Five questions: St. Louis Cardinals

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.

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Five Questions: St. Louis Cardinals

Through the first two months of 2006, the Cardinals looked like the same old juggernaut. They reached May 31 with the NL’s best record (34-19, a .642 winning pct) and, already, a five-game lead over the division. Albert Pujols was on pace for 80 homers and 200 RBIs; the Cardinals pitching staff had allowed the fewest runs in the league and the second-fewest in baseball, trailing only Detroit. Ho, hum; a third straight cruise-control summer for St. Louis. Wake me in October.

But over the next three weeks Pujols went to the DL with a strained oblique; Mark Mulder’s long-suffering shoulder finally gave way, effectively ending his season; and Jim Edmonds and David Eckstein both suffered concussions that would plague them for the rest of the year.

Jason Isringhausen’s bad hip started to bark more insistently that month; the St. Louis closer blew 5 saves in June. The Cardinals went 49-59 (.454) after May 31 and hobbled into the playoffs with no momentum and no chance.

They showed up and played the games anyway; damned if they didn’t win it all. While most baseball fans (including many St. Louisans) dismiss the Cards’ championship run as just one of those things—any team can get hot at the right time—Walt Jocketty and Tony La Russa believe the Cardinals won because the “real” team, incapacitated all summer, finally got back onto the field in October. Edmonds and Eckstein were in the lineup for every game, after having started just four (Edmonds) or five (Eckstein) times in the last six weeks of the season. The Cards also practiced some addition by subtraction, dumping Jason Marquis and his 6.02 ERA from the postseason rotation.

The conviction that October represented the Cardinals’ true level of ability explains, in large part, Jocketty’s decision to bring back almost every player from a roster that produced the franchise’s worst won-loss record of this century. With better health and a freshened-up rotation, this theory goes, the Cardinals ought to be able to compete with anybody … at least, with anybody in the NL Central.

It’s a theory. Let’s consider it.

1. Izzy or isn’t he?

Isringhausen had hip surgery last September and should be available Opening Day. ’Course, he was available last year too; that was the whole problem. When entering the game with a one-run lead last season, Izzy was just as likely to lose the lead as protect it (seven times each). In all he blew 10 saves, costing the Cardinals four games in the standings.

Isringhausen struck batters out at his usual clip last year and held them in check as per usual on balls in play. But he gave up walks (six per nine innings) and homers (one per 25 plate appearances) at more than twice his career rates. Both of those figures reflect the ruined command that his faulty hip caused; he either missed wide (walks) or right over the plate (homers).

In all but three of Isringhausen’s blown saves last year, he lost the lead on a home run, so if he can just keep the ball in the park in 2007 the Cards can expect to improve by two or three wins. So far, so good this spring: He has faced 27 hitters without allowing so much as an extra-base hit. His batted-ball breakdown: 15 groundballs, three fly balls, two line drives and two infield flies.

Which is not to say that Isringhausen is unequivocally cured. He didn’t appear in a game until March 15 and has yet to face hitters on back-to-back days. In three of his six one-inning stints so far this spring, he has yielded at least three baserunners. Consider his spring debut: The first hitter he faced in more than six months hit a comebacker—Izzy booted it. The next guy rolled a seeing-eye single through the infield, and the third reached on an infield hit—sacks jammed, nobody out.

Sigh; same old Izzy. But he got one out on a popup and struck out Andre Ethier for out number two; then Matt Kemp scorched one to left field, but right at Preston Wilson—no runs across.

Don’t know how healthy he’ll be, but in any case Isringhausen will probably keep the 9th inning as interesting as ever. Just keep the ball in the park, big guy, and all will be forgiven.

2. Can Edmonds stay on the field?

The Cardinals’ other drama junkie, Jim Edmonds, also is coming off postseason surgery—two of ’em, actually, on his shoulder and his toe. But it’s the head injury that’s got me most worried. He sustained the concussion on June 21 against the White Sox, and although he got hot for 10 days in July, the aftereffects kicked in late in the month.

By late September he was seeing double and forbidden from flying. Edmonds’ former teammate, Mike Matheny, had to retire because of an injury like this one—and for a while late last year, it looked as if Edmonds’ condition might be just as serious. At the very least, he was thought to be finished in St. Louis. But his leadership and solid play in October persuaded the Cardinals to bring him back.

