Meanwhile, Carlos Beltran has had a pretty darn good year himself

Carlos Beltran was the first player on John Mozeliak’s list. From the moment the Cardinals GM learned Albert Pujols would be signing with the Angels, he focused on Beltran. He sorted through other names, thought over trade possibilities and did his due diligence, but his first instinct was to get Beltran signed. Part of him surely wanted to give those at-bats to Allen Craig, and if he’d been completely confident of Craig’s recovery from knee surgery, he might have done that.

But he also loved the idea of putting another veteran bat in his lineup and another veteran presence in his clubhouse. His only question about Beltran surely had to do with his health. He was about to turn 35 years old and had played just 145 games in 2009-2010. He’d roared back in a big way in 2011, hitting .300 with 22 home runs and 84 RBIs for the Mets and Giants.

If Beltran could stay healthy, he would give the Cardinals an impact offensive player in the middle of the lineup. He would not be as good as Albert Pujols, but he would be plenty good enough. Five months later, Beltran has been everything Mozeliak hoped he could be and then some. He’s among the National League’s Top 10 in an array of offensive categories, including home runs (first), RBIs (second), runs (second) and OPS (third). Beltran has three multi-homer games in the team’s last nine and has driven in a Major League-best 20 runs already this month.

 

Meanwhile, the Cardinals are 20-12 and leading the National League Central by 3 1/2 games over the Reds. Offensively, they’re even better than last season when they had Pujols anchoring their lineup, going from 4.7 runs per game to 5.7.

Matt Kemp is hitting 68 points higher than Beltran, but he and Beltran both have 12 home runs and Beltran has four more RBIs. Kemp’s OPS is higher. (Don’t sleep on David Wright, Ryan Braun, Adam LaRoche and Jay Bruce in a still-developing NL MVP race.) Still, the Cardinals are thrilled with what Beltran has given them. He had two homers, a double and a triple in a  wild loss to the Braves Friday night.

He hasn’t just performed on the field. He fits in a clubhouse that’s as close and as professional as any in the game. With young players like David Freese, Allen Craig and Matt Carpenter, it’s useful to have a Beltran, who works hard, says little and is a manager’s dream. If he can stay healthy, he’ll end up being one of the shrewdest moves of the off-season.

At the beginning of spring training, Lance Berkman said that even without Pujols, the Cardinals had a chance to be a better regular-season team than they’d been in 2011. So far, he’s right. After winning 90 games last season, the Cardinals are on a pace to win 101 this season. There are miles to go, and so much can change, but after losing one of the great offensive players of all-time, the Cardinals are again in the mix for a championship.

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