ST. LOUIS — The St. Louis Cardinals have a deeply rooted culture and a rich tradition, but whether their prolonged success would endure would be seriously tested following their World Series championship in 2011.
Manager Tony La Russa decided to step down, but more shockingly three-time Most Valuable Player Albert Pujols decided to leave the team that drafted him and developed him into a superstar for a 10-year, $240 million contract with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Pujols was a staple of the Cardinals’ title teams in 2006 and 2011, the most feared hitter in the game, good for 35 homers, 110 RBIs, and a .330 average per season.
Pujols was a home-grown player who became synonymous with the Cardinals’ rich and productive farm system. Losing him to the Angels was considered a major blow, especially since the Cardinals couldn’t replace him with an equal because they didn’t have the free agent dollars of the Yankees, Red Sox, or Dodgers.
They would have to rely on their remaining roster, as well as an aging Carlos Beltran, who was added on a two-year $26 million deal, a minuscule salary compared with that of Pujols.
In the two years Pujols has been in Anaheim, the Cardinals came within one game of the World Series in 2012 and are in the Fall Classic this season, ready to face the Red Sox in Game 1 Wednesday night at Fenway Park. The Cardinals haven’t missed a beat, still winning with a culture that stresses defense, a patient approach at the plate, and strong pitching.
They will show up in Boston with players named Daniel Descalso, David Freese, Pete Kozma, Matt Carpenter, and Matt Adams. Their pitching staff is young, talented, and home grown, and the meat of their order is built with the solid but not spectacular Beltran and Matt Holliday.
“We have a good mix of veterans, big-name guys, and then a lot of younger guys who have been around for a couple of years, who have been in these spots before, and we can lean on the big guys if we need to,” said Descalso, a utility infielder drafted by the Cardinals in the third round in 2007. “We have contributions from everybody up and down our roster and it’s fun to watch some of these guys come up big for us.
La Russa disciple Mike Matheny replaced his mentor and has fostered the organization’s philosophy of pitching and defense. The Cardinals entered the 2013 season 11th in payroll in the major leagues, spending $116 million less than the Yankees and $104 million less than the Dodgers, the team they upended in six games in the NLCS.
Of the eight regulars in the Cardinals lineup, five were drafted by the organization. Third baseman Freese was acquired from the Padres for an aging Jim Edmonds six years ago, and Beltran and Holliday were free agent signings.
“I think the big thing is Tony La Russa leaves and the St. Louis Cardinals front office does a good job of finding the right guy,” Freese said. “Mike Matheny has done an excellent job. You can throw lack of experience out the window. Right when he was hired, we knew what type of human being he is, but also his knowledge of the game and his knowledge to lead a team.
“One guy that doesn’t get a lot of acknowledgment is [third base coach] Jose Oquendo. I think that guy is the smartest guy on a field. I don’t care who’s sitting next to him. He’s a guy that absolutely understands what it takes to win. You talk to a guy like that for 10 minutes and you understand what a privilege it is to have him around. We just have talented guys in the clubhouse that care and have a desire to win and that’s just a good recipe.”
Matheny was the starting catcher for St. Louis the last time the Cardinals faced the Red Sox in the World Series, in 2004. After retiring from the Giants in 2006 because of post-concussion syndrome at age 35, he joined the Cardinals organization as a special adviser and then was a roving minor league coach before accepting the managerial job in November of 2011, beating out former Red Sox manager Terry Francona.
“I think we’ve been fortunate to be in an organization that winning is a tradition, winning is an expectation,” Matheny said. “We start talking early on about the history and the championships, the great players who have been through here and people who have made their mark on this organization and in the game. So we take a lot of pride in trying to carry ourselves like a championship club.
“These guys have been training themselves, I think, in the expectation that we need to put together a season that’s representative of what this club stands for.”
After a postseason stint with the Astros in 2004 that made him one of baseball’s most sought-after free agents, Beltran spent seven unfulfilling seasons with the Mets and finished 2011 with the Giants.
The Cardinals needed a power hitter to fill Pujols’s role, and Beltran trusted his instincts about the organization.
Beltran didn’t put up the staggering numbers of his predecessor, but he didn’t need to. He blended into the Cardinals’ system, creating a three-headed monster in the middle of the ’ lineup with Holliday and catcher Yadier Molina. St. Louis relied less on power and more on timely hitting.
“Albert is a guy, I don’t think anyone can replace him,” Beltran said. “He’s just an amazing hitter. He was very valuable for this organization, but at the same time, I came here with just the mentality of doing my job and staying healthy. I did that, and I was able to help the team. This organization, what it has in the minor league system with pitching, that makes a difference.
“When you can bring guys who can throw 98, 99 with control around the plate, not many teams have that.”
What’s more, most of the Cardinals’ staff — Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller, Michael Wacha, Trevor Rosenthal, Seth Maness, Joe Kelly, and Kevin Siegrist — were home grown. The Cardinals aren’t in the World Series because of household names, but because they have followed the organization’s long-standing philosophy by doing more with less.
“It’s a testament to the type of players we have in this clubhouse,” Descalso said. “We’ve got a bunch of good baseball players. Maybe some of the guys don’t stand out on paper, but we’ve got guys who know how to play the game and guys who know how to compete and grind out at-bats.
“And that’s just what we talk about, being good baseball players.”