In the final year of his contract, Albert Pujols has been and will continue to be the focus of a lot of media attention this year.
Catcher and first base are the only two positions Cardinal fans should feel comfortable with defensively. Yadier Molina is easily one of the best defensive catchers in the game. I won’t bore you with stats, but suffice it to say Molina’s defensive numbers at the end of each season consistently rank among the top 10 in the league.
As is the case with most players (and what is a bit of a theme for the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals), there is a trade of offense for defense with Molina. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, this trade-off is a lot more exaggerated with their backstop.
Molina’s lack of speed makes him a liability both on the basepaths and at the plate. I won’t dwell on Molina’s offense, but suffice it to say, he’s not going to outrun any ground balls hit on the infield. Factor in his lack of hustle on most batted balls, and I believe a third baseman could actually field a ball, jog across the diamond and touch first base to get Molina out in plenty of time.
Backing up Molina this season is Gerald Laird. Laird was signed during the offseason to replace Jason LaRue. LaRue saw his career cut short last season due to a serious concussion following a kick to the face by Reds pitcher Johnny Cueto.
Like Molina, Laird makes up for his lack of offensive ability by being solid defensively. He should be a serviceable backup, especially considering how little he is going to play.
I’m sure Bryan Anderson’s name is going to come up a lot in the backup conversation, but it makes more sense to keep him in Memphis. Anderson is only 23 years old. There’s no point in putting him on the major league ball club just to sit on the bench, when he could be in the minors getting regular playing time.
Everyone knows what the Cardinals have at first base. Albert Pujols is the best player in the game. His numbers at the plate speak for themselves, and everyone will be focused on how he performs in a contract year. That being said, I want to focus on the defensive aspect of his game.
Pujols’ range at first base is extremely underrated. Originally a third baseman/outfielder, he has the ability to field nearly any ball hit towards the right side of the infield. With a pitching staff that prides itself on pitching to contact and forcing a lot of ground ball outs, Albert’s aggressiveness could prove to be especially important this season with the defensive liability that is Skip Schumaker at second base.
Pujols has shown in seasons past the ability and willingness to range to his right and field balls that normally would be fielded by the second baseman. Normally, that sort of aggressiveness would be frowned upon. However, Schumaker, who was converted from the outfield to second base, has not progressed with the glove as the team had expected.
In addition to his aggressiveness defensively, expect an even more aggressive Pujols on the basepaths. With the question marks in the starting rotation and a less-than-average bullpen, this team is going to need as many runs as it can get. Pujols is a very smart player. When he's running the bases, expect him to get greedy for every run this team can get. Basically, third-base coach Jose Oquendo should just head into the dugout whenever Albert’s on base.
Backup wise, there’s Allen Craig who came up through the team’s farm system as a first baseman but was moved to third base and the outfield for obvious reasons.
This is where things start getting dicey for the Cardinals. As I said before, Skip Schumaker is by no means a Gold Glove second baseman. In his two full seasons at second, Schumaker has a fielding percentage of just .978. While that’s a respectable number, the former outfielder actually regressed last season as seen by the near doubling in the number of errors he committed (he finished with 16, second most among all second basemen).
With Dave Duncan’s pitch-to-contact system and a young pitcher like Jaime Garcia going every fifth day, Schumaker will have to improve significantly on defense for this team to be successful.
Offensively, Schumaker needs to forget whatever hitting coach Mark McGwire has been teaching him and just get back to what he was doing originally. Before last season, he had three consecutive seasons with a batting average above .300. However, it dropped to .265 last season.
Brendan Ryan, whose numbers at the plate also dropped off significantly under McGwire, said that the hitting coach was teaching him stuff that Ryan did not believe he was capable of.
"I don't want to throw 'Big Mac' under the bus. I was trying to get better. I tried something new,” Ryan told St. Louis Post Dispatch writer Rick Hummel in an article published earlier this spring. “It wasn't his fault. The stuff he was teaching wasn't wrong or anything. I just think I learned that I'm not strong enough to do some of those things.”
While McGwire’s not necessarily a bad teacher, it was obvious last season that whatever he was trying with Ryan and Schumaker was not working. Ryan’s gone, but Schumaker still has the opportunity to try and get back to what he was doing before McGwire came along to get his offense back on track.
With the questions surrounding this pitching staff, run production is going to be key to this team’s success. That run generation is going to start at the top of the line up with Schumaker and Ryan Theriot. The team will need those two hitters to get on base ahead of Pujols and Matt Holliday.
This is probably the biggest unknown on the Cardinals’ roster, simply because the team’s starter, David Freese, has been injury-prone throughout his career, and as fans saw last season, the alternatives are nothing spectacular.
Let’s start off with Freese. When healthy, he has shown the ability to be a dependable hitter. The St. Louis native has enough power to hit home runs, but he is still capable to hit for a high average. The biggest problem with Freese is that the injury bug has plagued him throughout his career.
Given Freese’s track record of injuries, it’s not unreasonable to worry about his durability. Should he suffer another significant injury, the Cardinals’ options are just as scarce as last year.
Offseason signee Nick Punto is serviceable as a spot starter, but it is hard to imagine him being successful should he have to fill in as the starting third baseman on a regular basis. His average has never climbed above .300 in his career (with the exception of 2001 when he had just five at-bats). In fact, the closest he ever came was in 2006 when he hit .290 with the Twins. Punto has struggled since then, hitting .210 in 2007 and just .238 in 2010.
