A year after winning the World Series, the Cardinals limped to a 20-29 start and endured a season in which almost everything that could go wrong did go wrong, including the death of reliever Josh Hancock in a drinking-related auto accident.
Tony La Russa did a very nice job to keep his players from feeling sorry for themselves, pushing them to a third-place finish in a year when they could have fallen to last place. La Russa got a lift from Rick Ankiel, the left-hander who had unraveled in the 2000 playoffs. He returned as a power-hitting outfielder, hitting 11 homers and driving in 39 runs in 47 games down the stretch.
A lack of starting pitching doomed the Cardinals from the start. They had lost Jeff Suppan, Jeff Weaver and Jason Marquis to free agency and suffered a huge blow when ace Chris Carpenter developed a sore elbow after an Opening Day start. Carpenter required reconstructive surgery, and his absence was exacerbated by the problems of second-year right-hander Anthony Reyes. The result was that St. Louis was left with the 11th-best staff ERA in the NL, including a 5.04 mark for its starters.
Walt Jocketty became a scapegoat after more than a decade of excellent work with the franchise, losing his job as GM at season's end. Owner Bill DeWitt Jr. searched elsewhere before promoting Jocketty's top assistant, John Mozeliak, to the GM position.
Two proven starters: The pitching shortfall has already resulted in a windfall for right-hander Joel Pineiro, who went 6-4 in 11 starts after being dumped by Boston. Mozeliak signed him to a two-year, $13 million contract to keep him off the free-agent market. That figures to be just the start of the rebuilding process for a pitching staff that can't count on Carpenter or Mark Mulder. The latter returned from shoulder surgery in September, but needed a second procedure.
Shortstop/leadoff hitter: David Eckstein was a bargain in 2006, but enters free agency looking for the first big contract of his career. If he does depart, Brendan Ryan is the likely replacement. It raises another question on a team that already has more than its share of them.
In the picture: Carlos Silva, even more attractive as a noncompensation player, heads the list of the Cardinals' free-agent targets. They have never been known to overspend, but could be tempted to if it means adding a pitcher from a group that includes Kyle Lohse, Livan Hernandez, Bartolo Colon, Kenny Rogers and Josh Fogg.
Chris Duncan: The Cardinals do not appear to have many chips to play in trades. Duncan could have some value to an American League team, as he's proved himself to be as dangerous in the outfield as at the plate. He seems a man without a position, but could contribute as part of a DH rotation with Minnesota, Seattle or another AL team.
Bryan Anderson: A highly regarded catching prospect, Anderson hit .298 in the Texas League last season. He has value as a left-handed-hitting catcher, but there are questions about his receiving and throwing. The Cardinals need a good option behind Yadier Molina, but consider themselves set for years with Molina, who is under their control through 2010.
OF Colby Rasmus: Among the best outfield prospects in the minors, Rasmus figures to replace Edmonds after 2008. He could flank him in '08, playing either left or right field. He's considered a five-tool prospect.
RHP Chris Perez: A 2006 draft pick, Perez could use his 95 mph fastball to win a spot in the bullpen next spring. He should develop into a late-inning guy, possibly even the heir to closer Jason Isringhausen.
LHP Jaime Garcia: He was moving fast before elbow problems shut him down last July. He throws in the low-90s and knows how to pitch, which could get him to the big leagues next season.
OF Joe Mathis: A late-developing prospect, Mathis hit 31 homers between Double-A and Triple-A last season. He was added to the 40-man roster at age 25 and adds depth on the corners, perhaps making it easier to trade Duncan. Some consider him more of a first baseman than an outfielder.
Mozeliak figures to have an eventful winter. While pursuing pitching help through free agency he will also try to trade for pitching, with Florida's Dontrelle Willis, Toronto's A.J. Burnett and the White Sox's Jon Garland among those he was expected to discuss at the GM meetings. The 2007 slide has created a renewed sense of urgency.
Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com. His book, "Say It's So," a story about the 2005 White Sox, is available at bookstores, through Amazon.com or by direct order from Triumph Books (800-222-4657).