The 2008 St. Louis Cardinals were not a bad team. Despite finishing a disappointing 4th place (11.5 games back) in the NL Central, they were only four games out of the Wild Card spot. They had one of the most potent offenses in the National League, plus a pitching staff that kept opponents to an above average 4.48 runs per game.
But “above average” was not enough to carry them past the Astros, Brewers, or the Cubs. And when young ace Adam Wainwright went down, joining pitchers Mark Mulder and Chris Carpenter on the DL for much of the summer, the team ended up giving way too many innings to the likes of Mitchell Boggs and Joel Pineiro, who combined for a 5.57 ERA over 182 2/3 innings. This is a team that just keeps losing top-shelf pitchers.
It’s not so long ago that Mulder was considered a bright young talent and Carpenter looked to be a perennial Cy Young candidate. But over the past two seasons, the two have thrown 34 innings. Total. At the beginning of the 2006 season, these two were supposed to anchor the rotation for years to come. Instead, they’ve eaten up way too much of the team’s payroll as they suffered injury after injury.
On the upside, Mulder is now a free agent but Carpenter had surgery again last week, putting into doubt once more his availability for spring training. At this point anything they get out of Carpenter from now until his retirement ought to be considered a bonus.
Their rotation as it stands has Wainwright at the top, followed by Todd Wellemeyer, and Kyle Lohse, which isn’t bad at all. But they’re still paying Pineiro $7.5MM in 2009 so they’re going to trot him out there, leaving room for only one more. Will that arm be Carpenter? Again, count me among the skeptics. But here’s the problem – I don’t think they have much choice. They can’t go out on the free agent market hunting for SPs when they’ve already committed so many years and money to Carp. For a team like the Cardinals who don’t have an endless spending pocket, such luxuries aren’t birthrights.
So where else can they improve?
- A good place to start would be to find a right-handed outfielder who can platoon with Skip Schumaker, who hit well against righties (.340/.393/.468) but was unbelievably dismal against lefties (.168/.238/.185). Unfortunately, their best OF bat off the bench (Chris Duncan) is also a lefty who can’t hit southpaws. So there are no good internal options here. So what they can use is a righty who won’t make a stink about not getting a starting gig. Looking at the FA list, this may be harder to come by than it seems.
- Another problem for the Cards is that their middle-infield duo of Adam Kennedy and Cesar Izturis is, well, not very good. Compounding it is that this is one issue where they can’t just throw money at the problem. This year’s free agent class does not have good options up the middle. I’d like to be kinder to Izturis because his defense is valuable. But his bat is non-existent. Kennedy also had a good year with the glove, but his past performances suggest that he won’t repeat such successes, making his offensive liabilities that much more apparent. Bringing back Felipe Lopez is a possibility (although he won’t ever hit like he did in St. Louis ever again), and guys like Orlando Cabrera and Orlando Hudson (imagine it – the two Orlandos!) would make sense, but my guess is that they’re going to be beyond St. Louis’ price range. Maybe they’ll surprise me and increase payroll a few million north of 100.
- I don’t really believe that naming closers is all that useful, but what they heck, let’s talk about it because it was such a problem for them last year. Three men shared closing duties in 2008 – Jason Isringhausen, Ryan Franklin, and Chris Perez. And none of them were any good. In save situations, the Cardinals staff were just abysmal as opposing teams had a .813 OPS against them. Thankfully, the market is ripe with relievers capable of performing adequately. Francisco Rodriguez, Kerry Wood, and Brian Fuentes may be out of reach, but Jeremy Affeldt and Juan Cruz may be cheap options that surprise many. This may be the easiest way for the Cards to pick up a couple extra wins in 2009.
I know that many have floated the idea of trading Ryan Ludwick or even Rick Ankiel since their stocks are at a high point and are arbitration eligible. Maybe I’m just being unimaginative here, but I don’t know how they can be replaced if they were dealt. Sure, there’s Colby Rasmus that could be slotted in, but he’s only 22 years old and it’s not like he tore the cover off the ball in AAA-Memphis this year so there’s just no real reason to rush him. Besides, I just don’t see Tony LaRussa as the “nurturing” type.
All in all, I don’t think that it will be all too difficult for the Cardinals to finish at least in second place in the NL Central next year. I really believe that the Astros were one month flukes and as presently constructed will finish with a much poorer record. And with the loss of their top-two pitchers to free agency, it’s going to be very hard for the Brewers to do as well as they did. But I do not see a better team here than the Chicago Cubs. That is, unless Chris Carpenter can come back and head the rotation once more. I wouldn’t get my hopes up, but it may be the best chance they have to win a division crown. However, with more offensive production out of LF and one, if not both the middle infield spots, the Cardinals should be in good standing to at least compete for the NL Wild Card.