2008 St. Louis Cardinals
M*A*S*H for the 21st Century

BaseballEvolution.com 2008 Spring Preview
by Keith Glab, BaseballEvolution.com
March 19, 2008

2006 saw the St. Louis Cardinals lose more games than any Cardinals squad this century, only to win their first World Series title in 25 years. I, for one, anticipated a rebound 2007 season in which the Cardinals would take control of a weak NL Central division. The division title was indeed there for the taking, but the Cardinals appeared even less interested in capturing it that the Cubs and the Brewers did.

Key Transactions
Acquired Pos.
Troy Glaus 3B
Kyle Lohse RHP
Jason LaRue C
Matt Clement RHP
Cesar Izturis SS
Ron Villone LHP
Cliff Politte RHP
Juan Gonzalez OF
D'Angelo Jimenez IF
Brian Barton OF
Departed Pos.
Scott Rolen 3B
Jim Edmonds OF
David Eckstein SS
Miguel Cairo IF
Troy Percival RHP
Gary Bennett C
Russel Branyan 3B/OF
Kip Wells RHP
So Taguchi OF
Preston Wilson OF
Kelly Stinnett C

Injuries were to blame for most of the struggles. The only position player to appear in more than 133 games was Albert Pujols, who was himself battling through his constant elbow injury, but was apparently even more bothered by it than normal. Aaron Miles, So Taguchi, Chris Duncan, and Ryan Ludwick rounded out the top five in games played, which shows that not only was everybody banged up, but that their key players missed even more time than their role players did.

Pitching proved even more problematic. Chris Carpenter was one-and-done, tossing six innings on April 1st, then undergoing Tommy John surgery for the second time in his career. Mark Mulder had been scheduled to pitch by July. Instead, he made three horrific September starts. Converted reliever Braden Looper wound up imitating a workhorse in the rotation, finishing second on the club in both starts (30) and innings (175).

Normally, one would figure that the 2008 Cardinals would have to be healthier than the 2007 version, and that improvement would be afoot. More likely, decline will be a foot injury suffered by the newly-acquired Troy Glaus, and the Cardinals will turn to Alan Benes at some point in their rotation. Somehow, the Cardinals are even thinner and more injury laden now than they were last year.

2007 Starter    Yadier Molina
Projected 2008 Starter   Yadier Molina

Tony LaRussa often dubs Molina as the team MVP, even though the Cardinals went 46-55 during his starts last season and 61-57 in his 2006 starts. He did lead the club to an impressive 73-38 mark in 2005, but as other-worldly as his throwing arm is, he needs to continue to improve on offense to be considered an elite catcher overall.

First Base
2007 Starter   Albert Pujols
Projected 2008 Starter   Albert Pujols

Surprise Candidate
Anthony Reyes
Dominant in minors, flashes of dominance in majors
Disappointment Candidate
Rick Ankiel
Also a Kingman candidate, come to think of it
It isn't often when a player bats .327 with 32 homers, 103 RBI, 99 walks, and 99 runs scored only to have his season labeled as disappointing. What's astounding is that Pujols played in 158 games last season and has only spent 18 days on the disabled list in his seven-year career, despite battling chronic elbow problems since 2003. In that April of 2003, Pujols played through a stretch of nearly three weeks under circumstances that if he threw the ball even once, his career could have ended. LaRussa managed to finagle Pujols into various defensive roles in order to keep his bat in the lineup. That made sense in 2003, but everyone knows the Cardinals aren't contenders this year, so why take a risk, when Pujols' elbow problems appear to have escalated again?

Second Base
2007 Starters   Adam Kennedy, Aaron Miles
Projected 2008 Starters   Adam Kennedy, Aaron Miles

Aaron Miles now reigns as the longest-tenured Cardinals second baseman since Fernando Vina. Odd, considering that he is a complete waste on offense and almost exactly average defensively there. Kennedy ranks about the same on defense now, but hasn't been an offensive boon in years. At least the two compliment each other well, with Miles faring slightly better against southpaws and Kennedy able only to hit righties. Of course, LaRussa would sooner take off his sunglasses than use his players in a completely traditional platoon, so it's a very small consolation.

Troy Glaus
Third Base
2007 Starter   Scott Rolen
Projected 2008 Starter   Troy Glaus

Glaus for Rolen: On the surface, this is a fairly even trade of two star third basemen who are both injury-prone and a hair past their primes. Upon closer examination, the year-and-a-half age difference between the two is significant, as Glaus has hovered around his career averages over the past three years, while Rolen has suffered through back and shoulder problems which led to horrible '05 and '07 campaigns.

Horrible on offense, at least. Rolen is still among the best defensive third basemen in baseball, whereas Glaus is just average, but will tempt LaRussa to use him at shortstop with his 18 career games played there. The Blue Jays feature a ground ball staff and get to keep Rolen through 2010 (Glaus' contract runs thru 2009), so the deal makes sense from their perspective. If both Glaus and Pujols are healthy, Glaus could drive in a lot of runs this year. But even factoring in the tension between LaRussa and Rolen, this probably wasn't the move that the Cardinals needed to make.

2007 Starter   David Eckstein
Projected 2008 Starter   Cesar Izturis

Cesar Izturis, supposed defensive whiz, has accumulated 1 play below average on the +/- system over the past three seasons.  Granted, that's better than Eckstein's mark of -14, but does nothing to offset the horror of Izturis swinging the bat.  The team would do well to give the starting job to Brendan Ryan, who finished +2 at shortstop in just 163 defensive innings last year and can swing the stick a bit.

