2009 St. Louis Cardinals: 1998 Revisited

BaseballEvolution.com Spring Preview
by Keith Glab, BaseballEvolution.com
Key Transactions
Acquired Pos.
Khalil Greene SS
Joe Thurston 2B
Trevor Miller RP
Dennys Reyes RP
Departed Pos.
Aaron Miles SS
Adam Kennedy 2B
Cesar Izturis SS
Felipe Lopez 2B
Mark Mulder SP
Braden Looper SP
Jason Isringhausen RP
Russ Springer RP
Tyler Johnson RP
Ron Villone RP
Randy Flores SP

April 3, 2009

The 1998 season was a special one in St. Louis despite the Cardinals having finished in third place with 83 victories.  It was the year Mark McGwire not only set a new single-season home run record, but obliterated it, as he cranked out nine more homers than Roger Maris did in 1961, while using 81 fewer at-bats to do so.

The 2009 season promises to be similar.  The incomparable Albert Pujols has a fully healthy right elbow for the first time since 2002.  Even though Pujols has never led the majors in home runs or RBI and has only led in batting average once, he is the best chance our generation has seen to win the National League Triple-Crown.  Unfortunatley, the talent surrounding him may not be enough for the Cardinals to make the postseason, just like McGwire's 1998 squad.

Last year, with an elbow still giving him a tremendous amount of pain, Pujols set career highs in walks, OBP, OPS, and OPS+.  Since 2003, he has never finished lower than 4th in the NL in RBI and only finished lower than 4th in home runs once.  His career .334 batting average is the highest among active players and second only to Tony Gwynn among players who debuted after World War II.  He has protection in the lineup this year with Ryan Ludwick now thought of as a legitimate threat rather than a first-half fluke. Even though he has been terrific seemingly forever, Pujols is still just 29 years old.  Even if he does miss out on winning the National League's first Triple Crown since 1937, you can expect this to be his best offensive season ever.

Perhaps the enormity of Pujols' offensive numbers will finally land him another Gold Glove Award at first base.  His only win was in 2006, but he's one player who hits well and actually deserves a Gold Glove every year.  It's very odd that he's the one superstar who doesn't get the automatic award.  Over the past three seasons, Pujols has saved twice as many runs defensively as Casey Kotchman, the next best in baseball over that span.  No other player at any position is so head-and-shoulders better that the rest of the field, although Adam Everett might have been, were he an everyday player.    

McGwire and Pujols

The rest of the infield around Pujols is pretty much unidentifiable without an official program.  Career outfielder Skip Schumaker moves into second base.  Seriously.  When the Braves moved Kelly Johnson from the outfield to second base, he at least had 364 games under his belt as a minor league shortstop.  Not so with Skippy, here, who hasn't played a single professional game in the infield.  If you're going to play someone out of position at second base, you may as well make sure that he's a great hitter.  Schumaker could make a solid offensive second baseman, but no one will ever accuse him of being great.

Pos '08 '09
C Y Molina Y Molina
1B Pujols Pujols
2B Kennedy/Miles Schumaker
3B Glaus Glaus
SS Izturis Greene
LF Schumaker Duncan
CF Ankiel Ankiel
RF Ludwick Ludwick
OF Duncan Rasmus

The odd part is that The Cardinals are paying $4 million for one of the best defensive second basemen in the game this year.  Too bad he's not on the team.  The Redbirds randomly released Adam Kennedy this spring, after he saved 17 runs for the Cardinals last year in limited playing time.  He's not the greatest hitter in the world and an offense/defense platoon with Schumaker is something I could understand.  But to just release a talented player when you owe him money regardless and have no feasible replacement is incomprehensible.

Want an example of a great hitter fielding out of position?  How about Troy Glaus starting eight errorless games at shortstop for Toronto in 2006?  Rookie David Freese will man third base until Troy Glaus returns from an injury around June.  Freese was never a top-10 prospect in the Padres organization, but after coming to the Cardinals in the Jim Edmonds trade, Freese popped 26 homers for the Cards' Triple-A affiliate.  He figures to at least be serviceable until Glaus, one of the game's most underrated players, is healthy.

Khalil Greene is now healthy himself and poised to compete for the Comeback Player of the Year Award.  The 29-year old shortstop has a career .484 slugging average away from Petco Park and killed the ball this spring.   His defense has been in decline since 2006, however, so Greene shouldn't expect to be anything more than average in the field this year. That is a significant dropoff from what Cesar Izturis gave the Redbirds last season (14 runs saved).
Comeback Candidate
Khalil Greene
Must overcome his nightmares of Petco
Comeback Candidate
Chris Carpenter
Must tell Dr. James Andrews, "It's not you; it's me"

Yadier Molina is terrific in the field, possessing the best arm in the backstop business.  At 26 years of age, he could be well on his way towards becoming the best all-around defensive catcher in the game.  Molina has already made drastic improvements with the stick.  Backup Jason LaRue also possesses strong defensive skills behind the dish, but he will never again be mistaken for a catcher who can hit.

