Five Questions: St. Louis Cardinals

So, five questions … only five? That’s not even enough to cover the Cardinals’ pitching rotation, much less the whole team.

Just one season removed from a World Championship and a string of three consecutive NLCS appearances, the Cardinals enter 2008 simply hoping to keep their fans interested beyond Memorial Day. Last year, through sheer force of habit (and the sheer incompetence of their NL Central rivals), the Cardinals managed to stay in the race most of the summer; they were a game out of first place as late as Sept. 7.

But don’t be fooled: The Cardinals were worse in 2007 than they’ve been in a long, long time. Their run differential of minus 104 was the organization’s worst since 1916—Rogers Hornsby’s rookie season. Their runs allowed total (829) was the third-highest in franchise history.

And they didn’t do a heck of a lot to get better during the winter. Nearly all the starting pitchers who contributed to the rotation’s aggregate 5.04 ERA last year are back; the lone addition (Matt Clement) hasn’t pitched since 2006 and will open the season on the DL. The everyday lineup gained a 30-homer bat (Troy Glaus) but lost its leadoff hitter (David Eckstein) and its best defender (Scott Rolen).

Chris Carpenter, whose Opening Day injury in 2007 essentially ended the Cardinals’ season, is expected back from Tommy John surgery at some point this year, though with unknown levels of durability and effectiveness. Mark Mulder— whose last good year was 2005—is also due to go back to work. Such are the Cardinals’ likeliest sources of improvement.

In the last half-century, this franchise has recorded back-to-back losing seasons only once, in 1994-95—the last year of Dal Maxvill’s reign as general manager, and the first year of Walt Jocketty’s. They’ll be hard pressed to avoid a repeat in 2007-08—the last year of Jocketty’s tenure, and the first of John Mozeliak’s. Nearly halfway through the exhibition schedule, the Cardinals still aren’t sure who will bat leadoff, who will play second and short, who will play center, who will keep the back of the rotation warm until Clement, Mulder and/or Carpenter return (if they ever do).

Questions, questions, questions. I might as well pick five out of a hat. But I won’t be that random. Here are the five questions that are most on my mind heading into the year.

1. What’s left of Chris Carpenter?

Any hope the Cardinals have of contending this year is predicated on an early, effective return by their ex-Cy Young winner. He won’t be ready until July at the earliest; if he hits that hopeful target and (even more hopeful) is effective from that get-go, St. Louis with Carp and Adam Wainwright atop the rotation would be well-armed for the last half of the schedule. It’s a very remote chance, but some of the Cards’ moves this winter were designed to keep the rest of the club competitive, just in case.

Under a more prudent (and plausible) scenario, Carpenter won’t be ready to return to the big leagues until September or so, by which time the Cards likely will be far out of the race. But even if that’s how it comes down, Carpenter’s comeback starts will have enormous implications because the pitcher is guaranteed $44 million from 2009-11.

It’d be nice if he ultimately joins the list of TJ repairees who achieved or returned to dominance post-surgery (John Smoltz, Erik Bedard and Matt Morris are three fairly recent examples), but the Cardinals will have to count themselves fortunate if Carpenter can simply carry a normal workload. For the money they’re paying him, they need to get innings if nothing else. Whether or not he’s able to help them contend this year, Carpenter’s status is the single most portentous question the Cardinals face in 2008. Their chances of winning at any point between now and 2011 will take a major hit if this rehab fails.

Carp is one of three pitchers St. Louis is hoping to get a comeback from in 2008, but the other two (Clement and Mulder) are returning from worse injuries; neither will be ready until May (or later), and neither is particularly likely to perform much better in 2008 than the other available options. Fortunately, they’re both expendable commodities; the Cards hold 2009 options on Clement and Mulder in case they pitch well, but if they don’t they’re off the books.

2. How long before Pujols’ UCL snaps?

Albert Pujols’ right elbow has been slowly disintegrating since 2003. Not the whole thing—just the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL), the same cord of tissue that broke down in Carpenter’s elbow and forced him to the surgeon’s table. Pujols needs the same operation—Tommy John surgery—and it’s a matter of when, not if. The fraying twine may account, in part or in whole, for Albert’s weak (by his standards) .568 slugging percentage in 2007, the second-lowest figure of his career; he set career lows last year in homers, runs and RBIs.

The extra month off (i.e., October) at the end of last season might help his UCL stay in one piece for another whole year. If it should ever pop, the Cardinals might be headed for a last-place finish. There’s also a chance the cause and effect will go the other way—if the Cards find themselves at or near the bottom of the standings come midseason, Pujols and the team may decide to do the surgery so he can rehab in time to start the 2009 season healthy.

3. Can Rick Ankiel find happiness as an outfielder?

I love the way the Cardinals move their guys around. Braden Looper the reliever becomes Looper the starting pitcher; Rick Ankiel the starting pitcher becomes Ankiel the outfielder. They have a relief pitcher in Double-A named Jason Motte—throws it in the high 90s, struck out more than 10 guys per nine last year with a 1.98 ERA; until about 18 months ago he was a catcher. It’s kinda like intramurals in this organization—grab a glove, run out on the diamond somewhere, and play ball.

Ankiel’s apprenticeship as a hitter was spectacularly short—321 at-bats at Single-A and Double-A in 2005 and 389 at-bats at Triple-A last year (he missed all of 2006 with a knee injury). In his first 23 big-league games (81 at-bats) he put up a .358/.409 /.765 line and propelled the Cards into second place, just a game behind the Cubs. It was the feel-good story of the year, the antidote to the nasty business of Bonds and home run number 756.

