Albert Pujols had analysts talking Triple Crown, Chris Carpenter is as dominant as ever, and Matt Holliday gives these St. Louis Cardinals real playoff potential.
But, despite all of the hoopla surrounding these Cardinals megastars, none are quite as important to the Redbirds' 2009 World Series dreams as Ryan Franklin.
Yes, Pujols, Carpenter, and Holliday may be better at what they do, but without Franklin this team falls apart.
With the addition of Holliday, Mark DeRosa, and Julio Lugo, Cardinal fans have witnessed their team can actually win without El Hombre. Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, and Joel Pineiro have given the Cardinals a terrific set of starting pitching, combining for 31 wins.
Ryan Franklin has done it by himself.
He has carried the entire bullpen and, in effect, the Cardinals to a current first-place tie in the NL Central.
Since Wainwright's brilliant work in the 2006 season, the role of closer has been a mess. Jason Isringhausen was either injured or ineffective, leaving La Russa to choose between rookies Jason Motte and Chris Perez. Neither have worked out so far.
The Cardinals had an astonishing 31 blown saves in 2008, good enough for the worst in baseball. St. Louis still managed a 86-76 record for the year, finishing just four games out of the wild card position.
Enter Ryan Franklin.
Not only as he provided stability as the closer, he has excelled in the role. Currently tied for fifth in the NL for saves (24), he has only squandered two opportunities this season.
He has been the man Tony La Russa has leaned on to keep the Cardinals in games, breaking the one-innings norm for closers in today's game. Six of his 24 saves have been more than three outs, most of cleaning up another relievers mess in the eighth.
The frightening aspect of this is there is no heir apparent if Franklin were to succumb to an injury. There are currently three other pitchers in the Cardinals bullpen that have an ERA under five, and only one would be considered to replace Franklin.
Trever Miller has an impressive 2.22 ERA, but is an exclusive lefty specialist. Right-handers are batting .371 with three homers on Miller.
Rookie Blake Hawksworth has pitched less than 20 innings this season, but has shown potential. However, putting the rookie into the closing role would likely lead to Motte/Perez results rather than Wainwright results.
Kyle McClellan would be the most logical choice from the current roster, with nine holds and the most complete bullpen pitcher. However, his two blown saves in three chances leave the question of whether he could handle the role.
Basically, it leaves Franklin to continue his All-Star pace for the Cardinals. He has the material, as Nathaniel Stoltz ranked Franklin curveball the most effective in the major leagues, and his fastball sixth. Franklin has struck out 30 while only walking eight, and has the lowest ERA of any closer, AL or NL.
So far, Franklin has been the difference between last year's Cardinals and this year's team. To have any chance to reach the World Series, Ryan Franklin must remain healthy and dominant.