Derrick Goold of the ST. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote a great piece today on the nature of the off-season moves made by the defending World Series Champions. Rather than rewarding/rebuilding the same team and hoping for the same magic, the Cardinals are determined to do something novel: get better.

Getting better after losing your best player — possibly the best in franchise history — isn’t easy. But the Cardinals seem determined to continually improve their roster without betraying the “win now” mentality expected in St. Louis.

Goold compares the difference in the Cardinals philosophy now compared to the approach the team took after their 2006 title. The 2006 team, you may remember, won a mere 83 games to take a thin National League Central division. The Cards retained utility players like Scott Spezio and extended the contracts of ageing contributors like Jim Edmonds.

The Cardinals struggled in 2007 and 2008, winning just 78 games in their title defense season then finishing fourth in the NL Central in 2008. The Cards installed current GM John Mozeliak after the “disastrous” 2007 season and the future still looks bright, even without Pujols.

The Cardinals benefited in those rebuilding years by having the best hitter in baseball as their cornerstone. It hardly takes a complete overhaul when you have players like Pujols, Carpenter, and Wainwright as your foundation.

The Cardinals lose El Hombre but re-signed Lance Berkman, brought in Carlos Beltran and get Adam Wainwright back after Tommy John surgery. The core of their revamped pen is still intact and they have healthy competition for spots in the starting rotation.

Many other teams failed to heed the warnings of the 2006 Cardinals. The San Francisco Giants, for example. Rather than thanking Aubrey Huff for his contributions and sending him on his merry way, they handed the notoriously fickle first baseman a three-year deal which effectively blocked their best prospect while paying for past performance rather than future returns. The Giants, of course, suffered through a forgettable 2011 season not unlike the Cards World Series hangover.

The Boston Red Sox are an oft-cited example of refusing to rest on World Series laurels. The Red Sox local legend Pedro Martinez and local pariah Derek Lowe leave via free agency after they played key roles in the success of the famous 2004 Red Sox team. The Sox returned to the playoffs in 2005, finished third (behind the Blue Jays!) with 86 wins in 2006 and steamrolled their way to another title in 2007.

Not every move worked out perfectly for the 2005 Sox, as key free agent acquisition Matt Clement pitched ably but not spectacularly while age and playoff workloads took their toll on Keith Foulke and Curt Schilling.

The loss of Albert Pujols puts the Cardinals are in a very unique position. You have to trace all the way back to the 1997 Florida Marlins to find a World Series champion team to start the following season without their best player (by rWAR.) Those Marlins, of course, went from 92 win World Champs to winners of 54 games and the title holders of “Most Shameless Fire Sale” in recent baseball history.

The Cardinals will not lose 100 games like the fateful 1998 Marlins. They will win many more. They might still be the best team in their division, even without Albert Pujols. Credit to their front office for refusing to get the band back together. There are no victory laps in the cut-throat world of the National League1.