Then, on Sept, 7, word broke of Ankiel’s 2004 HGH use. Oops; he hit .220/.250 /.330 the rest of the way (91 at-bats). At no point did Slick Rick show particularly good patience at the plate; he did nearly all his damage on the first pitch (.500 BA, 1.088 SLG), presumably on fastballs, but hit just .232 and slugged .399 on all other counts combined.

The Cardinals are counting on 500 at-bats and 25 to 30 homers from Ankiel. He might reach both benchmarks, but will it be worth all the outs he will make in the process? Ankiel’s OBP was only .314 at Triple-A last year, and only .328 in St. Louis despite the fast start; maybe he’s the new Dave Kingman. Then again, maybe he’s too immature as a hitter to catalog him with any precision; Ankiel’s still developing, still learning to recognize pitches and train his reflexes. He’s got enough pure power that an OBP of .320 would probably suffice. You can’t help but root for the guy.

4. When does the future arrive?

Here’s an optimistic scenario under which the Cardinals might compete for a postseason berth: Colby Rasmus becomes this year’s Hunter Pence. Rasmus’s 2007 line in the Double-A Texas League (.275/.381/.551) is a pretty good match for Pence’s in 2006 in the same league (.283/.357 /.533), and his sojourn at Triple-A is certain to be short (Pence’s lasted just 95 at-bats last year). The kid is already enough of a force to shove aside franchise icon Jim Edmonds: The Cards told Edmonds he would lose playing time when Rasmus was deemed ready, whereupon Edmonds asked for a trade.

St. Louis center fielders posted a .747 OPS last year and played bad defense, so if Rasmus debuts with impact (an .850 OPS, say), he could improve them by 30 or 40 runs at that position alone. The caveats are that Colby (a) reportedly still has some work to do on his game—he’s currently a dead-pull hitter who can be exploited on the outer half of the plate—and (b) has a history of starting slowly at each new level of professional ball. So whenever he gets to St. Louis (as of this writing he still has an outside shot to win the everyday CF job out of spring training), Rasmus might need an adjustment period before his abilities begin to assert themselves.

Beyond Rasmus, St. Louis’ farm system isn’t ready to produce any stars, but there’s a realistic chance that at least one homegrown pitcher will contribute this year.

Reliever Chris Perez draws the most attention—he held Triple-A hitters to a .150 average last year and Double-A hitters to a .126 average while striking out about 13 men per nine innings across both levels—but his walk rate (nearly seven per nine innings) raises a banner-sized red flag.

Another reliever, Kyle McLellan, has caught Dave Duncan’s eye this spring and will be converted back into a starting pitcher (his old role) and fast-tracked to Triple-A; he’ll be joined there by steady-Eddie Mitchell Boggs, who impressed scouts in the Arizona Fall League and has a skill kit (good command, a sinking fastball, four pitches) that may translate readily to the big leagues.

The organization’s best mound prospect, Jaime Garcia, has fared very well so far this spring in his first trial against big-league hitters, but he’ll be brought along with caution. He’s only 21, he missed his last 10 starts in 2007 with a tender elbow, and he has thrown only 240 innings as a professional.

And there’s always Anthony Reyes, the incredible shrinking prospect. He arrived in 2006 with front-of-rotation billing and showed many flashes of his potential that year, most notably his one-hitter against the defending champion White Sox and his strong eight-inning performance in Game 1 of the World Series. As a sophomore in 2007, he lowered his home run rate and maintained his good K/9 and H/9 rates, but he crumbled with men on base and got no run support, resulting in a disastrous 2-14 record and 6.04 ERA. Only a handful of pitchers have ever posted a won-loss record that bad and recovered to have useful careers, the best example being Jose DeLeon.

Against all odds, Reyes remains on the St. Louis roster and, thanks to the injuries throughout the pitching staff, probably will start the season in the rotation. Some of us Cardinal fans are foolish enough to think he still might turn it around, much as Scott Baker did for Minnesota last year after a rocky first 30 starts or so. The Cards are desperate for cost-controlled pitching, and Reyes still might establish himself as a reliable No. 3 or No. 4. That, too, is a question worth keeping an eye on this year.

5. Are the Cardinals rebuilding?

Well, yes, obviously. They’re rebuilding, as they should be after successive seasons of 83 and 78 wins. Mozeliak made a series of appropriate moves in his first offseason, dumping old guys with high salaries (Edmonds, Rolen and Eckstein) and increasing the organization’s overall youth and payroll flexibility.

But the Cardinals still haven’t quite kicked the old win-now habit. They can’t even bring themselves to use the term “rebuilding”; you occasionally hear the term “transition year” (singular) bandied about, but the front office is under explicit orders from ownership to have it both ways—broaden the talent base for the future while contending in the present. That explains the decision to rehire Tony La Russa, probably not the manager you would choose if your organization was committed whole-hog to long-term development.

TLR’s the type of skipper who’ll pull out all the stops to get from 75 wins to 79 wins, even if it hurts the team’s chances of getting to 85 or 90 wins two years from now. The Cards would be better served by a manager who (for example) would reassign Aaron Miles’ 400 at-bats to Brendan Ryan and find out whether the kid can stick; or who’d take innings away from a dead-end reclamation like Mulder and give them to young pitchers who might have a future if afforded the chance to figure things out. La Russa has never been that type of manager.

The Cards’ ambivalence about rebuilding is best illustrated by two of the candidates for an outfield bench spot, 25-year-old Brian Barton, a talented but raw Rule V draftee who’s never played above Double-A, and 38-year-old Juan Gonzalez, a washed-up ex-MVP who hasn’t hit a big-league homer in four years.

Those two, right there, capture the Cardinals’ position—caught between the future’s uncertainties and the past’s irretrievable glories. The Cards haven’t quite let go of the latter; they still cling to the idea that they’re a team to be reckoned with. But 2008 may be the year that disabuses them of that notion.

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