Reports of the St. Louis Cardinals rebuilding efforts were not greatly exaggerated.
Actually, they were dead-on. They just came a year late.
The club struggled last season with the death of a player, the drug addiction of another (Scott Spiezio), and oh yeah, their ace of their pitching staff was lost for the season on opening day!
Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan have produced miracles before (see: Jeff Weaver, Woody Williams and Andy Benes), but there was no realistic way to overcome all those problems, even in a mediocre NL Central.
Despite all these issues, the team was only a game back of first place on September 3. And there’s no way the Cardinals will endure that many problems this year.
Plus, the team made positive moves this offseason (dumping Rolen, Edmonds, signing a starter in Kyle Lohse). There was no way the team could be worse.
Although every magazine, website, and columnist had the Cards coming in fifth this season in their division, I believed they would finish much higher.
So far, my hopes have been answered. Going into tonight’s game against Pittsburgh, the Cards stand at 13-8, and if the playoffs started tomorrow, they’d be in.
So although the season is barely three weeks old, lets take a look at why the MLB’s most surprising team is sitting pretty in late April.
5) Tony La Russa
You can talk about all the crap he had to deal with last season but the bottom line is that he’s one of the best managers of all time.
Batting the pitcher in the eighth spot has been effective, and his use of the five outfielders on his roster has been incredible. His handling of the bullpen (specifically Kyle McClellan and Anthony Reyes) has been superb. He’s certainly getting the most out of his players.
4) Albert Pujols
El Hombre hasn’t even had the April that he had a couple years ago, but he’s still been incredible, batting .352 with four homeruns and 16 RBI.
But the way that he protects hitters around him in the lineup has led to inflated numbers from Ankiel, Ryan Ludwick, and Chris Duncan. Without his bat looming in the three spot, these role players don’t see as many hittable pitches. His leadership can’t be measured.
3) Starting Pitching
After three weeks, a rag-tag Cardinals rotation posted a 3.66 ERA. And they’re only going to get better. Joel Pinero has improved in each start since returning from the DL.
Mark Mulder is already throwing rehab starts, Matt Clement is due back in a month, and Chris Carpenter is expected around the All-Star break. That leaves the Cardinals with 10 potential starters, counting Anthony Reyes and Brad Thompson. Look for John Mozeliak to use this excess of starting pitching to swing a deal when players start returning.
Last season the Cardinals were slow, stale, and tired. The infusion of youth into the lineup this season has brought speed, talent, energy, and hunger. Brian Barton, Chris Duncan, Rick Ankiel, Ryan Ludwick, and Skip Schumaker all play with a passion and desire not seen on last years club.
Additionally, Kyle McClellan and Reyes have been tremendous in clutch situations coming out of the bullpen. With Colby Rasmus and Chris Perez waiting at Triple-A Memphis, the future looks bright in St. Louis.
1) Dave Duncan
With no disrespect to Todd Wellemeyer, Brad Thompson, and Kyle Lohse, the Redbirds rotation is not the fifth-best in the MLB, as reflected by its ERA. Wellemeyer is averaging over a strikeout per inning.
The only reason for these numbers is the tutelage of Dave Duncan. Duncan has bred confidence into journeymen like Wellemeyer and Lohse and gotten McClellan and Reyes to maximize superior talent. Without him, this rotation would be revealed for what it really is: inconsistent and below average.
For all the success the Cards have had this year, they look to have more in the future. Schumaker, McClellan, Reyes, Ankiel, Duncan and Barton all have long-term potential, and Rasmus and Perez will make a big-league impact this season.
So let's toast the signature Busch Stadium Budweiser: to a fun April, and even more excitement to come.