All posts by Brian Walton

Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.

Most influential Canadians in baseball include three Cards

When I read that the Toronto Sun documents the Top 100 Most Influential Canadians in Baseball every year, I thought the same thing you likely did – “They probably don’t have enough people to fill out the list!”

Of course, that isn’t really the case. In fact, as I scanned the list, I saw a number of familiar names, with news included for several of them.

At number 17, down from number 11, is none other than former Cardinals outfielder Larry Walker. From the looks of it, the 42-year-old may be splitting his March time between two spring camps, that of the Cardinals as well as Team Canada as they prepare for the World Baseball Classic.

If they all suit up, players like Justin Morneau (#4 on the top 100), Ryan Dempster (#16), Russell Martin (#32), Jason Bay (#35), Matt Stairs (#36), Joey Votto (#54) and Jeff Francis (#56) should help make the Canadians be competitive at least.

Still, while Pool C games will be at Toronto’s Rogers Centre, Team USA is in the same bracket as the Canadians, making the team from the North a longshot to survive into the second round.

17. Larry Walker, former NL slugger, coach Team Canada (11).

He lives in Jupiter, Fla. and is a part-time coach with the Cardinals each spring. He will be north of the border: Jan. 24th for the Baseball Canada banquet; in March, with the WBC team and in July when he’ll be inducted into the Canadian Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. The Maple Ridge, B.C. product is the finest Canadian position player the country has produced.

Interestingly, Walker was already inducted into “Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame” in late 2007, so this one is undoubtedly for baseball only. Yet the website of the baseball Hall of the northland says inductees aren’t announced until February. Perhaps Walker is such a lock, the paper is counting it as a done deal. At any rate, good for him.

Long-time Cardinals first base coach Dave McKay is up 12 places this year to number 23. In case you missed it, for Boxing Day, ran a nice feature about Cody’s Dad and La Russa’s confidant.

23. Dave McKay, coach, St. Louis Cardinals (35).

The first base coach is in his 13th season with the Cards and his 23rd season with manager Tony La Russa. When McKay talks in organizational meetings, La Russa listens.”

I don’t know that the Canadian writer who typed this has ever actually been in a Cardinals organizational meeting, but his assertion is likely valid nonetheless. I would add that I honestly believe that McKay is one of the nicest guys around.

And what list of Canadian Cardinals would ever be complete without Stubby Clapp, the second baseman whose number 10 was the first ever retired by the Memphis Redbirds, the club for which he played from 1999 though 2002?

Despite turning 36 years old next month, the ever-popular veteran of numerous international competitions is going to play for Team Canada once again.

43. Stubby Clapp, hitting coach, class-A Greenville (27).

Though the Windsor, Ont. native is coaching, the Astros were good enough to give him time off to play in the pre-Olympic qualifier in Taiwan, the Olympics and he’ll be around for the WBC in a back-up role.”

One other name caught my eye at #95, that of Hazel Mae (her real name), a personality for the new MLB Network. A former commentator on the Red Sox’ network NESN, the Philippine-born Toronto resident definitely seems up to her big new assignment.

Smith over Ford, August 1986

Dear Brian,

Please help me settle a wager. I am sure you recall the great catch that Ozzie Smith made while running into the outfield and laying out to catch the ball while diving over the incoming outfielder. I believe Mr. Buck’s call was, “He caught it! Ozzie caught it!”.  The wager involves the outfielder who Ozzie dove over. My brother believes it was Willie McGee while I maintain it was Curt Ford.

Could you please supply me with anything to support the answer?

Thank You

Robert Gould

Walton’s take: Robert, it is so weird you sent this tonight. Not five minutes ago, I swear I saw this very play on the new MLB Network. (Maybe you were watching it, too?)

The commentators were discussing the seven-year anniversary of Ozzie being voted into the Hall of Fame and the chances of Omar Vizquel of making it. Not surprisingly, Ozzie was the measuring stick and Vizquel was falling short.

The answer to your question is “Curt Ford”, though it is often mistakenly said to be Willie McGee. Yet, I can’t stop there since you require proof to collect your bet. (Of course, I can’t condone betting, though I thoroughly understand family baseball arguments. I live them every week!)

From Ozzie’s biography in the annual Cardinals’ Media Guide:

“Smith’s most eye-popping play came on August 5, 1986 against the Philadelphia Phillies at Busch Stadium. He took off on a short fly ball to left field hit by Von Hayes and with his back to home plate, flew parallel to the ground and completely stretched out to make the catch.”

It doesn’t say who the left fielder was, though. And, as it turns out, the esteemed Media Guide is off by one day. The play in question actually happened in the top of the ninth inning in a 2-2 tie game the night before, on Monday, August 4.

Courtesy of Retrosheet, here is the link to the box score from that game. Clean-up hitter (!) Ford played in left the entire game. McGee was out due to injury and did not appear.

Here is the clincher – from the play-by-play account of the game per Retrosheet. (Note the bolding of the text below is not mine!)

