St. Louis Cardinals: 10 Things Vital to a Redbird Appearance in October

Tony RandazzoContributor IApril 6, 2011

St. Louis Cardinals: 10 Things Vital to a Redbird Appearance in October

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    ST. LOUIS, MO - MARCH 31: Members of the St. Louis Cardinals watch the game against the San Diego Padres on opening day at Busch Stadium on March 31, 2011 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
    Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    The city of St. Louis is in shambles.

    The St. Louis Blues are wrapping up a blunder of a season, the Rams were 60 minutes away from a Wild Card berth but couldn’t seem to top a backup quarterback at best, and general manager John Mozeliak and the rest of the Cardinals front office accomplished virtually nothing during the offseason when dealing with the best player Major League Baseball has seen in decades…maybe ever.

    And to add insult to injury, the city has watched the Cy Young runner-up of the past two seasons fall victim to Tommy John surgery. The city needs a pick-me-up, and as faithful fans always do, St. Louis will look to the diamond.

    So much rides on the shoulders of the 2011 Redbird season. Success is a must. The Cardinals haven’t been in the playoffs since they were swept by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 2009 NLDS, and haven’t won a playoff game since taking home the 2006 Series. It’s time to stop messing around.

    With competition returning to the National League Central, the Cardinals find themselves finishing third in most predictions. But by no means should this team be counted out. A rough 2-3 record, and the loss of their clean-up hitter to an appendectomy for a few weeks highlights the 2011 season early on, but Mozeliak still stands firm saying, “There’s a high level of optimism with the team.” And there should be. 

10. David Freese

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    ST. LOUIS, MO - APRIL 4: David Freese #23 of the St. Louis Cardinals fields a line drive against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Busch Stadium on April 4, 2011 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
    Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    Losing David Freese twice to injury might have been the darkest cloud over the 2010 season. Freese was an RBI machine before he went down in early June, and was playing pretty good defense at the “hot corner.”

    After a shortened March in Jupiter, Freese is 100 percent healthy and ready to go for Opening Day. He has started out slow so far in 2011, but Cardinals fans shouldn’t be worried about the 27-year-old, hometown kid. This is his time to shine.

9. Jaime Garcia

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    ST. LOUIS, MO - APRIL 3: Starter Jaime Garcia #54 of the St. Louis Cardinals pitches against the San Diego Padre at Busch Stadium on April 3, 2011 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
    Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    No Cardinal had a more irritating spring training than Jaime Garcia. In six games, Garcia posted a 1-3 record, with a 6.26 ERA and an opposing batting average of .392. It’s only spring, but it looks like opposing hitters have finally caught up to Garcia’s stuff.

    His first start on Sunday of Opening Weekend versus the San Diego Padres was phenomenal to say the least as he pitched a complete game shutout in 102 pitches. With the loss of Wainwright, Garcia needs to put up good numbers. He’s following up an admirable ’10, and this year can be no different.

    In his first full year in the starting rotation, La Russa and Dave Duncan monitored his number of innings pitched very closely. This year his work load should increase, making the question, how will he hold up in August and September, especially if the team is making a push for October.

8. Colby Rasmus

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    CINCINNATI, OH - APRIL 5: Colby Rasmus #28 of the St. Louis Cardinals hits a home run in the fourth inning against the Cincinnati Reds at the Great American Ball Park on March 5, 2010 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Since the 2010 season ended in late September, the relationship between the Cardinals and Colby Rasmus has been one heck of a roller coaster ride. A bad relationship between the manager and the player, alleged trade requests by the player, blah, blah, blah…Rasmus is the starting center fielder and a very important asset for this version of the Redbirds.

    A .276 batting average and 23 home runs in 2010 have resulted in big expectations for Rasmus in the upcoming campaign. Something stands out with Rasmus though. He totaled a club-leading 148 strikeouts a year ago…55 more than his next closest competitor for that award, Holliday! This number must go down. Drastically.

    The youngster also needs to be a workhorse in center field this summer. Raz is no Jim Edmonds. But with Holliday in left and Berkman in right, he’s got a lot of ground to cover in 2011. 

7. Solid Defense Up the Middle

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    ST. LOUIS, MO - APRIL 4: Skip Schumaker #55 of the St. Louis Cardinals turns a double play against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Busch Stadium on April 4, 2011 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
    Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    The loss of Brendan Ryan to the Seattle Mariners this offseason means three things to St. Louis: the loss of a kid who plays the game with heart, the leaving of a “mean” mustache, and most importantly, the departure of a Gold Glove caliber shortstop. Ryan Theriot has been brought in to fill the occupancy, and will need to be a wall up the middle.

