How will the Cardinals fill their Pujols-sized chasm?
How do you replace a player whose career-worst triple-slash marks last season were a robust .299/.366/.541? A player who has failed to top 100 RBI and 100 runs scored only once apiece in his career (and he had 99 of each in his “failing” seasons)? A player with a lifetime OPS+ of 170 who has nine All-Star appearances, six Silver Slugger awards and two Gold Gloves and has finished in the top 10 of MVP voting each of his 11 seasons?
The answer is easy—you don’t. Albert Pujols is a once-in-a-generation (or rarer) talent, but that 32-year-old beast has taken his skills to Anaheim, so the Cardinals have filled the void as well as possible.
Lance Berkman slides into the first-base vacancy, and while he was stellar in 2011, his age suggests a return to very-good-but-not-great level is likely. Our soothsaying projection system, Oliver (available here), anticipates a .271/.379/.469 line over 554 plate appearances. That’s playable.
Carlos Beltran, inked to a two-year pact, will take over Berkman’s right field duties. He’s another player who exceeded forecasts last season, and Oliver tempers our expectations with a .290/.373/.479 forecast over, coincidentally, an identical 554 trips to the plate. Again, that’s a more-than-acceptable performance.
(If you’re curious, Pujols’ forecast is .310/.397/.591 over 623 plate appearances.)
Allen Craig is hoping to be back by Opening Day, though May 1 appears to be more likely. His right-handed bat can spell Berkman at first or bump Jon Jay to the bench (and probably Beltran to center) when the Cards oppose a lefty starter.
Matt Holliday, David Freese and Rafael Furcal are expected to play more games than they did last year, which would be another boost to St. Louis’ run-scoring efforts. After all, it’s unlikely Holliday will have to deal with another appendectomy this season. Yadier Molina may have been a bit over his head offensively last season, but he’s a terrific all-around catcher.
All these factors point to one crucial element in a possible postseason repeat for the Cardinals, and that is health. Sure, every team is concerned about its players avoiding injury, but the fragility of the lineup GM John Mozeliak has assembled means it’s all the more important to keep the ideal starting starting eight on the field as much is possible.
After all, there’s a cavernous gap that needs filling, and every player’s contributions will be required to plug that hole.
Will Adam Wainwright return to form?
It was a year ago the Cardinals learned Wainwright would be lost for the entire 2011 season because he needed Tommy John surgery. It turned out that his rehabilitation was going so well, Waino pushed to be activated at some point during the postseason. The Cards brass made the right move by declining his offer, putting his bountiful future before the immediacy of the team’s playoff needs.
But now, after a full year of recovery, St. Louis is anticipating big things from their one-time co-ace. His innings will be limited, and TJ survivors often have some difficulty harnessing their control in their initial return to action, but Wainwright’s rate stats are expected to be stellar once again.
We here at THT foresee a 3.25 ERA and 1.16 WHIP over 180 innings. Those are notable ERA and WHIP jumps from 2009’s 2.42/1.05, along with a drop of about 50 innings, but that performance still equates to a healthy 4.3 WAR.
Full recovery from UCL replacement isn’t guaranteed, but the success rate has gotten so high that most people assume a pitcher will be back to his usual self soon after he gets back on the mound. If that is the case here, the Cardinals will have a formidable front three of Wainwright, Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia.
If the Redbirds get something close to last season’s results from Kyle Lohse—and anything remotely acceptable from Jake Westbrook (or whoever else might join the rotation)—they’ll be in the National League Central hunt once again.
What kind of manager will Mike Matheny be?
Mike Matheny has managed exactly as many major league baseball games as you and I have. Ditto with minor league games. And the same applies to his time as a professional coach. Obviously, he’s a little wet behind the ears when it comes to managing. But does that mean he won’t be a good manager? Ya got me.
Every manager in history has started his career with zero games managed. Granted, that start usually takes place in the minor leagues, or else he spent some time auditioning on the major league coaching staff before assuming the lead role. This year, Matheny and new White Sox skipper Robin Ventura are doing things differently, taking center stage with no rehearsals.
Will it work? Again, ya got me. My apologies if that’s not the insight you were looking for, but no one else can give you better insight.
What we know about Matheny is that he spent 13 years in the majors, five of them with the Cardinals. As a catcher, he benefits from the accepted (though not verified) notion that backstops are heady players and good communicators. He’s young enough (41) that he may even get into the crouch now and then to show the younger catchers how it’s done.