PHILLIES 9TH: WORRELL REPLACED KNICELY (PITCHING); Schmidt singled to shortstop; Wilson struck out; HAYES BATTED FOR SCHU; Hayes popped to shortstop; Ozzie makes incredible catch diving over sliding Ford; Russell made an out to shortstop; 0 R, 1 H, 0 E, 1 LOB. Phillies 2, Cardinals 2.

To top it off, Ozzie scored the winning run in the bottom of the ninth on a Terry Pendleton sacrifice bunt, giving the win to Todd Worrell.

By the way, three years ago, ESPN selected the top web gems of all time by team. The play to which you refer is their #1 for the Cardinals.

Thanks for writing and for the chance to take a trip down memory lane!

Cardinals spring training: Reporting for duty

I received a question about when pitchers and catchers report and how the World Baseball Classic changes Spring Training. Rather than put it in a reader mail item, I decided to make it into a blog post so more will see it.

Here is the link to my article at The Birdhouse with all the details, but following is a quick summary:

February 14 – Pitchers and catchers for the Cardinals and WBC teams must report to spring training.

February 17 – Cardinals and WBC position players must report.

March 5-23 – World Baseball Classic (link to brackets and schedule)

So, the WBC players (official rosters not yet announced) could be joining their MLB camps anywhere from about the 12th (when the first round teams are eliminated) until the 24th or later depending on travel. That is a big reason spring training is running a week longer than usual.

Of course there is no free lunch. Because of this, the regular season runs through October 4, delaying the post-season into November. If needed, World Series Game 7 will be played on November 5, the latest ever.

Also the Cardinals have just one scheduled day off during the first five weeks of the regular season, on April 20. Including spring training, the team will play a total 70 games from February 23 through May 10.

Albert Pujols and the Dominican Republic WBC team will be training in Jupiter along with the Cardinals and Marlins. They will clear out before the minor leaguers report. The Cards play a spring training game against the Dominicans on March 5 at RDS, of course.

Oddness in the minors

Speaking of, here are the corresponding dates for the Cardinals minor leaguers:

March 9 – Pitchers and catchers report

March 11 – Position players report

March 18 (approx.) – First games

Note that due to the Dodgers having departed Vero Beach, there are an uneven number of clubs in a reasonable proximity to Jupiter. Really only the Mets at Port St. Lucie and the Marlins, who share the Roger Dean complex with the Cardinals are available.

While the schedules aren’t done yet, it looks like the minor leaguers are going to be having as many intersquad games as they will actual spring contests. There is also a possibility that the clubs will split up on any given day, with Triple-A and Double-A playing in one place and the Single-A players somewhere else, for example.

Even during “camp” days, the numbers are still odd. Typically with over 160 players invited, after about a week, the Cardinals break up into five working rosters, including two Quad Cities teams. So the Memphis and Springfield clubs could face off but Palm Beach can play only one of the two Quad Cities teams, for example.

Of course, there will only be one real Quad Cities club that breaks camp, with the others staying behind for Extended Spring Training.

Everyone will get their spring work in, but the situation could be more ideal.

Cardinals television update

First confirmation of a televised 2009 game

Just got a peek at the ESPN/ESPN2 schedule for MLB games for the first two months of the season. Only one Cardinals game is among the 14 games listed. That is the Sunday, April 19 game at Wrigley that was originally planned to be a 1:20 pm start. It will be moved to 8 pm for ESPN.

The schedule

In case you don’t have your 2009 Cardinals one-page printable schedule for the regular season, you can download a copy here. Most game times are known, though some of the weekend games are subject to the whims of the television networks, which will include the new MLB Network for the first time in 2009.

Regular season TV schedule a couple weeks away

Note that none of the televised games are listed yet. We are still a couple weeks away from spring and regular season schedules, say our friends at FOX Sports Midwest. As soon as they release them, I will get them posted.

WWU coverage on FS Midwest

Speaking of FS Midwest… They are planning two post-Winter Warm-Up shows. For those who can’t attend the real thing, this will be the next best alternative. No dates and times yet, but I should have those details soon.

Spring schedule reminders

For those with satellite television, I will also be watching the Cardinals’ spring opponents’ plans as they announce which games they plan to televise. For those who didn’t see it the first time, here is the link to the Cardinals’ full spring schedule, including all the exhibition games and local times.

MLB Network gets early thumbs up

I was a bit skeptical coming in, but have been impressed with the MLB Network programming in their first week. I especially enjoy their nightly Hot Stove show, with Harold Reynolds proving to be a decent ringmaster. He even made Scott Boras squirm a bit when probing him about having been cut out of the A-Rod negotiations last winter.

One minor complaint is that I have noticed that they seem to endorse every move the clubs make. Too early to tell, but I imagine they will not be allowed to be critical of teams, ala Still, the historical shows are worth the price of admission. Here is the link to their daily programming schedule.

