By Dan Moore of Viva El Birdos
This season preview would have been considerably more interesting if the Cardinals hadn't signed Matt Holliday. Tony La Russa, though he wouldn't admit it-though he wouldn't admit anything-might have even preferred it that way; since he became manager in 1996 he's put his very distinct stamp on every squad, and it starts with assuming that you are the underdog and everyone else is out to get you.
In 2010 he'll probably be saying the same thing, and he might even be convincing, but it's less believable than it used to be. Having traded their top prospect for Matt Holliday, and then signed him to a deal that will pay him until he's 37, the Cardinals have finally done what they've threatened to do since a franchise reboot following their ugly 2007 World Series follow-up-they've built to win now. And while nothing is certain in March, it looks like they did a good job of it.
With little in the way of news
I'm left to write some clerihews
Deus ex Machina [sic]
Saves his pitchers from harm
The Cardinals' depth has improved markedly since the MV3 teams of 2004 and 2005, but at catcher they remain a one-man show. Molina's glove has always been great - he's picked off nearly twice as many baserunners as the next catcher on the list since 2003, and his career CS% sits at 46%. But in the last two years he's also become a useful hitter, especially at catcher, keeping his average near .300 and drawing enough walks to make up for a lack of power. Under team control until 2012, when he'll be just 29, he remains among the safest souvenir t-shirt jersey picks on the team.
But a recent oblique strain - the Cardinals held him out of Spring Training but are optimistic he'll be back by Opening Day - illustrates how little there is behind Molina, who caught a career high 138 games last year. Third-year backup Jason LaRue is coming off just 104 at-bats as the lost man on the bench; behind him there's Matt Pagnozzi, an inexplicable coaches' favorite who carries a career line of .210/.286/.292 into his eighth season in the minors, and Bryan Anderson, a young ex-prospect with intriguing on-base ability who is about to get buried in AAA Memphis behind the aforementioned .577 OPS. The drop-off between Matt Holliday and the next left fielder on the list is wider than the one between Molina and his understudies, but it's not much wider.
Jose Alberto Pujols
In every one of his roles
Leaves coaches helpless to assert:
"Do it more like Albert."
At thirty, Albert Pujols remains the best hitter in baseball and the best defender to land at first base. Nine years in his career looks like that of an alternate-universe version of Frank Thomas, one whose baserunning and defense only makes him a better player; after Opening Day 2010 he will officially be eligible for the Hall of Fame, for which he is already overqualified.
After the Cardinals' truncated 2009 postseason, Pujols had surgery on his right elbow, which has been a problem since 2003 and led to his move to first base from the outfield; ligament replacement was deemed unnecessary, and it hasn't hindered his Spring Training. Aside from some minor back issues in March, there's little more to report until the Cardinals deal with what will be a Mauer-sized contract; he's Albert Pujols, and there's no reason to think he won't continue to be in 2010.
In a shocker
fielded like he hit
and took a second baseman's mitt
Skip Schumaker was always ill-suited for the outfield, where he could just barely manage center and hit like a fourth outfielder; his bat was so stereotypically second base - .301/.356/.399 in his career - that he was being moved there in fan-made lineups years before Tony La Russa (and who else would make a move like this?) decided he could play there.
He always looked like a second baseman - he is the head-first slide type-and he always hit like one, but it wasn't until midseason that he was convincing when actually playing as one. In an abuse of small sample sizes that would break MGL's heart, we at Viva El Birdos watched his UZR/150 from opening week as it moved incrementally up from -30 runs; finally it settled below -10, at which point even his real UZR began to climb up from the cellar. By the end of the season he was turning double plays and ranging in each direction like people always assumed he could.
As a result of our UZR/150 watch, opinions are divided on Schumaker's defensive value going forward; some people think that his second half charge means he'll be average, or even a little better, while others think -5 to -10 runs seems reasonable for a guy who hadn't played there since college. But his bat, a weakness in the outfield, is an asset at second, and if he can continue to act like he belongs there he'll stay ahead of super-utility free agent coup Felipe Lopez on the depth chart.
with all due ease
could take third and thrive
if he stopped trying to drive
David Freese's offseason car problems have nearly caused him to lose the third base job for a second consecutive season. In 2009 Troy Glaus's surprise (and surprisingly un-rehab-able) shoulder surgery left Freese, acquired straight-up for Jim Edmonds in 2008, the presumptive starter at third base. But it turned out Freese had undisclosed injury problems of his own, having been involved in a single-car accident that January; he began the season with the Cardinals but eventually opted for surgery and wasn't back in St. Louis until September.
With Glaus gone for good in 2010 and the Cardinals' pursuit of Holliday leaving their pursestrings otherwise occupied, Freese once again entered the offseason as a plausible option at third base until an arrest for driving while intoxicated complicated matters. It happened early enough, and Freese appeared contrite enough, that this time he remains the Opening Day starter.
