"There's a good possibility we may not be as bad as people think we're going to be."-- Cardinals manager Tony La Russa.
Wanna bet? This is a team that gave up 32 runs in back to back games against the Dodgers and Braves this spring. Still, that's small potatoes compared to what this team has endured since winning the World Series two years ago. Here's a list of events since Adam Wainwright nailed down the save against the Detroit Tigers in Game 5.................
1. The arrest of manager Tony La Russa for impaired driving last March.
2. The loss of ace Chris Carpenter to Tommy John surgery after making all of one start.
3. The death of reliever Josh Hancock in a drunk driving incident.
4. The possible end of outfielder Juan Encarnacion's career as his orbital bone was fractured taking a foul ball in the face.
5. The use of human growth hormone by outfielder Rick Ankiel, overshadowing his "feel good story" of his comeback from struggling pitcher to slugging outfielder.
6. The firing of longtime GM Walt Jocketty, despite seven playoff appearances in 13 years, after losing a power struggle in the front office.
7. The ongoing feud between Scott Rolen and La Russa leading to Rolen's trade to Toronto for fellow hot cornerman Troy Glaus.
8. The release of utilityman Scott Spiezio, who was charged with assault and impaired driving in California last month. He sat out the latter part of the season to seek help for substance abuse.
Statistically, the chief reasons the Cards did not get back to the post-season to defend their World Series were they didn't hit for power (finishing 14th in NL slugging), they didn't pitch well (11th in ERA), and they didn't play good defence (next to last in fielding percentage). Despite all that, the Cards still had a chance to defend their NL Central title as they were within a game of the front-running Cubs in early September. However, a nine game losing streak and a stretch of 14 losses out of 16 led the Cardinals to finish up the track in 3rd place, 78-84, seven games back of Chicago.
So, the Cards began to cut their ties to the glorious past by saying goodbye to three key players who were instrumental in the team's recent success. Shortstop David Eckstein signed a free agent deal with Toronto to join his partner Scott Rolen on the left side of the infield and center fielder Jim Edmonds was dealt to San Diego. Reliever Troy Percival parlayed his comeback season from a forearm injury in 2005 to sign a new deal with Tampa Bay to become their new closer. Even 12 year-old So Taguchi has left, he's now a Phillie. I maintain he's the best St. Louis athlete to ever wear 99.
The new general manager is John Mozeliak, who served as Walt Jocketty's right-hand man and he'll be looked upon to improve the harmony in the front office.
With that backdrop out of the way, here's a positional breakdown of the 2008 Cardinals.
Catcher - Yadier Molina signed a 4 year deal with the club this off-season. He reported to camp 15 pounds lighter. Jason LaRue, who spent last year in Kansas City, will be the back-up. Mark Johnson is insurance at AAA Memphis and 21 year-old Bryan Anderson is in the wings at AA Springfield. The youngest player in the Texas League, Anderson batted .298 last year but the word is, he needs to work on his defence.
1st Base - Albert Pujols' health is one of the many major question marks surrounding the Cards this season. He has a ligament problem in right elbow that has bothered him since the 2003 campaign and the pain worsened last season as he slugged "only" .568 last year. Still, that was 52 points off his average and he hit a career low 32 HRís. He hopes an off-season of rest will help him as he turned down surgery. However, Pujols has said he won't go through another season like last year and will shut things down, a scenario that could come into play if the Cards season goes down the drain. Chris Duncan might move to 1st from left field if Pujols goes down. Duncan was drafted as a first baseman.
2nd Base - Adam Kennedy (who the Jays were pretty horny for last off-season) might've made the Cardinals wish he did not return for a second engagement in St. Louis. He batted .219 and he didn't even slug .300. He played just 87 games last year before undergoing knee surgery. If Kennedy doesn't turn things around, Brendan Ryan and Aaron Miles will put the heat on him. D'Angelo Jimenez is also in the middle infield mix but is apparently having a shaky spring with the bat and the glove.
Shortstop - Cesar Izturis joins the team after splitting last season with the Cubs and Pirates. The former Jay slugged .315, which is Ruthian compared to Kennedy's .290. The Redbirds hope he can flash the leather.