Historical DVDs of note

I’ve noticed several of the MLB Network shows this week feature content also available on DVD. The off-season is the perfect time to bring these out and watch them over again.

Here are a few in my collection that I recommend. (Note: This is not an endorsement of any business, but instead one example is offered where you can find these items.)

Ken Burns’ Baseball – I watch this documentary every off-season. $109 for ten discs at Shop PBS or you can also get the book, which is really nice, and an audio CD for $40 more.

Greatest Games of Busch Stadium: 1966-2005 – Six classic home games from 1968 through 2004. $31.95 at

2006 World Series Collector’s Edition – NLCS Games 5 and 7, all five World Series games and a bonus disc. $45.95 at Amazon.

1942, 1943 and 1946 World Series Highlights – Three disc set of the news reels assembled for overseas servicemen and women. One of my favorite sets. $26.99 at Amazon.

If you have others you like, please call them out in the comments.

Jerry Hairston, Jr.: Cards come up short again

In a winter where St. Louis Cardinals General Manager John Mozeliak has already taken a lot of heat in the press for his various characterizations of the Cardinals plans to retool for 2009 and perceived lack of substantive action, another disappointment was received Wednesday.

According to FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal, the Cardinals have failed in their push to sign free agent infielder-outfielder Jerry Hairston, Jr. to replace lost utilityman Aaron Miles. Instead, the 32-year-old right-handed hitter spurned St. Louis’ offer to re-sign with ex-Cards GM Walt Jocketty’s Cincinnati Reds.

Skip Schumaker tries to take out Miles at second base (AP/Bill Boyce)
Skip Schumaker tries to take out Hairston at second base (AP/Bill Boyce)

Numerous St. Louis misses this winter include a failed trade for outfielder Matt Holliday, rumored losing bids for free agent closers Francisco Rodriguez and Brian Fuentes, a second-best, too-late offer for Miles after they non-tendered him in a questionable move and more.

Rosenthal says Hairston’s decision was more about the chance to start regularly at shortstop for the Reds than it apparently was about money. He signed a one-year deal for $2 million with a chance at another $2 million in incentives.

Thr former Baltimore Oriole (1998-2004), Chicago Cub (2005-06) and Texas Ranger (2006-07) is a decent top-of-the lineup alternative, something the Cardinals are lacking. Leading off for the Reds last season in 177 at-bats, Hairston’s line was an impressive .362/.427/.537. In 273 games leading off over his 11-year MLB career, his on-base percentage is .339. Defensively, he can play virtually all over the diamond, though he originally came up as a second baseman.

Walton’s take: In a continuation of a familiar theme this winter, the Cardinals continue to bargain shop and miss out. Hairston would have been a nice step up from Miles, but it isn’t going to be. Back to his Baltimore days as the Cards employed a revolving-door policy at second base, I had always felt Hairston would have been a good fit in St. Louis.

Apparently Hairston isn’t familiar with the recent histories of Adam Kennedy and Khalil Greene or Tony La Russa’s ample use of infielders in the outfield or he shouldn’t have had fear about playing time with St. Louis in 2009. Let’s hope it really wasn’t about the money.

The good news, if there is any, is that the Cardinals still seem to be trying to improve, though the size and therefore competitiveness of the Cards’ rumored bid to Hairston is unknown. Recent comments by Mozeliak have instead suggested the Cardinals may be content to stand pat until spring training.

Chalk Hairston up as another missed opportunity, albeit not a major one. Yet in a winter seemingly full of them, it provides one more data point.

Ex-Cardinals: Where are they now? – John Rodriguez

A couple of players with ties to the St. Louis Cardinals are in the news for the Pinstripers from New York.

First baseman/outfielder Shelley Duncan, son of Cards pitching coach Dave and brother of outfielder Chris, has been designated for assignment by the Yankees. It wasn’t a huge surprise, as the 29-year-old has a meager career .221/.299/.435 line in 131 MLB at-bats over the last two seasons, not to mention the fact the New Yorkers need roster space for all their new, high-priced free agent talent.

The designation means Duncan is off New York’s 40-man roster, but could be claimed by another organization. If not, he will likely report to the Yanks’ Triple-A club in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

At the same time, the Yankees added a former Yankee farmhand and Cardinals major leaguer, John Rodriguez, who some Yankees watchers think might play into the Duncan replacement equation. However, Rodriguez was signed to a minor league deal, so would have to play his way into the picture in the spring.

A Staten Island resident, Rodriguez originally joined the Yankees farm system after signing as a non-drafted free agent 13 years ago, in 1996. He slowly worked his way up through the Yankees minor leagues for eight years before becoming a minor league free agent for the second straight year following the 2004 season.

Instead of returning to the Yanks’ Triple-A club for a third straight year, he instead signed a minor league deal with the Indians in 2005. After being traded to the Cardinals that July for a major league catcher named Javier Cardona, Rodriguez smoked the ball in Memphis.

