The NFL has gone to bed for its six-month nap, leaving an over-under-loving society in a state of withdrawal. But all is not lost.
The epic Game 6 was one of 101 wins for the Cardinals a year ago, including the 18-game playoff run in which they made certain people look silly for ranking them as the weakest of baseball's eight playoff teams. There's no question they have great uniforms in St. Louis, and maybe the will of guys like Stan Musial, Bob Gibson and Tommy Herr live on in the threads. Maybe the Cardinals just have an ability to overachieve stamped in their genetic makeup.
But as was true in 2011 when ace Adam Wainwright went down in spring training, they'll need it this year. The over-under on regular-season wins for the defending champs is 84½, and that assumes all things are relatively equal, which they decidedly are not in a season when the Cardinals have lost Albert Pujols, Tony La Russa and, barring an unexpected midseason return from his care-giving leave of absence, Dave Duncan.
The three-time MVP, the Hall of Fame manager and the best pitching coach in history were with the Cardinals a combined 43 seasons. They are being replaced by Carlos Beltran, Mike Matheny and Derek Lilliquist, respectively, and their absence is going to be heavily felt.
But for this exercise, it had nothing to do with the 84½ wins over-under figure. That one comes from an elementary look at what happens to teams celebrating a World Series championship.
The only era that really applies is post-1994, when teams have had to grind their way through three playoff rounds to win it all. The 16 Series champions in that period have won 102 games fewer in the year after their title season, a 6½-win drop (that takes the 90-win Cardinals to 83½).
This figure, however, is skewed by two outliers — the Yankees dynasty that won four times in five years and the 1997 binge-and-purge Marlins, who stripped their roster the following season. There have been no such strangeness the last decade, and the 10 champions from 2001 through '10 won 55 fewer games the year after their championship. That's a decline of only 5½ wins, and that gets us to 84½ wins.
We'll go with that. The Cardinals, after all, are hardly the '98 Marlins. They didn't lose Pujols because they were cutting payroll; they lost him because they let him get to free agency, at which point it should have been clear some team was going to go the extra mile (as it turned out, $240 million over 10 years from the Angels).
Bill DeWitt Jr., the Cardinals' ultra-wise owner, hoped he could keep Pujols but knew he would go only so far because he didn't want one player to take more than 20 percent of his team's payroll, even Pujols. In a way, general manager John Mozeliak prepared for life without Pujols a year earlier, signing Lance Berkman and stashing him in right field. He moves to first, and Beltran takes over in right.
Wainwright returns from Tommy John surgery to rejoin Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia in a rotation rounded out by veterans Jake Westbrook and Kyle Lohse. The bullpen got an infusion of good young arms last season, and it won't be too long until top prospects Shelby Miller and Carlos Martinez — the new Pedro Martinez — are making big-league starts.
There's a lot for Matheny to work with as he begins his big-league manager career. But still, without Pujols, La Russa and Duncan, the arrow is pointing downward.
- Among 20 men who have reached the Hall of Fame mostly on their managerial skills – and we're including Bobby Cox and Joe Torre, who haven't yet been elected but will – 11 of them retired after managing a full season, like La Russa. Six of those 11 teams won more games the next season, with a new manager, than they did in the Hall of Famer's last season, including last year's Dodgers, who won two more games under first-time manager Don Mattingly than under Joe Torre in 2010.
- A lot of the early focus is going to be on World Series MVP David Freese. He drove in 21 runs in 18 post-season games but has never driven in more than 55 in the regular season and had a 1.8 WAR last season.
- Few teams that expect to contend are counting on more fragile players. Mozeliak added Beltran and re-signed shortstop Rafael Furcal despite their history of injuries, and key hitters Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman appear as significant risks. Carpenter led the NL in starts the last two seasons previously had made 30 starts only twice in a stretch of seven years.
- Second baseman Daniel Descalso annoys opponents with his situational mastery.
- Beltran, who replaces Pujols in the lineup, actually had a higher OPS last season (.910 to Pujols' .907). You wouldn't want to bet that happens again, however.