When healthy and on the field, Freese's all-average-all-the-time tools seem like they'll make him a dead ringer for Joe Randa. But even the real Joe Randa (am I the last person to see his Baseball Reference sponsorship?) would be an improvement on what the Cardinals threw at third base in 2009, which included half a season's worth of Joe Thurston, Troy Glaus when he couldn't throw, Mark DeRosa when he couldn't hit, and Khalil Greene when he couldn't deal with serious anxiety problems. As a unit, Cardinals third basemen hit .229/.292/.369, and David Freese - well, if nothing else, he can do that.
while barely trying
became a Cardinal Nation hero
for his excellent De Niro.
A long-time kind-of-prospect whose injury problems mean he's still never played a full season in the high minors, Ryan took the shortstop job while Khalil Greene was on the DL with anxiety problems and established himself as an honorary member of the Gas House Gang. There's no other way to put this: he is the only Cardinal for which a fanpost exists detailing his every media appearance. (I particularly recommend his game of Wiffle Ball with Joe Mather.) In an interview about learning from Skip Schumaker, he gave the following quote, free of any Bull Durham influence, to Cardinals beat writer Derrick Goold:
"I was looking for something incredibly profound," Ryan recalled. " 'Go out to Field 6 in the left-center gap and lift the stone. Dig a foot under the warning-track dirt and there you'll find a treasure box. Pull out the scroll and read it.'"
In addition to his post-game quotes, and his weird video appearances, and his excellent De Niro impression, he proved himself in 2009 to be an excellent defensive shortstop in a city that appreciates excellent defensive shortstops and an above-average hitter for his position.
He's still no sure thing as a starter; he hit .244/.307/.289 in his 2008 stint with the Cardinals, and his career-long problems with staying healthy manifested themselves during Spring Training as a surprise wrist surgery. But if his hitting is even adequate, his defense will make him a useful shortstop.
salary, paid out once a day
was calculated by scholars
to be fifty thousand dollars
The Cardinals played coy deep into the offseason, but from the moment they traded top prospect Brett Wallace to get him, Matt Holliday was in their long-term plans. Since 2007, when Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds succumbed to injuries and age, the Cardinals have been single-mindedly bent on finding "protection" for Albert Pujols, as though he needs it. Holliday was their guy, and it's a good fit.
The real questions with his seven year, $120 million deal come five years from now; in 2010, Holliday, who, like a lesser Pujols, combines outstanding hitting with good positional defense and baserunning, makes the Cardinals a vastly better team than they'd be without him. His combined 2009 numbers - .313/.394/.515 over 156 games - are what the Cardinals just paid for, and in the short term he seems likely to produce them.
The Cardinals' top prospect and lone high-upside guy since 2005, Rasmus made the team on opening day as a kind of third-and-a-half outfielder, moving between left and center depending on which of Chris Duncan and Rick Ankiel was struggling less.
This wasn't enough playing time for fans who'd watched Rasmus's name in box scores for years on end, but he didn't get a chance to start regularly until Rick Ankiel hit a wall awkwardly in May; after a scary stretcher scene Ankiel missed most of May, and Rasmus began to soak up extended playing time. By the end of the season he had given Ankiel the full Wally Pipp, and in 2010 he came into camp as the starter.
But all things considered, it wasn't a great rookie season for Rasmus, who has all the scouts' tools but only displayed one of them with any regularity in 2009. To get the good one out of the way: his defense was great. It wasn't the crafty, visually impressive great defense of Jim Edmonds, who did everything perfectly to compensate for his poor footspeed; his game more closely resembles Carlos Beltran's long, loping strides. (Cardinals fans often beg him to "sell it!" in lieu of this easily underrated defensive gift, but he seems to never have to dive for a ball.)
His myriad offensive tools looked underdeveloped in 2009. His speed was invisible; he attempted four stolen bases and hit two triples. His plate discipline suffered rolling blackouts; he didn't walk a single time in June. His power, the tool for which he was most celebrated in high school (he broke Bo Jackson's state home run record), was evident but not yet striking.
His 2009 was filled with personal problems that are only recently coming to light; an unexpected pregnancy left him estranged from his father and he felt detached from a mostly older clubhouse. In 2010 he's one of the Cardinals' best breakout candidates.
laid it on thick
but season two was second-rate
No one quite expected Ludwick to slug .591 again in 2009-except for Ludwick, whose stated goal heading into the season was to hit 50 home runs - but even then his spotty follow-up season to his MVP caliber debut was disappointing.
Given Ludwick's career to this point, it's hard to guess what he'll do now, going into his age-31 season. When he joined the Cardinals in 2007 he was a minor league free agent, an ex-top-prospect ruined by injuries; in 2008 he was one of the best hitters in baseball; and in 2009 he was just barely adequate in right field, in a season that featured two great months and four bad ones.