He batted .342 with 17 home runs in 34 games in Triple-A before making his MLB debut on July 18, 2005, replacing DL’ed Reggie Sanders. Rodriguez continued on fire, hitting in his first six games and ten starts.

The self-styled “J-Rod”, never short on confidence, couldn’t quite back up the swagger during his remaining time in the Cardinals organization. Known more for his bat than his baserunning or defense, Rodriguez still was given a decent amount of playing time through the rest of 2005 as he delivered a solid .295/.382/.436 (BA/OBP/SLG) debut. His stay in the headlines was more of Bo Hart-like in duration.

Rodriguez broke camp with the Cardinals in 2006, his only year to do so. He eventually batted .301 overall, but didn’t see regular playing time. The left-handed batter pinch-hit in 47 of his 102 games played and was returned to Memphis from early August until rosters expanded on September 1. He still led the club with 11 pinch-hits but went 0-for-6 in his second year of post-season action.

Partially squeezed out by the off-season signing of Preston Wilson and later plagued by shoulder and knee injuries in 2007, Rodriguez spent the entire season on Memphis’ roster, with at least three prolonged stints on the disabled list. He underwent arthroscopic knee surgery in late July which ended his season and his Cardinals career.

Ultimately, the emergence of Chris Duncan, then Ryan Ludwick, Rick Ankiel and Skip Schumaker coupled with his own injuries pushed him out of the Cards’ major league picture. When Cesar Izturis was signed in November 2007, Rodriguez was designated for assignment, then released by the Cardinals.

Rodriguez, who turns 31 in two weeks, signed a minor league deal with the Tampa Bay Rays for 2008. He was invited to major league camp, but was sent back to the minors. Last season, the left-handed hitter managed just 210 at-bats in 69 games between the Rays’ and Mets’ Triple-A clubs. Rodriguez had been released by the Rays in June and quickly signed with the Mets. He was again a minor league free agent this winter.

To date, Rodriguez’ career 332 major league at-bats were all amassed with the 2005 and 2006 Cardinals. “J-Rod”, if that is still what he is calling himself today, has an uphill battle to make it back to the show again.

Four Cardinals Caravans Itineraries Set

The St. Louis Cardinals are running four separate caravans, scheduled around the Winter Warm-Up weekend, January 17-19. Two separate caravans will depart on Friday, January 16 through Saturday, January 17, followed by two additional caravan trips slated for Sunday and Monday, January 18-19.

Several current Cardinals players such as Josh Kinney, Kyle McClellan, Brendan Ryan, Skip Schumaker and Brad Thompson will take part in the promotional caravans, as well as several players who made their Major League debuts last season. Those players include Brian Barden, Brian Barton, Joe Mather, Jason Motte, Chris Perez and Nick Stavinoha.

The organization’s Minor League Player of the Year, Daryl Jones, and Minor League Pitcher of the Year, Jess Todd, will be meeting Cardinals fans as well as top prospects David Freese, Colby Rasmus and Brett Wallace, the Cardinals No. 1 pick in last year’s draft.

Fans will also be able to meet a few of their former Cardinals favorites as Alan Benes, Danny Cox, Ken Dayley, Tom Lawless, John Mabry, Ken Reitz, Kerry Robinson and John Tudor will accompany the current players. Cardinals announcers Rick Horton, Al Hrabosky, Dan McLaughlin, Jay Randolph and John Rooney will serve as caravan emcees and team mascot Fredbird will also be on hand.

Details follow.

Players: Kyle McClellan, Colby Rasmus, Cardinals Alumni: Rick Horton, Ken Dayley, Ken Reitz
Brad Thompson, Jess Todd Emcees: Jay Randolph, Rick Horton
Date City Location Time Call For Info
Fri Jan 16 Springfield, MO Drury University: Weiser Gymnasium 6:30 PM 417-863-2143
Sat Jan 17 Columbia, MO* Mizzou Arena (Mizzou vs. Iowa St.) 11:30 AM 1-800-228-7297
Sat Jan 17 Moberly, MO Moberly Municipal Auditorium 6:00 PM 660-263-1600
Players: Skip Schumaker, Brian Barden, Cardinals Alumni: John Mabry, Alan Benes
David Freese, Daryl Jones Emcees: John Rooney
Date City Location Time Call For Info
Fri Jan 16 Champaign, IL Round Barn Banquet Centre 12:30 PM 217-359-9800
Fri Jan 16 Decatur, IL Decatur Hotel & Conference Center 6:00 PM 217-422-8800
Sat Jan 17 Hannibal, MO Quality Inn & Suites Noon 573-221-3450
Sat Jan 17 Springfield, IL Sacred Heart Griffin HS Gym 6:00 PM 217-787-1595
Players: Joe Mather, Brian Barton, Cardinals Alumni: Kerry Robinson, TBD
Jason Motte, Brett Wallace Emcee: Dan McLaughlin
Date City Location Time Call For Info
Sun Jan 18 Cape Girardeau, MO Osage Community Center 12:30 PM 573-334-2859
Sun Jan 18 Carbondale, IL* SIU Arena (SIUC vs. Bradley) 5:15 PM 1-877-725-8547
Mon Jan 19 Memphis, TN Autozone Park Noon 901-721-6000
Mon Jan 19 Dyersburg, TN Dyer County High School 5:30 PM 731-627-2229
Players: Chris Perez, Josh Kinney, Cardinals Alumni: John Tudor, Danny Cox, Tom Lawless
Brendan Ryan, Nick Stavinoha Emcee: Al Hrabosky
Date City Location Time Call For Info
Sun Jan 18 Bloomington, IL* Redbird Arena (Illinois St. vs. MO St.) 1:00 PM 309-438-8000
Sun Jan 18 Peoria, IL Embassy Suites Hotel 6:00 PM 309-694-0200
Mon Jan 19 Quad Cities Modern Woodmen Park Noon 563-324-3000
Mon Jan 19 Quincy, IL Quincy Univ. Hall of Fame Room 6:30 PM 217-228-6600
*Note: Columbia, Carbondale and Bloomington stops require a ticket to college basketball game

