The St. Louis Cardinals begin defense of their World Series title this evening when they kick off their campaign against the Miami Marlins at brand new Marlins Park.
But for the first time since 1995 the Cardinals will go into a season without either manager Tony La Russa or Albert Pujols in their dugout.
Shortly after the franchise's 11th World Series title La Russa announced his retirement after 33 years as a manager. So instead of having the majors' third winningest manager on their bench, the Cards will go into the 2012 season with a virtual unknown in Mike Matheny at the helm.
The loss that stung even more, though, was Pujols, who left St. Louis after 11 seasons to join the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim for a whopping 10-year, $240 million deal.
Despite all that, hopes are still high in St. Louis.
And why not? This is a team that last year used one of the all-time great comebacks to even make the postseason after trailing the National League Wild Card-leading Braves by 10 1/2 games as late as August 25
After overtaking Atlanta on the last day of the regular season, St. Louis took on the role of underdog against the 102-win Phillies in the divisional round. When Chris Carpenter outdueled Roy Halladay in a deciding Game 5, the heavy- hitting Milwaukee Brewers were pegged as the favorites to end the storybook run.
The Cardinals, though, sent their division rivals packing before a thrilling seven-game World Series win over the Texas Rangers.
Pujols may be gone, but the team added Carlos Beltran with hopes he can keep the lineup somewhat stable and still be a force alongside Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman. The real optimism, however, comes in the starting rotation where perennial Cy Young candidate Adam Wainwright returns after missing all of the 2011 season recovering from elbow surgery.
But, there is a concern, as Carpenter will start the season on the disabled list with a shoulder issue.
Tonight, the team will hand the ball to righty Kyle Lohse, who will try to follow up perhaps the best season of his career. After pitching to a 6.55 ERA in 2010, Lohse went 14-8 last season to go along with a 3.39 ERA.
"I don't put up the sexy, fancy numbers," Lohse said. "I don't strike guys out. But I've become a better pitcher because I don't do that. Last year, I went through a tough stretch in the middle there, and I think stuff like that is what sticks in peoples' heads. They don't remember what I did in September. They think that I finished the season struggling."
He's only faced the Marlins six times in his career and is 2-2 with a 5.85 ERA.
Miami, meanwhile, also enters the 2012 season with plenty of changes, including a new name, a new building, a few new stars, and of course a new manager in Ozzie Guillen.
Guillen has roots with the Marlins, serving as the franchise's third-base coach in 2003, when the club won its second World Series title.
No team was more active this winter than the Marlins, who spent a combined $191 million to ink shortstop Jose Reyes (6 years), left-handed starter Mark Buehrle (4 years) and closer Heath Bell (3 years), and also added pitching depth by trading for Carlos Zambrano and Wade LeBlanc.
Miami was also in the running for the services of Pujols and starter C.J. Wilson, sending out a clear message to the rest of the National League East that it is ready to compete after finishing last season 18 games under .500.
The Marlins finished 11th in the NL with 625 runs scored, something they don't expect to repeat with Reyes at the top of the order and Hanley Ramirez, Giancarlo (formally Mike) Stanton and Logan Morrison hitting 3-4-5. One challenge for Guillen is keeping Ramirez's head in the game with the former All-Star shifting from short to third.
Miami's biggest upgrade, however, may be its ballpark, as after 19 years of existence the Marlins finally have a home of their own. The 37,000-seat park located just west of downtown Miami is one of the smallest in the majors, but has already drawn rave reviews.
The new ballpark has a retractable roof - the sixth in MLB - two aquariums behind home plate and a 73-foot-tall kaleidoscopic sculpture beyond the center field wall that will launch into animation when the home team hits a home run.
But for as many changes as the Marlins made this offseason, their hopes this year could rest on tonight's starter, right-hander Josh Johnson.
"From day one, there has been a buzz and excitement," Johnson said. "Even in here, and it seems like everywhere else too. There is a little more excitement around us like that. Guys are excited. They want to be down in Miami -- the new stadium -- they want to be part of this."
Johnson, who will be making his third straight Opening Day start for the Marlins, missed most of the 2011 campaign with a shoulder injury, but was brilliant when he pitched, posting a 1.64 ERA in his nine outings.
"At the end of the  season, I was feeling fine," Johnson said. "I was throwing well. I just ran out of time. If I hadn't done all that, it could have been different. But I felt great when I was out there. I recovered fine."
St. Louis won six of its eight matchups with the Marlins last season.