Reflecting On The Cardinals Off Season

As of this writing, the St. Louis Cardinals have played three games.  Those three games have done less enlightening than reinforcing just what this offseason’s top topics were.

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The major move of the Cardinal offseason was, of course, the signing of Matt Holliday to a long-term deal.  With Holliday in the fold hitting behind Albert Pujols, it was thought that the offense would be well on its way to becoming a juggernaut.  Up and down the lineup, there were very few holes and not many times when a player would step to the plate in a RBI situation and you didn’t feel confident that the player could come through (Not that he would, that he could).  In 2009, when players like Joe Thurston, Chris Duncan, Rick Ankiel and others received many at-bats, that feeling was noticably absent.

When you look at the 2010 Cardinal lineup, however, it starts off good and gets stronger.  David Freese is the eighth place hitter, and he’s generally expected to be able to smash 15-20 home runs.  Skip Schumaker and Brendan Ryan at the top of the lineup give some speed (in the most general sense) and hopefully runners for Albert Pujols to drive in.

So, how did the offense look against the Reds in the opening series?

For the first two games, everything was exactly as expected.  In the opener, Albert Pujols showed that the spring training back trouble he’d had was completely gone and that the elbow surgery he had after last season wasn’t affecting him in the slightest.  Pujols took the second pitch he saw out of the yard, hit another home run later in the game, and wound up four for five with ten total bases.

Photo by Icon SMI

The rest of the lineup helped as well.  Colby Rasmus, who was a consensus pick before the season started to have a breakout year, started off right with a home run among his two hits.  Yadier Molina, whose oblique strain near the end of spring training once looked like it might land him on the disabled list, instead played on Opening Day and smacked a grand slam in the ninth to help put the game away.  Matt Holliday chipped in a hit and the Cards scored 11.

The Cardinals had another balanced attack in the second game, scoring six runs on Freese’s two hits, Holliday’s double, and Rasmus’s four times on base.  The team ran into a buzzsaw that was Bronson Arroyo for the third game, but their offensive numbers for the series were still good.  The team has smacked five home runs, drawn 12 walks, and has a team OPS of .751, which dropped from .882 after facing Arroyo.

The offense has performed in the early going as many expected.  What about the starting rotation?

Even though they had rough springs, Cardinal fans still trusted in the two-headed ace that is Chram Carpwright.  Neither of them did anything this week to destroy that trust.  Chris Carpenter threw six innings, allowing a couple of home runs but otherwise dominating a solid Reds lineup.  Adam Wainwright did him one better, allowing only two runs (on an Orlando Cabrera home run off a tough inside pitch) in seven innings.  The status quo was being maintained.

What Cardinal Nation really was curious about was the biggest offseason acquisition on the pitching side of things.  Brad Penny came in on a one-year deal as a dream of Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan, who have apparently been watching Penny since he broke into the big leagues.  Penny spent last year recovering from injury and his Boston numbers showed it, though he was much stronger when he was traded to San Francisco.  So which Penny was St. Louis getting?

If his first start is any indication, the good Penny made it to the Gateway City, providing a chance for some stellar pitching runs this year.  Penny allowed just one run in seven innings, pounding the ball to get 13 groundouts but still keeping enough oomph to record four strikeouts.  Penny worked quickly and looked very sharp on the mound.  While Penny won’t be that good every time out, if he can continue to put above-average starts in behind Carpenter and Wainwright, there won’t be many losing streaks for the Cards this season.

Two of the other questions for this rotation have still yet to be addressed at the time of this writing, as Kyle Lohse and Jaime Garcia went in the Milwaukee series starting Friday.  Lohse had a strong 2008, leading the club to extend his contract before he reached free agency.  Last year, however, everything went wrong for him, as it seemed every start something strange happened, whether it was being hit by a comebacker or hurting himself on the bases.  The coup de grace was being hit in the forearm while batting against the Kansas City Royals.  That caused his arm to be dead, sent him to the DL after a while, and he never seemed to really get over that.  If Lohse can even split the difference between the last two seasons, he’ll be a very strong fourth starter.

There was quite a competition for the fifth starter slot in the spring, and the result was a surprise to most everyone in the organization.  Kyle McClellan, the reliever who for the second year made a run at being a starter, and Rich Hill, the former Cub that was signed to a minor league deal during the offseason, were expected to spend the spring battling to see who got the job.  Hill showed flashes of his old form, but was still too inconsistent with his command.  McClellan pitched well and normally would be starting this weekend in Milwaukee.

Normally, but not this year.  That’s because Garcia came into spring on a mission.  Garcia, a top prospect in the organization, had surgery late in ’08 and came back around August of last year, pitching very well for Memphis down the stretch and into the AAA playoffs.  Many that followed the Cardinals (including yours truly) expected Garcia to take the last spot in the rotation, but the team was worried that he still wasn’t completely recovered from the surgery.  Garcia then came into camp and posted a sub-2 ERA.  Between that, the fact that he’d be the only left-hander in the rotation, and the bullpen needed some shoring up (more on that later), the decision was made to keep Garcia, send Hill down, and move McClellan back to the pen.  How that chain reaction will play out remains to be seen, starting Saturday on Fox.

Lineup, rotation, that means it’s time to start talking about the bullpen.  Many thought that, if this team was going to be brought down, there’s a good chance this would be where it would happen.  So far, that’s right on the money as well.

Obviously, in the first couple of games, the bullpen couldn’t do a whole lot.  Chris Carpenter left with a 6-2 lead Opening Day, which should have been very comfortable.  However, the Reds had chopped it to 6-4 before a five-run ninth for the ‘Birds.  Even after that, Ryan Franklin came into the game and gave up two runs.  Runs that didn’t matter, of course, and it wasn’t a save situation, but it didn’t leave a great taste in anyone’s mouth.

Game two was closer, with Wainwright leaving after seven, up 6-2 as well.  McClellan came in and promptly allowed a run in the eighth before Dennys Reyes got the final out. Franklin came on in the ninth and, in the box score, had a scoreless inning with just one hit.  However, the last two batters were robbed by strong catches from Ryan Ludwick.  If either of those drops, that inning has a whole different complexion.

The most egregious fault, though, came in the third game.  Penny went seven, leaving a 1-1 tie for the bullpenners.  Mitchell Boggs walked the tightrope with a hit and a walk, but pitched a scoreless eighth.  Trever Miller got his lefty out in the ninth, then Tony La Russa waved in Jason Motte.

Many have thought that Motte would be a great closer type, but what holds him back is that he apparently just has one pitch.  It’s a blazing fastball, but it’s one pitch.  Motte threw six such pitches to Jorge Cantu.  The sixth one was a souvenir, winning the game for the Reds and unleashing a torrent of criticism toward Motte.

The Cardinals have a chance to be very, very good this year.  The lineup is solid and established, with little tinkering needing to be done in regards to shifting lineups, platooning players, etc.  The rotation could be dominant, headed up by two Cy candidates.  How far the Cardinals go will likely depend on those guys that get the last outs, and the focus of the season should be on the pen for a long time to come.

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