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2011 Cardinals Preview: No Longer the Class of the NL Central

Kenn Ruby

Kenn Ruby

Kenn has been writing and editing for RotoWire since 2003. Though he attended Northwestern with the co-founders of RotoWire, he is not considered a made member of the RotoWire Northwestern mafia, as he can't trace back all of his ancestors to Dan Okrent.

The July 31 three-way trade that brought Jake Westbrook to the Cardinals and sent Ryan Ludwick to San Diego was considered by many members of Cardinal Nation to be the turning point in a disappointing 86-76 season. The Cardinals went 11-15 in August and 12-15 in September before finishing the season on a too-little-too-late five-game winning streak and finishing five games back of Cincinnati.

The Reds figure to be contenders again this year, and the Brewers may have moved ahead of manager Tony La Russa and the Cardinals as well, as St. Louis’ major moves have simply made them older and a little more suspect defensively. They may have the lineup and pitching staff to put together one more good run, but the days of automatically putting the Cardinals on top of the division appear to be over.

Offseason Moves

Signed Lance Berkman to a one-year, $8 million contract.

Berkman returns to the NL Central after spending the latter half of 2010 with the Yankees. His stint in the Bronx was largely a disappointment, as both his OBP (.358) and SLG (.349) were lower marks than he had posted in any of his previous 10 seasons as a full-time big leaguer. The evaporation of his home-run power was particularly troubling, as just 2.7 percent of his fly balls cleared the fence, a remarkable decline from his 14.7 percent career average. Considering his age and health issues, that is a legitimate cause for concern. Berkman is penciled in as the everyday right fielder, but if his struggles continue against lefties, he may frequently sit.

Re-signed Jake Westbrook to a two-year, $16.5 million contract.

Westbrook can’t really be blamed for the Ryan Ludwick trade dooming the Cardinals’ season; he actually pitched pretty well in his 12 starts with St. Louis: 3.48 ERA, 1.253 WHIP and a sparkling 3.33 G/F ratio. He's not really that good, but the Cardinals signed him to a two-year contract in November nonetheless. He'll be the third or fourth pitcher in the rotation this year, but don't break the bank going after him expecting more than the career-high 6.6 K/9IP he displayed after the trade to the National League.

Traded Blake Hawksworth for Ryan Theriot.

Theriot came to the Dodgers along with Ted Lilly in the Blake DeWitt deal last summer, but after batting just .242/.323/.283 in 198 at-bats, the Dodgers signed Juan Uribe, making Theriot expendable. Theriot's plate discipline has taken a step back the past two years, as he's seen his OBP drop from .387 to .343 to .321 during that span. He’ll likely start the year as the Cardinals' starting shortstop, but he'll have to turn things around considerably to maintain that role all season. Hawksworth started eight games for the Cardinals in 2010, but he was used mostly as a mediocre reliever, so he likely won’t be missed.

Traded Brendan Ryan to Mariners for Maikel Cleto.

No one doubts Ryan's glove, which is one of the best in the league, but his hitting is certainly in question, and he never seemed in sync with La Russa, either. It was better for all parties that Ryan was traded. The 21-year-old Cleto is a power pitcher a long way from the majors.

Signed Nick Punto to a one-year, $750,000 contract.

Punto began last season as Minnesota's starting third baseman, but moved to a utility role as he struggled at the plate and spent significant time on the DL with hip and hamstring injuries. He's actually improved his walk rate the past two seasons, but it hasn't helped him increase his batting average, and his lack of power hurts his chances to win a starting job. He's best suited for a utility role since he's seen as a premium defender at three positions. He offers steals for fantasy purposes, but carries batting average risk if he's given significant at-bats. With all of the question marks in the St. Louis infield, a utilityman like Punto could have sneaky value.

Signed Brian Tallet to a one-year, $750,000.

Tallet got cuffed around pretty good in 35 appearances (five starts) for the Jays last year. He did limit left-handers to a .176/.228/.343 line and has handled them well enough in the past to warrant consideration as a lefty specialist out of the bullpen. He could be a nice LOOGY for the Cards this year.

Signed Ian Snell, Miguel Batista, and Raul Valdes to minor-league contracts.

