In the second in a series of team previews of N. L. Central clubs, we present the Cubs Home Opening Day opponents (some of you may have heard of them), the St. Louis Cardinals.
The St. Louis Cardinals won more games than any other National League team in each of the past two seasons, and were the only N. L. club to win 100 or more games in either season (the Cards did it in both 2004 AND 2005). In both 2004 and 2005, the Cardinals were nine or ten games better than any other team in the league, finishing among the leaders in runs scored, fewest runs allowed, fewest errors, etc, etc, etc, ad nauseum.
The Cardinals were simply so much better than every other club in the N. L. over the past two seasons that they never really had to concern themselves (yawn) much with selecting the perfect long-reliever for the bullpen, or who the utility infielder would be, or fret over their farm system being rated one of the worst in MLB by Baseball America
, or any of the things a team with no margin for error (like the Cubs circa 2003-05, for instance) would need to worry about.
But that doesnít mean everything remains the same in 2006. There have been a number of changes on the Cardinals 2006 Opening Day roster
, including some major subtractions, and so there are significant issues the Cardinals will need to address and problems they will need to resolve if they want to stay in the rarified air atop the N. L. Central.
The Cards went into the off-season between 2004 and 2005 needing to replace SS Edgar Renteria
(who had signed a FA deal with Boston), and had David Eckstein
(non-tendered by the Angels in December) literally fall into their laps. Likewise with 2B Mark Grudzielanek
(replacing Tony Womack
), after the Cubs declined to exercise their club option for 2005, and LF Reggie Sanders
, who came to the Cards after most all the other FA outfielders got contracts with other MLB clubs. And so Eckstein (naturally) proved to be one of best lead-off hitters in MLB in 2005, Mark G. did a fine job at 2B, and Sanders put up solid numbers and played a good LF.
They also needed to replace Mike Matheny
(who signed a FA deal with the Giants) after the 2004 season, and so they basically were forced to insert their young catcher (Yadier Molina
) into the starting lineup and hope for the best. And (of course) Molina DID do the job. And then they rolled the dice and traded their best young starting pitcher candidate (RHP Danny Haren
), their most reliable middle-reliever (RHP Kiko Calero
), and their top hitting prospect (1B Daric Barton
) to Oakland to get LHP Mark Mulder
. And it seemed as though every move the Cardinals made before last seen--even arguably dumb moves, like trading Haren, Calero, and Barton for Mulder--turned to gold.
So this past off-season, the Cardinals once again found themselves needing to replace a number of key players who either retired (RF Larry Walker
), left via free-agency (starting pitcher Matt Morris
, 8th inning bullpen set-up man Julian Tavarez
, LF Reggie Sanders
, 2B Mark Grudzielanek
, and back-up 1B-OF-PH John Mabry
), or were used to acquire players to fill other needs (LHP Ray King
). But just like the year previous, the Cards did not heavily pursue any ìbig nameî free-agents. Instead, they took their time and signed ìsecond tierî free-agents who essentially fell into their laps, like RF Juan Encarnacion
, relievers Braden Looper
, Jeff Nelson
, and John Riedling
, starting pitcher Sidney Ponson
, and infielder Deivi Cruz
, or traded for players who were coming off poor seasons with other clubs, like Junior Spivey
, Aaron Miles
, and Larry Bigbie
So here is the team Walt Jocketty and Tony LaRussa put together during this past off-season ("THE PLAN") and how it turned out ("THE OUTCOME"):
Jocketty & Company began the off-saason knowing their starting rotation was one of their strengths. They had the reigning N. L. Cy Young Award winner at the top of their starting rotation (that being Chris Carpenter
), followed by Mark Mulder
, Jason Marquis
, and Jeff Suppan
, who together with Carpenter, made up 4/5 of the 2005 starting rotation that started an incredible 160 of the Redbirds 162 regular season games last year
, making it one of the most reliable starting rotations in recent baseball history. These guys made ALL of their scheduled starts right from the gitgo on Opening Day, and that included Matt Morris
, who had labrum surgery after the 2004 season!