Replacing Schumaker in the outfield will be top prospect Colby Rasmus and a full season of Chris Duncan.  The best defensive alignment has Ludwick in left, Rasmus in center, and Rick Ankiel in right.  Such an arrangement lets Duncan do what he is best at: pinch hit.  He has six homers in 67 career pinch-hit at-bats.  Duncan must not ever be allowed to face southpaws (career .602 OPS).

Ludwick and Ankiel are each the real deal offensively, and both have very good outfield arms as well.  As for Rasmus, I don't know whether to believe his excellent Double-A numbers in 2007 or his poor Triple-A numbers last year.  Supposedly a knee injury held him back last season, but I still doubt that he is ready for major league pitching.  Defensively, he may have been ready in 2007. 

Cardinals Team Capsule

Adam Wainwright
The Cardinals' starting pitching will get a tremendous boost if Chris Carpenter is healthy and can pitch anything like he did his first three years with St. Louis.  Unfortunately, healthy seasons are becoming the exception rather than the rule for him.   A fully healthy Adam Wainwright would be big as well.  His injury last year is what the Brewers have to look forward to with ex-Cardinal Braden Looper, what the rival Cubs can expect from Ryan Dempster, and what the Oakland A's are already getting from Justin Duchscherer.  Converting relief pitchers into starters has worked pretty well the past few years, but if you're going to do it, don't let them throw 200 innings right away and don't immediately let them pitch too deep into games.    

Todd Wellemeyer appears primed for this kind of breakdown as well.  While he did start in 11 games two years ago, his innings total still jumped by over 110 innings between 2007 and 2008.  He will soon become Todd Unwellenmeyer. 

Who would have predicted that Kyle Lohse would become such a solid innings-eater after the ugly numbers he put up as a Twin?  His decent innings are exactly what this injury-prone rotation needs.  Joel Piniero's new name is Elyk Eshol, because his career path has gone opposite of Kyle Lohse's.  In 2003, Eshol appeared to be one of the best young starters in the game.  He's rebounded enough to the point that he's an okay option as a fifth starter; the trouble comes when injuries to Wellemeyer and either Wainwright or Carpenter bumps Eshol to the #3 slot.  Kyle McCellan is listed sixth on their depth chart.  He would be yet another converted reliever.

Pos '08 '09
SP Wainwright Wainwright
SP Looper Carpenter
SP Lohse Lohse
SP Wellemeyer Wellemeyer
SP Piniero Piniero
CL Franklin/Izzy Franklin/Motte
LP R Flores T Miller
LP Villone D Reyes
RP McCellan Kinney
RP Springer B Thompson
RP C Perez K Jimenez
The Cards should hope that they do not need him as a starter, not only because it would denote a surprisingly healthy rotation, and not only because McCellan isn't very good, but because there's little depth in the bullpen as it is.  Jason Motte's fastball averages 96.6 MPH according to Baseball Info Solutions, but he might just be the most untested closer in the history of the game.  He has 11 major league innings under his belt.  The 26-year old rookie fanned an absurd 12 batters per nine innings in the minors, yet that somehow translated to a yawnful 3.88 ERA.

If Motte can't get it done, the backup plan is Ryan Franklin. That plan is only slightly more sound than running around in circles, pulling out your hair, and screaming, "Aaah! What do we do??"  Chris Perez, the closer of the future, begins the season on the DL.  At age 23, and with 72 walks in 109.1 minor league innings, it's hard to expect too much from him this season.

There are two quality lefty specialists on the staff.  Dennys Reyes' career OPS versus left-handed hitters is a lowly .537 while Trevor Miller's is .709.  Neither pitcher handles right-handed batters well enough to be considered as a closer, however.  Other bad options from the right side include Kelvin Jimenez, who walked more than he fanned last year, Brad Thompson, whose ERA has risen significantly for three straight years, and Josh Kinney, a 30-year old with 32 major league innings under his belt.

Final Word

If everything goes right - Carpenter and Wainwright are healthy, Glaus doesn't miss too much time, Rasmus is ready, Greene puts Petco behind him, Motte achieves his potential for dominance, and Schumaker isn't an embarrassment at second base - the Cardinals will be the best team in the National League.  Even with a moderate number of setbacks, the team is good enough to contend in a wide open National League Central.  But if the injuries pile up, the experiments backfire, and the projects fail, this team lacks the depth to dig itself out of a big hole.

A reasonable prediction of 83 victories would match what Mark McGwire's 1998 squad achieved.  It would also match the regular season total of the 2006 World Champions.  With all of the uncertainty surrounding the Cardinals record and what it will take to win the Central this year, one thing remains clear: Albert Pujols will have an unforgettable season.    

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