Cards aim to move forward with bulk of team intact
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FRANCISCO -- When the Cardinals closed the 2011 season with a championship, they also ushered in an offseason of uncertainty.
For the first time in 16 years, there was the need to find a new manager, one who could sufficiently replace a legend. There was also the task of negotiating with free-agent first baseman Albert Pujols.
Mike Matheny landed the managerial job, and Pujols took his talents to Southern California. The team landed its own free-agent prize in luring Carlos Beltran back to Missouri, but it also had to deal with the unexpected loss of a distinguished pitching coach.
It all made for an offseason defined by transition.
The upcoming one will hardly follow suit, as the Cards are set to retain almost everyone from an 88-win club that came within one game of playing in the World Series for the fourth time in nine years.
"It's a totally different feeling," general manager John Mozeliak said after a 9-0 loss to the Giants eliminated the Cardinals from the postseason. "Having said that, I think what we need to be thinking about for 2013 is, 'How can we remain opportunistic and make sure that we don't go backwards?' We have to find a way to keep pushing this club forward."
While Mozeliak is certain to add complementary pieces this offseason, he'll enter the winter knowing that his core will remain largely intact.
Only two players -- Kyle Lohse and Lance Berkman -- are set to become free agents, though neither is expected to return to St. Louis. Berkman, who was limited to only 81 at-bats during an injury-plagued 2012 season, is also mulling retirement.
"It's hard to say right now," Berkman said of his immediate future. "It's something I'm going to think about. And as we get further along in the offseason, I'll just see what transpires. I don't think the knee is going to be a significant factor. What I had done to it, it's not like any kind of major reconstruction. There's no doubt in my mind that if I want to come back, I can be a good player."
Lohse will be a key addition for some organization's rotation, but the 34-year-old right-hander knows it'll be another. The Cards didn't initiate in-season extension talks with Lohse, signaling that they are ready to move in another direction. The team's decision to extend Jake Westbrook's contract through next season all but shut the door on Lohse's chances to return.
After going 16-3 with a 2.86 ERA this season, Lohse is certain to land a lucrative multiyear deal somewhere.
"I pretty much all year stayed in the moment," Lohse said after shouldering the Game 7 loss. "[I] stayed focused on the task at hand. It wasn't the time to think about that stuff. [A] couple days after I get over this, it will be time to start looking and see what the future holds."
The Cardinals feel they have the internal pieces to sustain Lohse's departure. In addition to Westbrook, St. Louis will return starters Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright and Jaime Garcia. Lance Lynn and Joe Kelly -- both of whom plugged holes in the rotation this year -- will remain starting options. Shelby Miller can force his name into discussions, too.
The only significant wild card with the rotation is Garcia, who is trying to avoid shoulder surgery but has not yet assured that he will be able to.
Similarly, the Cards are mostly covered on the position-player front. All three starting outfielders -- Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday and Jon Jay -- are under contract for at least another year.
Corner infielders David Freese and Allen Craig will remain fixtures in the lineup. The contract extension Yadier Molina signed during Spring Training ensures his long-term stay, too.
"We feel good about the team that we have," Beltran said. "And if we were good enough to get to this point, I think next year we can do it again."
There are some questions with the two middle-infield spots, though the Cardinals are likely to stick with internal options.
If Rafael Furcal can avoid elbow surgery, he'll return as the starting shortstop. The organization has several potential second basemen (Daniel Descalso, Skip Schumaker and climbing first-rounder Kolten Wong) to consider, and Matt Carpenter is going to add the position to his offseason to-learn list. If Carpenter enters Spring Training defensively sound there, he will be in the mix.
The Cards could supplement that bunch from outside the organization this offseason, but it's not going to be an area of significant spending. The club will also look to improve its bench, which became much less formidable the more it had to deal with injuries.
As for the bullpen, it, too, needs little reconfiguring. The emergence of rookies Kelly and Trevor Rosenthal this year shows the Cardinals they have a pair of high-upside arms. Jason Motte is entrenched as the team's closer, and with Mitchell Boggs and Edward Mujica returning, the Cards have a solid pair of setup men.
It is expected, however, that St. Louis will address its lack of left-handed relief this winter.
"We have a good squad," Kelly said. "Everyone is going to go home in the offseason, work hard and try to get back to the World Series."
Berkman, before preparing to determine his future, left his 2012 teammates with a message of optimism. Before the team left AT&T Park on Monday night, Berkman addressed the bunch within a closed-door clubhouse.
"I was telling them, they're going to be back," Berkman said. "This Cardinals team is not going anywhere. I really feel good about the group of players that the Cardinal organization has. We have a lot of young guys in here. I think they're set up well for the next several years."