Whatever upside Snell once had is long gone, and a 26:25 K:BB ratio and 6.41 ERA don’t make a good case for a roster spot. Batista actually put up solid numbers as the Nationals’ long man out of the bullpen last year, but at 40 years old, he may have a tough time convincing the Cardinals he can do it again. Don’t expect high-leverage innings if he’s able to secure a job. Bouncing between Triple-A Buffalo and the Mets last year, Valdes appeared in 38 games with the Mets, and though he throws from the left side, he's much more effective against right-handed batters.

Signed Gerald Laird to a one-year, $1.1 million contract.

While he provided his usual solid play behind the plate, Laird managed to hit just .207 with five home runs in 270 at-bats as part of a timeshare in Detroit. He’ll serve as the primary backup to Yadier Molina, but the St. Louis backup generally only plays only five or six times a month.

Claimed Bryan Augenstein off waivers from the Diamondbacks.

Augenstein’s ceiling is limited to that of a No. 5 MLB starter if he's able to maintain the control that prompted the D-Backs to give him a taste of the big leagues for a two-start audition in 2009. At 24, he'll likely open the season at Triple-A Memphis, but keep in mind that he was tattooed in the Pacific Coast League last season with 162 hits allowed in 120.2 innings while his walk rate swelled to a career-high 2.6 BB/9IP.

Lost Joe Mather on a waiver claim by the Braves.

The Cardinals rarely gave Mather the playing time that his powerful bat commanded, but it's not like he did much with the opportunities he's had. A .702 OPS in the majors isn't going to cut it from a corner outfielder. The Braves will give him another chance in 2011.

Lost Brad Penny, Jeff Suppan, Pedro Feliz, Aaron Miles, Randy Winn, and Dennys Reyes to free agency.

Penny suffered a strained lat in May that lingered all season, limiting him to just nine starts. He’ll likely be in the back end of the Detroit rotation. Suppan was abysmal for Milwaukee last season, but that didn't stop the desperate Cardinals from picking him up almost immediately after his release from the Brewers. He showed a little improvement in his time in St. Louis, but his final 2010 numbers were ugly. The Giants signed him to a minor-league contract, where he’ll pitch as a garbage-time reliever if he makes the team. Back when Feliz was hitting 20 home runs a season, the Giants were able to live with his low batting average. Now that his power stroke is gone, the Royals were the only team that wanted to employ him. Miles has been hanging on for years, and his 139 at-bats was his lowest total since 2003. As a pinch-hitter, he had just four singles in 29 at-bats and didn't drive in a run, so his only remaining value is his versatility. Winn's downward spiral continued in 2010 as first the Yankees and then the Cardinals realized he doesn't have much left in the tank anymore. As recently as 2008, he had 10 homers, 25 stolen bases and a .306 batting average, but since the calendar turned to 2009, he has been one of the worst offensive outfielders in the league. Winn can still play all three outfield positions and steal a base or two, so the Orioles will give him a shot as a fifth outfielder this year, but the end is coming soon. Reyes made 134 appearances for the Cardinals in his two-year stint with the team, but the Cardinals felt that Tallet was a better choice from the left side.

Project Lineup/Rotation

Lineup:

1. 2B Skip Schumaker
2. CF Colby Rasmus
3. 1B Albert Pujols
4. LF Matt Holliday
5. RF Lance Berkman
6. 3B David Freese
7. C Yadier Molina
8. Pitcher
9. SS Ryan Theriot

Schumaker will lead off most days, but considering how poor he was with the bat last year, expect La Russa to put Theriot atop the order early and often. This team will score runs, especially with Pujols and Holliday in the 3-4 spots, but they need Theriot, Rasmus and Schumaker to set the table. If Berkman continues to struggle against lefties, don’t be surprised to see Allen Craig in the starting lineup. Nick Punto and Tyler Greene will probably be the utility infielders, but with question marks at all of the infield spots (well, except one), they should see plenty of playing time this year.

Starting Rotation:

1. Chris Carpenter
2. Adam Wainwright
3. Jake Westbrook
4. Jaime Garcia
5. Kyle Lohse

Carpenter and Wainwright form the best one-two punch this side of Philadelphia, and with Garcia coming into his own last year, this has the makings of a strong rotation. Westbrook is up and down, but Lohse is usually just down. If the Cardinals want to contend, the fifth spot in the rotation is a place where they can improve. They probably won’t do it with anyone currently in house (unless you think Ian Snell is an improvement), but the Cardinals could be buyers if a veteran starting pitcher comes on the market during the season.

