Despite enduring a run of significant injuries, the Cardinals closed out old Busch Stadium and more than 50 years of affiliation with KMOX by playing deep into October once again. St. Louis fell two wins short of repeat World Series appearances, but it was nonetheless a season filled with memorable moments and exceptional performances.
New Busch Stadium opens next spring, and it's a sure thing that the team's front office has already started thinking about the team that will inhabit that ballpark. For now, though, it's appropriate to take a look back at the club that won 100 regular-season games, reaching the century mark for the second year in a row.
The Cardinals received contributions from a slew of newcomers, notably Mark Mulder, David Eckstein, Mark Grudzielanek and Abraham Nunez. But the heart of the team was its two stars, Chris Carpenter and Albert Pujols. Each had absolutely brilliant seasons, and they are leading contenders for the Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards, respectively.
Record: 100-62, National League Central champions
Defining moment: It's a shame they didn't go on to win the series, but Pujols epitomized the Cards' "play nine" mantra when he crushed a three-run, game-winning homer off Brad Lidge in Game 5 of the NLCS. The blast delivered a victory in a game that looked like it was over and sent the series back to Busch for one more game.
What went right: The Cardinals led the NL in ERA, thanks to a deep pitching staff that stayed healthy. Carpenter was spectacular, and all five starters were strong, while the bullpen posted the best ERA of any NL relief unit. The offense fell off a bit from 2004 but still finished fourth in the league in runs scored, led by another great year from Pujols.
What went wrong: It was tough for the Redbirds to stay healthy. Scott Rolen didn't play after July 21 due to a shoulder injury. Larry Walker was bothered by a neck problem for most of the year. Reggie Sanders missed about two months with a broken leg after the All-Star break and was slowed in the postseason after a nasty fall. A healthy offense likely wouldn't have been shut down quite so effectively by the Astros.
Biggest surprise: Nunez was an absolute revelation. Coming to camp as a non-roster invitee in Spring Training, he played his way onto the roster as a utility infielder. From there, he played himself into more and more playing time and took over third base when Rolen was lost for the year. He had a career year offensively and played strong defense to boot, all while carrying himself as a first-rate competitor and teammate.
Average: Albert Pujols, .330
Doubles: Pujols, 38
Triples: David Eckstein, 7
Home runs: Pujols, 41
Runs: Pujols, 129
RBIs: Pujols, 117
Stolen bases: Pujols, 16
Wins: Chris Carpenter, 21
Losses: Jason Marquis, 14
ERA (starter): Carpenter, 2.83
ERA (reliever): Jason Isringhausen, 2.14 (min. 10 appearances)
Saves: Isringhausen, 39
FORECAST FOR 2005
Lineup: Assuming a healthy Rolen, there's a great deal to like about the 2006 Cardinals offense. Pujols will be back in the three spot, with Jim Edmonds and Rolen beefing up the heart of the order. Eckstein will be back atop the lineup, and Yadier Molina at the bottom. Questions linger at second base, left field and right field. Grudzielanek and Sanders are free agents, and Walker has retired.
Rotation: The top two names remain the same: Carpenter and Mulder, who has an option that is almost certain to be picked up. Beyond that, nothing is set in stone. Matt Morris, the dean of the team, is eligible for free agency, and the Cards have to decide whether to pick up Jeff Suppan's very reasonably priced option. Jason Marquis could get expensive in arbitration. Lingering behind all the decisions is the presence of Anthony Reyes, the team's top prospect who did nothing but impress in his first taste of the big leagues this year.
Bullpen: Isringhausen is back, but in front of him there may be some significant reassembling to do. Julian Tavarez and Cal Eldred are free agents. Ray King may be traded. Al Reyes will miss most, if not all, of the season due to elbow surgery. Brad Thompson and Randy Flores pitched well and will be back, but beyond that, it's unclear how the relief corps will look next season.
Biggest need: Somebody has to play the outfield besides Edmonds. The Cards might find a way to bring Sanders back, which would be a start, but that still leaves right field. So Taguchi and John Rodriguez both showed that they could play, but it's not entirely clear that either one is cut out to play every day.
Prospect to watch: Anthony Reyes has drawn the attention of Cardinals fans since Spring Training, and in 2006 he's likely to crack the roster. Even if he's not in the rotation, he'll likely be in the bullpen. His stuff is exceptional, and he seems poised as well. The hard-throwing right-hander should be around for a long time.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.