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Zack's Corner: Undefined era begins for the 2012 Cardinals

In Beacon Blog

2:22 pm on Fri, 03.30.12

The St. Louis Cardinals begin their defense of the World Series championship in Miami on April 4. An active off-season has left the 2012 Cardinals at the precipice of the unknown: There is reason for optimism, there is reason for pessimism; and most important, there’s reason for no one to know where the Redbirds will stand in 2013.

Let’s get the heavy losses out of the way: Farewell, Tony La Russa. Goodbye for now, Dave Duncan. Adios, Pujols. Each had reasons to go, some of them more bitter than sweet, but for the past decade plus, they helped make Cardinals baseball great. Can’t say anything but “thank you” for that. Their losses will be felt.

Moving on.

The Cardinals did a lot of moving on in the offseason. But into what era they’re going is undefined.

Is it the Mike Matheny Era? A rookie skipper couldn’t hope to inherit a better team than the defending World Series Champions. MM (M&M? Double M? MiMa?) has the respect of the club, having played with (or against) most of the team’s veteran leaders. It’s clear he has the respect of the front office; they’re the ones gambling on a rookie. So far, in the Grapefruit League, he’s fit into the role seamlessly, looking like a seasoned manager.

However, he has yet to manage a Major League baseball game. The jury is, and will be, out on him for a bit.

Is it the Yadier Molina Era? The Cardinals locked up their Gold Glove catcher, coming off the best offensive season of his career, with a five-year, $75 million deal. This should keep Molina, 29, in a Cardinal jersey for his career, as the knees of most catchers give out in their mid-30s. There is an option for another year, should the fan favorite prove more durable than average, but his laser rocket arm was too good to let get to free agency (especially with a greater emphasis on defense due to a perceived decline in offense this year).

Great catchers – and Molina is great – are rare commodities, difficult to come by. Critics say the Cardinals may have overspent; but if they did, it was by a negligible amount. The deal works for both sides.

What about the other proven stars of the Cardinals’ roster? Could this be NLCS and World Series MVP and Hometown Hero David Freese’s time to shine? The starting 3B has had durability concerns. However, Freese has been working out with left field gargantuan Matt Holliday, and it shows. He looks noticeably bigger at the plate, and one hopes this could alleviate those concerns.

Maybe it’s the Waino Era. Pitcher Adam Wainwright is back on the mound in 2012 after spending 2011 as a cheerleader with Tommy John surgery. If he’s able to bounce back and be the Cy Young-caliber pitcher he was in 2010 and before (all indications are that he should), this could be his team.

Another angle, and the one to which I may subscribe, is that it’s the beginning of the Mo Era.

With LaTony and Albert gone, Cardinals VP and GM John Mozeliak is at the helm on his own. Mo has a lot of capital to burn; his mid-season deal to ship Colby Rasmus was a bold move that refreshed the Redbirds, bringing in pitchers Octavio Dotel, Marc Rzepczynski, as well as starter Edwin Jackson, and ultimately helped the Cardinals get to the postseason. The rest is history.

These are Mo’s players and Mo’s coach, all of whom were kept and brought in under his strategy. The strategy appears to be depending on young talent led by seasoned veterans and the various aforementioned faces of the franchise.

Adding OF Carlos Beltran, retaining Comeback Player of the Year Lance Berkman (who will be playing the more forgiving first base), and extending tenured ace Chris Carpenter (even if he is on his last legs) establishes an old-guard stability and leadership. Cardinals fans know what to expect out of All Stars Molina, Wainwright and even the only-bizarrely injured Holliday. Skip Schumacher is a 21st century Jose Oquendo, playing well wherever he’s needed most. SS Rafael Furcal is a black hole in the middle infield, making up for a slightly-less-than-average bat.

Mo is counting on them to lead and usher in his era, filled with the likes of Freese, Jamie Garcia, Jon Jay, World Series RBI Machine Allen Craig, utility infielder and late-inning clutch hitter Daniel Descalso, even Tyler Greene, who has the GM’s confidence; all young players with an underclassmen’s level of experience, but who have shown flashes of brilliance worth developing and keeping around.

Mozeliak’s investments have been made to field a competitive team while bringing younger players into the roles they’ll have for years. The now-Prince-Fielder-less NL Central is certainly winnable, especially with the added Wild Card game. Playing the Astros regularly will be a luxury gone after this season.

This hitherto undefined, uncharted and un-guessable era begins Wednesday. There’s really nothing else to do but watch.

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