You might have thought we were about to run out of reasons to weep for the Cardinals, World Series win or no. After all, Jeff Luhnow scrammed to Houston to reboot the Astros after their latest failure to launch, and Allen Craig's going to miss the month of April. And worst of all, Albert Pujols is now an Angeleno of Anaheim, while manager Tony La Russa has left the dugout and let the world knows he's ready to make a trip to Cooperstown in 2014.
But general manager John Mozeliak decided to sign Carlos Beltran, and the expectation is that he'll bat second in the Cards' 2012 lineup. As much as the faces and names may have changed, one of the reliably cool features of La Russa's lineup construction on so many contenders seems likely to continue on new skipper Mike Matheny's watch.
Historically, you know what some managers will do in the number two slot in a lineup: Deposit some bat-control bunting fiend to give himself something to do if the leadoff man gets aboard. A guy like Ted Sizemore could be held up as a paragon of second-slot virtue for hitting .255/.320/.321 as an everyday player during the '70s.
But from early on, La Russa didn't stick with that kind of convention, even when he had light-hitting middle infielders you might typecast for this kind of offensive role. Just look at the most frequently used hitters in the second slot from his best teams in terms of season records:
1983 White Sox: Carlton Fisk (.289/.355/.518). As a 35-year-old everyday catcher, Pudge was about as unconventional a selection to bat second as you could imagine, but this also marked the first time La Russa really went down this road on his lineup cards. Pudge tied a career high with 26 homers, a campaign that also kicked off his career's second wind, ultimately propelling him to the games-caught record (subsequently broken by Ivan Rodriguez in 2009).
1988-1990 Athletics: In '88, La Russa used Dave Henderson almost half the time in the second slot, and Hendu broke through to enjoy the best year of his career, hitting .304/.363/.525. In '89, the A's won their World Series with Henderson splitting time batting second with Carney Lansford; while Lansford had become a singles hitter at that point in his career, he narrowly lost the '89 batting title to Kirby Puckett. In '90, La Russa simply favored Lansford.
2004-2006 Cardinals: La Russa mixed and matched in all three years, but the three men he used the most frequently in the two-hole on the 2004-2005 teams were Larry Walker, Edgar Renteria and Jim Edmonds, or guys who could do real damage and were anything but slappy. On the still-stunning 2006 World Series winner, La Russa favored Chris Duncan and John Rodriguez more often than anyone, a pair of slow outfielders with power.
If you remember Matheny's playing days, you'll remember that he caught for one of those teams -- the 2004 Cardinals -- so as much as you might be mad over how he hasn't managed in the majors, you might be willing to concede that beyond seeing good things done in the dugout when he was an active player, he might have picked up on the advantages of not getting too cute with in-game tactics.
Now obviously, having Carlos Beltran is automatically a good thing. Getting him for two years at $26 million is perhaps even better, because paying a little bit more per season for fewer years spares the Cardinals from paying for an age-37 season or later player, when he may not play a key role on a contender. But having Beltran batting second, with Rafael Furcal in front of him and Lance Berkman and Matt Holliday due up? That's just plain fun, the stuff of La Russian dreams and NL Central nightmares.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.