The Cardinals will look to push aside the bitter pill of losing co-ace Adam Wainwright for the year as they battle an improved Brewers ballclub and the Reds for the NL Central title. Several things must go well for them to make it back to the postseason.
5. Rotational Depth
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An area of strength, perhaps, before Wainwright succumbed to the dreaded Tommy John surgery, has quickly become a weakness. Losing a perennial Cy Young contender will do that to a team. Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia and Jake Westbrook still form a terrific top three, but Kyle Lohse and Kyle McClellen present more question marks than confidence in the four and five slots. They are both off to good starts and show some promise of holding down the fort. There’s a chance McClellen even does a passable Jaime Garcia impression and flourishes in his new role, but the uncertainty must, at least, be slightly alarming to long-time skip Tony La Russa. Complicating matters further is McClellen’s replacement as a possible fill-in starter. Right now, the Cards are likely to turn to either long reliever Miguel Batista or triple-A prospect Lance Lynn, should a fill-in be necessary. Batista is eight years removed from the last year he could have been considered a positive addition to a rotation, and Lynn posted a 4.77 ERA in triple-A last year, hardly the statistics earning of a promotion to the show. While finding competence at the back of a rotation is a struggle for every manager over a 162-game season, La Russa’s job got a lot more difficult without Wainwright in the fold, but also without McClellen filling a valuable role of safety net. If McClellen proves that he indeed has the stuff to be a mid-rotation starter and Lohse fills in adequately as a slightly above replacement level starter (along with perfect health for the strong threesome at the top) then all will be well. But nothing ever goes as planned, just ask Adam Wainwright.
4. Colby Rasmus
With apologies to Matt Holliday, Colby Rasmus probably has a higher ceiling than any position player not named Albert Pujols for the Redbirds in 2011. He has all the tools to be a tremendous defensive center fielder and a dynamic offensive force. The problem: Tools don’t always translate to success. Rasmus took a solid step in the right direction at the plate in 2010, hitting 23 HRs, with 66 RBIs and a .276 average, but he also struck out 148 times in 464 AB’s and drew the ire of La Russa with questionable effort and sloppy play in the field. His maturation both as a player and a leader will be pivotal to the team this year and in the future. Rasmus is someone who should be a cornerstone for a franchise, and a 2011 breakthrough would be immeasurably beneficial towards the Cards chances of besting the Brewers and Reds for the NL Central title.
Once one of the top-five-most-feared hitters in the senior circuit, Berkman has undoubtedly reached the decline phase of his career. Traded to the Yankees at the deadline last year, he was essentially a non-factor for them down the stretch and in the playoffs. Still, Berkman posted 29 HR’s 106 RBI’s with a .312 average just three years ago and had a very productive year in 2009, as well. The guess here is that he rebounds to numbers similar to his 2009 season (25 HR, 80 RBI, .274 BA, .399 OBP) and complements Pujols, Holliday and Rasmus in the Cards lineup. If the questions were only about his offense, that would be bearable, however, the Cardinals expect the 35-year-old Berkman to man an outfield corner for the first time in five years. That he will hurt St. Louis in the field is a given: How much damage he does will be a pivotal subplot to their season.
2. Production from the middle infield
While the Cardinals have managed to win several division titles (and a World Series) with the David Ecksteins and Aaron Miles‘ of the world taking consistent reps in the middle infield, it’s hard to get excited over Ryan Theriot and Skip Schumaker. Theriot has been a burden to his teams’ lineup since his first starting gig in 2007 with the Cubs, but really took it up a notch in the second half with the Dodgers last year (managing only a .242 BA, .316 OBP and .283 slugging percentage over 228 plate appearances). With only an adequate glove, it’s tough to see why Theriot continues to be asked to play full time, instead of settling into a reserve role more suited to his talents. Schumaker, despite hitting .300 in 2008 and 2009, has hardly distinguished himself as an offensive force. He has given the Cardinals slightly-above-replacement-level production out of the keystone since he moved there from the outfield before the 2009 season. In the off-season, the Cardinals signed former Minnesota Twin Nick Punto, who should fit right into the Cardinals desire for hard-nosed, stick-less middle infield options. There is hope, however, in 27-year-old wild card Tyler Greene. Greene is currently backing up Theriot and Schumaker (at least until Punto returns), but offers considerably more upside than either starter. The strong-armed Greene hit 15 HRs with a .291 average and a .848 OPS in triple-A in 2009. While he hasn’t impressed during auditions in St. Louis in 2009 and 2010, he offers some hope of giving above-average production in the middle and his transformation would be just the kind of break most teams need to reach October.
1. Bullpen stability
Ryan Franklin has done a credible job in the closer role for the last three seasons, but lacks the strikeout stuff normally associated with the position. Two weeks into the 2011 season, he already has three blown saves in only four chances. Should he continue to struggle, the Cardinals have a few interesting choices at the back of the bullpen, but nothing that could be considered a sure thing. Jason Motte was given the closer job ahead of Franklin at the start of the 2009 season, but quickly handed the keys back amidst a dreadful rookie campaign. He bounced back and had a solid 2010 (54 Ks and a 2.25 ERA in 52.1 innings), but control issues have made him a bit of an enigma in his brief pitching career. Mitchell Boggs is currently being used as the setup man and has pretty solid stuff, but like Motte, is only in his third season. Given the lack of quality options past these three, the Cardinals are certainly relying quite heavily on their right shoulders, and their success might mimic the fortunes of the ball club.
The Brewers have thrown all their chips into the 2011 season, trading for Zack Greinke and Shawn Marcum to bolster their rotation and the Reds remain mostly intact from the division winning club from a year ago. The Cardinals certainly have the lineup thunder to compete with an impressive middle of the order, but losing Wainwright for the season significantly weakens what would have been an equally strong rotation. These five issues will go a long way into determining whether the Cards can return to playing meaningful games in October.