What might Ludwick, Ankiel, Wellemeyer, Thompson and Duncan make via arbitration?

Back on December 10, I published my forecast on which of the eight eligible St. Louis Cardinals players would be offered a contract and which would be cut loose. The group is those who had accrued from just short of three years up to six years of Major League service time and are not already under contract for 2009.

I was correct on six of the eight, but missed on Aaron Miles and Tyler Johnson, both of whom were non-tendered by the organization. Randy Flores was also cut loose as expected. Miles signed with the Chicago Cubs last week while Johnson and Flores are free agents.

Arbitration-eligibles Pos Service Prediction Actual
Ankiel, Rick OF 5.033 Offer Offer
Duncan, Chris OF 2.144 Offer Offer
Flores, Randy LHR 4.130 Non tender Non tender
Johnson, Tyler LHR 3.005 Offer Non tender
Ludwick, Ryan OF 3.109 Offer Offer
Miles, Aaron MI 5.027 Offer Non tender
Thompson, Brad RHR 3.110 Offer Offer
Wellemeyer, Todd RHS 5.009 Offer Offer

What’s up now?

For the five Cardinals players remaining, the next window of opportunity began on Monday, January 5. Starting then, these eligible players have ten days to declare their intent to head toward arbitration.

While you may read a lot of hoopla about this filing period, it is merely a formality. All eligible players will certainly file, since in not doing so, they would foolishly give up their arbitration right. (Of course, they could agree to terms on a new contract at any time, which would also take them out of this process.)

What’s on deck?

The next milestone is far more important, as those players who choose to prepare for the possibility of a hearing must exchange 2009 salary figures with their clubs on Monday, January 19.

The player offers his figure, which is almost always highest, and the club presents their amount, the lower of the two. Between then and the actual time of their February arbitration hearing, the two are encouraged to negotiate an agreed-to amount, almost always somewhere in the middle.

In every case, the player will receive a raise. The only question is how much. An important consideration is what other players of comparable results and experience have received in the past. More on that shortly.

In some situations, the sides come to agreement on a multi-year deal instead, but the formal arbitration process is structured around a one-year contract only.

An example of the former is Yadier Molina, who was arbitration-eligible one year ago. Instead of going through the entire process, on January 21st, he and the Cardinals settled on a four-year contract with a fifth option year.

If the two parties can’t come to terms, a three-person arbitration panel will choose one of the two amounts submitted, with no compromise. Supporting arguments are offered by both sides at these hearings, scheduled between February 1 and 21.

Remember that only 12% of all filed cases actually make it to a hearing and many more situations are resolved prior to the filing date. For example, last season, just eight of 110 players who filed went to a hearing, while all the other eligible players came to terms ahead of time.

Forecasting the 2009 Cardinals

So with that backdrop, let’s estimate the potential 2009 value of these five eligible players: Chris Duncan, Ryan Ludwick, Rick Ankiel, Brad Thompson and Todd Wellemeyer.

In every case, I will compare the Cardinals’ statistics to players at the same position who had roughly the same service time one year ago. That allows me to use the latter’s 2008 salaries to help estimate what the Cardinals’ 2009 amounts might be.

Remember that I am estimating where the two sides might settle, with the club’s filing potentially lower and the player’s desired amount likely higher. Performance bonuses are included in the Cardinals’ 2008 salaries shown below and could be a contract component for any players that settle prior to arbitration.

When service time is noted, it is listed in “years.days”, where 172 days equals one full season.

Chris Duncan

Though the oft-injured outfielder hasn’t been productive since the early part of 2007, I am comparing his career stats with five other players who were “Super Twos” one year ago. As in the case of all these comparisons, the other players’ numbers listed are their career totals prior to 2008. In other words, their stats at the time they were in the same position as Duncan is now.

Four of the comps are outfielders while the fifth, Casey Kotchman, is a first baseman, a position Duncan also plays at times.