There’s a chance his career has taken an irreversible dip—much like the one suffered by Edmonds’ center field contemporary, Bernie Williams. In his age 34 year, after seven consecutive seasons of .900 or better OPS, Williams dropped to .778—and hasn’t made it north of .800 in the three years since. Edmonds labored to an .821 OPS last year, after six consecutive years in .900+ territory; sorta looks like a parallel track. He’ll turn 37 at midseason; at that age, even if healthy, it doesn’t seem likely that he can get himself back to the .900s.

But that’s not really necessary; the Cardinals will gladly take an .821 OPS out of Edmonds this year. What they need is more playing time: He only started 96 games last season—and four of those came at first base during Pujols’ disablement. St. Louis center fielders not named Edmonds started 70 games in 2006 and put up a .252/.321 /.345 line; oy.

Simply by keeping his punchless replacements off the field for another 25 games this year, Edmonds can justify his re-signing—no matter what he produces. Wilson will be on hand this year to bolster the backup corps (which, again, will be led by So Taguchi and/or Skip Schumaker), but Wilson will also be pulling extra duty in right field to spell the ailing Juan Encarnacion (wrist). So if Edmonds can’t go, one of the weaklings will probably be out there.

Edmonds didn’t appear in a spring-training game until March 25; so far he’s 0-for-7 with a walk. He’s cleared to play Opening Day, and the fate of the St. Louis offense may well rest in his hands. Which leads us to question 3…

3. Will they score enough runs?

The Cardinals attack has grown steadily feebler over the last three years. In chart form:

year runs
(nl rank)
obp
(nl rank)
slg
(nl rank)
2003 876 (2nd) .350 (1st) .454 (2nd)
2004 855 (1st) .344 (4th) .460 (1st)
2005 805 (3rd) .339 (2nd) .423 (4th)
2006 781 (6th) .337 (5th) .431 (8th)

With everybody a year older and no impact acquisitions to goose the attack, how do the Cardinals expect to halt the slide? Edmonds is part of the answer: more playing time from him equals more offense. The Cardinals also will have Chris Duncan in left for an entire year, and that should be worth some runs.

Last year, Cardinals left fielders other than Duncan started 120 games and posted a .258/.326 /.375 line in 516 plate appearances, with seven homers and 36 RBIs. While Duncan is very unlikely to repeat his .952 OPS of a year ago, he’s perfectly capable of something in the .800/.850 range. Like Edmonds, he helps the offense merely by showing up—and keeping the .680 types out of the starting lineup.

The Cardinals also reasonably can expect better production out of their second basemen and catchers, at which positions the team ranked 15th and 16th (respectively) in OPS among National League clubs in 2006. Adam Kennedy, the Cards’ lone addition to the everyday lineup, is expected to add a bit of punch at second.

And the catching … well, it can only get better, even though St. Louis returns the same two guys (Yadier Molina and Gary Bennett), who combined for a .605 OPS last year. Molina will be 24 years old, so we’d expect some improvement. He also hit in some tough luck last year (.227 batting average on balls in play), and he showed in the postseason (when he hit .358/.424 /.547 in 59 plate appearances) that he does not entirely lack for hitting ability. Yadi seems to possess a sufficient skill base to generate an improvement: to, say, .245 / .300 / .370, which is meaningful enough to add runs to the scoreboard

Then there’s David Eckstein, who at the time of his concussion last year (June 15) was sailing along with a .761 OPS, a strong followup to his career year in 2005 (.758 OPS). In the two months immediately following the injury (228 plate appearances), he slugged.267 with just four extra-base hits and four RBIs. The Cardinals are writing that off, counting on Eckstein to revert to the form he displayed in his first year and a half as a National Leaguer. But he’s 32 years old this year and missed two weeks this spring with a sore oblique (the same injury that kept him out of action last August and September). So far this spring he has three extra-base hits (doubles) in 37 at-bats.

To sum it up, the Cardinals are counting on better health and better balance—he formula that redeemed them last October—to keep their offense afloat. It could happen, but a lot of things have to break the Cards’ way. What if Edmonds can’t play? What if Eckstein and Kennedy both go .280/.340 /.370 and Molina languishes in the .650 OPS range? What if Aaron Miles and So Taguchi combine for 800 plate appearances again?

That’s a lot of dead weight for any offense to carry, even one anchored by the best hitter in the game. The Cardinals will carry 13 position players this year, and only five of them, Edmonds, Pujols, Rolen, Duncan, and Wilson, have ever had even one season of .800 OPS or better. Wilson last did it in 2003, playing in Coors Field (pre-humidor); Duncan, of course, did it last year in a partial year (314 plate appearances).