3rd Base - Troy Glaus, now number 8 in your program (some guy named McGwire used to wear #25), will look to supply some much needed thunder in the Cards lineup. The Cards hope his plantar fasciitis will not act up on the natural grass of Busch Stadium. Expected to protect Albert Pujols in the lineup, it's apparently not set in stone heíll bat clean-up. Rick Ankiel and Chris Duncan are also being considered for the 4-spot. Statistically, Glaus is a lifetime .238/.344/.471 hitter in the No. 4 position, .259/.365/.500 batting fifth and .272/.376/.533 batting sixth
Outfield - The starting alignment from left to right is expected to be Chris Duncan, Rick Ankiel and Ryan Ludwick. Duncan was nagged by a sports hernia, but he still managed to belt 21 homers with a decent .354 OBP and .480 SLG. The Cards are hoping he'll be 100% healthy in 2008. RIck Ankiel sparked the Cards late summer run with three homers in his first three games and 11 HR's in 172 AB after his recall from the minors. However, after driving in 7 RBI in one game, news broke of his use of HGH which he says he used in "legally prescribed" doses. In the two weeks afterwards, Ankiel batted just .127 without a dinger. Ryan Ludwick, brother of former Jays pitcher Eric Ludwick (remember him? I didn't either. However, he pitched 1 butt ugly inning of 5 WHIP, 27.00 ERA ball for the Jays in '99) put 14 balls over the wall in just 300 at-bats and will vie for time in right field with Skip Schumaker. Tony La Russa said Schumaker would have to "play his way off" the roster rather than having to play his way on the roster. Schumaker hit .333 over 88 games last year.
The crown jewel of the outfield is Colby Rasmus, the team's number one prospect who is looking to make the jump from AA. He ranked in the top 10 in the Texas League in numerous categories, including first in home runs, runs, and slugging percentage. Not bad for the second-youngest player in the league. Considered to be a 5 tool talent, his comparables according to Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system are Carlos Beltran, Bobby Abreu and Grady Sizemore. Rasmus is battling Rule 5 draft pick Brian Barton and old man Juan Gonzalez for the final spot in the outfield. The 38 year old Gonzalez is a non-roster invite who hasnít played since 2005 with Cleveland, where he lasted a whopping one game before suffering a hamstring injury. His chances of making the team have taken a hit thanks to a mild left abdominal strain. Meantime, Barton has had a strong spring so far and he could make the club. Otherwise, he'll have to be offered back to Cleveland. Barton's strong suits are his ability to get on base and play all three outfield positions, and the fact that he bats right-handed also helps with most of the Cardinals' outfielders being left-handed hitters. The 25 year-old spent most of last year at AA Akron before earning a call-up to AAA Buffalo. Joe Mather, who also can play in the infield corners, is also a candidate for outfield duty but is expected to begin this year at AAA Memphis.
Update: Rasmus and Mather have been re-assigned to minor league camp.
Starting Pitching - With Chris Carpenter and Mark Mulder on the shelf, Adam Wainwright is expected to get the ball on Opening Day when the Cards host the Colorado Rockies March 31st. Wainwright's ERA was hovering around 6.00 for the first two months of the season but he finished up strong, going 14-12 with an ERA of 3.70. Wainwright likes to get ground-ball outs with his sinker, and also uses a curve, slider, and changeup, which was moves down and away from left-handers, but still catches the strike zone.
Braden Looper is expected to follow Wainwright in the rotation. His transition from the bullpen to the rotation went really well last year, for a month! His ERA was 1.91 in April and 5.64 the rest of the way. He finished the year a .500 pitcher at 12-12 with an ERA barely below 5.
Free agent signee Kyle Lohse could very well be slotted in the 2 spot in the rotation. The former Twin, whose agent is Scott Boras, thought he was going to be in line for a huge payday in the off-season. Not so much as he had to "settle" for a one year deal for $4-million. Lohse split last season with Cincinnati and Philadelphia, going 9-12 with a 4.62 ERA. The man will eat innings for you as he pitched at least 190 innings in three of the past five seasons and has made at least 30 starts in five different seasons. Lifetime, Lohse is 63-74 with a 4.82 ERA. The righthander will be reunited with his former Reds batterymate Jason LaRue from two seasons ago. Of Lohse, LaRue says, "He's always had the ability, stuff-wise, to be a great pitcher. It's just a matter of consistency."
Joel Piniero found new life as a Cardinal after beginning the year struggling in Boston, going 6-4 with a 3.96 ERA in 11 starts. Pitching coach Dave Duncan cured Piniero of tipping his pitches and stressed to Piniero to use his fastball and challenge the hitters. Piniero did give up 11 homers but only issued 12 walks during his starting assignments. However, the former Mariner is not expected to be in the rotation at the start of the season due to inflammation in his right shoulder.
