How will the Redbirds handle the Pujols pressure?
As much as the club and Albert Pujols assert that the impasse in contract negotiations will not be a distraction, rest assured it will be. Fans and the media will keep the subject of Pujols’ future on the front burner all season. Just how deeply that permeates the clubhouse is in question, but the front office, manager and players cannot escape the subject.
But for the moment, manager Tony La Russa is charged with getting his 2011 roster ready to challenge for the National League pennant. The 2010 Cardinals club, built around two of the finest starting pitchers in the league and two of the best hitters in the game, discovered late in the season that it could not contend with its core alone. Injuries robbed the rotation of two starters in May, and inconsistencies sabotaged the offense. The Cardinals’ chronic lack of depth, on the roster and in the lineup, was most acute after they woke up on Aug. 13 in first place. They slid out of contention by going 3–20 against losing teams in the next five weeks. It was a vexing stretch from a club headlined by Pujols (second in MVP voting), Adam Wainwright (second in Cy Young voting) and upstart Jaime Garcia (third in Rookie of the Year voting). With Wainwright and Chris Carpenter atop the rotation and Pujols and Matt Holliday fixtures in the lineup, the Cardinals will combat last year’s uncertainties with familiarity. They re-signed starter Jake Westbrook and landed two respected rivals, former Cub Ryan Theriot and signature Astro Lance Berkman, to alter the lineup and uplift the clubhouse. The Cardinals enhanced their rotation and offense, but their insurance against injury is still thin. Developing depth during the season will determine if that solid core gets a chance to play deep into October.
Wainwright emerged in 2010 not just as the Cardinals’ ace but, as one club official later said, the “top pitcher in our division.” On his way to 20 wins and a second consecutive top-three finish in Cy Young voting, Wainwright set a major league record with 28 successive home quality starts. The righty anchored a staff that had an NL-best 3.50 ERA and has become the driving force for the Cardinals, not only for their aspirations in 2011 but, with all five under contract, for 2012 as well. Carpenter is 33–13 with a 2.78 ERA the last two seasons. The Cardinals coveted Westbrook and his sinker for years, finally landing him in a three-team trade and locking him in with a two-year contract. He is the prototype for the Cardinals’ groundball-greedy approach. Garcia, 24, forced his way into the rotation with a standout spring and finished with a rookie-best 2.70 ERA. Kyle Lohse had unusual surgery in June to release tension in his forearm, restoring his ability to grip his pitches and, the Cardinals hope, his 2008 form.
Thrust into the role three years ago, Ryan Franklin has become a constant at closer with 82 saves since the start of the ’08 season. The search for his understudy continues with flamethrowers Jason Motte and Mitchell Boggs in line as the early arrivals from a system charged with developing power arms, like Eduardo Sanchez and Adam Ottavino. St. Louis native Kyle McClellan has blossomed in the setup role. On the left side, veteran Trever Miller is joined by Brian Tallet, a former starter who is being recast as a specialist for the first time in his career.
Shortstop Brendan Ryan and second baseman Skip Schumaker stumbled, meandering through a difficult first half and hitting .245 combined overall. That necessitated a change. Ryan was shipped out to Seattle and Theriot was landed in a swap with the Dodgers. Desperate for a new look up the middle, the Cardinals willingly traded defense for more reliable offense, counting on Theriot’s savvy and bat to compensate for losing Ryan’s nimble glove. A career outfielder, Schumaker starts his third season in the infield, a move first inspired by his ability to hit .300 at leadoff.
Pujols, already a three-time MVP, flirted with a Triple Crown run in late August. He won a second Gold Glove, and he finished second in MVP voting for the fourth time his career, the first player in the expansion era to do so. Through his first 10 years, Pujols has more homers than Hank Aaron did, more RBIs than Stan Musial did, a higher average than Tony Gwynn had, and more runs than record-holder Rickey Henderson did. Pujols enters the final year of his first multi-year contract as the face of the game and its undisputed best hitter. Third baseman David Freese’s rookie season was undone by ankle troubles, and his absence accelerated the Cardinals’ offensive issues. If he remains healthy, Freese’s nose for RBIs will lengthen the lineup.
In the first year of the biggest contract in club history, Holliday delivered as the desired bodyguard for Pujols and the only outfielder in the NL to rank in the top 10 in average (.312), on-base percentage (.390) and slugging (.532). He and Colby Rasmus, whose .498 slugging led all NL center fielders, give the Cardinals the potential for the most productive outfield tandem in the league, especially if Rasmus can maintain his strength through a season. To complete their outfield, the Cardinals took an opportunistic gamble — signing five-time All-Star Berkman for $8 million. Berkman adds a dimension to the lineup with his career .409 on-base percentage, but he hasn’t been an everyday outfielder since 2004, and he has been dogged by recent leg troubles. That risk is worth it for the Cardinals, who believe the jovial Berkman is positioned for a rebound year offensively.
Yadier Molina, a three-time Gold Glove winner, shouldered more innings behind the plate the past two seasons than any other catcher, leading with 1,138 in 2010. The mileage has meant knee trouble in three of past four years. It hasn’t eroded his game: Molina neutralized runners (49 percent caught) and caught for a career-best 3.24 ERA. Helped by backup Gerald Laird, the Cards will strive to demand less so Molina can give more later.
The Cardinals started 2010 with an inexperienced bench, believing that it would be beneficial financially and developmentally to stock it with youth. It didn’t take long to reconsider and add vets like Randy Winn and Aaron Miles for support. It’s a recipe poised for a repeat. Nick Punto joins the team after spending the past seven seasons in Minnesota. He has more than 200 career starts each at second, third and short. He should provide defensive support for Theriot. The Cardinals will lean on outfielders Allen Craig for power and Jon Jay for versatility. Tyler Greene and Daniel Descalso will audition for utility openings, though neither has a wealth of experience in the role.
La Russa returns for a 16th season, already the club’s all-time leader in wins (1,318) and long past the expiration date of 10 years he envisioned. At 66, he insists on the flexibility of a one-year contract yet has no interest in retirement talk. La Russa conceded a need for “refreshing the message” to reach an influx of younger players and engage returning players. Pitching coach Dave Duncan is back on a multi-year contract that grants his wish to be more active with pitching development. GM John Mozeliak is in the defining stretch of his career. He’s reshuffled the front office for greater unity, locked in Holliday, integrated a growing statistical influence, and allowed aggressive amateur signings to restock the system. His tenure, however, will be known by the result of one deal — what happens with Pujols.
The Cardinals have not won a playoff game since clinching the 2006 World Series. Pujols, influenced by those early October exits, has expressed a wish to remain a Cardinal but stresses an urge to remain a contender. As 2010 unraveled, the Cardinals described a “stale” sense in the clubhouse and on the field, prompting Mozeliak to rewire the team’s chemistry. Those catalysts coupled with La Russa’s approaching twilight and an increased payroll should spark added urgency to get a Pujols-led nucleus to the playoffs and also bind it for seasons beyond.