JUPITER, Fla. -- In the oddest of ways, perhaps Albert Pujols is helping the Cardinals this spring.
His presence is felt . . . because of his absence.
Let me explain.
Because Pujols is gone -- and because Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan are also gone -- the Cardinals have a strong sense that they're now being doubted. And a strong sense that they're the rare defending champions who come to camp with something to prove.
Instead of listening to everyone tell them how good they are, the Cardinals have listened to everyone ask about what they've lost.
If they win this year, it won't be because they had Albert or Tony.
"They want to make their own statement," general manager John Mozeliak said Monday.
"I see a lot of chips on shoulders that I didn't think I'd see," new manager Mike Matheny said. "And that's a beautiful thing."
Matheny said later that he didn't equate those chips simply to Pujols' departure, but it's easy to see that it plays into it.
Just in the first two days of camp, it seems that half the Cardinals players have felt compelled to say, "We have a good team," something that is normally just accepted with a defending champion.
"Not that they take offense, but they think they're not chopped liver," Matheny said.
The Cardinals certainly appreciate what Pujols meant to them, and they say they wish him well with the Angels. A few said they have kept in touch with Pujols.
"We're still good friends," pitcher Kyle McClellan said. "We've exchanged texts. I hope he goes there and has as good a next 10 years as he had here."
If Cardinals fans have come to resent Pujols for his decision to leave, that sentiment seems absent (or at least unspoken) within the Cardinal clubhouse.
"We know what he meant to this team, this organization," Skip Schumaker said. "But we have to move on. I'll keep up with him, because he's a friend. But we've still got a pretty darned good chance to win."
They do have a good chance to win. It feels funny that we even need to say that about a team that won the World Series, then lost one big star but added in Carlos Beltran and has added back Adam Wainwright, who missed 2011 after Tommy John surgery.
But that's what Pujols has given the 2012 Cardinals. He's given them a defense against complacency.
"There is none," Mozeliak said.
No complacency here. And the Cardinals can thank Albert (and Tony) for that.