2011 pre-season preview: NL Central – St Louis Cardinals

Could 2011 be Albert Pujols’ last season in a Cardinals uniform?

St. Louis Cardinals (2010 record: 86-76)

As spring training got underway a few weeks ago, the Cardinals were a serious threat to win the NL Central division title. But with the Albert Pujols contract situation hanging like The Sword of Damocles above everyone’s head and the subsequent injury (elbow) to RHP Adam Wainwright, who will be lost for the season, it is suddenly difficult to foresee the Cards posing a serious threat to the Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers.

Notable additions: OF Lance Berkman, C Gerald Laird, RHP Brian Tallet

Notable subtractions: LHP Dennys Reyes

The offense:

Catcher: Yadier Molina

Infield: Albert Pujols (1B), Skip Schumaker (2B), Ryan Theriot (SS) and David Freese

Outfield: Matt Holliday (LF), Colby Rasmus (CF) and Lance Berkman (RF)

The Cardinals will field a lineup that is substantially similar to the one that finished in second place in the Central division last year. In spite of its lack of depth and overall quality, the offense finished sixth in the league in runs per game and will likely be equally productive in 2011.

The attack will continue to be focused around the trio of Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday and Colby Rasmus. The Pujols contract impasse will be a distraction to the star, his teammates and the coaching staff, no matter what everyone professes. It will be interesting to see how his impending free agency affects the player who has been the greatest offensive force in the game over the last several years. Holliday is happily entrenched back in an NL lineup… he will spend the season trying to extend his current streak of five consecutive seasons batting .300+, hitting 24+ home runs, and knocking in 85+ runs (he has knocked in 100 or more runs in four of those five seasons). Rasmus will attempt to build on his 2010 production, just as he improved on his rookie season with a nice sophomore campaign last year.

Beyond those three players, the lineup is considerably below average.

Ryan Theriot supplants Brendan Ryan at shortstop, while Lance Berkman was signed this winter and will take over for Ryan Ludwick in right field. These changes should net substantially similar statistics, with Theriot being an offensive upgrade at shortstop and Berkman being somewhat of a downgrade in right field. The team will be worse defensively with the departure of Ryan, who is thought by many to be the game’s best-fielding shortstop, and the arrival of Berkman, who has balky knees and hasn’t played in the outfield since 2007.

Schumacker is little more than a utility player who is being asked to take regular at-bats at second base… to compound matters, he has to do so while batting leadoff in front of Pujols and Holliday. Freese will try to get through the year healthy after suffering a rash of injuries last year and undergoing surgical procedures on BOTH ankles… if healthy he’ll provide good batting average, but he won’t supply the kind of power customarily associated with a corner infielder. Theriot and Molina will provide pedestrian offensive statistics at shortstop and catcher, respectively.

As for Berkman, he is showing his age – the effects of which will be compounded by his new-found responsibilities in the outfield. He will almost certainly have trouble staying on the field due to the additional physical demands… and even if he manages to stay in the lineup, the daily grind will adversely impact his already-diminished offense (.248/14/58 in 404 AB last year).

The pitching staff:

Rotation: Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia, Jake Westbrook, Kyle Lohse and Kyle McClellan

Closer: Ryan Franklin

The rotation should have been the strength of the ballclub, but the injury to Wainwright is going to have catastrophic effects on the Cards’ title aspirations. Carpenter had another outstanding campaign last year and is 33-13, with a 2.78 ERA, over the last two seasons. But after the ace, questions abound regarding the remainder of the rotation.

Jake Westbrook will slot into the rotation behind Carpenter. He missed most of 2008 and all of 2009 after suffering an elbow injury and undergoing Tommy John surgery in the summer of ‘08. He started the 2010 season in Cleveland and struggled (4.65 ERA) before being shipped to St Louis, where he profited from the change in leagues and the lack of familiarity (3.48 ERA after the trade). It remains to be seen whether he can remain healthy and sustain those post-trade gains over a full season.

Jaime Garcia went 13-8, 2.70, last year and finished third in the Rookie-of-the-Year balloting, but he is unproven. As with any young pitcher the question arises whether he will be able to build on last season’s performance without initially having to take a step backwards.

RHP Kyle Lohse struggled last year, reportedly due to difficulty he experienced in gripping the baseball. He underwent surgery (forearm) in June to correct the problem, but produced worse results after returning from the corrective procedure. The Cardinals hope he is healthy and can return to the form he had in 2008.

McClellan will likely replace Wainwright in the rotation. He threw 75 innings in relief last year. Despite a disappointing 1-4 record, he posted an impressive 2.27 ERA, a 1.075 WHIP, and a 2.61 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Franklin has become a consistent performer at closer, compiling 82 saves over the last three seasons. With the departure of McClellan to the rotation, greater responsibility will fall on hard-throwing Jason Motte and Mitchell Boggs.

Prediction for 2011: 3rd place (82-80)

The steep uphill climb that presented itself as spring training got underway became a nearly-insurmountable summit when Wainwright went down. While you should never say never, it would take career years from several players for this team to have a shot at the division title. As it is, they barely get the nod over the Cubs for third place in the division, and I would not be surprised if they end up with only 74 or 75 wins.


Cards’ top prospect, Shelby Miller

Top Five Prospects:

1. Shelby Miller, RHP
2. Carlos Martinez, RHP
3. Zack Cox, 3B
4. Allen Craig, OF
5. Tyrell Jenkins, RHP

I thought about ranking Martinez ahead of Miller due to his fastball, which ranks an “80” on the scouts’ 20-80 scale, but I see him as the team’s closer, not a potential staff ace… and since an ace is more important than a closer, I’ll go with Miller.

Miller was taken in the first round of the 2009 draft (19th overall) and eschewed a scholarship to Texas A&M to sign with the Cardinals (who gave him a $2.875 MM signing bonus to do so). His “70” fastball regularly sits at 92-94 mph and will touch 98 mph on occasion… some scouts believe it is major-league-ready already. He has a deceptive changeup and 12-to-6 curveball that both have excellent potential but need to be refined. The organization protected his arm last year by pulling him out of games (as a means for controlling his innings pitched); but at this point, he needs those innings to improve his mechanics – so it will be interesting to see how they manage his outings in 2011.

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