Baseball Reflections on the Cardinals

cardsThe 2008 offseason promised to be an exciting one for Cardinal fans. There was quite a bit of salary coming off the payroll, there were surpluses to trade from, and GM John Mozeliak promised to be “aggressive,” taking care of the “low-hanging fruit” first and moving on to other things.

That was before the worst financial crisis in years hit the country.

Nobody knew it at the time, but the largest financial outlay of the 2008 offseason actually happened before the last pitch of the 2008 season. The signing of pitcher Kyle Lohse for four years, $40 million was seen as a sensible move at the time. No one knew that it would be one of the largest non-Yankee contracts given out in the offseason.

Mozeliak’s aggressiveness was quickly tempered by an internal payroll cap that went from a projected $110 million to roughly $95 million as the recession hit and ownership became more conservative about attendance figures for 2009. While the market for pitching started to bottom out, it was still pricier than the Cardinals wanted, due to many in-house options.

St. Louis did make a run at closer Brian Fuentes, offering him more per year than the team that eventually signed him, but were reluctant to go three years when they had youngsters Chris Perez and Jason Motte ready to take the reins soon, if not in 2009.

Khalil Greene of the San Diego Padres at bat i...
Image via Wikipedia

The biggest move of the actual offseason was acquiring Khalil Greene from the Padres in exchange for minor league reliever Mark Worrell and a player to be named later (well, sooner now, as the Padres should make their selection by the end of March). Worrell was blocked here and never really got into favor with management, something he made explicitly clear in an interview with that was coincidentally published the day of the trade.

So for basically nothing save his salary, the Cardinals upgraded the shortstop position dramatically. Both Cesar Izturis, the occupant last year who now will be starting in Baltimore, and Greene have a solid defensive reputation. Izturis may be slightly better, but when you factor in Greene’s power and batting possibilities, it’s no contest. While Greene struggled last year in San Diego, he did hit better away from the pitcher’s haven known as Petco. So far this spring, he has been very productive with the bat, though has yet to hit a home run.

Besides the assorted non-roster invitees and bargain basement gambles, the only other significant moves of the offseason were the signings of left-handed specialists Trever Miller and, after spring training had gotten under way, Dennys Reyes. Both allow Tony La Russa flexibility in his bullpen, something that the manager is notorious for wanting. Miller may get some use in the closer role, as that hasn’t been nailed down yet, though he won’t be the everyday guy in that slot.

What can Cardinal fans expect for 2009? Right now, it looks like a contending team. Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter are both healthy, giving the team a 1-2 punch that can rank with anyone. Lohse slides into the number three slot. While it would be surprising if he repeated last year’s success, his work with Dave Duncan does seem to have paid off and he should be a benefit to the club.

Todd Wellemeyer has thrived after coming to St. Louis and there is little reason to think he’d take a major step back in 2009. His recent record means that he’s a little overqualified for the fourth role. Joel Pineiro takes the last spot in the rotation. Not a lot is expected out of Pineiro, though he has thrown well in the spring. Still, it’s the fifth slot in the rotation. The Yankees are probably the only team that expects a lot from that position.

The bullpen, which was such a powder keg last season, should be greatly improved. The squad started improving down the stretch last year, when Motte and Perez were brought up. The addition of Miller and Reyes (and the subtraction of Randy Flores and Ron Villone) helps the left side out tremendously. Kyle McClellan faded down the stretch, but should be rested and ready to go. He has been stretched out to be a starter if Carpenter relapses, but the extra conditioning should be helpful in keeping him fresh all year also.

Ryan Franklin returns after a rough year in 2008, though he blames some of that on doing the closing while feeling like the job should be Jason Isringhausen’s, since he was the nominal closer. Izzy’s gone to Tampa Bay now, so perhaps Franklin’s numbers will improve. Brad Thompson may take the last slot in the pen, since he is able to move from the rotation to the bullpen with little difficulty.

While the closer role itself has not been defined—LaRussa has indicated he might mix and match early on in the season with Perez, Motte, Franklin and Miller—the bullpen on the whole seems to be much stronger than it was last year, when it blew a league-high 30 saves.

Offensively, the Cardinals should be in good shape. Of course, how bad can you be when you have the best player in baseball hitting third in your lineup? Albert Pujols is showing no ill effects from his off-season nerve transposition surgery. Albert will be Albert. The question becomes how often will he be pitched to.

The answer to that lies with Rick Ankiel and Ryan Ludwick. Both players had strong campaigns last year and there is little reason to suspect a major drop off in the upcoming season. Ankiel has only a year and a quarter of Major League experience, but it’s hard to tell looking at his final numbers. He has healed from the sports hernia that hampered him down the stretch last year and has put up strong numbers in the spring.

While most people know about Ludwick’s breakout last year, many don’t realize that he was at one time a top prospect in the Oakland system. He finally was healthy and was able to show what he could do over a full season. While challenging Pujols for the team lead in home runs might be tough to do in back-to-back years, a year of .280 and 25 home runs would seem to be the minimum of what to expect from him.

Yadier Molina

Image via Wikipedia

As for the rest of the lineup, we’ve already touched on Khalil Greene. Third base appears to be the domain of Joe Mather while Troy Glaus is rehabbing his surgically-repaired shoulder. Glaus should be back in the lineup early in May. Mather showed reasonable power in his debut last year and has acquitted himself well at third this spring. Yadier Molina had his worst defensive year in 2008 (which meant, of course, that he won his first Gold Glove) but his bat took another step up. He’ll never have double-digit home run power, but it’s looking like that low-.200s average of 2006 is a thing of the past.

Then there are the two question marks that, as of this writing, still haven’t been fully resolved.

The third outfield slot, most likely left field with Ludwick in right and Ankiel in center, is still up for grabs. If his hitting this spring is any indication, Chris Duncan is healthy and back to bashing. He’s a good source of power from the left side. However, left side power is pretty plentiful in the Cardinal outfield, with Ankiel and prospect Colby Rasmus both hitting from that side. Skip Schumaker hits from the left side as well, but not for power. More on Skip in a bit.

Rasmus has had a slow start to the spring but has shown signs lately of warming up. La Russa has noted that he has a talent that “shoves people aside,” so if he has a strong kick to finish the spring, he could force Mozeliak into some tough decisions. Brian Barton is also in the mix, but he is likely to start at AAA Memphis due to his lack of experience. However, his right handed bat and his speed would make for a good platoon possibility with Duncan.

What complicates the outfield even more is Schumaker. He has spent the spring attempting to convert to second base. While his offense can play there, his defense has been sporadic, a dangerous thing for a team that focuses on getting ground balls. As of March 11, reports out of St. Louis were that the Cardinals were considering pulling the plug on this experiment.

Which puts a whole lot of balls in motion. If Schumaker doesn’t take second, the best of Brendan Ryan, Joe Thurston , Brian Barden and Tyler Greene probably gets a look. If Schumaker moves back to the outfield instead of hitting the minors to work on his technique, that likely forces Barton and Rasmus to AAA, unless a trade is made.

While there are still some question marks, this year’s Cardinal squad looks to be able to contend in one of the weaker divisions in baseball. It’s not hard to get excited if you are wearing red!

To read more from Daniel please go to his Cardinals blog at C70 At The Bat.

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  1. David

    March 19, 2009 at 12:07 am

    Actually, Khalil Greene has hit one homerun contrary to this article which indicates he has none as yet. Further, the article understates his batting production, “has been very productive with the bat”, as Khalil leads in batting average at over 460 and RBIs at 15.

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