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Cardinals a model franchise in baseball

St. Louis has overcome the losses of Pujols and La Russa to remain on top

Here's one way to define a great organization: 20 of 25 St. Louis Cardinals have played every game of their Major League careers for just one organization.

One big league manager said this week that the Cardinals were the only team in the big leagues that hadn't been hit hard by injuries, which would be one explanation for why they're on a pace to win 105 games.

That may be the perception, but it doesn't happen to be true. The Cards have lost shortstop Rafael Furcal, closer Jason Motte and two starting pitchers in Jake Westbrook and Jaime Garcia. In addition, general manager John Mozeliak has pretty much overhauled his bullpen since Opening Day.

In short, the Cardinals had the kind of problems that could have derailed a lot of teams. Those issues haven't been noticeable because the Cards roll on, leading the National League Central by 3 1/2 games.

They've got baseball's 11th-highest payroll and its best record, and if you ask a baseball man to define what makes a great organization, that would be it in a nutshell.

The Cardinals have a fundamental belief that great organizations -- theirs begins with owner Bill DeWitt, Jr. -- endure as long as they stick to their core beliefs. For the Cards, this great run of baseball goes back to a day 19 months ago when Mozeliak received the punch-in-the-gut news that free agent Albert Pujols had decided to sign with the Angels. A few weeks earlier, Tony La Russa, a fixture in St. Louis for 16 seasons, had retired.

Mozeliak hurriedly packed his bags and left the Winter Meetings in Dallas. While waiting for his flight, he sat down and collected his thoughts. Mozeliak made two important decisions in those first moments, two decisions that would contribute to the .575 winning percentage the Cardinals have compiled since then.

In what was supposed to be a transition season of 2012 -- even the Cards admitted as much -- they missed their 19th NL pennant by one victory.

Mozeliak immediately thought of free agent Carlos Beltran. He believed if Beltran stayed healthy, he might be able to step into the lineup and keep things going. Beltran might not provide the production of a Pujols, but when healthy, he has shaped a career that will have him in serious Hall of Fame conversations when his playing days are over.

Interestingly, Beltran has outplayed Pujols the past two seasons, compiling an .847 OPS compared to Pujols' .829.

And Mozeliak, who'd emphasized the First-Year Player Draft and player development, reminded himself that the Cardinals stood for more than one man, even if that man was one of the great managers of all-time (La Russa) or a great player (Pujols).

It seems laughable now, but on Opening Day 2012, the Cards didn't know what they had. They loved their farm system and believed Matt Carpenter, Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller, etc., might do great things.

But young players don't usually become great overnight. They need time to figure things out and are constantly challenged to adjust as opposing teams find their weaknesses.

Yet, the Cardinals' kids haven't missed a beat. The average age of their rotation players is 25 years old. St. Louis has used eight rookies this season, including seven pitchers. The Redbirds have sent a rookie starter to the mound 23 times and gone 14-9 in those games.

From starter Miller (7-4, 2.21 ERA) to reliever Trevor Rosenthal (31 appearances, 1.64 ERA) to swingman Seth Maness (3.44 ERA), St. Louis has gotten incredible production from its system.

Meanwhile, Adam Wainwright is putting together an NL Cy Young Award-worthy season, and Yadier Molina might be the NL Most Valuable Player Award winner at this point.

And a tip of the cap to manager Mike Matheny. He took over for a legend almost two years ago and joked about how much he had to learn as a manager. Matheny's 131-97 record indicates he's a quick study.

Matheny's players rave about his honesty and communication skills. He and pitching coach Derek Lilliquist have done a tremendous job sorting through the bullpen issues and settling on Edward Mujica as the new closer (19 for 19 in save chances).

Despite all the kids and all the change, it's a great time to be a Cards fan. This season is starting to have the feel of a Cardinal autumn.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.