Team Preview: St. Louis Cardinals

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

1. Skip Schumaker
2. Colby Rasmus
3. Albert Pujols
4. Matt Holliday
5. Lance Berkman
6. David Freese
7. Yadier Molina
8. Ryan Theriot

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

RHP Chris Carpenter
LHP Jaime Garcia
RHP Jake Westbrook
RHP Kyle Lohse
RHP Kyle McClellan

CL RHP Ryan Franklin
RHP Jason Motte
RHP Mitchell Boggs
LHP Trever Miller
RHP Fernando Salas
LHP Brian Tallet
RHP Miguel Batista

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.

Key Player

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.

Wrap-Up

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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Jesse has been writing for FanGraphs since 2010. He is the director of Consumer Insights at GroupM Next, the innovation unit of GroupM, the world’s largest global media investment management operation. Follow him on Twitter @jesseberger.


22 Responses to “Team Preview: St. Louis Cardinals”

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  1. Dave Cameron says:

    This was written before Chris Carpenter walked off the field accompanied by the team trainer today. If he’s down as well… poor Cardinals fans.

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  2. Ryan Bones says:

    Mark it down. Cardinals win the world series in 5 games of my name isn’t Ryan Bones

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  3. SamC says:

    Ewing Theory candidates!

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  4. DonCoburleone says:

    This will officially be a train-wreck year for the Cards.. Started like you said by not signing Pujols and Wainwright going down for the year. By early June they will be 18-26, LaRussa and his giant ego will be benching Colby Rasmus for whatever reason, Carpenter will be on the DL with a hamstring strain, and Pujols trade talk will be at a fever pitch… And I say GOOD, Cardinal fans have enjoyed too much success throughout their teams history.

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    • DonCoburleone says:

      Oh and by the end of July Pujols is on the White Sox and by the end of September the Cardinals are looking up at the Pittsburgh Pirates in the standings!!!

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  5. Ken Bland says:

    I’m more on board with Don above than not. My feeling was the Redbirds stood a good chance to place 4th before Wainright. That double play combo doesn’t strike me as champuionship level material, and it’s the frequent absence of a leadoff hitter out of whichever of the 2 that TLR chooses to use. Frankly, I expect a little pullback from Garcia just because he was really good last year, and even if healthy, I just don’t feel confident that Carp’s H2 was not ther start of a trend. Berkman in the outfiled doesn’t excite me, and a fresh voice in the manager’s chair strikes me as what would have been right. Organizational depth is really down. I think it’s a stretch to think this is a 3 team race.

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  6. Jason says:

    My math sucks too but Carp turns 36 in April

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  7. Bob says:

    Thanks for the solid writeup, Jesse. Not sure I agree about the pen being a problem, though.

    The primary five righty relief returnees (Franklin, McClellan, Motte, Boggs, Salas) combined for 291 innings and a 2.91 ERA last year. Nothing wrong with that. Yes, McC *might* be shifted to the rotation…but a very talented young man named Eduardo Sanchez is waiting in the wings. At age 21 in AAA last year, Sanchez posted a sub-2.00 ERA.

    Overall, I have to side with B-Prospectus: St. Louis was a substantial division favorite before Wainwright’s injury…and they’re still a slight favorite now.

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  8. Wes says:

    The fact that Rasmus went from a 10.2 UZR/150 to -6.5 in one year proves to me how flawed UZR and all defensive metrics are really. I don’t see how a guy in his 20s can have flucuate THAT much in one year. What could he have possibly done differently to account for a 17 run swing.

    So he just completely and utterly stopped caring about defense? He would have to try to go from THAT good to THAT bad.

    Maybe he forgot how to play defense?

    Nothing really explains that incredible difference to me other than a flawed metric/formula. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t really understand.

    If someone could possibly explain that to me, I would appreciate it. No sarcasm.

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    • highrent says:

      Actually its not that inaccurate. Rasmus has been going through some growing pains as a fielder and has been known to make some questionable decisions in the outfield and has had problems with his throws. his tools are there and he is generally a superior outfielder but eventually the mistakes catch up with you. most people think he’ll do much better this time. These things are generally observed by a good portion Cardinal fans. May be it shouldn’t be enough to be a negative but thats how it stacked up.