Arb-eligible Service AB Runs SB HR RBI BA OBP SLG
Chris Duncan * 2.144 887 139 4 50 143 0.266 0.353 0.487
Matt Diaz # 2.157 774 93 9 21 89 0.320 0.357 0.473
Mark Teahen # 2.155 1384 208 30 32 184 0.274 0.340 0.429
Casey Kotchman# 2.144 764 93 6 19 111 0.267 0.341 0.415
Ryan Church # 2.152 997 126 12 35 153 0.271 0.348 0.462
Jonny Gomes # 2.160 1110 163 22 58 163 0.242 0.335 0.465
* pre-2009
# pre-2008

Duncan has demonstrated more power than all the comps, with Jonny Gomes perhaps closest. Yet the Tampa Bay outfielder is a part-timer. The two from the group that were more established starters coming into 2008 were Mark Teahen of the Royals and Ryan Church, then of the Nationals and now of the Mets.

Those two were also the only ones of the five comps who progressed in the arbitration process last year as far as exchanging amounts with their clubs, listed on the far right of the following table. They ended up with salaries in the low $2 millions, while the three others settled for less than $1.5 million last winter.

2007 Service Contract ($M) Player Club
Matt Diaz 2.157 $1.23
Mark Teahen 2.155 $2.34 $2.90 $1.90
Casey Kotchman 2.144 $1.45
Ryan Church 2.152 $2.00 $2.45 $1.75
Jonny Gomes 2.160 $1.28

Because of his injuries and the resulting uncertainty, I would place Duncan’s 2009 value somewhere around $1.5 million.

Ryan Ludwick

The 2008 All-Star and Silver Slugger winner only has two comparable outfielders from last year with between three and four years service. Therefore, I added a third player, Xavier Nady, who had just over four years coming into last season.

Arb-eligible Service AB Runs SB HR RBI BA OBP SLG
Ryan Ludwick * 3.109 1175 184 12 65 209 0.273 0.345 0.512
Brad Hawpe # 3.058 1425 197 8 63 256 0.282 0.373 0.491
Xavier Nady # 4.059 1674 210 14 62 226 0.272 0.327 0.441
Alex Rios # 3.130 2000 308 61 52 254 0.288 0.338 0.453
* pre-2009
# pre-2008

Toronto’s Alex Rios is more of a multi-tools guy with a longer track record than Ludwick. Nady is less productive than the Cardinal. Probably the best comp is Colorado’s Brad Hawpe, with a little better batting average and on-base percentage, but a bit less power.

2007 Service Contract ($M) Player Club
Brad Hawpe 3.058 $3.93 $4.35 $3.58
Xavier Nady 4.059 $3.35
Alex Rios 3.130 $4.84 $5.65 $4.54

Last year, Hawpe asked for $4.35 million heading into arbitration while the Rockies countered with $3.58 million. The two sides settled on $3.925 million. Hawpe has just one top 25 MVP placement and no All-Star or Silver Slugger-type recognition but has been more consistent over time.

Given that, somewhere around $4 million would seem a good place for Ludwick.

Rick Ankiel

As was the case last year, the uniqueness of Ankiel’s career progression means there are no rock-solid comps for him. Still, there were two MLB-5 outfielders last winter, or three if you count Casey Blake, who is primarily a third baseman but also has played the outfield extensively. For illustration, I added a fourth outfielder, Minnesota’s Michael Cuddyer, who was at that time just a couple of weeks short of five years of service.

Arb-eligible Service AB Runs SB HR RBI BA OBP SLG
Rick Ankiel * 5.033 585 96 3 36 110 0.270 0.334 0.515
Juan Rivera # 5.047 1492 193 8 60 233 0.291 0.340 0.473
Craig Monroe # 5.105 2449 338 19 104 388 0.256 0.303 0.446
Casey Blake # 5.138 2768 401 29 107 366 0.262 0.332 0.444
Michael Cuddyer # 4.157 2097 320 23 72 299 0.270 0.346 0.450
* 2006-08 as OF
# pre-2008

To be fair to Ankiel, I included his hitting stats only from his time as an outfielder, excluding those from his days as a pitcher. The Cardinal’s slugging is superior to the others, while his average and on-base marks are credible in comparison to them.

In terms of counting stats in a single season, the story is different however. Two of the five have hit as many as 25 home runs as Ankiel did in 2008. That was Craig Monroe’s 28 in 2006 and Blake also with 28 back in 2004. Compared to Ankiel’s 71 RBI last season, Juan Rivera has topped him once, Monroe and Cuddyer twice each and Blake three times.

2007 Service Contract ($M) Player Club Long term
Juan Rivera 5.047 $2.03
Craig Monroe 5.105 $3.82
Casey Blake 5.138 $6.10 $6.90 $5.40
Michael Cuddyer 4.157 $5.00 $6.20 $4.70 3yr/$24M

Ankiel should be able to argue that with more at-bats, he could eclipse the counting stats generated by either Blake or Cuddyer. But that is future potential, not what has been accomplished to date.

