With or without Pujols, Cards in good shape - NBC Sports

With or without Pujols, Cards in good shape
St. Louis well-prepared to remain a contender next season
AP
Tony La Russa, left, will not be returning to St. Louis nextÿseason. Will Albert Pujols leave as well? Even if he does, Cardinals well-prepared to be contenders.
October 31, 2011, 11:10 am

And manager Tony La Russa, who announced his retirement Monday, can offer a pretty good indication of how things are going to unfold.

"This is a great organization; he's a great player,'' La Russa said. "And part of their greatness is their conscious, their intelligence. They're going to try like heck to make it work. The organization is going to try to keep him here, and Albert wants to stay here.''

So the growing feeling is that it will get done - probably crossing the $200 million barrier that the Cardinals approached with their January offer. The Cardinals want to keep their payroll near this year's $110 million figure, so there aren't likely to bump up their offer too far. But unless Pujols is just overwhelmed by something else, the parameters of an entire-career-in-St. Louis deal are in place.

Still, until that happens, it's front burner on the MLB Hot Stove. In fact, it's a big enough issue, complete with ramifications that run throughout the game's salary structure, that commissioner Bud Selig has an opinion on it.

Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak puts it this way: "I think it's refreshing when you can have a player be identified with one organization. To have something where a player ends up like a Cal Ripken, and plays for one organization as long as he did, it's an anomaly at this point. Hopefully, we can accomplish another one.''

Pujols didn't avoid the question when asked while he was on the post-Game 7 podium. He met it head-on, but with an admonishment for the questioner.

"I don't think that's a question right now that you should ask,'' he said. "Right now, it's just enjoying the moment, man. Sitting at first base with three outs left (in the top of the ninth inning in Game 7), and just thinking about all the things we went through this year as a group, just how special this group of guys that we have are.''

Special enough that the Cardinals already have gotten through much of the process of re-signing them. You see, as Mozeliak admitted during the World Series: "It's funny, because getting into the postseason this year was somewhat of a surprise. So we were starting to begin a lot of preparatory work as far as looking at 2012.''

Chris Carpenter signed to a two-year, $21 million extension for 2012-13 on Sept. 11.

Club options on Adam Wainwright totaling $21 million for 2012 and 2013 were picked up during the World Series.

Also locked up for 2012: Matt Holliday ($17 million), Kyle Lohse ($11.875 million), Jake Westbrook ($8.5 million), Yadier Molina ($7 million option).

"I think we're pretty fortunate as we look to 2012 that we already have a lot of the key components we can just put into play,'' Mozeliak said.

The anticipated return of Wainwright, who missed all of this season after undergoing surgery, will be like signing a free-agent ace. He's expected to return to the top of the rotation, in front of Carpenter, Jaime Garcia, Lohse and Westbrook.

That makes Edwin Jackson an expendable free agent. Two more potential rotation candidates from the bullpen are Lance Lynn and Marc Rzepczynksi, and the organization's top two prospects are right-handed pitchers on the verge - Shelby Miller and Carlos Martinez.

David Freese's MVP-filled postseason has elevated his status, and at 28, only health is standing between him and some highly productive seasons. And in the good-problem-to-have department, the Cardinals might have to find more at-bats for Allen Craig behind the regular outfield trio of Holliday, Jon Jay and Berkman.

They also have decisions to make on veteran middle infielders Rafael Furcal, Ryan Theriot and Skip Schumaker, as well as relievers Octavio Dotel and Arthur Rhodes.

"One of the things we've tried to focus on over the last four-five years is making sure that our minor-league system is going to be able to produce some every-day players or middle to top-of-the-rotation starters,'' Mozeliak said.

"I'm happy to say we believe our pipeline is very strong, and so if there is an Albert-less club in the future, we still think we have a lot of positives coming.''

Slideshow