Monday, March 7, 2011

The St. Louis Cards Are Not All Right

By Joshua Duffy

When you're a fan of a baseball team, spring training should be a time for hope. Whether you actually believe your team will win the World Series or not is besides the point — they could win the World Series. And that could is good enough.

And then stuff starts happening, stuff that chisels away at the facade of could and uses the broken pieces of promise to build a nice little castle of doubt.

Such has been the headline of St. Louis Cardinals spring training 2011.

It started with the interminable Albert Pujols extension negotiations. Without knowing the exact details of the proposals from each side, it basically comes down to Pujols wanting Alex Rodriguez-Plus and the Cardinals offering Ryan Howard-Minus. The fact there was no agreement by the "deadline" was bad. The follow-up stories about him landing with the Cubs was worse.

(How bad would that suck? Imagine your spouse is everything you ever wanted — hot, great cook, great in bed, great sense of humor, makes big money. Now imagine that spouse left your ass for your worst enemy in the whole world. And now imagine that your enemy works with you and you will have to see your awesome ex-spouse 19 times a year at work functions, and he/she will be draped all over your enemy's arm. Oh, and your kids like your enemy better than you, too. That's how much it would suck.)

So that was bad, but we Cards fans could get around that. Sure, it was a distraction, but Pujols is still on the team this year, and that's what matters. We'll worry about next year in November.

And then Adam Wainwright tore up his elbow and went down for the year. Now we're talking some serious trouble.

I know Waino gets recognition outside of St. Louis, as well he should given his recent success (29-19, 2.53 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 8.3 k/9 last two years). But he is straight revered here in St. Louis. In fact, if you asked all Cardinals fans who their favorite player is, my bet is Waino beats Albert. A little of that is because St. Louis is racist and likes white people better, but still. Wainwright going down is a big freaking deal.

So we're down two strikes, but two strikes isn't out. It just means you've lost all your room for error. If we can get through the rest of spring without another disaster, hopes of another NL Central Division crown and deep trip into the postseason are still alive.

Except the chances of us making it very far without another disaster seem pretty slim. Consider:

* Chris Carpenter already had to leave a start with hamstring soreness. He should be fine, but he's still about to turn 36 and only once in his career has he pitched more than 200 innings in a season and not gotten hurt the next year. He pitched 235 innings in 2010.

* Without Wainwright, it's doubly important that 2010 rookie phenom Jaime Garcia match or surpass his freshman totals. Except he pitched 163 innings last year, up 110 from the 53 he pitched in 2009 coming off of Tommy John surgery. If I'm not mistaken, there's some pretty strong anecdotal evidence to suggest young pitchers who make dramatic jumps in innings pitched tend to regress the next year.

* The rest of the starting pitching staff consists of Jake Westbrook (career record of 73-75 with a 4.29 ERA), Kyle Lohse (88-98, 4.79) and probably Kyle McClellan (last start in 2007 as a 23-year-old with Palm Beach of the Florida State League). I know Dave Duncan is a guru of lemons-to-lemonade, but we're asking for a lot here, no?

* With such a shaky starting staff, the bullpen had better be nails. Too bad they had to pull one of their best relievers in McClellan out of the 'pen to take over a starting role, and their closer, Ryan Franklin, is 38. That's not to say Mitchell Boggs can't step in for McClellan and Jason Motte can't step in for Franklin if need be, but there's still too much uncertainty considering the state of the starting staff.

* The new right fielder is supposed to be 35-year-old Lance Berkman. The last time he played the outfield on a regular basis was 2004. The last time he played the outfield at all was 2007. He's already missed time this spring with soreness in his elbow (because he's not used to long throws) and calf (because he's old and his nickname is Fat Elvis). What are we putting the over/under on DL stints? Three? Four? Seven?

* The best young player on the roster is Colby Rasmus, who clashes with manager Tony La Russa and still wants to be a home run hero instead of just nailing line drives all over the park. He's young, but he's got to stop running to daddy any time the skipper tells him something he doesn't like. There's just a little bit too much J.D. Drew potential there for my liking.

* I like the transition from Brendan Ryan to Ryan Theriot, basically because Ryan was a spaz whose bat made David Eckstein look like Mark McGwire. Still, Theriot has already reached his career ceiling and it's right around a .275 batting average and .320 on-base percentage. I love scrappy as much as the next guy, but there's a reason scrappy guys are known for being scrappy — because they don't have the talent to be known for anything else.

* While the Cardinals lost Wainwright after a failed winter of playing contract chicken with the best player the franchise has seen since Stan Musial, the Brewers added Shawn Marcum and Zack Greinke, the Cubs added Matt Garza and Carlos Pena, and the Reds returned everybody from last year's division championship team. Fourth place is not out of the question here.

So there you have it. The Cards have a great one-two with Pujols and Matt Holliday, and Carpenter is a true gamer, but only a fool would put money on St. Louis as the favorites for the NL Central, let alone with World Series. And so while the Cards may still have hope, it's more a Pirates kind of hope than the normal Yankees kind of hope, and that's not cool. That's not cool at all.

Play ball.

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