    Skip Schumaker is now in his third year at second base after transforming from an outfielder in 2009. A .974 fielding percentage in 2010 is a decent number, and this year it can’t be lower than that. While he is solid manning the right side of the infield, his range is his downside.

    Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan has preached pitching for ground balls during his decades of coaching. Ground balls, however, are only as effective as the infield that fields them. The team lacks strikeout capability, with Carpenter averaging about 6.9 Ks per nine innings and Jaime Garcia averaging around 7.3 per nine.

    This offseason, Mozeliak and the front office traded defense for offense as they molded the 2011 roster. Without Wainwright, the Redbirds aren’t going to strike out batters like they used to. The team is solid at the corners with David Freese and Pujols, and the addition of Nick Punto is great insurance.

6. Get on Base in Front of Pujols and Holliday

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    ST. LOUIS, MO - APRIL 3: Ryan Theriot #3 of the St. Louis Cardinals hits an RBI single against the San Diego Padre at Busch Stadium on April 3, 2011 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
    Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    The three-four-five punch the Cardinals enter 2011 with is eye-opening. One thing is for sure though. If the hitters before Pujols, Holliday, and Berkman can’t get on the bags in front of them, it turns a nuke into a grenade…fireworks into bottle rockets.

    Ryan Theriot, Colby Rasmus, and Skip Schumaker are expected to occupy the leadoff and two-spots in the lineup this year. Rasmus is coming off a pretty successful sophomore year in the big leagues, with a .276 average and a .361 on-base percentage, and a similar 2011 is expected from the youngster. The worry comes with the other two.

    Tony La Russa has Ryan Theriot penciled in the leadoff spot so far this spring. Theriot had a frustrating 2010 to say the least. Riddled by injury for a good portion of the season, “The Riot” finished with a .242 batting average and a .323 OBP. He’ll need to do a better job contributing at the plate in ‘11, especially at the top of the lineup.

    Schumaker, too, had an inconsistent time at the plate last year. A slow start in April was followed by a decent May and June for the Cards second baseman as far as his batting average is concerned, but a rough July, September, and October doomed his average to the .265 mark he finished with. He finished the year with a .328 OBP, something that needs to rise, especially in front of the big boys.

5. Kyle Lohse

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    ST. LOUIS - OCTOBER 2: Starter Kyle Lohse #26 of the St. Louis Cardinals against the Colorado Rockies at Busch Stadium on October 2, 2010 in St. Louis, Missouri.  The Cardinals beat the Rockies 1-0 in 11 innings.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
    Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    A day after the Cardinals failed to make the playoffs in 2008, they signed Kyle Lohse to a four-year, $41 million contract extension. Since that day, Lohse has been bogged down by rare arm injuries, something that Cardinals fans have had a hard time swallowing. His stat line since ’08 is even harder to swallow. In 41 appearances, Lohse has a 10-18 record with a 5.56 earned run average. For a player making close to $12 million in 2011, this is unacceptable.

    In 2008, the Cardinals were without Chris Carpenter for the entire season. In a big role, Lohse performed big, obviously leading to a major contract. If he could return to this form, winning around 15 games and accumulating 200 innings pitched, the team’s playoff chances are brighter.

    Lohse comes into this year saying he is 100 percent healthy and ready to go. He needs to be.

4. Chris Carpenter

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    JUPITER, FL - MARCH 01:  Pitcher Chris Carpenter #29 of the St. Louis Cardinals throws against the Florida Marlins at Roger Dean Stadium on March 1, 2011 in Jupiter, Florida.  (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)
    Marc Serota/Getty Images

    Chris Carpenter woke up on February 24th with some major back pain. The cause: the fate of Adam Wainwright’s 2011 campaign and the resulting shift of weight from Waino’s shoulders to his. He needs to be the rock…the foundation that the team leans on this year.

    Carpenter is coming off a wishy-washy 2010. The 16-9 record and a 3.22 ERA he finished with are both decent, but he’ll need to return to his 2009 self if he is going to lead this team into the postseason. From ’09 to ’10, drastic increases in home runs (7 to 21) and walks (38 to 63) are alarming for Carpenter. These trends need to be stopped to make this year successful for the Redbird ace.

