The defending World Series champions were one win away from returning to the Fall Classic for a second straight year before suffering three consecutive losses to the San Francisco Giants this week.
And while the pain and disappointment continues to linger, thoughts quickly turn positive when the talk turns towards next season. The Cardinals will likely lose only starter Kyle Lohse and Lance Berkman to free agency and should have nearly all their key contributors back in 2013.
That doesn’t mean they don’t have any decisions to make heading into the offseason though. Here’s a look at five key questions the Cardinals need to answer before the start of next season if they want to win the N.L. Central and get back to the World Series:
1. What is the status of Jaime Garcia?
Cardinals left-hander Jaime Garcia made the rounds recently to have his injured left shoulder examined. The immediate decision, made after visiting with Dr. James Andrews, was to wait two or three weeks and see if he can rehab the shoulder back to where it was before he got hurt. If not, the left-hander will have to undergo a cleanup procedure that could put him out of commission for the first part of next season. Whether or not Garcia can be counted on next year is a big question the Cardinals need answered because it directly affects their plans for Joe Kelly, Trevor Rosenthal and Shelby Miller. It looks like Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, Jake Westbrook and presumably Lance Lynn are assured spots in the rotation, meaning one spot remains for either Garcia or one of the young trio. How the Cardinals set up their bullpen for next season – and whether not an arbitration eligible arm such as Mitchell Boggs becomes expendable in a trade – depends largely on if one of the young arms will be needed in the starting rotation or not.
2. Is Kolten Wong ready to play second base next year?
Dan Descalso and Skip Schumaker did an adequate job splitting time at second base this year, but that plan won’t work again in 2013. Descalso appeared over-exposed at times and hit just .227 in the regular season. Schumaker fell out of favor with manager Mike Matheny down the stretch and doesn’t appear to be the long-term option at second base either. Both would be rather served and probably have more success as utility players coming off the bench next season. That means the Cardinals have to decide whether or not Kolten Wong, who they drafted No. 22 overall in the first round of the 2011 draft out of Hawaii, is ready to make the jump from Double-A to the big leagues. Wong hit .287 with 23 doubles, six triples and nine home runs for Springfield and had 79 runs scored, 52 RBI and 21 stolen bases. His glove is considered big league ready. If Wong needs additional time at Triple-A, the Cardinals could decide to give Matt Carpenter a serious look for regular playing time at second base or they could explore the free agent or trade market for a second baseman.
3. Can Pete Kozma be counted on to play shortstop?
We saw both the good and bad of Pete Kozma during his short stint with the Cardinals down the stretch. And that makes it tough to evaluate him moving forward. Kozma came up to replace the injured Rafael Furcal and hit .333 (24-for-72) with 10 extra-base hits and 14 RBI in 26 games to finish the season. Manager Mike Matheny and others have said the Cardinals wouldn’t have reached the point they did in the playoffs without Kozma and his contributions. But for as good as he was in the regular season, he was equally as bad in the playoffs. He had the game-winning hit in the Cardinals thrilling Game 5 win in Washington to advance to the NLCS but hit just .214 overall in the playoffs and committed a couple key defensive miscues in Game 7 of the NLCS in San Francisco. The Cardinals have Rafael Furcal under contract next year but are unsure of what to expect from him because of his injury. Don’t forget that Kozma has hit just .236 in six minor league seasons, making his September success that much more surprising. If he can’t be counted on should Furcal need to miss time next season, the Cardinals need to explore the free agent or trade market for an everyday shortstop. A name to keep in mind is Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus, who Texas may look to move this winter because of the arrival of 19-year-old prospect Jurickson Profar.
4. Will Mark Rzepczynski rebound from a poor 2011 campaign?
The Cardinals got everything they could have asked for and more from lefty Mark Rzepczynski to finish the 2011 campaign after he arrived midseason from the Toronto Blue Jays. But he wasn’t nearly as good in 2012, posting a 4.24 ERA and allowing seven home runs. After holding left-handed hitters to a .162 batting average in 2011, they hit .255 off him this season. He was passed over for rookie Sam Freeman during several key situations down the stretch but was the only lefty put on the playoff roster. The Cardinals opened the year with two left-handers, Rzepczynski and J.C. Romero, before Romero struggled and was released. The Cardinals have to decide if 2012 was just a poor year for Rzepczynski or if it’s a sign of things to come. If they aren’t confident with him and Freeman going into next season, they may want to add another veteran left-hander this winter.
5. How will the Cardinals make room for all of their young arms?
Nobody else got as much satisfaction out of the Cardinals late October run than Astros GM Jeff Luhnow, who drafted and helped develop many of the key players on their roster before leaving for the Astros prior to this season. Among those are impressive young pitchers are Trevor Rosenthal, Joe Kelly and Shelby Miller, who arrived at different points during the 2012 season and did nothing but hold their own. Kelly made 16 starts while filling in for Jaime Garcia before transitioning to the bullpen for the playoffs. Rosenthal, a starter at Double-A before making the jump to St. Louis, became a lethal weapon out of the Cardinals bullpen. Miller made one start for the Cardinals on the last day of the regular season before making a couple appearances in the postseason. All three proved they belong in the Major Leagues next season. But unless the Cardinals free up spots with some sort of trade, the rotation and bullpen appear too crowded to have spots for all three of them. As answered above, the status of Jaime Garcia could open a spot for Miller while Rosenthal and Kelly could serve as late-inning threats in the bullpen. How they fit into the picture next year remains one of the most intriguing questions going into next season, but one thing is certain. The Cardinals appear to be in good shape for years to come.