Last Five Years:
2009: 91 – 71 (1st NL Central)
2008: 86 – 76
2007: 78 – 84
2006: 83 – 78
2005: 100 – 62
Runs Scored: 730
Runs Allowed: 640
With two aces and the world’s greatest offensive force, the Cardinals held their own throughout the 2009 season. And just when it looked like someone might catch them, the Cards added Matt Holliday, Mark DeRosa, and John Smoltz to bury the rest of the division.
The Cardinals got off to a hot start, winning 17 of the first 24 games. However, like the Cubs, a couple of ill-timed losing streaks returned the team back to the pack and in fact St. Louis trailed Milwaukee for parts of June. In fact, all three teams played indifferently for much of the summer until the front office got involved.
Adding Holliday to the offense and giving a few starts to someone other than Todd Wellemeyer helped get a winning stretch going. From July 27th through the end of the year, the Cardinals played great – going 38 – 23 before losing in the playoffs.
Injuries claimed Ryan Ludwick and Rick Ankiel at times, and LaRussa had to work around a defense that wasn’t functional at many positions. Skip Schumaker was an outfielder impersonating a second baseman – badly. He was replaced by Julio Lugo near the end of the season, and the ball wasn’t hit close enough to him either – not that Lugo had been a regular second baseman recently. Chris Duncan is a poor outfielder – replaced by Matt Holliday who actually played even worse. Ryan Ludwick played at a below average pace in right and the ball wasn’t hit to his occasional replacements (Ankiel, Nick Stavinoha) either.
Despite this, the pitchers allowed the third fewest runs in the NL – which shows you how good Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter were. And they were simply amazing. Put this staff in front of the middle 80’s team that featured Ozzie and Willie McGee and company, and they might have allowed only 500 runs all year.
Adam Wainwright pitched 233 innings, fanned 212, and had a 3:1 K/W ratio. He saved his team some 43 runs over using a league average starter. Chris Carpenter was even better. Returning from elbow surgery, Carpenter nearly tossed 200 innings in just 28 starts, winning 17 and finishing with an ERA of just 2.24. He saved his squad 48 runs. The third starter, Joel Pineiro won 15 himself, hardly walking anyone and keeping batted balls on the ground all season.
With 51 wins in the top three spots, the Cardinals countered with Todd Wellemeyer and Kyle Lohse at the bottom of the rotation; two who were below average pitchers. Wellemeyer was so bad, he cancelled out half an ace with his 5.89 ERA.
Three starters are back, starting with the aces and adding Kyle Lohse. Pineiro is gone, replaced by Brad Penny – and my take on it that Penny should be close to as good as Pineiro was. They have comparable strikeout rates, and if Penny keeps the ball over the plate, should fare well here. Wellemeyer is also history, but it’s hard to tell who might get that fifth slot. It could be Mitchell Boggs, who got nine starts and while his ERA was tolerable (4.19), he sure got lucky. Boggs allowed 71 hits in 58 innings and walked 33 more. Some time back, I suggested that you could figure how lucky a pitcher was by comparing his actual runs allowed data against his “reverse runs created” data. Essentially, I was treating his pitching stats like I would an offensive player. Given the combination of hits and walks that Boggs allowed, he would expect to have allowed 40 runs, not 28, and his ERA would have been about 6.05.
I digress. The fifth starter could also be non-roster invitee Rich Hill, who is just the type of pitcher that seems to get his career healed by the coaching of Dave Duncan. Look for Hill to make the roster and possibly make the rotation.
The bullpen returns virtually intact – Ryan Franklin was about the best closer in the National League, but he’s NOT a power guy and I don’t believe that he’s going to be as successful in 2010. Trever Miller had a great season, but he only pitched 43.2 innings in his 70 games, which means that LaRussa spotted him well. He and Dennys Reyes will be the designated lefties, while Kyle McClellan, Brad Thompson, and Jason Motte pick up the other innings. Rookie Jess Todd might be a nice set up man for part of the season.
My view of this is that the pitching can’t possibly be this good next year. Not that Wainwright and Carpenter won’t be good – they could be 25 runs better than the average pitchers, which is very good, but that would be 40 runs off from last year’s production. Ryan Franklin could be good, but lose five runs from a peak season last year. Not having to pitch Todd Wellemeyer will help some, however I’d be nervous about the current options. I see the pitching being off by about 50 runs.
Yadier Molina remains the best defensive catcher in baseball and seems to be adding some offensive tools. His backup is Jason LaRue – who will get to catch four times a month.