While a look forward isn’t fair for this exercise, it is worth looking into Rivera’s situation in a bit more depth. After not quite reaching 300 at-bats in total over the past two seasons due to injury, as a free agent, he recently scored a three-year, $12.75 deal to return to the Angels. Rivera’s 2009 salary will be $3.25 million.

Monroe is currently a free agent and will make considerably less in 2009 than his $3.83 million last season, as his career is on a downward spiral.

For 2009, one might conclude that Ankiel could make as much as Rivera or Monroe, but having not completed more than a full season as an MLB outfielder, not as much as the far more established Cuddyer or Blake. Let’s call it no higher than $3.25 million, since Ankiel’s career number of at-bats remain considerably less than the others.

Of all the estimates, this could be the most volatile. Remember that Ryan Howard made $10 million as a Super Two last year after winning a hearing in which the Phillies had offered $7 million. Is Ankiel worth less than half of that?

Brad Thompson

When choosing comps for the right-handed swingman, I had 25 relievers who were MLB-3’s last year to choose from. I selected the seven who had progressed far enough in the arbitration process to exchange figures with their clubs.

Arb-eligible Service W L IP ERA K/9 BB/9 K/BB
Brad Thompson * 3.110 18 11 305.2 4.24 4.4 2.8 1.6
Michael Wuertz # 3.007 12 6 217.2 3.56 9.9 4.5 2.2
Dave Borkowski # 3.138 13 18 310.1 5.68 7.0 3.6 1.8
Geoff Geary # 3.098 13 4 267.1 3.94 5.8 2.9 2.0
Scott Proctor # 3.010 14 10 258.1 4.18 7.3 3.8 1.9
Matt Guerrier # 3.056 3 8 248.1 3.19 5.9 2.6 2.3
Pedro Feliciano # 3.059 10 5 197.0 3.20 8.0 3.9 2.1
Vinny Chulk # 3.106 7 11 232.2 4.29 6.5 3.5 1.9
Kevin Correia # 3.027 11 14 288.0 4.03 7.0 3.8 1.8
* pre-2009
# pre-2008

It seems pretty clear that a player like Thompson should expect to make around a million dollars plus or minus. Brad’s ERA tends to the high side and his strikeouts are low, so despite his stingy walk rate, I would aim for an even $1.0 million.

2007 Service Contract ($M) Player Club
Michael Wuertz 3.007 $0.86 $0.98 $0.75
Dave Borkowski 3.138 $0.80 $1.10 $0.75
Geoff Geary 3.098 $1.13 $1.25 $0.95
Scott Proctor 3.010 $1.15 $1.30 $0.93
Matt Guerrier 3.056 $0.95 $1.15 $0.75
Pedro Feliciano 3.059 $1.03 $1.20 $0.88
Vinny Chulk 3.106 $0.84 $0.98 $0.73
Kevin Correia 3.027 $1.08 $1.30 $0.85

Todd Wellemeyer

Again, this one is a bit tricky since Wellemeyer has over three years as a reliever and less than two as a starter. Given his current role is that of a starter one year from free agency, I used that population. Unfortunately, there was but one MLB-5 starting pitching comp from last season, now-free agent Oliver Perez. I added the three MLB-4 starters from last off-season to fill out the analysis.

Arb-eligible Service W L IP ERA K/9 BB/9 K/BB
Todd Wellemeyer* 5.009 22 19 433.2 4.42 7.1 4.4 1.6
Oliver Perez # 5.034 45 53 805.1 4.43 9.5 4.7 2.0
Nate Robertson # 4.065 42 55 832.2 4.60 6.1 3.1 2.0
Chris Capuano # 4.045 42 48 711.2 4.39 7.4 3.0 2.4
Claudio Vargas # 4.157 43 38 666.2 4.95 6.4 3.5 1.8
* pre-2009
# pre-2008

Perez is one of the eight players across MLB that actually made it to his hearing, where he defeated his employers at the time, the Mets, to the tune of $6.5 million. Yet it could be argued that Perez is more accomplished than Wellemeyer.

Of the three career starters with one fewer year of total experience, Detroit’s Nate Robertson scored a three-year deal with a $4.25 million salary the first season, while a pair of Brewers, Claudio Vargas and injured Chris Capuano, each ended up with under $4 million.

2007 Service Contract ($M) Player Club Long term
Oliver Perez 5.034 $6.50 $6.50 $4.73
Nate Robertson 4.065 $4.25 3yr/$21.25M
Chris Capuano 4.045 $3.75
Claudio Vargas 4.157 $3.60

Based on these comps, I would estimate between $3.75 million and $4.25 million for Wellemeyer for 2009, settling for the midpoint of $4.0 million.


Here are the projected differences in salaries from year-to-year for these five. Who said arbitration isn’t expensive?

