This is part of a series of posts in which we call out all 30 teams for their wily offseason moves and tragic offseason blunders.
The St. Louis Cardinals have an odd offseason strategy. Each year they let several players leave as free agents. And then they don’t sign anyone to replace them.
In a period of just two years, since the end of the 2004 season, the Cardinals have lost Reggie Sanders, Edgar Renteria, Mike Matheny, Matt Morris, Mark Gruzielanek, Woody Williams, Jeff Weaver, Jeff Suppan, and Jason Marquis to free agency.
These players have been replaced by players like So Taguchi, Juan Encarnacion, Yadier Molina, Aaron Miles, Adam Kennedy, Kip Wells, and Ryan Franklin.
And yet every year the Cardinals somehow win the Central division, and go deep into the playoffs. This past season everything broke just right and they even won the World Series, despite having the worst regular season record of any World Series Champion in history (83-78).
So what is the secret?
Like you even had to ask. Every year, the Cardinals get worse and worse, and yet every year they still win the NL Central, because every year Albert Pujols gets better and better.
This year King Albert had his best season yet, statistically, with a career high 49 home runs and a career high .671 slugging percentage. The only thing which kept him from having one of the greatest seasons at the plate in baseball history was a nagging oblique injury in June that limited the normally durable Pujols to “only” 143 games. As if to mock the lesser mortals he deigns to play with, Pujols decided to “focus on defense” last season, and improved his numbers enough to garner his first Gold Glove award.
Fortunately for the Redbirds, there are a few bright spots on the roster other than Pujols. Chris Duncan (son of longtime Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan) came out of nowhere as a surprising source of power in the outfield toward the end of last season, David Eckstein continues to be his usual plucky self and managed to win the World Series MVP, and Adam Wainwright emerged as a bullpen star and possible future starter.
However, Duncan’s numbers were so far out of synch with reasonable expectations that a sophomore slump seems inevitable, and longtime stars Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds seem to be in decline. What’s worse, the Cards lost 3/5 of their rotation this offseason with the departures of Jason Marquis, Jeff Suppan, and Jeff Weaver, none of whom were really replaced, and even though they managed to re-sign Mark Mulder, there has never been a pitcher who has pitched as well after the kind of major rotator cuff surgery he had this September as they pitched before it.
The only good move the Cardinals made all offseason was extending ace Chris Carpenter with an extremely reasonable 5-year, $65 million deal, but the rest of the rotation will apparently be composed of whatever spare parts the Cardinals manage to scrounge off the scrap heap or cannibalize from their bullpen.
For the third year in a row the Cardinals have let numerous free agents walk away while doing almost nothing at all to replace them. I know, I know, who am I to argue with a successful formula, given that the team just won the World Series? But on the other hand, their record has been getting worse every year, and 83 games has to be the absolute minimum for a team to still win it all, right?
If the Baseball Gods have any sense of justice and decency, the answer is a resounding ”Yes.”
Offseason Grade: D-
Acquisitions: Adam Kennedy, Kip Wells, Ryan Franklin, Russ Springer
Losses: Jeff Suppan, Jason Marquis, Jeff Weaver, Ron Belliard, Jorge Sosa, Jose Vizcaino
Projected Lineup, Rotation, and Closer
SS David Eckstein – .292/.350/.344
LF Chris Duncan – .293/.363/.589, 22 HR
1B Albert Pujols – .331/.431/.671, 49 HR
3B Scott Rolen – .296/.369/.518, 22 HR
CF Jim Edmonds – .257/.350/.471, 19 HR
RF Juan Encarnacion – .278/.317/.443, 19 HR
C Yadier Molina – .216/.274/.321, 6 HR
2B Adam Kennedy – .273/.334/.384, 4 HR
RHP Chris Carpenter – 15-8, 3.09
RHP Kip Wells – 2-5, 6.50
RHP Anthony Reyes – 5-8, 5.06
RHP Adam Wainwright – 2-1, 3.12
RHP Ryan Franklin – 6-7, 4.45
CL Jason Isringhausen – 33 SV, 3.55