Five questions: St. Louis Cardinals

Let’s get the no-brainers out of the way first:

Q: Will Khalil Greene bounce back?
A: Yes; he’ll be the down-order extra-base threat the Cards have lacked since 2005. The franchise record for homers in a season by a shortstop is 16; Greene will probably set a new standard this year.

Q: Was Ryan Ludwick’s 2008 season a fluke?
A: Yes, but so what. He can regress a long way toward the mean (to, say, an .850 OPS), and still be a three-win player. As long as he stays healthy, he’ll be an asset.

Q: Will the closer-by-committee work out?
A: It may not be a committee; Jason Motte appears close to winning the job outright. But even if he doesn’t, among Motte, Chris Perez (slowed by a sore shoulder this spring), Josh Kinney, and the always willing (if not able) Ryan Franklin, the Cards ought to find a way to muddle through. They can’t do worse than they did in 2008.

Those are gimmes; they don’t count against the five. So let’s get going w/ the Official Quintet of Cardinals Questions for 2009:

Can Chris Carpenter stay healthy?

This is the only meaningful question in this entire article, to be perfectly honest. It’s the “Does God exist?” of the Cards’ 2009 campaign. If Carpenter’s arm holds up, his team has an excellent chance at an October afterlife; if he misses any significant time, then God, heaven and postseason baseball will likely remain mere rumors to the Cardinals for another year.

Carpenter’s comeback from an Opening Day 2007 elbow injury has been one of those patience-of-Job things. Since then, Carp has as many trips to the operating room as games started—three of each. The main concern at this point is the ulnar nerve, which was transposed last fall in his most recent surgery. There also are lingering concerns about a nerve in Carpenter’s shoulder, which (this is so hard to keep track of) is what curtailed his comeback last August.

His performance this spring has been far more encouraging than the Cardinals had any reason to hope. Carpenter has hit every benchmark for stamina, thrown with velocity and command, and gotten stellar results (a 0.00 spring ERA through 19 innings). He has reminded everybody what the Cardinals were thinking when they signed him to that $75 million extension two years ago: He’s the best Cardinals pitcher since Bob Gibson. If he’s able to stay in the rotation this year, the Cardinals can only like their chances.

How many weeks does it take to learn to play second base?

Seven or fewer, the Cardinals hope. They released Adam Kennedy on Feb. 9, eight weeks before Opening Day; a few days later, outfielder Skip Schumaker reported to camp and started taking grounders at the keystone.

Up to that point, the notion of moving Schumaker to second made to sense only to a tiny, earnest cult of talk radio callers and newspaper chat-room posters. The guy last played infield eight years ago, at the University of California-Santa Barbara, and nobody can cite an example of a successful outfield-to-second base conversion at the big-league level. But why should that deter the Cardinals? Their starting centerfielder, (Rick Ankiel) was a pitcher until a few years ago, and their potential closer (Motte) was a catcher as recently as mid-2006. Of course, those guys learned their new trades in the minor leagues; Schumaker will have to transmogrify in the majors. And he’ll have to do it in a matter of weeks, not years. So the degree of difficulty on this reengineering project is vastly higher than anything the Cardinals have pulled off to this point.

Things looked bleak early on. Schumaker made four errors in the first 12 games of the exhibition slate and manifestly could not turn the DP. But he’s been pretty steady the last couple of weeks, mastering the pivot and showing decent range to his left. Can he go the other way and turn grounders up the middle into outs? C’mon, it’s only been five weeks; two more to go until the timer rings. . . . .

Schumaker apparently will open the season as the Cards’ second baseman, but the enterprise will remain on an experimental footing for at least the first 20 or 30 games of the regular season. If it has to be aborted at some point (and there’s still a significant chance of that), Brendan Ryan and Joe Thurston will take over while the Cards seek a trade or add a piece of driftwood such as Ray Durham or Mark Grudzielanek. But suppose, against all the odds, it works out? The Cards will have a vacancy at shortstop next year, and a whole off-season to convert somebody from one of the other eight positions . . . .

How many runs will the defense give away?

See the previous question. According to John Dewan’s Fielding Bible II, St. Louis saved more runs with the glove than any team in the majors last year except Philadelphia. But the Cards will open the year with new starters at four positions— and unless Colby Rasmus beats out Chris Duncan for the left fielder’s job, all four newcomers will be weaker defenders than the men they replaced.

Last year’s DP combo (Kennedy and Cesar Izturis) saved 31 runs over an average duo, according to Dewan; this year’s pairing of Greene and Schumaker will be very lucky to break even. Troy Glaus had a great year with the glove in 2008, but until he returns from shoulder surgery on or about May 1, some combination of David Freese, Joe Mather, Brian Barden and Joe Thurston will cover third base. For a team that relies so heavily on groundball pitchers, the infield displacements could have a decisive (read: disastrous) impact. It’s not impossible the Cardinals could lose 50 runs over last season on defense alone.

Who’ll set the table against left-handed pitching?

This, too, is sort of a corollary to question No. 2. A major rationale for shifting Schumaker to second base is to keep him in the leadoff slot without denying at-bats in left field to Duncan and/or Rasmus. Schumaker had a .786 OPS while batting first last year, the best Cardinal performance from the leadoff hole since Bernard Gilkey’s .813 mark in 1995. But against southpaw pitchers, you don’t want Schumaker in the lineup at all: He hit .168 and slugged .185 in 120-plus plate appearances against LHP last year (.340/.393/.468 against RHP).

When they face a right hander, the Cards can bat Schumaker first and either Duncan or Rasmus second, but against southpaws they don’t have any good options. Greene (career OBP: .304) is one of the better candidates; the others include Mather, Ryan and Ankiel (who handles left-handed pitching pretty well). If the Cards struggle against left handers, they may have to recall outfielder Brian Barton from Memphis (.374 OBP against lefties in limited playing time last season) to get on base ahead of El Hombre.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Was Todd Wellemeyer’s 2008 season a fluke?

This is an undersold storyline. The Cardinals act as if Wellemeyer is just an innings eater behind their front three of Carpenter, Wainwright and Kyle Lohse, but in reality Lohse is the innings-eater and Welley (a.k.a. The Colonel) is the frontline type. Set aside his six midseason starts from last year, when he pitched through an elbow injury; he should have been disabled, but the St. Louis rotation was already short-handed so Wellemeyer soldiered through with reduced velocity and poor command. In his 25 healthy starts—his first 13 of the year, and his last 12 (after the elbow stopped barking)— Wellmeyer threw 161 innings and went 12-6 with a 2.96 ERA and an opponent batting average of .228.

Given his elbow troubles and his career-high workload in 2008 (nearly triple his previous single-season high), The Colonel seems like a good candidate to regress and/or to spend time on the DL. But if he can repeat last year’s performance, he gives the Cardinals a third potent weapon at the front of the rotation. Wellemeyer’s overall 2008 line was nearly a carbon copy of Adam Wainwright’s in 2007—the same line that made Wainwright the Cards’ Opening Day starter and de facto ace one year later. Should Wellemeyer build on last year’s success, rather than fall off from it, he could put the Cardinal rotation into elite territory.

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