Coming into Spring Training 2006, the only piece missing from the 2005 starting rotation was Morris, a free-agent after last season, who signed a lucrative multi-year FA deal with the Giants. The Cardinals figured they could let Morris walk, and give their top pitching prospectóRHP Anthony Reyes
, who by the way was a teammate of Mark Prior
ís at USCóa shot at taking the vacant #5 spot in the rotation, competing with rookie Adam Wainwright
, and veteran Sidney Ponson
, who the Cards signed to a non-guaranteed incentive-laden contract after he was released by the Baltimore Orioles following some off-the-field problems during the off-season. The Cardinals hoped that among Reyes, Wainwright, and Ponson, at least two could pitch well enough to allow them to trade Jason Marquis
for a power-hitting run producer, like maybe Kevin Mench
, Aubrey Huff
, or Brad Wilkerson
Reyes struggled the first half of Spring Training, and the Cardinals did not waste any time sending him back to AAA to work on perfecting his two-seam fastball, a pitch Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan believes Reyes MUST throw to be a successful major league strting pitcher. (Reyes needs to develop a pitch that will allow him to throw fewer pitches per inning, a problem he has yet to solve, and this problem makes him essentially a five-inning pitcher). And meanwhile, Ponson pitched OKónot great, just OK, but at least good enough to temporarily win the the #5 starter gig (albeit by default), as Wainwright struggled with his command.
Itís still possible that if Reyes can perfect his two-seamer by May or June, or if Dave Duncan can help Ponson get his act together on the mound while Ponson himself gets his act together off the field, or if Wainwright can develop some consistency while working out of the bullpen, that the Cards might still consider trading Marquis for a power-hitting LF by sometime around the All-Star break. Itís also equally possible that Ponson will be a bust and a drain on the bullpen, that Reyes will end up being recalled to replace him without first perfecting the two-seamer, that Wainwright will continue to be inconsistent, and that the Cardinals will find themselves missing Matt Morris this year as much as the Cubs ended up missing Matt Clement
is one the best and most reliable closers in baseball, but what has made the Cardinals bullpen so good the past couple of years isnít just Isringhausen pitching the 9th inning, itís other pitchers accepting set-up and middle relief roles that put them in a postion to succeed.
(free-agent) and Ray King
(traded) are gone, thought to be replaced by former Mets closer Braden Looper
(returning to the set-up role he handled well a few yars ago in Florida), LHP Ricardo Rincon
, and veteran RHP middle relievers Jeff Nelson
, John Riedling
, and Alan Benes
. The remaining couple of spots in the bullpen were to be a competition between Randy Flores
, Brad Thompson
, Brian Falkenborg
, Tyler Johnson
, Carmen Cali
, and Rule 5 pick Juan Mateo
(since returned to the Cubs).
The Cardinals were disappointed with what they saw of Nelson, Riedling, and Benes in Spring Training, so they were released. Instead, the Redbirds will go to war in the late innings with Isringhausen, Looper, and Rincon, and hope that between Brad Thompson, Randy Flores, Josh Hancock
(released by Cincinnati during Spring Training), and failed starter Adam Wainwright, they can get some good work from the middle relief corps. Dave Duncan has done wonders in reclaiming and developing relievers over the years in Oakland and St. Louis, but only time will tell if he can do it again with the 2006 crew.
leads-off and plays SS. Eckstein falling into the Cardinalsí lap was the ultimate in serendipity (dumb luck) a year ago. After the Cardinals lost Edgar Renteria
to free-agency after the 2004 season, and as they were preparing to round up the usual suspects and perhaps start the season with utility infielder Hector Luna
at SS, the Angels suddenly non-tendered Eckstein on December 20th. Natch, the Cardinals quickly signed him to a multi-year deal, and Eckstein subsequently turned into the lead-off hitter Tony Womack
had beenóand THEN some!!!, providing a hustliní tenacious spark at the top of the order.
hit 2nd for the Cardinals most of last season, but he has retired. To replace him, Walt Jocketty signed ex-Marlins RF Juan Encarnacion
, but only after attempts to sign Brian Giles
or Jacque Jones
, Jim Edmonds
, and Scott Rolen
return in the 3-4-5 slots in the batting order, and they are about as good a threesome of middle-of-theñorder run producers youíll find anywhere. They are scary. The Cardinals came to Spring Training hoping that Rolen would be healthy again after battling a sore shoulder last year. Jim Edmonds
also has had his share of nagging injuries over the past few year.