      I don’t see it as accurate as wOBA but its closer than you might think. One other explanation for why there is such wild swings is that 0 UZR is measured by the actual contributions of the average fielder of the position. If the league got better or the outfielder never got the opportunities to make the appropriate results. he might see his UZR rating decline. You can have the same general run saving results as before but still be graded worse due to league.

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  9. J to the Throne says:

    Well well well, Looks like we had some haters in the building! It is officially April 25th. The Cardinals are in 1st place after a dismal 2-6 start. And I’d like to thank all the haters out there for doubting the redbirds starting pitching, Lance Berkman, and the coaching ability of La Russa And Duncan.

    Oh and a speical thanks out to Doncolburnone… yeah before you start thinking about your dreams becoming a reality, the White Sox will never get Pujols. Already committed it to the media that they trade/sign for him, won’t give him $30, won’t won’t won’t. Do you get what i’m saying? Plus how many millions can one team commit to 2 roster positions (1B/DH).

    Get real with yourselves Cardinal Nation haters.

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  10. Bob says:

    In first place…even having lost FIVE games that they led in the 9th inning. That’s, what, about a full season’s worth?

    I doubt they’ll keep scoring 5+ runs per game, but when Pujols starts hitting like Pujols, it’ll make up for a lot of the regression due for Holliday & Formerly Fat Elvis.

    Moreover, once Ryan Franklin is sent to AAA to “figure things out” (or released altogether), the bullpen looks like a potential big strength—the team has *seven* other relievers with sub-2.50 ERAs right now.

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  11. Rick says:

    Cards are still in 1st in the NL Central on May 30.

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  12. Bob says:

    And now they’re in the NLCS….

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  13. Ryan Bones says:

    Stop doubting my wisdom.. World series champs.. I knew this on March 1.

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  14. CircleChange11 says:

    The article notes that Colby Rasmus is the key player to the 2011 season.

    The article was RIGHT, but for the WRONG reasons.

    Rasmus allowed the Cards to trade for an SP and RP, that improved the staff as a whole and by allowing McClellan to return to the bullpen.

    Jon Jay put up 2 more WAR than did Rasmus. I thnk Rasmus has the potential to develop into the better hitter, due to power … but it’s also obvious that Jay is the better fielder. Rasmus just posted back to back -6-8 UZR seasons, making his +10 2009 look like the outlier. It also looks like his true talent BABIP is closer to .285 than it is .350. If you figure a -7 UZR and .285 BABIP going forward, Rasmus is going to need to hit a lot of homers. in TOR he might.

    I still don;t understand why the acquisition of Jackson (10 QS in 13 GS for StL, including playoffs, another 3.8 WAR season) was touted as a great move. If StL doesn;t resign Pujols, they may use the 20M/y that he turned down to sign Furcal and Jackson, both of whom make the team better. Their upgrades over Westbrook/Lohse and Theriot, along with the return of Wainwright, could make up the 5 WAR difference StL will miss in the difference between Pujols (7 WAR) and a league average 1B).

    I never thought I would say this, but Craig in RF and Berkman at 1B, considering Furcal at SS, improved SP, and Jay in CF could result in an overall better team. If that actually plays out, then major credit to the StL FO.

    All that said, I hope AP5 reconsiders his denail of the Cards’ offer.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      Acquisition of Jackson WASN’T touted as a great move (not was, my bad).

      Unfortunately, and understandably, I think TLR’s personality is causing a lot of people to root against the Cardinals and view them in a negative light.

      However, this FO has had a very good 1.5 years.

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  15. Ryan Bones says:

    When someone with the last name ‘bones’ tells you that something will happen, you need to start listening. If you had, you’d be rolling in the dough like me!!!

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  16. Kelly Kemmis says:

    Highly helpful thank you, There’s no doubt that your followers would possibly want significantly better written articles like that maintain the excellent work.

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