By Craig Phelps
St. Louis, MO- What a wild and crazy off-season it has been. St. Louis is still on the edge of their seat waiting to hear Albert Pujols say those magical words, “I’m coming back to the STL.” The Cardinals organization has traded away a top defensive player and replaced him with a former Chicago Cub and a former Houston Astro is playing right field. The Cardinals look more than a step slow defensively, they have a lot of questions about consistency at their plate, and their pitching staff seems unstable at first glance.
Infield Defense- St. Louis has been eagerly awaiting the return of David Freese’s bat since his season-ending injury last year, but his glove should not be overlooked either. While Freese did commit 9 errors in 66 games at third base last year, he did make a few highlight worthy plays. Ryan Theriot is taking over duties at the short stop position after the Cardinals traded away one of the game’s best defenders in Brendan Ryan. While it is too late to change anything about this trade, Theriot’s lack of defense is a glaring hole for the Cards’. Theriot committed a total of 29 errors between 2008 and 2009; he committed the fifth most errors in 2009 with 15 errors. Last year, Theriot started just 28 games at shortstop. Skip Schumaker seems like he is still feeling out second base after being moved there from the outfield in 2009. Schumaker has made a total of 25 errors during his time in the middle infield; he had 16 mistakes tagged with his name during 2010, second most for a second baseman last season. The converted outfielder does have a few bright spots defensively; he is excellent at turning the double play and his athleticism will only allow him to improve at second base. First baseman Albert Pujols should remain as one of the game’s best defensive players, and fans should expect catcher Yadier Molina to make base stealers second guess themselves.
Outfield Defense- Matt Holliday was brought into the Cardinals organization for his bat, not his glove. Holliday will, as always, show a lot of hustle out in left field but will remain a step slow. He should be able to more than make this up at the plate. Colby Rasmus showed great improvement out in centerfield yesterday. His teammates are starting to really respect him as the field general in the outfield, and rightfully so. Rasmus showed vast improvement defensively last year and should continue to improve. Lance Berkman has not played the outfield fulltime since 2004. The 35 year old acquisition had knee surgery last year and was complaining of elbow soreness during the pre-season. Berkman is the biggest question mark for the Cardinals in the outfield. Look for Jon Jay and Allen Craig to play a large role for the Cardinals in right field to keep Berkman fresh throughout the season.
Pitching- It is no secret that the loss of Adam Wainright to Tommy Johns Surgery hurts. Wainright ended his last two seasons in the top three in Cy Young voting. Chris Carpenter is not getting any younger at 35 years old, but looks healthy after a solid Spring Training. Jamie Garacia struggled throughout the MLB’s exhibition games; as a sophomore in the majors this year, Garcia still has something to prove. At the same time, the young gun has five pitches in his arsenal and did post the second best ERA for a starting pitcher though most of the first half of the season last year. Carpenter and Wainright have a lot of confidence in Garcia, saying that he his talent and skills are similar to their own. Kyle Lohse’s contract is almost worth of being called a “bust” at this point. Lohse has been getting paid about $10.25 million a year for a season that has yet to be replicated; he had a career season in 2008 and was promptly offered his current contract following the season’s conclusion. Over the past two seasons, Lohse has let up an average of a run every .689 innings and he has put up a swelling ERA of 5.65. Lohse is hoping to turn things around after a dominant spring where he actually feels healthy for the first time since 2008. Jake Westbrook will provide solid innings this year for the Cardinals and could find himself pitching anywhere from second to fourth in the starting rotation; it all depends on how Garcia and Lohse pitch. Kyle McClellan has been the most consistent member out of the bullpen for the Cardinals over the past couple of years; not having him in the bullpen will hit the Cardinals hard. McClellan posted a 2.27 ERA last year out of the pen and his arm appears to be strong enough to get through the rigors of pitching around 165 innings. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, there is no reliable option out of the bullpen. Jason Motte will be relied on a lot this season as a set-up man with his 100mph fast ball and 92mph change up. Ryan Franklin has been one of the better closers in the game over the past two years, but has lost his touch in the latter part of the seasons.
Overall Defense- There is a lot riding on the back of the starting pitchers. The middle infield defense is sub-par at best and the corners in the outfield are a step slow. With a weak bullpen, the Cardinals’ starters will need to go extra innings whenever possible at the risk of wearing themselves out.
Overall Offense- With the team’s defense in question and a potentially shaky bullpen, the Cardinals will need to produce at the plate. Luckily, Ryan Theriot is an upgrade from Brendan Ryan offensively and should find himself getting on base regularly in the leadoff spot. Colby Rasmus is a guy who can hit the long ball or can find the gaps as the second man in the lineup. Albert Pujols will probably win another MVP batting third and Matt Holliday will provide protection for The Machine. Lance Berkman hit a career low .248 last year and had knee surgery during the season so it is not clear how Berkman will respond this year batting behind Pujols and Holliday. David Freese may find himself replacing Berkman in the five hole if he puts up numbers similar to last year. Yadier Molina is likely to hit seventh in front of the pitcher. Skip Schumaker will probably hit ninth for two reasons; 1) he can sometimes disappear at the plate, 2) Schumaker can add some speed in the later innings and act as another lead-off man.
The Cardinals have a very slim margin for error this season. A mistake on the field or an injury keeping a player away from the diamond can mean the difference between play-offs.