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Now the Cardinals will look to the future

Reporting from St. Louis -- The World Series hadn’t even ended and John Mozeliak, St. Louis Cardinals general manager, already was thinking about next year.

“It doesn’t seem fair, does it?” the architect of baseball’s newest World Series champion said. “Special as this is, it’s going to ultimately be a fleeting moment. In time, it’s going to be right back to it and roll up our sleeves and address the things that we have to do for the following year.”

Mozeliak and the Cardinals have some pressing issues. Neither Manager Tony La Russa nor first baseman Albert Pujols, a Hall of Fame member in waiting, are signed for next season.

It will be tough to keep the payroll, a franchise-record $109 million in 2011, in the same range. And probably impossible to script an encore as improbable as the season that ended Friday with a title-clinching victory over the Texas Rangers.

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The Cardinals were 101/2 games back in the wild-card race with 32 games to play, yet slipped into the playoffs when the Atlanta Braves lost its final regular-season game in 13 innings. St. Louis also trailed in all three postseason rounds, yet managed to win each time. Facing elimination in Game 6 of the World Series, the Cardinals were a strike away from elimination — twice.

“It’s awesome,” Pujols said. “This is what you play for. To be a world champion. It’s just an unbelievable feeling.”

Unbelievable also describes a baseball postseason that actually began a day early. Four teams — the Braves, Cardinals, Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays — went down to the final two outs of the season before their playoff fates were determined.

The Red Sox and Rays each went down to their final strike, with Boston losing and going home and Tampa Bay winning and moving on.

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Then came an October in which four of the seven series went the distance for the first time since 2003.

“I’ve been in this sport for well over 40 years,” Commissioner Bud Selig said, “and I’ve never seen anything like it.”

It only seemed fitting that when the confetti finally settled on the field at Busch Stadium late Friday, it was Mozeliak’s team — the one that entered the postseason with the worst record of the eight playoff teams — that was still standing.

The Cardinals are champions in large part because of one of the first deals Mozeliak made as general manager — and three of his last.

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Six weeks after replacing Walt Jocketty as Cardinals general manager on Halloween 2007, Mozeliak sent three-time All-Star outfielder Jim Edmonds to the San Diego Padres for a minor league infielder named David Freese.

On Friday, Freese capped a record-setting postseason by becoming only the sixth player to win most-valuable-player awards in a League Championship Series and World Series in the same year.

Then, in a two-week span last summer, Mozeliak acquired injury-plagued shortstop Rafael Furcal and pitchers Edwin Jackson, Marc Rzepczynski and Octavio Dotel in separate deals. He also signed aging left-hander Arthur Rhodes as a free agent.

Furcal played great defense and drove in the Cardinals’ penultimate run in the postseason. Rzepczynski, Dotel and Rhodes combined to make 32 playoff appearances and were 3-1 with 26 strikeouts and 2.95 earned-run average.

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“I give our front office and ownership a lot of credit because they had to make the decision to pull the trigger and believe we had a shot,” La Russa said.

For all five of those pickups, Friday’s victory marked their first World Series title. But early Saturday, Mozeliak began laying the groundwork for what he hopes will be a run at another.

“It’s funny because getting into the postseason this year was somewhat of a surprise,” he said. “But when you look at our offseason strategy, it hasn’t changed dramatically just due to the postseason success.”

kevin.baxter@latimes.com


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