Closer: Ryan Franklin

Franklin has been doing it with mirrors for so long that it might be time to take a closer look at the mirrors. His late-career renaissance continued in 2010 with 27 saves, a 1.031 WHIP and a 3.46 ERA. His strikeout rate is way too low to be an elite closer, but his 82 saves in his last three years seem to say otherwise. Until Jason Motte or another young option is ready, he'll continue to be the closer in St. Louis.

Notes of Import, Fantasy and Otherwise


1. Can Chris Carpenter stay healthy again?

Is Carpenter still an injury risk? His career-high 35 starts last year seem to indicate that he's not, but considering that he's nearly 36, he'll probably come at a slight discount. He shouldn't. After a 16-9 season, he has now won at least 15 games in each of his last five full seasons, and he's still providing near-elite ERA, WHIP and strikeout totals. If he comes at that discount, make sure you're in the bidding. If he does go down this year, however, expect St. Louis’ hopes to go down with him.

2. Skip Schumaker, Ryan Theriot and David Freese? Really?

With all of the talk about how the St. Louis infield defense might suffer with Theriot instead of Brendan Ryan at short, the big worry is whether the offense can handle this many holes.

The Cardinals are obviously set at first base (at least for 2011), but the rest of the infield is full of question marks. Fluke injuries have derailed Freese’s chances, but his .361 on-base percentage shows promise. He just doesn’t provide the power you would expect from a corner infielder. Meanwhile, Schumaker's second year as an everyday second baseman didn't go as well as the first: his .666 OPS made him one of the worst hitting regulars in the National League. The low OPS would be fine if he brought something else to the table, but five home runs and five stolen bases from a starting second baseman isn't going to cut it in most fantasy leagues. Schumaker has shown that he can hit .300 in the majors, but if he's slumming in the .260s again in 2011, he may ultimately play his way out of the job. Theriot’s offense has also declined recently.

Nick Punto and Tyler Greene are around to steal at-bats from any of these three infielders, but for now, their jobs are safe, mostly because their backups are, well, Nick Punto and Tyler Greene.

3. Can Lance Berkman still hit southpaws? If not, who can?

There’s no getting around it: Berkman was terrible against lefties last year, hitting .171/.261/.256 in 82 at-bats. He’s never been great against lefties, but he’s had a few respectable seasons and sports a .776 lifetime OPS. He still mashes righties, so at the very least, the Cardinals will have a good hitter in the lineup most of the time, but considering that he was the big signee this offseason, they really don’t need a “most of the time” hitter. He’s 35 and declining, and Jon Jay and Allen Craig aren’t going to cut it as an everyday outfielders, so the Cardinals are desperate that hitting behind Pujols and Holliday will help reverse this trend:

Year OPS vs. LHP OPS vs. RHP
2010 .517 .847
2009 .710 .982
2008 .803 1.057
2007 .800 .926
2006 .789 1.142


Craig's bat has been very strong in the minors, but the lack of consistent playing time in St. Louis likely contributed to his poor numbers at the big league level (including a .674 OPS against lefties). He played all over the field (though he only qualifies as an outfielder) and could do the same in 2010. If he gets everyday playing time, however, he could be a nice sleeper. He's worth a reserve pick in NL-only leagues.

The left-handed Jay finally made the majors in 2010 and managed to hit .300, but his .352 BABIP might have something to do with it, because the rest of his numbers were nothing to write home about. He has decent speed and should have a can't-hurt-you batting average most years, but there's not a lot to like from a fantasy perspective.

Strengths

A great 1-2 punch both in the offense (Pujols/Holliday) and pitching staff (Carpenter/Wainwright) makes up for a lot of holes…

Weaknesses …but oh my, are there a lot of holes. The Cardinals are counting on Colby Rasmus and David Freese to improve their games (and stay healthy), for Yadier Molina, Ryan Theriot, Skip Schumaker, and Lance Berkman to hit like they did a couple of years ago, for Jake Westbrook, Jaime Garcia, and Kyle Lohse to be 60 percent of the rotation, and for Ryan Franklin to give them one more successful season. That’s a lot of things that have to go right and could go wrong.