Defensively, last season was the first season since 2007 that Punto played a significant amount of games at third base. While he had a perfect fielding percentage at third, he only played 48 games. He’s obviously a significant defensive upgrade from last year’s backup, Felipe Lopez, but should David Freese go down, he’s definitely not a long-term answer.
Of course, even if Freese gets hurt early in the season, there’s no chance that Punto will be filling in for him. Punto underwent sports hernia surgery in late February and will be out for at least the first month of the season.
Until Punto’s able to play, there is Daniel Descalso (more on Allen Craig in the outfield breakdown) and a platoon of minor leaguers to fill in at the hot corner. The most notable of these minor leaguers is Matt Carpenter. Carpenter hit .429 in 12 spring training games with the Cardinals and will start the season in Memphis, but he looks to be the Cardinals’ best alternative should Freese go down.
If Freese gets injured again this season, I think it’s fair to say the Cardinals are cursed at that position. Ever since Tony LaRussa shooed Scott Rolen out of town, the Cards have been unable to find any sort of stability at the hot corner.
Dumping Brendan Ryan in favor of Ryan Theriot epitomized the mindset of this Cardinals team. This team is willing to sacrifice defense for offense. Theriot is not a strong fielder, especially compared to Ryan. In 2009, the 31-year-old committed 15 errors, good for fifth most in the majors.
With such a mediocre fielding percentage (.976 for his career), the Cardinals are banking on him to continue hitting around the .280 mark. With his spot early in the lineup, he’s going to see a lot of pitches to hit, so there’s no excuse for him not to have a solid season at the plate.
Backing up Theriot is Tyler Greene. Greene has had two stints with the major league team in his career with the Cardinals, and both of those have been underwhelming. Over those two trips to the big leagues, Greene has played in 92 games. His average over those games is .222 with 56 strikeouts. His defensive numbers are equally disappointing. Greene has played 52 games at short. His fielding percentage in those games is .953. Awful.
Daniel Descalso is the lone utility player on the Cardinals’ roster. Descalso was solid in his 11 games with the major league club last season and has impressed the team this year during spring training. He is capable of playing second, short and third, making him a viable option to fill in at any of those positions should someone go down with an injury or start to struggle.
The Cardinal outfield is going to be judged on two players: Colby Rasmus and Lance Berkman.
Rasmus has shown flashes of being an excellent hitter, but it remains to be seen if he can do it consistently over an entire season. He will also have to prove that he and Tony LaRussa have officially put their disagreements from last season completely behind them. The last thing this team needs is another distraction. Rasmus’ focus needs to be completely on maintaining some sort of consistency at the plate.
Last season, the 24-year-old hit .276 with 23 home runs and 66 RBI—solid numbers, right? What those numbers don’t show, however, is the slump Rasmus hit in the middle of the season. During that stretch—which seemed to last for over a month—Rasmus was a strikeout machine. He was having a tough time seeing the ball and even when he did make contact, the hits resulted in easy outs for the opposition.
Rasmus is still a young player, and his best years are undoubtedly in front of him. I think this year could be his breakout season. The lineup sets him up for success. With Pujols, Holliday and Berkman directly in front of him, Rasmus will have plenty of RBI opportunities and should see quite a few pitches to hit.
While Colby is a player on the rise, Berkman is on the decline. At 35 years old, Berkman’s career is winding down. His batting average, home runs and RBI all decreased significantly last season, and after an unimpressive stint as the DH with the New York Yankees, he was released.
Berkman believes there’s something left in the tank, and apparently the Cardinals do, too. For the team, they can’t really lose by bringing him in. If he’s successful, it makes the Cardinal lineup that much more lethal. Should he struggle, they can turn to a guy like Jon Jay who was impressive last season both defensively and at the plate.
Pitchers are going to test Berkman early on, so fans will have an idea of what's really there within the first few weeks of the season.
Don’t expect much from Berkman in the field. When he steps outfield position at the start of the 2011 season, it will be the first time he’s played a game in the outfield since 2007. He has not spent significant time in the outfield since 2004 when he played a total of 160 games in the outfield with the Astros.
With Rasmus in center and Berkman in right, that leaves Holliday to fill out the Cardinals’ starting outfield in left. What Holliday lacks in fielding ability, he makes up for with his abilities at the plate.
Since coming to St. Louis midway through the 2009 season, Holliday’s average has remained above the .300 mark, and his power numbers have been gradually improving over his career.
The problem with Holliday is that he is a perennially slow starter. Last year, his slow start was compounded by the fact that he and Pujols never seemed to get hot at the same time. By the time they did, the season was all but over.
Final thoughts and position player superlatives:
This Cardinals team has enough weapons offensively to win the division. The problem is that outside of Holliday and Pujols, there are no other proven hitters in this lineup. While the potential is there for players like Schumaker, Rasmus and Jay, they have yet to prove themselves in the majors.
The question for players like Molina and Berkman is if they can even produce on offense. If the players around the three and four hitters (Pujols and Holliday) struggle, this team does not stand a chance. If this lineup is able to fire on all cylinders from the start, however, they are going to win the NL Central.
That’s my breakdown for the Cardinals’ lineup. I will have a preview of the Cardinals’ pitching staff up later this week. I also have my picks for Cardinal players to watch out for this season as a slideshow on Bleacher Report. Check it out!
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