Albert Pujols is the best offensive player in the game, and the best defensive player at his position. His quickness means that he plays farther off the bag than most people – which gives him a serious range advantage over just about anybody.
After a year of Skip Schumaker, who stays to provide depth, the Cardinals will be using Felipe Lopez at second base. This is an immediate 20 run upgrade defensively, and if Lopez continues to hit, a match to the production Schumaker provided (80 runs created, and 5.7 runs per 27 outs – which is solid).
Brendan Ryan was a stopper defensively, but starts the season coming back from wrist surgery. I’m not sure he’ll be able to replicate last year’s production defensively and it’s hard to come back and hit right away after a hand or wrist injury. His backup will be Julio Lugo or Tyler Greene.
At third, Mark DeRosa is gone and the Joe Thurston experiment is over. David Freese will get the job. Freese is a prospect, albeit a rather old prospect. You may remember that Freese was acquired from San Diego for Jim Edmonds. Well, Freese has been solid in the minors – hitting .306 with 26 homers in Memphis in 2008, and then batting .300 with 10 homers in just 200 at bats last season at AAA. The Ballwin, MO native can hit at this level – he’ll be 27 in April. I think he’ll hit like Todd Zeile – 18 homers, .270 batting average. If he can field at all, he’ll be an upgrade over what the Cards got last year.
Pujols season was better than what he had done the previous couple of years, he could lose twenty runs of offense and STILL be the best hitter in the game. With the wrist injury, Brendan Ryan will be off, but that will be made up by the play of Freese. The net result, however, is probably 20 runs fewer offensively and probably ten runs off defensively.
This is going to be a very productive offense featuring Matt Holliday, Colby Rasmus, and Ryan Ludwick. Ludwick, if healthy, holds his own. A full season of Holliday will be better than half a season of Chris Duncan. And Colby Rasmus will hit better than what Rick Ankiel did last year. Defensively, Rasmus should hold steady, Holliday will be a slight improvement over Duncan, and Ankiel won’t be better.
Backups include Skip Schumaker, Nick Stavinoha and maybe a rookie – Joe Mather? Shane Robinson? It could be Allen Craig, who had a solid year at Memphis last year (see Prospects).
This team will score produce about 30 runs more than last year and hold steady defensively.
Not a bad bunch, but some holes… Skip Schumaker will get a lot of innings, Julio Lugo returns, as does Tyler Greene, and then you have Nick Stavinoha, and Jason LaRue. Which of these guys, other than Schumaker, would you want as a pinch hitter? It’s a bit weak.
AAA Memphis had a couple of guys who might be interesting. David Freese will get a shot at the third base job after a year and a half of solid play with the Redbirds. Allen Craig hit .322 with 26 homers, but he’s not really patient at the plate. He’s a potential fourth outfielder with the Cardinals though, and could be Ryan Ludwick’s equal in right field. (.280 – 20 homers)
Jess Todd was the closer in Memphis and was solid – 59 Ks, 13 walks, 24 saves to match his 2.20 ERA. He’ll be on the Cardinals in 2010. The best starter was likely P.J. Walters, who was tolerable – decent control, a good strikeout record, but a bit hittable.
The best pitchers at Springfield (AA) weren’t dominating, but had good records and avoided the long ball. Trey Hearne and Lance Lynn combined for 23 wins and only 7 losses and have interchangeable stats. Lynn was a 1A draft pick in 2008, so he’s moving up quickly and the Cardinals have high hopes for him. Infielder Daniel Descalso hit well (.323, .396 OBP) at Springfield but hasn’t been consistent at that level in the minors.
Former first round picks, like Brett Wallace, Clayton Mortensen and Shane Carpenter are gone. Peter Kozma was a top pick in 2007 and struggled to hit .216 in AA – he’s going to run out of chances soon. Another, 2007 pick David Kopp struggled to a 6.43 ERA at Springfield – he might get one more shot before being cast away. Much of the 2006 draft is still around and getting close – Adam Ottavino, Chris Perez, Jon Jay, Shane Robinson, and Allen Craig are in Memphis but haven’t made it in (or to) the bigs yet.
There are a couple of players in the minors, but as a whole, the Cardinal organization is a little thin right now.
Having gone through the process, I think the Cardinals will be in the mix but might not easily repeat. I think they’ll score about 740 runs, but allow more than last year – as many as 690 runs. If that’s the combination, it works out to 87 wins. With Milwaukee likely getting better and the Cubs in the mix, the NL Central could easily have the most exciting September in baseball. The Cards MIGHT win the division, and they MIGHT get the wild card. Or, they MIGHT fall a game or two short. It’s too close to call.