The #6-7-8 spots were the big questions, as LF Reggie Sanders and 2B Mark Grudzielanek both left via free-agency and signed with the cross-state rival Kansas City Royals. To replace them, Jocketty acquired LF Larry Bigbie
and 2B Aaron Miles
(both coming off seasons where they lost their starting jobs) from Colorado, and 2B Junior Spivey
from Washington (Spivey also had a poor 2005). Yadier Molina
was expected to be the #1 catcher and hit 7th or 8th, backed up by veteran Gary Bennett
Tony LaRussa hit Encarnacion in Larry Walkerís #2 slot in Spring Training, although Tony may end up moving Encarnacion to the #6 slot if he can find somebody else to hit 2nd.
Aaron Miles started Spring Training competing for the 2B job with Spivey and Luna, but won the job outright by having an excellent Spring Training (striking out only ONE TIME in 40 PA). It helped Milesí cause that Spivey came to camp out of shape and hit about .150 with five errors (he was subsequently designated for assignement), and that La Russa prefers to use Luna as a super-sub ultility player. But still, Miles had a good Spring and earned the starting second-sack job.
Larry Bigbie, the expected starting LF, is presently sidelined with a stress fracture in his foot. This has necessitated a So Taguchi
platoon in LF that provides excellent defense, but not much offense out of the #6 spot in the order. And itís not like Bigbie would necessarily be much better, either. Ideally, Taguchi and Schumaker would be late-inning defensive replacements available off the bench.
1B-OF John Rodriguez
beat out veteran Brian Daubach
and will be John Mabry
ís replacement as the Cards #1 lefty PH, and veteran switch-hitting IF-OF Scott Spiezio
(whose dad Ed played for the Cardinals in the 1960's) also won a job in Spring Training.
The bottom line is, even when Bigbie returns, the Cardinals will probably need an upgrade in LF (and the #6 spot in the order), but they have no in-house options, except MAYBE lefty slugger Chris Duncan
, who was moved to LF in Spring Training, but who has major defensive shortcomings no matter where he plays (not to mention very high K totals). Unless it gets to the point where they feel they can trade one of their starting pitchers to get a LF who is also a run producer, this need will remain unfilled, and could induce rival managers to pitch around the #5 hitter (usually Scott Rolen
The Cardinals are going to miss Matt Morris, Julian Tavarez, Ray King, Reggie Sanders, and Mark Grudzielanek a lot. The starting rotation will need to stay totally healthy like it did last year, and even then Ponson or Reyes will have to go a ways to replace what Matt Morris gave them last year. Likewise for other positions like 2B and LF, and the bullpen. And then there is the lack of ready-made "replacement parts" for the pitching staff at AA & AAA.
Juan Encarnacion is not
a #2 hitter, although he is a good defender with a very strong arm, and so he should be a plus in RF. In fact, I wish the Cubs had signed him instead of Jacque Jones
The main problems will probably be the #5 starter (Ponson, Reyes, or Wainwright), bullpen depth, and the #2, #6 and #7 spots in the batting order, with the biggest problem of all being that the Big Red pitching staff just ainít what it used-ta-be in 2004-05, and other than Anthony Reyes, there isnít much to recommend (pitching wise) at the top end (AA and AAA) of the Cardinal farm system.
90-72 (2nd Place in the N. L. Central, finishing five games behind your Chicago Cubs. However, I predict the Cards will be the N. L. Wild Card team).