State of the Franchise: St. Louis Cardinals
February 23, 2011 Leave a comment
This upcoming season for the Cardinals could play out to be a turning point for the franchise, for better or for worse. This entire week, we’ve been talking about the focus and pressure surrounding the Albert Pujols contract situation, and rightfully so. But today, as we have reported earlier this morning, concern now exists with pitcher Adam Wainwright’s right elbow. Last season, Wainwright posted a 20-11 record with a 2.42 earned run average and 213 strikeouts, placing him second behind the Philadelphia Phillies’ Roy Halladay in the Cy Young balloting.
The injury becomes more significant considering the moves other teams in their own division have made to improve their rotations. The Milwaukee Brewers added former Cy Young award winner Zack Greinke along with Shaun Marcum to their rotation topped by home grown ace Yovani Gallardo. The Cincinnati Reds are expected to give phenom flamethrower Aroldis Chapman a chance to start alongside Bronson Arroyo, Johnny Cueto and a healthy Edinson Volquez. The Chicago Cubs traded for Rays young ace Matt Garza in the off-season as well, slotting him between Ryan Dempster and a potentially less insane Carlos Zambrano.
So, there’s pitching in the National League Central. Lots of pitching. And now, it is a possibility the Cardinals are down an ace of their own for the entirety of the regular season. Wainwright was considered their starting pitcher that lacked major health concerns. Normally, Cards fans are worried about the condition of the other ace, Chris Carpenter. Last season was the first in four years that Carpenter had started more than 30 games for St. Louis, posting strong marks across the board (35 starts, 16-9, 3.22, 179 Ks). In fact, Carpenter had such a strong year that he probably took away Cy Young votes from Wainwright that prevented Wainwright from winning the award. A healthy Carpenter will soften the blow of losing Wainwright somewhat, but it is difficult for Cards fans to fully trust a pitcher that has had significant arm woes of his own throughout his career.
Carpenter isn’t the only Cardinal pitcher with added pressure on him now, though. Fans are going to have to rely on a strong sophomore year campaign from lefty Jaime Garcia, who finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting behind the Giants Buster Posey and the Braves Jason Heyward (13-8, 2.70, 132 Ks). Garcia was an unexpected surprise last season after winning the fifth starter competition in Spring Training. This year, Garcia is going to be asked to help carry a staff, a task he didn’t have to worry about last season.
The Cardinals are now going to have to expect a strong bounce back season from Kyle Lohse, who slumped to a lowly 4-8 mark with an ERA of 6.55 in an injury-plagued 2010. Recent acquisition Jake Westbrook will also need to at the minimum repeat his numbers from last year (10-12, 4.22 with the AL-worst Cleveland Indians) in order to stay afloat in the loaded Central.
With the loss of an ace, the Cardinals will now lean heavily on their run-producing line-up. We’ve overloaded you with Albert Pujols numbers, so we’ll merely remind you he’s the only player in Major League Baseball history to post 10-consecutive years of at least .300/30/100. Safe to say, those are reasonable expectations for him this year.
But, the Cardinals line-up, believe it or not, is more than just The Machine. Matt Holliday, in his first full season in St. Louis after signing a huge contract extension with the club, posted a strong campaign of .312/28/103. That was more production the Cardinals have ever had from a slugger hitting behind Pujols in the line-up. Holliday, a four-time All Star selection four-time Silver Slugger winner, should be able to produce a line very similar to last year again, easing the burden off of Pujols’ broad shoulders.
It will be important to watch the continued development of third year center fielder Colby Rasmus as well. Rasmus improved his numbers across the board from his rookie season to last year, hitting .276 (up from .251) with 23 home runs (an increase of seven) and 66 runs batted in (up 14). Rasmus will now be asked to pick up his already stellar play in the field, however, now that the Cardinals have put a relative albatross in right field. Lance Berkman, who once played the outfield for in-division rival Houston Astros, is a shadow of himself defensively (the Yankees were hesitant to even play Berkman at first base in the second half of last season, usually holding him to DH duties). Berkman will also be asked to hit more towards his career averages of .296/33/109, though at age 35, that might be too tall of an order for manager Tony LaRussa to call for.
In summary, with or without ace Adam Wainwright this season, the Cardinals will compete. However, if Wainwright isn’t able to pitch this season, it’s hard to predict the Cardinals being able to leap over the Reds, Cubs or even the Brewers. The pitching is too deep in the Central to rely on a back three of Jake Westbrook/Kyle Lohse/Jeff Suppan in your rotation.
And, for the first time in seemingly ages, the media has a much, much bigger worry than Albert Pujols’s contract negotiations. This is NOT how Albert wanted to deflect the questions.
Wainwright’s elbow > Pujols’s contract. At least in 2011.