The rest of the rotation gets really shaky from here on in as Todd Wellemeyer, Brad Thompson and Anthony Reyes are batting for the final two spots in the rotation. Wellemeyer started last year with Kansas City and his ERA was over 10 in a dozen appearances and that earned him his release. However, Wellemeyer chopped down his ERA to 3.11 while splitting time in the rotation and the bullpen over 20 appearances. Thompson somehow went 8-6 despite giving up 157 hits over 129 innings and a less than stellar 59-40 K/BB ratio. He lives and dies with his sinker but needs to improve his breaking pitches.
Anthony Reyes won just 2 of 16 decisions with an ERA north of 6. Reyes is working on his velocity and command of his fastball. However, pitching coach Dave Duncan is concerned about Reyes' inability to finish off hitters this spring. Over a recent start against Baltimore, Duncan said, "He had a lot of counts where he controlled the count and then ends up fouled off, fouled off, fouled off, fouled off, and then makes a mistake and gets hit........he really didn't have a pitch that he could throw in the strike zone to finish the hitter. He had to basically get the hitter to swing at a changeup that was leaving the strike zone, a breaking ball that was leaving the strike zone or a fastball above the strike zone." Do you think the Detroit Tigers are wishing they saw this version of Reyes in the World Series instead?
The Cards are hoping the rotation can hold the fort until Mulder and Carpenter return. Mulder is expected back sometime in May after shoulder surgery while Carpenter is expected to be back in July. Matt Clement has been throwing bullpen sessions to build strength in his shoulder but his return to a major league mound is up in the air. He's been out since 2006.
Bullpen - The big news surrounding the pen concerns lefty set-up man Tyler Johnson, who has also been bitten by the injury bug. After making 55 appearances out of the pen last year, he will not be available for Opening Day after suffering tendonitis and a rotator cuff strain. That development helps non-roster invite and fellow southpaw Ron Villone in his bid to make the club. The former Yankee has held left-handed hitters to a .210 batting average over the last 3 years. Like Joel Piniero, former Mariner Ryan Franklin found new life in St. Looie as he emerged as a set-up man to Jason Isringhausen. He walked just 11 batters in 80 innings, posting an ERA just above 3.
When he's not busy trying to bean Barry Bonds, Russ Springer enjoyed a strong campaign in middle relief, winning 8 of 9 decisions with an ERA of 2.18. He also averaged a K an inning over 66 frames while walking just 19 batters. Jason Isringhausen bounced back from a injury plagued campaign in '06 by saving 32 games in 34 chances and posting a 4-0 record. However, even Izzy is hurting again this spring with a sore back but it's apparently nothing too serious, so they say. Rookie Chris Perez, who saved 35 games between AA and AAA last season while whiffing over 12 batters per 9 innings , waits in the wings. Righty Josh Kinney, who missed the entire '07 campaign after blowing out his elbow, is expected to return sometime this season.
Randy Flores and his brother Ron hope to be teammates at some point this season. The two lefties were joined at the hip after Ron was in Oakland last season. However, Ron has been re-assigned to the Cards minor league camp.
A darkhorse candidate for a spot in the bullpen could be local boy Kyle McCllelan, who had made an early impression on the Cards brass this spring. He throws a sinker in the 90's as well as a cut fastball, curveball and change. He pitched less than 60 innings between A and AA last season as he had Tommy John surgery three seasons ago. Former Jay Cliff Politte is also in camp.
Also with the pitchers......
Tony La Russa intends to continue batting the pitcher eighth this season. The Cards scored over 4.6 runs a game last season, up from 4.3 runs when the Cards batted the pitcher 9th during the 106 games of the campaign. Cardinals pitchers hit .191 with a .217 on-base percentage and a .242 slugging percentage during the time they were ninth in the lineup. After La Russa changed tactics, pitchers put up a line of .210/.248/.240. No. 8 hitters before the switch hit .263/.316/.338, while after the switch, No. 9 hitters hit .265/.321/.388. With a non-pitcher batting 9th, La Russa feels the move provides Albert Pujols with RBI opportunities without having to move him out of the three-spot in the order.
La Russa also says he may skip using a 5th starter in the rotation, instead of giving his other starters an extra day of rest. He says, "I think one of our key focuses is to compete the best we can, find a way to contend until we get our starters back...if that means early on you've got four good starters and they pitch every fifth day, and the fifth guy moves in and out, [that's OK]."
I'm pretty sure the Cardinals will finish ahead of the Pirates and maybe the Astros. The pitching is an absolute mess and if Pujols mails in the season, they might be hard pressed to hold off the Bucs for the NL Central Basement. 72-90, 4th place finish.