign Furcal, they could pursue Clint Barmes, Alex Gonzalez or another free agent shortstop. The trade and non-tender market offers alternatives at short, so there's a real chance Ryan Theriot won't return — at least not for a projected salary approaching $4MM. Skip Schumaker would have a salary in the $3MM range, so the Cardinals could let him go in favor of more affordable second basemen. Internally, Tyler Greene is one option at shortstop and they may attempt to retain Punto at second base after his strong 2011 performance.

The Cardinals' rotation is set, now that they've officially exercised their options on Adam Wainwright. He'll join Carpenter, Jaime Garcia, Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook in a rotation that could include top prospect Shelby Miller at some point in 2012. With a full rotation plus swingman Kyle McClellan, the Cardinals don't need Type B free agent Edwin Jackson. They could offer him arbitration regardless, since he'd decline in pursuit of a multiyear deal, and the Cards would likely recover a 2012 draft pick.

Jason Motte, Fernando Salas, Mitchell Boggs, Eduardo Sanchez, Lance Lynn, McClellan and Marc Rzepczynski will return to the bullpen in 2012. They've been effective in 2011 and GM John Mozeliak and his front office deserve credit for assembling a capable and affordable group. 

Unless the Cardinals are comfortable paying Octavio Dotel and Arthur Rhodes approximately $4MM each to join next year's staff, they shouldn't offer the relievers arbitration later in November. Dotel and Rhodes are ranked free agents and could theoretically net the Cardinals draft picks in 2012, but both have made their interest in returning to St. Louis clear. If the Cardinals decide against bringing Rhodes back, they will likely add another left-hander to pair with Rzepczynski, but the St. Louis front office doesn't need to focus on its 'pen this offseason.

The Cardinals spent $109MM in 2011 and if they re-sign Pujols, payroll will almost certainly rise again. They'll have committed $86MM in payroll if they retain Motte and McClellan through arbitration while non-tendering Theriot and Schumaker. Adrian Gonzalez and Mark Teixeira earn roughly $22MM per season, so Pujols will command an annual salary of at least as much. This would bring their projected payroll to $108MM before adding middle infielders, finalizing the bullpen and accounting for minimum salary players. However, the World Series title surely generated extra revenue for the Cardinals, who have had years to prepare for the possibility of paying Pujols an annual salary in excess of $22MM. 

If the Cardinals find a successor to La Russa, sign Pujols to a long-term deal and add middle infielders, they can consider the offseason a success. Mozeliak has a busy offseason ahead, but with Wainwright on his way back, an effective, young bullpen and the NL's best offense, the 2012 Cardinals could threaten to play deep into October once again, in 2012.


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