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12/23/11 12:56 AM EST

Beltran gives Cards best shot of repeating

Once upon a time, Carlos Beltran did things that would take your breath away. The St. Louis Cardinals aren't getting that Beltran.

They're getting one who'll celebrate his 35th birthday early next season. It seems like only yesterday when Beltran was flying around the outfield in Kansas City, making spectacular catches one moment and hitting moonshot home runs the next.

Now as Beltran prepares for his 15th Major League season, there are things he can no longer do. He won't steal 40 bases again and may not have another 30-home run season in him.

Beltran doesn't make some of the plays he once made look so easy. Still, it would be unwise to take him for granted.

Beltran is just three years older than Albert Pujols and had 10 outfield assists last season, some of those because a few people apparently wanted to see how much he had left in the tank.

This Beltran is older and wiser. This one has endured so many injuries that there was a time a couple of years ago when his productive days seemed to be behind him.

That's why last season was so surprising. After missing 179 games the previous two years, Beltran was rejuvenated.

Did you know Beltran had a higher batting average than Pujols last season? He had a higher OPS and OBP, too, and 10 more doubles.

Now it would be silly to argue that Beltran is as good as Pujols. That's not the point of these numbers.

The point is that the Cards may have gotten a player who is an absolutely perfect fit for the situation they find themselves in.

They were never going to replace Pujols in terms of production and might have gone back to the playoffs without signing Beltran.

All Beltran's presence does is make St. Louis the consensus favorite to win the National League Central and to be in the mix for a second straight World Series championship.

From the moment Pujols signed with the Angels, Beltran was the single guy who made the most sense.

The Cardinals could have gambled that Allen Craig would make a full and speedy recovery from knee surgery, put him in right field and still win the NL again.

Because they play in a relatively weak division, the Cards probably had the luxury of letting the season play out and identifying their needs before the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline.

But St. Louis general manager John Mozeliak, who continues to show the world how prepared and competent he is, continued to monitor the market and let Beltran know the Cardinals offered a great opportunity.

Mozeliak does not care that Beltran is 34 years old. That's just a number. Besides, the Cards are not putting this team together with an eye toward winning in 2015.

Lance Berkman (35), Rafael Furcal (34) and Chris Carpenter (36) have no idea how long they'll be performing at a high level.

So the goal is to win again in 2012 and then to figure out what comes next.

What's impossible for them to know is the impact Pujols had on the other players -- for instance, on Berkman and Holliday.

Great players have an impact up and down the lineup, and it's impossible to know how his absence will impact him. Still, if Wainwright and Carpenter have healthy and productive seasons and if Jason Motte remains reliable at the end of the bullpen, there's no reason St. Louis can't win again.

The Cardinals, D-backs and Phillies are solid favorites to win their division, but there are at least six other teams -- Braves, Marlins, Nationals, Brewers, Giants and Reds -- that believe they're good enough to win the NL pennant.

Perhaps only the Phils have a better chance than the Cards. If Mike Matheny has a smooth transition to being Tony La Russa's replacement and if all those older players can saddle up for one more rodeo, the Cardinals could be right back where we're accustomed to seeing them.

Seven weeks ago, there was a wild celebration in the home clubhouse at Busch Stadium. From three games out with five regular-season games to play, the Cards did something incomprehensibly sweet.

This offseason has been a tough one. First, La Russa retires. Then Pujols leaves for Southern California. Still, as Spring Training approaches, the Cardinals are back in a familiar spot. They expect to win again.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.