If Edmonds, Pujols, and Rolen all stay healthy this year, there’ll probably be enough runs to make it work. But if one of them misses significant time, the whole thing could collapse. That’s the Cardinals’ biggest worry heading into 2007.

4. Braden Looper ????

Whatever; we Cardinal fans are used to it. La Russa and Dave Duncan have been together almost 25 years, and, like any couple that’s been married that long, they gotta resort to some kinky stuff sometimes to keep up their interest.

When this wacky idea first hit the papers, I trolled up a list of other life-long relievers who took up starting pitching; found a few qualified successes, including Omar Daal and Charlie Hough. (Danny Graves, an unqualified failure, escaped mention in that post; my oversight.) Another somewhat analogous case is that of Julian Tavarez, considered last autumn right here at the Hardball Times.

It’s an amusing storyline, but Looper’s move to the rotation has been overblown. He’ll probably be about as good as the more conventionally groomed alternatives (Chris Narveson, Ryan Franklin, Randy Keisler, and Josh Hancock all were considered for the job). If, after 10 starts, Looper washes out or hurts himself, the Cardinals can turn to one of the others; and no matter who holds down that rotation slot, it’s supposed to be taken over by Mark Mulder sometime in late summer, if his rehab goes well.

More to the point: it doesn’t really matter if Looper or Narveson or Mulder or Bob Forsch is starting out of the five slot, because any of those guys would represent an improvement over last season. Chris Carpenter and Jeff Suppan were the only Cardinal starters with ERAs under 5.00 last year; in the 97 starts not made by those two players, the rotation’s combined ERA was 5.74. Over 97 games. If this year’s starters can shave that 97-game ERA down to 5.00—not exactly a pie-in-the-sky wish—the Cardinals will save 40 runs.

Four more wins in the standings. That’s quite a bit of low-hanging fruit to be plucked. Combine it with the equally easy-to-harvest wins that a healthy Isringhausen might deliver, and the Cardinals can realistically set 90 wins as a target for 2007. In the last five years, only one NL Central team other than the Cardinals has won at least 90 games: the 2004 Houston Astros.

So here’s the formula: Convert the saves. Keep the .660 OPS outfielders on the bench. And get production just a shade above replacement level out of the three through five slots in the rotation. Call it the “Just Show Up” formula; what the heck, it worked last October. Oh, and one last question:

5. Will Walt Jocketty ever make a meaningful trade again?

It has been 27 months since he went all-in on Mark Mulder and lost; that trade marks a stark dividing point in Jocketty’s wheeler-dealership. Over the preceding six years, Walter had swung a series of thunderously advantageous trades, acquiring two Gold Glove middle infielders (Edgar Renteria and Fernando Vina), two MVP candidates (Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds), and a borderline Hall of Famer (Larry Walker), plus All-Star pitchers Darryl Kile and Woody Williams—at virtually no cost to the Cardinals organization. And whenever injury (or, in one case, tragedy) struck, Jock would go out and get Will Clark or Chuck Finley or Mike Timlin to plug the hole.

But since the Mulder trade in December 2004, Jocketty has only made four deals, all of them involving DFAs (Jeff Weaver, Jorge Sosa) and/or spare parts (Aaron Miles, Larry Bigbie). His biggest acquisition was Ronnie Belliard. Granted, the Weaver deal ended up having major implications for the Cardinals in October, but Weaver was no Kile or Woody Williams, World Series exploits or no.

I’ve never faulted Jocketty for the Mulder trade; thought it was justifiable at the time (although other, more astute Cardinals fans predicted that we’d all come to rue the day). It has been suggested that Walter’s fleecing at the hands of Moneyball maven Billy Beane has left him gun-shy; I don’t buy that. I think, rather, that the Mulder trade illustrates how the trade market has changed.

Gone are the days when Jocketty could exploit inefficiencies in the market and take advantage of other teams’ errant player valuations. Everybody’s valuing guys by similar methods today; you have to pay full price (and maybe then some) to land an impact player. Kent Bottenfield might’ve fetched Jim Edmonds back in 2000, but not anymore. Jock tried paying retail one time and got burned; he won’t be making that mistake again. That, in my opinion, explains the sudden closing of the trade-talent pipeline.

But Walter enters 2007 with at least $10 million in payroll clearance and, for the first time since the Mulder trade, a bit of organizational depth to work with. If an impact player should flutter free of the brush at midseason, Jock will have his cleanest shot in years. The Cardinals consciously saved a few rounds for such a possibility, rather than fire them all off at a so-so off-season target such as Jeff Weaver. That’s the insurance policy in case the “Just Show Up” plan doesn’t work.

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