Cards Need Upgrades to Stay in NL Central Race

Alex BauschContributor IMay 29, 2009

ST. LOUIS, MO - APRIL 23: Rick Ankiel #24 of the St. Louis Cardinals is intentionally walked against Omir Santos #9 of the New York Mets on April 23, 2009 at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Missouri. The Cardinals beat the Mets 12-8.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

If Chris Carpenter had not swung so hard at that pitch earlier this year.

If Ryan Ludwick had not pulled a hammy running down a ball in the gap in Pittsburgh.

If Rick Ankiel had not run into the wall.

If Khahil Greene was even a shadow of his former self.

The Cardinals—not the Dodgers—would be the talk of baseball.

With a quarter of the 2009 baseball season done, the Cardinals sit right where they want to be. In the thick of the National League Central race.

Given the numerous injuries to Troy Glaus, Chris Carpenter, Rick Ankiel, and Ryan Ludwick, the Cardinals should be happy where they are right now. The Cards have fought through all the adversity because:

1. Albert Pujols is the best player in baseball, everything is easier when Albert is on your team.

2. Tony La Russa is the best crisis manager in the game, nobody does a better job finding solutions on the fly.

3. The improved organizational depth—which was years in the making—helped stave off a team collapse. Chris Perez, Mitchell Boggs, Shane Robinson, Tyler Greene, and Nick Stavinoha stepped up from Memphis and made a positive difference.

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4. The investment in veteran starting pitching has paid off. The rotation was strong during the first half and lights out this week.

The solid first quarter is something to build on and it is something the Cards must build on by making some changes during the second quarter.

Their 3-2 loss to the Royals at Busch Stadium on Sunday afternoon and their 1-0 loss on Monday at Milwaukee underscored the need to upgrade. There are all sorts of interesting decisions to make:

Who replaces Troy Glaus? There is no reason to believe he will play this year and if he does come back from his chronic shoulder woes, he won’t arrive until much later this season.

Brian Barden, .262, four homers, could buy the team some time. He is a solid defensive player and he has delivered a few big hits.

Joe Thurston has scuffled all month at the plate, lowering his batting average to .231 overall. He is just an adequate fielder. On the plus side, he grinds out good at-bats and draws walks even while slumping.

Down at Memphis, ’08 top pick Brett Wallace hit .387 in his first seven games in Class AAA ball. The Cards won’t rush him, but could use him.

With would-be replacements Joe Mather and David Freese recovering from repairs, Cards GM John Mozeliak will have to acquire short-term help if Barden and company. don’t hold up.

There are also trade possibilities. Mark DeRosa, Melvin Mora, Garrett Atkins, Adrian Beltre, and Hank Blalock are some of the possible targets. Some people would rather the Cards stay in house to fill this hole—but if nobody steps up soon, Mozeliak will have to get busy.

Who plays shortstop? By sending Tyler Greene back to Memphis on Sunday, the team suggested that Khalil Greene will return to a semi-regular role at shortstop. He has been grappling with some vexing psychological and emotional issues.

The younger Greene, .263 with two homers as well as four RBIs and two stolen bases, and Brendan Ryan, .241 with four doubles and three stolen bases, have done an excellent job in Khalil’s absence. These two should fight for the starting job next season.

In the meantime, will Khalil have something to offer? Could the Cards really find another team, maybe the Red Sox, to take him for the rest of the season?

Or will the Cards have to shut him down for his own good and move on?

From this vantage point, Tyler Greene looks like the most attractive option. But he is gone, for now. Barden started in Khalil’s place Sunday and went 0-4.

How do the Cards beef up their bench?

Nick Stavinoha could add some righthanded help if he keeps hitting with men on base. At 27, he has the maturity to handle a part-time role. His ability to catch in a pinch adds slightly to his value.

Stavinoha contributed to the recent winning streak with clutch hitting. He has earned a longer run in this role.

The Cards must melt their pitching staff down to the 12 best pitchers and move on. Blaine Boyer, 7.04 ERA, and Brad Thompson, 4.30 ERA, not only must compete against each other, they must compete with Memphis hurlers Jess Todd, 2-0 with a 2.18 ERA and eight saves, and Josh Kinney, 1-0 with a 3.94 ERA and one save, for that 12th spot.

When Ludwick comes off the DL on Friday, the Cards should move a pitcher to make room for him. If that means losing a pitcher out of options, so be it.

This team is in solid shape with Carpenter back in the rotation with both Ankiel and Ludwick on the mend. But this team also has the resources to become even better by translating its improved depth into improved performance at key positions.

Let’s see if the organization gets that done, because if they do the Cardinals will be back to a place that they haven’t been since 2006, the playoffs.