Rising: Colby Rasmus - Rasmus and his manager have had their differences and it's been played out in the media, but there's no doubt that he's a budding star. Although he's just 24 and should take a step up in 2011, there are a few warning signs. Rasmus hit a respectable .276 last year, but his BABIP was a bloated .358. He also struck out 148 times in just 464 at-bats. It wouldn't be a surprise to see his batting average plummet this year, even as his power numbers continue to improve. However, if his contact rate improves, there's reason to believe that Rasmus' numbers will be even better across the board this season.

Declining: Lance Berkman - You see that chart above, note that he’s 35 and has been on the DL three times in the last year-and-a-half. He’s breaking down.

Sleeper: Jason Motte – Motte took a huge step up in 2010, and it's clear he's next in line to close should Franklin falter, perhaps as early as this season. He retired 32 batters in a row at one point last year, and his 54:18 K:BB ratio helped him earn two saves and 12 holds. He missed three weeks with a shoulder injury in August, but after coming back, he didn't give up a run the rest of the season. This will probably be the last year that you’ll be able to get Motte cheap.

Supersleeper: Allen Craig – If he even makes the team out of spring training, Craig will likely be a fourth outfielder at best, but given his versatility and potential with the bat, he could find his way into a lot of playing time this year if he stays on La Russa’s good side.

Roster

Here's the rundown on the rest of the team, not mentioned above:

Mitchell Boggs – Boggs worked exclusively as a reliever in 2010 after two poor years as a spot starter, and the results were a great improvement in his overall numbers. He stopped being overly hittable last year - after giving up about 11 hits/9 innings in 2008-2009, the number plummeted to 8.02 in 2010. He's a dark horse to close for the Cardinals someday, but he's more likely to continue to pitch out of the bullpen in earlier innings.

Daniel Descalso – Descalso isn't going to hit .300. He's not going to hit 20 home runs. He's not going to steal 20 bases. What he *can* do is carve out a nice role as a utilityman for the Cardinals. The 24-year-old could see some time backing up Skip Schumaker and Ryan Theriot in 2011, and he could see some time at the hot corner as well, but the signing of Nick Punto likely means that Descalso will spend a majority of the year in the minors.

Jaime Garcia – Garcia didn't win the Rookie of the Year award, but he quietly put together a season that would have had him in the running most years, finishing with 13 wins, a 2.70 ERA (good for fourth in the NL) and 132 strikeouts in 163.1 innings. Not bad for a player who had Tommy John surgery in 2008. His WHIP was a mediocre 1.316, however, partially owed to his shaky walk rate (3.5 BB/9IP). He'll be third or fourth in the St. Louis rotation this year, and he could bust out even more as he’s still just 24.

Tyler Greene – Though he got a late-season tryout at third, Greene is unlikely to man the hot corner regularly in 2011 and will only qualify at short in standard leagues. He's had some success in the minors, but he's already 27, so his chances of sustained success in the majors are unlikely. Still, he projects as a valuable utility player and could be a nice endgame pick in NL-only leagues.

Kyle Lohse – Lohse will be the fifth starter for the Cardinals this season unless they find someone better. That shouldn't be too hard, as his 18-start stint gave him an ERA and WHIP that would have torched most fantasy teams. It can't all be blamed on Lohse, however, as a forearm injury kept him out of action for nearly three months and his first several starts after his reinstatement from the DL may have indicated he wasn't ready to return. That said, a healthy Lohse doesn't come recommended either.

Kyle McClellan – McClellan was probably the Cards' best reliever last season, and he owes it at least partially to shaving nearly two walks per nine innings off his walk rate. Of course, the .243 BABIP and 86.1 percent strand rate have even more to do with it. Even if his home-run rate (1.08 HR/9IP) doesn't improve, there could be a major correction in 2011. He'll pitch in a setup role this year, but don't expect that sparkling ERA again.

Trever Miller – As a LOOGY, Miller generally gets the job done, but his K:BB ratio suffered a drastic decline from 46:11 in 2009 to 22:16 in 2010. His 57 appearances were his lowest total in nearly a decade, but at 37 he still has a little gas left in the tank. He'll be the top lefty in the St. Louis bullpen again this year, but situational relievers don't offer much for rotisserie owners to profit from.