Cy Young Candidate
Adam Wainwright
Not quite Steve Carlton '72, but Pat Hentgen '96 is fairly apt
ROY Candidate
Colby Rasmus
Probably not as good as Cardinals fans think he is, but still plenty good
2007 Starters Chris Duncan, Jim Edmonds, Juan Encarnacion, Ryan Ludwick, So Taguchi, Rick Ankiel
Projected 2008 Starters Chris Duncan, Rick Ankiel, Ryan Ludwick, Skip Schumaker, Colby Rasmus

What's the last thing a suspect pitching staff wants to see when they gaze out into centerfield? Probably one of their pitches leaving the ballpark, but seeing a fellow pitcher patrolling center would have to be a close second. That's right, Rick Ankiel has won the starting centerfielder's job, and Brian Barton, who played mostly corner outfield in the minors, begins the season as his primary backup. Now Ankiel has more pop in his bat than anyone on the team not named Pujols or Glaus, and Barton is an on-base-aholic, but from a defensive standpoint, this is big trouble.

It doesn't take Nostradamus to predict that Colby Rasmus will get promoted to the big leagues in early May and entrench himself in that position for the next decade or so. For those who do not know him, Rasmus is essentially the Cardinals' version of Tim Lincecum: the one bright spot in an organization experiencing free fall. His installment into centerfield would move Ankiel back to right field, where the current platoon of Skip Schumaker and Ryan Ludwick saddens me. In fairness, they shouldn't play any worse than Juan Encarnacion, who is out for the season with eye issues, would have done. Chris Duncan moves into a starting left field role, which makes his .209 career average against southpaws more problematic.

2007 Crew Gary Bennett, Brendan Ryan, Scott Spiezio, Skip Schumaker
Projected 2008 Bench Jason LaRue, Brendan Ryan, Brian Barton
Cardinals Fun Fact
The Cards have only endured back-to-back losing seasons once in the post expansion era (1961-present): the 1994 and 1995 seasons

The Cardinals are deep in the sense that they have four or five outfielders who would make excellent fourth outfielders for most teams. LaRue is a far, far more competent backup than Gary Bennett on both sides of the ball. Brendan Ryan seems more useful than any of the Cards' supposed starting middle infielders. So the bench here is a strength, which is very important for LaRussa-managed teams, but it's important to note that this bench comes at the expense of any star power behind Pujols and perhaps Glaus.

Starting Pitchers
2007 Starters Adam Wainwright, Braden Looper, Kip Wells, Anthony Reyes, Brad Thompson, Joel Piniero, Todd Wellemeyer, Mike Maroth
Projected 2008 Starters Adam Wainwright, Braden Looper, Kyle Lohse, Anthony Reyes, Brad Thompson, Todd Wellemeyer
(Chris Carpenter, Joel Piniero, Mark Mulder, Matt Clement)

Adam Wainwright
When was the last time that the addition of a Kyle Lohse-caliber pitcher solidified a rotation as much as it has here? Oh, right. It was last year, when Lohse joined the Phillies mid-season. Before Cardinals fans celebrate too much, it's worth noting that Philadelphia's team ERA was still 4.95 in August and 4.56 in September with Lohse's solidifying presence as #2 starter. There's just no escaping the harsh reality that career relievers Braden Looper, Todd Wellemeyer, and Brad Thompson will form at least two-fifths of this rotation for the first few months of the year.

Bright spots include Adam Wainwright, who notched a 2.71 ERA in the second half of last year, and Anthony Reyes, whose better than 5-to-1 minor league K/BB ratio could finally translate this year if the Cardinals give him a fair chance to blossom. Unfortunately, mediocre Red Sox-rejects Matt Clement and Joel Piniero could be healthy by May and push Reyes out of the rotation if he struggles early on. Mark Mulder and Chris Carpenter are due in mid-season, but one hasn't put together a real good season since 2003 (or a season of any kind since 2005) and the other is missing about 30% of his leg tendons because Dr. James Andrews keeps ripping them out and shoving them in his throwing elbow.

Relief Pitchers
2007 Relievers Jason Isringhausen, Troy Percival, Ryan Franklin, Russ Springer, Randy Flores, Tyler Johnson, Kelvin Jiminez
Projected 2008 Relievers Jason Isringhausen, Ryan Franklin, Russ Springer, Randy Flores, Kelvin Jiminez, Cliff Politte, Ron Villone

It's rare to see a closer consistently good but never great; That is what the Cardinals have in Jason Isringhausen. Izzy's only bouts with inconsistency since converting into a closer in 2000 came in 2006, but his overall numbers remained solid that year. The Cardinals actually lost their most effective reliever in Troy Percival, but otherwise return a no-name bullpen that combined for a solid 4.00 ERA last year. Even if non-roster invitee Cliff Politte somehow re-gains his 2005 form upon his homecoming, this will form a below-average pen, at least until some starters return in the second half and push the likes of Looper, Wellemeyer, and Thompson into the bullpen.

Outlook for the Season

Every year, there tends to be an even schism in the National League Central between three contenders and thee cellar-dwellers.  The St. Louis Cardinals aren't used to being a part of the latter group, but their placement there has become unavoidable this year.  A couple of their injured pitchers may indeed return strong, but those that do not aren't just going to put up earned run averages of around five; Cardinals fans should prepare for an historic number of Turbo Tankings in the 2008 season.  Even if Pujols continues to defy his injury, he is mostly surrounded by bats with neither upside nor proven value.

The best case scenario for the 2008 Cardinals is for Albert Pujols to have reconstructive elbow surgery in June, when it's clear that the Cardinals won't compete, then to have their injured pitchers come back strong and thrust the team solidly into fourth place.  The worst case scenario would be for Pujols to irrevocably injure his elbow while playing for a lost cause, with none of the Cardinals' injured pitchers showing that they still have futures.  In that instance, the Cardinals would not only finish in last place this season, but for the foreseeable future as well.

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