Sunday, March 1, 2009

The St. Louis Cardinals' 2009 Slightly Premature Preview

It is with a somewhat heavy heart that I write the following. You see, the St. Louis Cardinals were my first baseball love. I was born in the shadow of the Gateway Arch in 1978, which means I reached Major League Baseball consciousness right around the time the Redbirds were rolling to the 1985 World Series. Alas, my almost-four-year-old brain couldn't retain any of the 1982 memories so '85 was my indoctrination.

Don Denkinger and I are still not on speaking terms. It figures that I was sincerely part of the last fanbase to suffer heartbreak at the hands of the Kansas City Royals.

Despite that unpleasantness, Ozzie Smith's back flips, defensive magic, and flair for the key hit made him the Wizard. He, Tommy Herr, Jack Clark, John Tudor, Todd Worrell, Vince Coleman, Willie McGee, Joaquin Andujar, Terry Pendleton, and Andy Van Slyke turned St. Louis into Oz with our very own Emerald City inside the walls of Busch Stadium. That fairytale lasted four great years and ended in 1987 when my family moved to the suburbs of San Francisco and a new love affair/Greek tragedy started.

But just like in the real world, you never forget your first baseball love so I've always kept an eye on the Cards (plus we still have family friends who bleed Cardinal red). And that eye has always seen a competitive team with a legitimate shot at the postseason.

Unfortunately, 2009 might be the first year in several where STL needs tons of help just to stay afloat in the fight for a shot at MLB's brass ring. If that help doesn't come, it could be the first very long year for baseball under the Arch in a while. Check it:

Projected starting lineup

Catcher—Yadier Molina
First base—Albert Pujols
Second base—Skip Schumaker
Third base—Troy Glaus
Shortstop—Khalil Greene
Left field—Ryan Ludwick
Center field—Rick Ankiel
Right field—Chris Duncan

On the surface, that looks awesome. The problem is there's no guarantee that Schumaker can handle the jump to the infield even though second base is the best place to put a mediocre gloveman (as long as he can turn the double play smoothly). The bigger problem is Glaus just started taking ground balls for the first time since shoulder surgery. If either of those guys isn't ready for Opening Day, St. Louis will have to turn to Brendan Ryan, Joe Thurston, Brian Barden, and/or somebody named David Freese. Yikes.

And if it's Schumaker who can't cut it, he moves back into the crowded outfield where the Redbirds already have Colby Rasmus chomping at the bit.

Starting rotation

Ace—Adam Wainwright (R)
Second spot—Todd Wellemeyer (R)
Third spot—Chris Carpenter (R)
Fourth spot—Kyle Loshe (R)
Fifth spot—Joel Pineiro (R)

Again, that looks pretty solid, right? Again, there's a glaring weakness and thy name is Chris Carpenter. If he continues his strong Spring and rides it through the season, that's actually a pretty good rotation. And even major surgery doesn't seem to preclude an eventual return to greatness these days so there's no reason to bet the house against the once formidable righty. But, man, that's a tenuous foundation for your rotation.

Because if Carpenter can't take all his starts or is a shell of his former self, somebody's gonna have to pick up the slack and St. Louis doesn't seem to have many large caliber weapons left. Brad Thompson and Mitchell Boggs are next in line.


Closer—Chris Perez (R)
Set-up—Ryan Franklin (R)
Set-up—Kyle McClellan (R)
Set-up—Brad Thompson (R)

Stepping back from that picture, the first thing that absolutely smacks you in the face is the outfield situation. What the hell was St. Louis' usually astute management doing this offseason?

Ryan Ludwick was an unexpected and genuine monstrosity last year to the tune of a .299 average, 40 doubles, 37 bombs, 104 runs scored, 113 runs batted in, a .375 on-base percentage, and a .966 OPS. Even if he tails off a bit this year (totally understandable), I'd say he's a keeper.

The same can be said of Rick Ankiel, who's a very good defensive piece to boot even if he's not as gifted as a lot of center fielders roaming the Bigs. More importantly, you like Ankiel for his .264 average, 21 doubles, 25 HRs, 65 runs, 71 RBI, .337 OBP, and .843 OPS in only 413 at-bats.

Add the (allegedly) incomparable tools of Colby Rasmus to the picture and I'd say the outfield present and future is more or less covered in St. Louis.

Chris Duncan didn't have a great 2008, but he put up 20+ home runs in the two previous years so he could fetch something on the open market. And maybe the move to the infield works out for Skip Schumaker. Like I said above, if that happens then all of this is moot and the STL powers-that-be look like Illuminati.

If not, they look pretty stupid because moving either or both probably could've netted a decent arm in return and that's what St. Louis really needs.

Consider that Ankiel and Ludwick are already joined by the best hitter in MLB. Albert Pujols was dinged up last year and managed to hit "only" .357 with 44 doubles, 37 taters, 100 runs, 116 RBI, a .462 OBP, and a 1.114 OPS.

My goodness.

Not only that, but the Redbirds actually get contribution from their Flying Molina Brother, too—Yadier managed a .304 average from the backstop. Additionally, Troy Glaus should see the field whether or not he's there from day one—and he's always good for 25 or so HRs—and Khalil Greene is a decent contributor from short.

Realistically and even if the Schumaker gamble works out, St. Louis could still be in a world o' hurt.

That rotation is no guarantee even if Chris Carpenter can hold it together. I believe Adam Wainwright and Todd Wellemeyer are the real McCoys. And it's never wise to underestimate the ability of Dave Duncan and Tony La Russa to squeeze every last bit from their arms. But still...

Joel Pineiro? Kyle Loshe (I know he had a superlative year in '08)? And those names bandied about to replace Carpenter aren't gonna terrify any Big League hitters.

Not to mention the bullpen could be an out and out disaster.

Again, I believe in its base—Chris Perez. He's young and got a pretty wicked arsenal as his K per inning average attests. But those names that figure to form the bridge to him could be anything from the next Carlos Marmol to the next LaTroy Hawkins.

Those types turn into Hawkins far more frequently than Marmols. If/when that happens, you're gonna have a shaky starting staff handing off to a bullpen prone to surrendering grand slams handing off to an unproven closer. Somewhere in the course of 162 games, one of those weak links is gonna break the chain.

When that happens, the genius of Duncan/La Russa better be ready because all the offense in the world isn't gonna right the ship.

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