The St. Louis Cardinals have had a rough few weeks. First, they failed to extend Albert Pujols‘ contract before the spring training deadline. Then, they lost ace Adam Wainwright for the season. In the aftermath, Vegas sportsbooks moved St. Louis from the favorites in the division to third behind the Reds and Brewers. Can the Cardinals compete without their ace in an improved division? If so, how?
The Starting Nine
The lineup lives and dies with Pujols and Holliday, who are number one and number three in WAR since 2007, regardless of league. That is a statement of both ability and consistency; Holliday has played in at least 150 games four of the past five years (139 in the other) and Pujols has averaged 155.8 games per season over his 10-year career. On top of that, Pujols and Holliday are also plus defenders, logging UZRs of 1.5 and 8.2, respectively, in 2010. There is simply nothing more you can ask out of this duo and no reason not to expect more of the same in 2011.
The supporting cast is the only thing keeping St. Louis from having a league-leading offense. The Cards have not had a legitimate lead-off hitter since David Eckstein in 2005. They head into spring training again counting on Schumaker and his .299 wOBA in the number-one slot. In order to maximize the talents of Pujols and Holliday, there simply needs to be more runners on base when they come up.
The front office made a number of moves this offseason which may help the offense, which finished sixth in the league in runs last season. Specifically, the Marcel wOBA projections think that Theriot is a slight upgrade over Brendan Ryan (.304 to .288), Berkman will fare better than Ryan Ludwick (.360 to .339), and Freese (.334) will be a upgrade over last year’s combo of Felipe Lopez (.323) and Pedro Feliz (.279).
These moves should marginally improve the offense, but the defense will certainly suffer. Ryan was one of the league’s best defensive players, posting an 11.5 UZR at shortstop last season, while Theriot is a below-average defender who had a -3.3 UZR at shortstop. Likewise, Ludwick is a decent defensive outfielder who had a 2.0 UZR last year and will be replaced by Berkman who has not played the outfield since 2007, when he had a -8.0 UZR.
The Pitching Staff
The loss of Wainwright casts a huge shadow over the Cardinals rotation. He was truly an ace-caliber pitcher and his elbow injury has enormous implications for the 2011 season and beyond.
With Wainwright out, the Cardinals will again lean on Carpenter at the top of the rotation. When healthy, Carpenter is an absolute workhorse, but he has battled major injuries in his career and will turn 37 next month. The veteran finally showed some signs of aging last year, when he posted a 3.84 xFIP, his worst showing since joining the Cardinals in 2004. At best, Carpenter will have a slight rebound and lead the staff with another five-plus WAR season, and at worst he will suffer another major injury, which would probably finish St. Louis’ already diminished chances to contend.
If there is a ray of hope for the Cardinal fans in the aftermath of Wainwright’s injury, it’s that Dave Duncan is probably the best pitching coach in baseball. In his career, he has been able to turn one team’s trash into the Cardinals’ treasure again and again. Garcia and Westbrook project to be above replacement-level starters again in 2011, so if Duncan can work his magic on the last two spots in the rotation, St. Louis can still have an above-average staff.
The Cardinals are always on the lookout for veteran pitchers who might thrive under Duncan, so there is no guarantee that Lohse or McClellan will stay in the rotation for long. It would not be surprising to see St. Louis sign Kevin Millwood or Jeremy Bonderman during spring training, pick up someone off waivers, or make an under-the-radar trade and then have Duncan coax a fantastic season out of a crafty veteran.
Garcia is a pitcher to watch this year. Although his ERA was more than a run lower than his xFIP, 2.70 to 3.73, 2010 was still an impressive debut. Rookie starters who post three-plus WAR seasons simply do not come along every day. A fantastic 55-percent ground ball rate and a solid 7.27 K/9 make for a great foundation, so if he can improve his control in 2011, Garcia can take another step forward and become a Top 10 or 20 starter in the NL.
In the bullpen, Franklin starts his fourth season as the Cardinals’ closer. Franklin has never been a dominant pitcher, with a career 4.99 K/9 and a xFIP over 4.00 every season. It is likely that Franklin can again pitch well enough to keep his job, but as long as he does, this will not be a position of strength for the Cardinals. Motte is the best arm in the pen, and could end up closing at some point this year. The bullpen as a whole was a weakness in 2010 and with no significant additions in the offseason, the pen projects to be a problem again in 2011.
On the pitching side, breakout seasons from Garcia or McClellan could help the Cardinals rebound from Wainwright’s injury. Motte has the potential to take the closing role and become a dominant stopper. However, the key player for the Cardinals in 2011 is Rasmus.
The organization’s 2007 minor-league player of the year had a solid sophomore campaign last season, posting a .366 wOBA and a 3.5 WAR. There are plenty of questions about Rasmus going into this season. If he can answer the question marks and make improvements in his game, Rasmus has the potential to be the best center fielder in the National League in 2011.
First, he will have to rediscover his defense. After posting a 10.2 UZR in 2009 he had a -6.5 in 2010. Next, he will have to do a better job putting the ball in play. Rasmus struck out at a 20% clip as a rookie and degraded to 32% last season. Finally, he will have to patch the alleged rift between his manager and the clubhouse leader. Given, these are each huge barriers to Rasmus taking a step forward in his career, but the results could lead to a monster season for the 24-year-old.
The best skill that emerged for Rasmus last season was his power. He ranked eleventh in the league in isolated power in 2010, right under Ryan Howard and above Dan Uggla, Holliday, and Adrian Gonzalez to name a few. If he can piece 2010’s power with 2009’s contact rate and defense, or even improve on those levels, Rasmus can become an elite player as soon as next year.
Further than individual success, Rasmus holds the key to the Cardinals lineup. With right-handers Pujols and Holliday locked-in at the three and four spots, it will up to Rasmus and Berkman to hit in front of and behind the Cards’ dynamic duo. If Rasmus can harness the potential that made him Baseball America’s No. 3 prospect in 2009, it will help give St. Louis the type of lineup that can can slug its way to a division title without Wainwright.
The Cardinals were dealt some horrible luck when Wainwright was forced to go under the knife. But don’t count them out yet, they have a hall of fame manager, a pitching coach who is like MacGyver with pitching rotations, the best player of this generation (at least until the end of the year), a rock-solid left fielder, a former Cy Young winner leading the staff, and a young center fielder who might be ready to break out. The pieces are in place for St. Louis to compete with the defending champion Reds and the much-improved Brewers in what should be a fantastic three-way NL Central race.
However, if Carpenter goes down, or Garcia and Rasmus take steps back, or the defense has declined too greatly, or if more clubhouse turmoil creeps up, or any number of other pitfalls occurs, this could be the last hurrah for this era of Cardinal baseball as there is no guarantee Pujols and Tony LaRussa are wearing Cardinal red in 2012.
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