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Churn and burn: Despite changes, Cardinals off to another fast start

Gone are the franchise first baseman, the legendary manager, the master pitching coach and the shrewd draft architect. The top returning slugger has played just seven games. One co-ace is injured with an uncertain date of return; the other, fresh off a season-long absence, has just two quality starts in six tries.

Yet the St. Louis Cardinals -- the defending World Series champions who were the bet of few to contend, much less repeat -- sit atop the NL Central, just one game off the league's best record and with seemingly their best baseball still head of them.

"When you think about our offseason, the word 'churn' comes to mind quite a bit," general manager John Mozeliak said in a telephone interview. "The sense in the clubhouse was, they were there to prove something. They felt like everybody thought we were going to have a tough year. The sense downstairs was that we still had a lot of talent and still had a chance to be very good.

"Saying all that was just rhetoric. We had to go out and do it. "

The Cardinals have raced out of the blocks to an 18-11 record and 2 1/2 game divisional lead over the Reds. St. Louis' +65 run differential is nearly triple the league's second-best NL split, Atlanta's +23, and six and a half times better than anyone else in the division. (Cincinnati and Houston are both +10.)

They've done all this despite considerable turnover. Manager Tony La Russa retired and was replaced by Mike Matheny, who had never managed at any level. Pitching coach Dave Duncan took a leave of absence to take care of his ailing wife. Jeff Luhnow, vice president of player procurement, left to become the new GM of the Astros.

Lance Berkman has played only seven games in an injury-plagued first five weeks. Adam Wainwright, a year removed from Tommy John surgery, has a 5.61 ERA. Chris Carpenter is on the disabled list with a shoulder problem and isn't close to returning.

And, of course, Albert Pujols signed a megadeal to join the Angels. Though he has endured a well-publicized career-worst slump to begin the year, there's no telling whether the same would have occurred had he stayed in familiar St. Louis and continued to see the same NL pitchers he's always faced. There were, of course, doubts as to how much Pujols would perform at the back end of his 10-year contract, but no one doubted his level of production in 2012.

"You're never going to replace an Albert," Mozeliak said. "He is the one of the top hitters in the game. We didn't try to approach it as if we were looking to do that. We needed to look at it as, in an aggregate sense, how would we get all these runs?"

The Cardinals signed Carlos Beltran to hit in the middle of the order and play rightfield, allowing Berkman to move to first base and presumably saving the club some defensive runs too. They re-signed Rafael Furcal to play shortstop.

And they expected the young players -- most notably, centerfielder Jon Jay, third baseman David Freese and do-everything Allen Craig (he played six positions last year, everywhere but shortstop, pitcher and catcher) -- to all take a step forward in their development. Collectively, those three have batted .348 with 11 home runs and a .961 OPS in 227 plate appearances.

While Jay was a second-round pick, he was never heralded as a great prospect. Craig was an eighth-rounder. Freese was a ninth-round selection of the Padres. Little-known Matt Carpenter, a 13th-round pick, has filled in admirably at first base with a .773 OPS. Fifth-round pick Shane Robinson (.822 OPS) has provided solid outfield depth. Infielder Tyler Greene, a former first-round pick who had a paltry .621 OPS in his first 150 career games, has come on strong this year with three homers and an .825 OPS. Infielder Daniel Descalso, a third-round pick, hasn't hit much but is a steady second baseman.

Among the pitching staff that has allowed the fewest walks and the second-fewest runs are starters Lance Lynn (first round) and Jaime Garcia (22nd round) and relievers Mitchell Boggs (fifth), Jason Motte (19th), Kyle McClellan (25th) and Fernando Salas (international free agent).

"[Luhnow] certainly needs to be given a lot of credit for putting our current scouting staff together and putting a process in place that allows us to identify the players we currently have in our system," Mozeliak said. "He's definitely a loss when you look at what he did for the organization.

"But I am also very confident that the process he helped build, that there are other people who are a part of that, too, who are still here and we feel very confident that we can continue that moving forward."

Therein lies so much of St. Louis' success -- call it the Cardinal Churn -- that it selected 24 future big-league players in the 2005-07 drafts, which is the most in the majors. The organization now has three elite prospects in outfielder Oscar Tavares and pitchers Shelby Miller and Carlos Martinez, but for most of the last decade of team-building the club did so without the heralded blue chippers.

The current roster has conspicuously few former Cardinals first-round picks. Part of that is a few misses in the first round; just as much is that they have annually built winning teams at the major league level so they've only picked higher than No. 18 overall once since 2000, when they grabbed Brett Wallace at No. 13 in 2008. What has set this team apart is the diamonds they've found in the late-round rough.

Several have been traded -- Wallace and Clayton Mortensen helped net Matt Holliday; Colby Rasmus was the centerpiece of last season's package for the pitching that sprung St. Louis to the World Series; and Chris Perez went to the Indians for Mark DeRosa -- and a few haven't panned out as expected (Adam Ottavino, Mark McCormick and Tyler Herron).

But another, Lynn, has been the game's brightest breakout star so far; he is 6-0 with a 1.40 ERA and 0.85 WHIP. His numbers -- especially his .209 batting average against on balls in play -- aren't sustainable, but he has proven himself far superior than just a patch on the rotation for the injured Chris Carpenter. Veterans Kyle Lohse (4-1, 2.11 ERA) and Jake Westbrook (3-2, 2.12) are also off to terrific starts.

The Cardinals do not lack for starpower with Beltran, Berkman, Carpenter, Wainwright, Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina -- their $110 million payroll ranks ninth -- but they have supplemented them with a range of players from every career stage.

It has made for a well-rounded club that leads the NL in runs, is second in runs allowed, ranks fourth in Baseball Prospectus' Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency and is third in the majors with an 82-percent success rate on stolen base attempts and is second in taking the extra base -- first to third on a single, for instance -- 50 percent of the time, which ranks second among all teams, according to Baseball-Reference.com.

"We just have a really nice balance of players with experience, who gained experience last year in our September-October run and youth that's being injected," Mozeliak said. "I do think that helps. The older guys are just very good mentors for the younger players."

Lost in the 2011 season's narrative of the September rally that continued through the October playoff run is that the Cardinals had a great start then, too. They opened 37-25 -- the best mark in the NL -- before struggling through the mid-summer.

This year's edition, which played 27 of its first 28 games within the division, has proven to be the early class of the Central. With a more stable bullpen and several major internal additions on the horizon with the returns of Berkman, Carpenter and a more effective Wainwright, the Cardinals look ready to keep on churning.

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