What we don’t know about Matheny is just about everything else. Is he a shrewd tactician? Is he a strong leader of men? Is he fiery or laid back? Does he work the press well? Does he have the support of the carry-over coaches on his staff? (Is Jose Oquendo planning Matheny’s demise so he can usurp his authority?) Is he familiar with sabermetric principles and accepting of new knowledge, or does he defer to conventional wisdom and personal experience?
Matheny has the unenviable task of taking over for Tony La Russa, one of the longest-serving and most successful managers in history. He also is inheriting a defending World Series champion. No pressure there, Mike. The comparisons to his predecessor will be made daily, and expectations will be high, as they always are with the National League’s most successful franchise.
Matheny may be a mystery to everyone at this point, but it won’t be long before we learn a great deal about what kind of man he will be in the dugout.
Who plays second base?
The Cardinals’ new MLB.com beat writer, Jenifer Langosch, was asked in a chat last month who has the leg up to land the starting second base job. Her response was that both Mozeliak and Matheny have been hyping Tyler Greene for the role. That’s not set in stone, though, with incumbent Skip Schumaker and 2011 rookie Daniel Descalso also vying for the spot.
Descalso is probably the long shot, given that he wasn’t overly impressive last season with a .264/.334/.353 triple-slash mark that produced an OPS+ of 93. He also will be called upon to fill in during the late innings for Freese, unless Matheny gives Freese a longer leash defensively than La Russa did. With the ability to play shortstop also, Descalso’s versatility could be a hindrance to his landing regular work at a single position.
Schumaker has never been exactly electric at the plate, either, though his career .290/.346/.378 line (95 OPS+) is a touch better than Descalso’s, and Schumaker’s track record is longer and contains a couple of .300-plus batting-average seasons that often can serve as sparkly things to those enchanted by such numbers. However, an oblique injury suffered Friday will sideline Schumaker a while, with an MRI scheduled for Monday.
In his case, the versatility that has allowed Schumaker to roam the outfield in addition to the keystone (indeed, he came up as an outfielder) has not prevented him from earning the starting nod at second the last three years.
In just over 350 plate appearances spanning 2009 through 2011, Greene has failed to demonstrate any ability to hit major league pitching. His cumulative .218/.307/.313 mark (70 OPS+) reveals a player who can take a walk but do little when actually swinging the bat.
Matheny has stated that he wants the Cards to steal more bases, though, and Greene led the squad last season with a whopping 11 steals, and he’s never been caught on the basepaths in his major league career (16-for-16). He also has the reputed edge in fielding, though it’s difficult to imagine the gains he may provide with the leather would offset his weak stick, but perhaps an extended look would allow Greene to settle in and provide adequate offense.
Long-term, the Cardinals hope 2011 first-round pick Kolten Wong will take the reins at second for a solid decade. For the immediate future, Greene looks to be the choice, though Schumaker is likely to challenge for the starting role once he is healthy again.
What reinforcements can the minors produce?
St. Louis’ minor league system has not been highly regarded over the last decade-plus. However, that system has consistently provided solid performers to the big-league squad. Last season’s starting eight position players included one-time Cardinals minor leaguers Molina, Pujols, Schumaker, Freese (acquired as a minor leaguer from the Padres) and Colby Rasmus.
When Rasmus was dealt to Toronto, Jay assumed the starting center field role. And when players went down to injury or needed a break, Craig, Descalso and Tony Cruz—among others—stepped in to take their places.
On the bump, Garcia was the top homegrown hurler last season, though Jason Motte, Kyle McClellan, Lance Lynn and others provided mound support. And Wainwright, while a one-time Braves farmhand, came up to the bigs as part of the Cardinals system.
So what can the minors contribute to the 2012 squad?
Well, Shelby Miller is one of the highest-rated pitching prospects in the game, and only a few additional months of grooming and an opening stand between him and a rotation spot.
Matt Adams is a classic first base thumper who could give the team an offensive boost if Berkman misses time and Craig isn’t healed. He’s a massive human being, though, so there will be a defensive hit if and when he makes an appearance.
Adron Chambers can provide some speed and defense in the outfield, and other miscellaneous relievers and career bench players will provide depth.
Realistically, aside from Miller, the minors are unlikely to spring forth a notable crop of up-and-comers in 2012. The Cardinals are primarily a “what-you-see-is-what-you-get” team. If anything major goes amiss, significant assistance would have to come from outside the organization.