As the boys of summer once again prepare to take the field, it's time to break down one of baseball's most storied franchises. While many variables go into a successful season, let's focus on these five for starters.
Every team battles this on a yearly basis. But the Cardinals enter the season dependent on many players that have battled injuries in the past, the most important of these being Chris Carpenter.
The one-time ace looks to regain his form and lead a generally inexperienced staff. If Carpenter returns to anything close to his old self, the Cardinals have a solid trio at the top of their rotation with him, Adam Wainwright and Kyle Lohse. If not, they'll be looking for Dave Duncan to work his magic again.
The acquisition of Troy Glaus was a great deal last year. Unfortunately, he got hurt again and starts the season mending an injury. Lucky for the Cardinals, though, there are a slew of prospects chomping at the bit.
David Freese has the inside track due to his solid defense and a good season in AAA last year. Freese was thought of as a throw-in when Edmonds was traded, yet responded with his best season in the minors.
Don't rule out the huge bat of Brett Wallace, the highly regarded former PAC-10 triple crown winner. With the prospects in place, this very easily could be Glaus' last year with the Cards.
Rick Ankiel has put up good numbers when healthy. The only problem is that throughout his career (including his pitching days), he has battled injuries far too frequently. One might also worry about Yadier Molina (who has never caught more than 130 games in a season), new shortstop Khalil Greene, and the once-promising Chris Duncan.
The question here is simple: What do you do with six players that are Major-League ready?
There are too many solid players and not enough roster space. Last year's outfield was good when healthy:
Skip Schumaker solidified the leadoff spot and played good defense, Rick Ankiel showed flashes of brilliance with his glove and arm in center before his season was cut short, and Ryan Ludwick came out of nowhere to almost achieve Pujols-level numbers.
One thing is for certain, though. The Cardinals want super prospect Colby Rasmus to earn a job. He struggled through an injury-riddled year in the minors, but according to many major publications, he remains the prized jewel in the system.
Chris Duncan, who had two solid years of 20+ homers before being shut down early last year, may also be ready for service this year. His replacement in 2008, Joe Mather, is basically a right-handed clone in size and power. The edge goes to Mather due to quality defense, ability to play infield, and youth.
The Cardinals were able to find a solid bench player in the Rule Five draft with Brian Barton. This versatile outfielder can play all three positions, hit for a decent average, and use his speed well on the base paths. Nick Stavinoha may also get a nod at some point, as he saw limited duty to close the year.
Waiting in the wings are two other top prospects: Daryl Jones and John Jay. It's debatable whether Rasmus or Jones will be the better player down the road, but most agree that those two and Jay will all be serviceable major leaguers at some point.
The solution to the crowded outfield problem is simple. When you have too much of a good thing, trade your depth and improve someplace else. Approaching spring training, it would make sense for the Cardinals to move either Ankiel or Ludwick, as they are the oldest and are due the most money.
Both of them are taking cases to salary arbitration and may well earn solid raises. Yet all three of the starters from last season have been rumored at one time or another to be traded this offseason.
Last year the team tied Seattle for the league lead with 31 blown saves. Once-reliable closer Jason Isringhausen, finally showed his age and fell apart, leaving the rest of the bullpen to try to pick up the pieces.
For a short while, setup man Ryan Franklin seemed to be the answer, but he quickly faded. Call-ups Chris Perez and Jason Motte both showed signs of handling the role in the future, but with the failed signing of Brian Fuentes, the future seems to be now.
Manager Tony LaRussa has said that he prefers not to rush these two. But with pitchers and catchers reporting in a week, he may have no choice.
Franklin seems to be much better-suited in the setup role. His years of experience make him the perfect mentor for these two. Both are flamethrowers with fastballs topping out nearly 100 mph.
Perez seems to be the more polished and has good secondary pitches available. Motte dares you to hit, yet needs to work on improving his repertoire. In late season work, though Motte was very effective, his strikeout rate was more than one batter per inning.
Not since the '80s have the Cardinals built their own closer. Todd Worrell was the last closer to work through the farm system. The time is now for an infusion of youth.
4. Left-handed relievers
After early offseason speculation that they would make a push for relievers Joe Biemel or Will Ohman, the Cardinals went to Plan B. They quickly signed former Tampa Bay Ray Trevor Miller, then followed with the pickups of Charlie Manning and Royce Ring. They will likely give minor leaguer Ian Ostlund a chance as well.
Out of these four, they hope to find two that can get the job done.
If all goes well, between improved left-handed relief, closing, and setup game, the Cardinals hope that the bullpen will be a strength and not a weakness.
5. Coaching staff and youth
Most baseball insiders agree that Tony LaRussa is one of the best managers in the game. Year in and year out, LaRussa finds a way to put a team on the field that plays hard and competes. His track record speaks for itself.
Most of the members of his coaching staff have been with him for years. Dave Duncan is one of the senior members of his staff and manages to revive old arms to make them useful.
Regardless of talent, this coaching staff finds ways to out-coach, out-maneuver, and out-plan many other staffs. They are a secret weapon that many teams don't have.
This year they will have to do something that they aren't always accustomed to doing: working with youth.
Tony has made no bones about the fact that he prefers older players and Duncan seems to do better with aging pitchers. To be successful this year, they will have to develop players from within and find a way for the youth to bond with the veterans.
When the chalk dust settles and the umpire calls "play ball," the 2009 Cardinals will take the field like each of the other 29 MLB teams. If these five variables play in their favor, we will be talking about them again in the playoffs; if not, it will be another year of "what could have been."
The next 162 games will tell the tale.
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