Remember when things seemed so daunting for the St. Louis Cardinals?
They had just lost out on the Albert Pujols sweepstakes, as the perennial MVP candidate put his faith in the Angels and went West. Tony La Russa was not going to return as manager and Dave Duncan, arguably the best pitching coach in the game, was slated to miss the entire season for personal issues.
That was just 10 short months ago. Now, the Cards are only one victory away from a second-straight NL pennant.
A lot can change in a year.
Take a look at the Cubs. They finished the 2011 season packed with valuable veterans -- Aramis Ramirez, Carlos Pena and Carlos Zambrano -- and promising youngsters -- Tyler Colvin, D.J. LeMahieu, Andrew Cashner and Chris Carpenter.
All seven of those guys were gone before spring training even started. While the Cubs struggled to a 101-loss season, let's check in on how this group fared.
Ramirez and the Cubs were synonymous since that fateful 2003 season. He was a staple at third base, bringing consistency to the position for the first time since the Ron Santo days. At age 33, he didn't fit in the Cubs' rebuilding plan and wound up signing with the Brewers, where he almost made Milwaukee forget about Prince Fielder.
Ramirez put together a very solid season, leading the league in doubles (50) and tied for first in extra-base hits (80) with teammate Ryan Braun, whom Ramirez protected in the lineup all year. The Brewers didn't end up making the playoffs, but Ramirez helped key a strong run towards the end of the year and finished with 27 homers, 105 RBI (his first 100+ RBI season since 2008), a .300 average and a .901 OPS.
Big Z was the longest tenured Cub on the roster last year and after a blow-up in Atlanta last August, the soap opera that is Carlos Zambrano came to an end in the Cubs clubhouse. He racked up 125 victories and 1,542 strikeouts in more than 300 games (282 starts) over an 11-year span.
He was dealt to Miami this winter, teaming up with friend and manager Ozzie Guillen, and was deemed as a potential sleeper for the NL Cy Young by former teammate Matt Garza. Zambrano had no such luck, as, after a hot start, he struggled and wound up in the bullpen to finish the season with a 7-10 record, 4.49 ERA and 1.50 WHIP.
Pena was only a one-year rental and had a very solid 2011 season, walking 101 times and slugging 28 homers while playing very good defense at first base and bringing a positive attitude in the clubhouse.
But his age (33 this winter) and the arrival/emergence of Anthony Rizzo and Bryan LaHair made Pena expendable this winter and he was not re-signed, instead opting to go back to Tampa Bay. There, Pena hit 19 homers and drove in 61 runs, but managed just a .197 average and .684 OPS, a far cry from his career numbers (.234 and .822, respectively). 2012 marked the second season in the last three in which Pena failed to hit even .200.
Tyler Colvin/D.J. LeMahieu
Anybody who's followed the Cubs over the past year has likely heard the much-publicized deal that sent Colvin and LeMahieu to Colorado for Ian Stewart and minor-league pitcher Casey Weathers. Neither Colvin (a former first-round pick) nor LeMahieu (a former second-round pick) was guaranteed to have a place to play in 2012 and the Cubs needed a third baseman, so they took a gamble on a low-risk guy in Stewart. It was Theo Epstein's first trade in the Cubs' front office and hasn't worked out in his favor to date, as Stewart struggled to find consistency at the plate before being shut down with a wrist injury halfway through the season.
Both young players wound up having fairly productive seasons for the Rockies, but they combined for just 34 walks in 699 plate appearances. That kind of aggressiveness doesn't fit in Theo's vision for the Cubs, despite the fact they both hit close to .300 (Colvin -- .290; LeMahieu -- .297) and Colvin added some power, with 55 extra-base hits, including 18 homers.
Cashner was considered to be a major piece for the future when Theo and Co. took over as a flame-throwing right-hander who had as high upside as anybody in the Cubs' system. But after arm issues sidelined Cashner for most of the 2011 season, the new front office was hesitant to put Cashner in the taxing position of a starting pitcher, and traded him to the Padres for Rizzo.
The 26-year-old right-hander had a solid year for San Diego, hurling a 4.27 ERA and 1.32 WHIP while striking out 52 in 46.1 innings. But most of that was as a reliever -- he started just five games -- and he spent time on the disabled list, while Rizzo emerged as a franchise cornerstone for the Cubs.
The rest of the players on this list either had significant playing time in 2011 or figured to be a big part of 2012 and beyond, but Carpenter was a 25-year-old middle reliever with upside for more if he could harness his 100 mph fastball. His claim to fame, of course, was as the compensation for Theo Epstein, making the trek to Boston.
An elbow injury derailed most of Carpenter's 2012, but he came back strong, posting a 1.15 ERA and a 0.96 WHIP in 15.2 innings in Triple-A Pawtucket before appearing in eight games for the big-league Red Sox, struggling to the tune of a 9.00 ERA and 2.83 WHIP.