ST LOUIS—It should come as no surprise that the St. Louis Cardinals are contending for first place in the NL Central; after all, they’ve been a powerhouse for years. What may surprise most, is that the Cardinals are winning ballgames with so many different lineup combinations.
Included in that, though, are a major-league high eleven rookies, five of who are making their major league debuts. I’ve been on-scene at Busch Stadium all weekend in an attempt to spotlight two of those young players, third-year infielder Brendan Ryan and rookie outfielder Nick Stavinoha.
At first glance, St. Louis Cardinals’ infielder Brendan Ryan isn’t any different than the majority of major league baseball players. He’s a 27-year-old fighting for time at shortstop, eager to see the field.
In Stavinoha’s case, he looks more like your prototypical NFL linebacker than your average rightfielder. Turns out, he played football at the University of Houston for a year before deciding that baseball was his calling.
When I spoke with Ryan prior to a series against the Diamondbacks late last season, he was very optimistic for this season, and for good reason. After a solid spring training, Ryan’s “audition” had turned into fruition, and he was on the big club.
Ryan produced several solid defensive plays in an early season series against the Atlanta Braves, and after the much-documented struggles of free-agent signing Khalil Greene, he has been thrust into the rotation on a more regular basis.
It’s just as difficult for teammates as it is for fans to see Greene struggle with anxiety issues, which seem to have been parlayed into hitting and fielding troubles, as well.
Whether Ryan will become Tony La Russa’s everyday choice at shortstop is uncertain, and he’s definitely not ready to make that premature assumption.
“It's always nice when you're a starter, but for right now, I am fine with my bench role,” Ryan said.
Hitting just .241 is no guaranteed ticket for everyday play, but La Russa has openly stated that Ryan is among the best defensive options the ballclub has to offer.
As a columnist here for BleacherReport.com, I think it’s reasonable to interject my own opinion regarding the topic. That being said, no offense to Khalil or Tyler Greene, but I really think this should be Ryan’s job.
La Russa told the Associated Press last week that Khalil Greene has been relegated to utility status until he can figure out his swing, troubled by his aforementioned anxiety issue.
Inevitably this means that Ryan will be getting a healthy handful of starts in the upcoming weeks. For example, in the first game of the Cardinals’ 2009 interleague debut series, Ryan was etched in to start at shortstop, hitting 9th in the batting order.
Perhaps another reason why Ryan is being received in such a positive light by management is his defensive production. His highlight reels aren’t the main body of his defensive prowess, though.
He’s turned five double plays in just eight games at shortstop, and has yet to commit an error.
Ryan seems to have received some extra security prior to Sunday’s series finale with the Cardinals optioning Tyler Greene to Triple-A Memphis at the news of Rick Ankiel’s activation.
This clearly means that La Russa feels as though Ryan can be a strong contributor to the team.
Stavinoha probably won’t be as fortunate, though. He is likely to be optioned upon the activation of 20008 All-Star outfielder Ryan Ludwick, which is expected to be sometime next week.
As cliché as it sounds; Stavinoha is honestly taking it “one day at a time”.
"I'm not going to sit here and think about what could happen or what might happen." Stavinoha said.
After starting seven straight games, Stavinoha was relegated to the bench for Sunday’s afternoon matinee in favor of Ankiel, Colby Rasmus, and Chris Duncan. In this series, though, he has been on a power binge, hitting two key RBI hits in the first inning to pace the Cardinals to victory.
His defensive abilities haven’t been challenged much yet in the bigs, but my estimation from seeing him play for the last week is that he has nice mobility with relatively good awareness. La Russa put it best, “He’s a smart guy”.
The recent success also must come as a relief to “Stavi”, who hit just .193 in brief stints with the Cardinals last year.
“I’m definitely more comfortable [this time around],” Stavinoha, talking about last season. “I was a little bit over-aggressive”.
My personal opinion is that it’s really too bad to see him go down, but it’s a must-happen. With Ankiel and Ludwick roaming the outfield grass, and Rasmus and Duncan swinging relatively decent bats, there just isn’t room for Stavi, except for a couple pinch-hitting opportunities.
They would be much better served carrying another pitcher and sending Stavi down to Memphis to fine-tune his game in the hopes that he can make an impact next season if Ankiel or Duncan gets moved in the offseason.
He knew what he came here for, part-time employment, he accepted the role, and got the job done to his best abilities. As a spectator, you’ve got to commend Stavi’s role recognition.
Both Ryan and Stavinoha have worked the way into the mind of La Russa, but there also comes a time when the regular players end up earning the position over the newcomers. Although it seems that unless your name is Albert Pujols or Yadier Molina, your lineup spot just isn’t all that secure right now, several other players seem to be seeing their name more often, forcing players such as Ryan and Stavi to bench duties.
It remains to be seen how both of this players can find a full-time spot in the Cardinals lineup, but what is certain is that will both continue to work their hardest to get the job done to find their way into La Russa’s lineup card on a daily basis.