Yadier Molina – Although Molina won another well-deserved Gold Glove in 2010, his offense, which had been steadily improving the last few years, took a step back. His slash numbers were his lowest since 2006, and he struck out a career-high 51 times. On the other hand, he also drove in a career-high 62 runs and stole eight bases, so given the lack of options, he's still one of the best fantasy catchers in the National League. He's in line to start about 130 games behind the plate again in 2011.

Albert Pujols – It seemed like something was wrong with Pujols early in 2010, but it's doubtful anyone complained about his final line, which even included 14 stolen bases. He's as consistent as they come: 10 years in the league, and only that annoying 99-run effort in 2007 prevented him from 10 years of 30-100-100-.300. He should be the consensus No. 1 pick in mixed leagues again in 2011.

Fernando Salas – Salas was up and down so many times last season that it was hard to keep track of his whereabouts. He had a major league ERA of 1.66 as late as Sept. 8, but after giving up eight runs in his last nine innings of the season it was clear he ran out of gas. He showed some promise as the Triple-A closer, most notably in his 44:9 K:BB ratio in just 35.2 innings, but the 25-year-old was already in his second year in Memphis, and Triple-A closers don't necessarily profile to become major league closers. He'll be up and down again in 2011.

Adam Wainwright – Elbow stiffness late in the season was just about the only blip on Wainwright's excellent 2010 campaign. He was in the top five in the NL in wins, ERA, WHIP, strikeouts, innings pitched and quality starts. Expect more of the same from the 29-year-old in 2011: he's the ace of the staff, and his draft day cost has steadily remained behind the elite early-round aces.

P.J. Walters – Walters continues to show a strong strikeout rate in the high minors, but he was once again victimized by the long ball in 2010. After he gave up a whopping six homers in just 16 innings with the Cardinals in 2009, he gave up five in 30 innings last year. An improvement, sure, but still not going to get it done in the big leagues. He'll be nearly 26 when he reports this spring, and it looks like his wall is Triple-A. Expect him to be up and down in 2011 when the Cardinals need someone to take out of the recycle bin to chew up innings out of the bullpen.

Top Prospects

Shelby Miller – The Cardinals are clearly being cautious about their top draft pick in 2009, but at 19 he put up a dominating 140:33 K:BB ratio in 104.1 IP for Low-A Quad Cities last year, so it won't be long before they start feeling the pressure to bring him up. A .367 BABIP contributed to his not-so-noteworthy ERA and WHIP, so his numbers could improve this year even if he doesn't. He's going to advance quickly, so pick him up in keeper formats while you still can.

Zach Cox – Cox was drafted in the first round last June and is projected as a high-average, high-OBP hitter with moderate power. He's just 21, but given that the Cardinals have a need at third base, he's a name to know in deep leagues when it comes time to draft in 2011. Defensively, he still needs some polish, but the opportunity to collect big league at-bats is here should he prove capable of fielding his position.

Tyrell Jenkins – The 18-year-old Jenkins already has a low-90s fastball which could pick up more velocity as his arm matures. He needs to work on his control, but he’s at least three years away from the majors, so he has time.

Carlos E. Martinez – Martinez dominated the Dominican Summer League in 12 starts last year, finishing with a 0.76 ERA, 0.712 WHIP, and an outstanding 78:14 K:BB ratio in 59 innings. You can take DSL numbers with a grain of salt, but a 19-year-old pitcher with a 99-mph fastball and command like that makes you take notice.

Eduardo Sanchez – Sanchez saved 14 games and struck out 58 in 53 innings last year with Memphis and Springfield. At just 22, he could be closing in the majors someday.

Lance Lynn – Lynn’s first full year with Triple-A Memphis didn’t go so well: 4.77 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, and 21 home runs given up in 164 innings. Still, he struck out 141 and could be a spot starter with St. Louis this year if injuries strike.

Seth Blair – A supplemental first-round pick last June, Blair went 12-1 for Arizona State in 2010 and features four plus pitches, including a low-90s sinker. Although he hasn’t pitched in the minors yet, he could move up quickly.

Oscar Taveras – Taveras hit .322/.362/.526 in 211 at-bats for Johnson City in the Appalachian League. The Dominican outfielder could use a better eye at the plate, but has plenty of bat speed and raw power. He's a breakout candidate for 2011 if he keeps the strike zone under relative control.