It's still possible that the Cardinals will make the playoffs in 2011, but it's not plausible enough that I want to talk about it as though I'm expecting something. If this is it, I'm glad the Cardinals came back for the most fun I (and presumably we) (and presumably they) have had all season here in September.
The 2012 Cardinals, then-they look a lot like this model. A little less than $77 million is currently devoted to four-fifths of the starting rotation-Kyle Lohse, Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, and Jake Westbrook, in that order, along with Yadier Molina to call the pitches-and Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman, so the pitching staff and the protection for a notably absent bat are both set for the moment.
Combine all that with the money it's going to take to sign Albert Pujols, who has been charitable enough to push his numbers most of the way back up after a human (and presumably cheaper) first half, and the 2012 Cardinals are going to look like the 2011 Cardinals with Adam Wainwright instead of Kedwin McJackson, which is-well, it looks like that team would compete in the Wild Card, at least judging by the last few weeks.
A full season from Rafael Furcal would be a significant upgrade at shortstop, and a signing seems plausible enough that I'll talk about it as though I'm expecting something, but a full season from Rafael Furcal would also be a significant upgrade for Rafael Furcal. Aside from that the Cardinals are going to be stuck looking for cheap solutions at the positions where they're weak.
The bad news: This team doesn't have a lot of obvious hole. The bench-a half-season of Jon Jay, Daniel Descalso or David Freese depending on whether you're talking about technical or practical roles, Allen Craig's 145 OPS+, Nick Punto's 113 OPS+, even Gerald Laird's 82 OPS+-has been better-than-expected to a man. Theriot and Patterson are below replacement level, but not a long way below replacement level.
The cheapest place for this team to improve is the bullpen, where for just -$4 million they'll be able to leave behind the highly leveraged, sub-replacement stylings of the Veteran Relievers. The bullpen's ERA this year is 3.76, against a league average of 3.56, which adds up to something like 10 runs over 450 innings (if my calculator watch is behaving.)
Remove those 10 runs from Ryan Franklin's 27 innings and his ERA is still 5.20.
The 2012 Cardinals (with Pujols) are a difficult team to make into a 100-win powerhouse, but it'll require less late-season overachieving to reach 86.