    On Opening Day, Carpenter took to the hill and looked like the vintage Carp. He pitched seven complete innings of two-hit ball, and left the opener in line for the win with a 3-2 lead. The Redbirds ended up losing in extra innings, 5-3.

    It’s hard to make bold statements sometimes, but one thing is for sure. If Carpenter doesn’t earn every bit of his $15 million paycheck in 2011, Cardinal Nation will be watching another NL Central rival on TBS in October. 

3. Health

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    WASHINGTON - AUGUST 26:  Albert Pujols #5 of the St. Louis Cardinals warms up before the game against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park on August 26, 2010 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
    Greg Fiume/Getty Images

    Twenty-nine teams are all hoping to stay healthy during the grueling 162-game season. The Cardinals need to stay healthy.

    Lance Berkman’s knees in the outfield and David Freese’s ankles are question marks heading into the season, but other than that, the squad rushes into this year with a roster that isn’t too injury prone.

    Fortunately, besides Wainwright’s Tommy John surgery, the only major injury the Cards are dealing with right now is a sports hernia that is limiting newly acquired infielder Nick Punto. Punto is expected to return by the end of April, mid-April if the rehab process continues to go along as smoothly as it has been.

    Left fielder Matt Holliday had emergency appendectomy on Friday, April 1. He was expected to miss two to four weeks as he recovers, however the Cardinals decided to keep him off of the disabled list, hoping for a speedy return.

    Cardinal Nation needs to knock on wood though…another catastrophic injury to the likes of Carpenter, Pujols, or Holliday could send the Redbirds shooting down the NL Central standings.

2. Ryan Franklin

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    ST. LOUIS, MO - MARCH 31: Ryan Franklin #31 of the St. Louis Cardinals reacts to giving up a home run against the San Diego Padres on opening day at Busch Stadium on March 31, 2011 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
    Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    Ryan Franklin returns to the closer role that he’s held since taking over in 2008. The 38-year-old is wrapping up a two-year, $6.5 million contract extension that he signed in 2009, and he plans to keep playing beyond 2011, if the season goes well.

    "I've come to the conclusion that if this year goes well, I'm going to keep playing. If I stay healthy, and I don't see why I shouldn't. The family has told me to keep playing, so I'm going to keep playing," Franklin said in an interview with St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer Derrick Gould.

    For the sake of both him and the squad, Franklin needs to have a successful year in the ever-so-important shutdown role. There is little room for the Redbirds to falter in the late innings of games, and when they head into the ninth with the lead, it needs to stay that way. Exhibit “A”…Opening Day. A two-out solo home run to the San Diego Padres center fielder Cameron Maybin sent the game to extras and eventually a 5-3 loss.

    Franklin turned in decent spring stats down in Jupiter, Florida during March. In 11.2 innings pitched, he had a 1-1 record with a 3.09 ERA, nine strikeouts and four walks. Unfortunately with the way spring training works, he only had three save opportunities, converting two of those into saves.

    A solid closer can be the difference between 85 wins and 90. Franklin has done a respectable job as the Cardinals closer since 2008. An All-Star Game appearance in 2009 and 27 saves in 29 opportunities in 2010 say enough about the aging relief pitcher. This year can be no different. 

1. Run Production

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    JUPITER, FL - MARCH 01:  Matt Holliday #7 of the St. Louis Cardinals celebrates his two run home run against the Florida Marlins at Roger Dean Stadium on March 1, 2011 in Jupiter, Florida.  (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)
    Marc Serota/Getty Images

    Here’s the bottom line. Nothing else really matters if the Cardinals don’t score. Yea, it’s a cliché thing to say that “a team needs to score if they want to be successful.” But this is vital for the Birds.

    The team finished sixth in the NL last year with 736 total runs, a decent amount without a doubt. However, they finished with less than their NL Central rivals in the Reds (790) and Brewers (750)…the former by an enormous amount. The Cincinnati Reds were atop the NL in just about every offensive category.

    In order for the Cardinals to overcome their playoff woes, the team will need to take their .263 team batting average from 2010, mainly thanks to Pujols, Holliday, and Rasmus, and turn it into a higher team average with more contributors.

    With Wainwright on the shelf, the team isn’t going to be able to win the close low-scoring games like they have in the past. It’s time to score consistently and often, and with the lineup they have taken into Opening Day in 2011, there are no excuses.