The starting pitchers
are likely victors
though I take it all back
if their elbows attack
In 2009, the Cardinals got a performance they could not possibly have hoped for and should not ever expect to happen again. Chris Carpenter, who had appeared in five games in two years, led the league in ERA; Adam Wainwright, who two years ago was nearly shoved into the set-up role for life, pitched 233 innings and just missed 20 wins; and Joel Pineiro, who was waived by the Red Sox in 2007, channeled Christy Mathewson for four months.
Pineiro (and Mathewson) are gone; Carpenter's elbow is still as beautiful and reliable as an Italian supercar; and Wainwright's success was, to some degree, the product of a difficult-to-repeat way of stranding runners. In their places are Brad Penny, who, as a sinking fastball artist, is this year's Dave Duncan special, and Jaime Garcia, the Cardinals' most advanced pitching prospect, who returned from elbow surgery looking even better than he had before.
Even if Carpenter plays a full season, the Cardinals' rotation will take a step back; the only hope is that their improved offense will make up the difference.
The Cardinals' bullpen:
It's one middling Memphis guy's luck
when the ones in St. Louis suck.
The Cardinals don't have a lot to look forward to in 2010's bullpen, having traded what was supposed to be an inexhaustible supply of useful right-handers for 2009 pieces - Mark Worrell and Luke Gregerson for Khalil Greene, Chris Perez and Jess Todd for Mark DeRosa.
Ryan Franklin's career year had ended by the NLDS. He won't be impossible to hit again in 2010 but since coming to St. Louis he's proved himself a capable, if not exciting, reliever. Behind him are young guys with problems - Jason Motte, a converted catcher with a 100 mph fastball, followed up a dominant season in AAA Memphis with an occasionally combustible rookie year. Kyle McClellan, who just missed the starting rotation this year, showed some control problems in 2009 but is still trading on a brilliant start to his rookie season in 2009. Behind him are two more converted starters: Blake Hawksworth, a top prospect in 2003 who gained a few miles per hour on his fastball in relief, and Mitchell Boggs, the sixth starter in 2009, whose eminently hittable fastball looked transformed (but still uncontrollable) when he only had to throw it for one inning.
On a Tony La Russa team, of course, the left-handers can't be overlooked, and that's the one area the Cardinals have covered; Trever Miller and Dennys Reyes, free agent pick-ups in 2009, were almost perfect and have been retained for 2010.
In The System
The Cardinals' farm-
aside from one arm,
they traded the system.
We miss 'em.
Following a truly awful draft in 2004 and a series of the trades for veterans that characterized the Walt Jocketty era, the Cardinals' farm system was as bad as farm systems get; at one point their top prospect was a starting pitcher who had already had shoulder surgery. After several years in the Baseball America wilderness and some prudent drafting, the Cardinals had built up a system that, if still a little lacking in the all-tools no-stats projectability guys I'm personally fond of, was filled with useful depth types.
In 2009 the Cardinals' top prospect since 2005 was promoted, his replacement atop the lists was traded - along with some other top ten guys and seemingly every last right-handed reliever in the system - and the team's grand leap into Latin American free agent season was voided when it turned out that Wagner Mateo, 16 year-old owner of a $3 million contract, had a heretofore undiagnosed degenerative eye condition. Things were not great.
The Cardinals' top prospect is Shelby Miller, first round high school pitcher/stereotype-hard fastball, big frame, et cetera. Having passed up Rick Porcello in 2007 the Cardinals paid over slot for their man this time around, but it'll take a few years of profligacy before they make up for what they lost in 2009.
It's not going to get much press, but Tony La Russa is just under 200 games away from eclipsing John McGraw for the second-most managerial wins in baseball history. Why is this important?
to stay in the black
owned the team, and was undemanding
when he managed and didn't know where he was standing.
Should La Russa manage through 2012 he'll almost certainly become the winningest manager of all time who didn't sleepwalk through his last twenty years unable to fire himself.
The Houston Astros:
Everyone but Ed Wade knows
they wouldn't even contend
bringing in an actual lion at the end.
The Cincinnati Reds'
fans will kill Dusty dead
if any harm should come
to Aroldis Chapman's arm
The Chicago Cubs
find something's always the rub
when they try to contend
but they'll be here at the end
The Milwaukee Brewers
feature powerful doers
But the pitching staff lacks
in real potent attacks
The St. Louis Cardinals
will find pitching hardinal
but first seems foreseeable
in a division this beatable
The Cardinals' Vegas odds this year - 8:1 - seem reasonable, and it makes sense to see their World Series odds as heavily involving chance, given the way they've been constructed. While the Cardinals have admirable depth in a lot of places, and could afford to lose one of their top players for part of the season, the value that makes them a team to beat in the National League is tied up in three or four guys. They could win 95 to 100 games if everything breaks right, but if something just breaks, instead, the Central could get closer than expected.
That said, the Cardinals haven't begun a season in a position this strong since 2005, the year immediately following a season in which three of their players could justifiably have won the MVP award. These Cardinals aren't as good as those, but they're built the same way.