2008 salary
2009 estimate Possible raise Increase %
Ankiel $0.975 million $3.25 million $2.3 million 236%
Duncan $0.439 million $1.5 million $1.061 million 241%
Ludwick $0.421 million $4.0 million $3.579 million 850%
Thompson $0.414 million $1.0 million $0.586 million 142%
Wellemeyer $1.2 million $4.0 million $2.8 million 233%
Total $3.449 million $13.75 million $10.301 million 299%

If these estimates are anywhere near correct, the Cardinals could end up committing an incremental amount of over $10 million in 2009 just to keep these five players wearing the Birds on the Bat this coming season. On the average, their raises would be just under 300%.

Several tips of the cap are offered. One is to arbitration expert Bill Gilbert, who has provided valuable consulting assistance on the process. Another is to Lee Sinins’ Complete Baseball Encyclopedia, the source for partial career data, as well as answers to a million other questions, too. Finally, a nod to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, always an invaluable resource.

Cards add Royce Ring instead of Rolls Royce

The St. Louis Cardinals have signed left-handed reliever Royce Ring to a one-year contract, the club announced on Monday. According to the AP, the deal is a major league contract for $475,000 plus $25,000 more in appearance incentives. With the move, the Cardinals’ 40-man roster now sits at 35.

The club is just coming off a failed bid for the top left-handed reliever in the free agent market, closer Brian Fuentes, who spurned the Cardinals’ offer in favor of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

Perhaps it is just unfortunate timing, but the addition of fellow Californian Ring instead is hardly a consolation prize for missing out on Fuentes.

The 28-year-old Ring is well-traveled, having pitched for Atlanta, San Diego and the Mets since breaking in during the 2005 season. His career numbers over 94 games and 65 2/3 innings include a 3-3 record, 53 strikeouts but 40 walks and a 4.97 ERA.

In 2008, Ring made his first-ever opening day roster and began the Braves’ season with 11 consecutive scoreless outings. But the success was short-lived. In seven appearances from the All-Star break until the end of July, Ring’s ERA was 36.00.

Two days later, he was designated for assignment. Any of the other 29 major league organizations could have then claimed Ring for the prorated MLB minimum salary, but they all passed. The 6-foot, 220-pounder was removed from the Braves’ 40-man roster and reported to Triple-A Richmond.

Overall for the Braves last season, Ring had posted an 8.46 ERA over 22 1/3 innings with 16 strikeouts and ten walks. Finishing out the season with Richmond, he continued the familiar pattern, walking seven and fanning seven in nine innings over 11 games.

In his major league career, Ring has been effective against lefties, with an aggregate line of .229/.350/.321 (BA/OBP/SLG). Right-handed hitters had been far more successful with a combined .267/.353/.425 mark against him.

At the July 2007 deadline, just one week after having been optioned out to Triple-A, Ring was traded from San Diego to Atlanta. Ring had failed to make the Padres out of spring training, but was promoted a month later. With the Braves, he was back in the majors when rosters expanded that September.

Ring had joined the Padres in a November 2006 trade with the Mets that also included former Cardinals farmhand Ben Johnson heading the other way. Ring had bounced back and forth between Triple-A and the majors during the 2005 and 2006 seasons, never appearing in more than 26 games in the majors either year. His 42 games with the Braves last season prior to being demoted is his career high in the majors.

As the centerpiece of a July 2003 trade for Roberto Alomar, Ring, at that time a hot-shot 22-year-old Double-A closer, moved from the Chicago White Sox to the Metropolitans.

Ring had been a top collegiate pitcher with San Diego State and was taken by the Sox with their first-round pick, 18th overall in 2002. At the time, he sported a low-90’s fastball and a 73-75 mph slider effective against lefty hitters. Ring was the Sox’ 10th-ranked prospect in 2003 and #13 on the Mets’ list in 2004 according to Baseball America.

Obviously, he has never reached his potential since.

Walton’s take: To me this seems like the addition of more quantity instead of quality in an attempt to meet the Cardinals left-handed need. Apparently they hope someone will emerge from a growing group to work alongside recent signee Trever Miller.

Ring will hop into a shallow pool of left-handed relief hopefuls that includes Nats’ castoff Charlie Manning and former Tigers farmhand Ian Ostlund.

The Cardinals’ primary 2008 lefties, Randy Flores and Ron Villone as well as oft-injured Tyler Johnson, have all been cut loose. At this point, it is hard to see how their prospective 2009 replacements will be any better.

McClellan Still Prefers to Start

St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Kyle McClellan is one player potentially impacted by the uncertain plans for ace Chris Carpenter. Manager Tony La Russa’s recent comments about the potential of starter Carpenter to perhaps close instead if it is better for the pitcher’s health could also help determine McClellan’s role in 2009.

A starting pitcher in the minors, including when he was injured for much of the time between 2005 and 2007, McClellan came into 2008 Cardinals spring camp as a unheralded starter with almost no shot to make the team. As he impressed in each successive outing, he was formally converted to relief and pitched his way onto the club.

After a fast start, McClellan cemented his role in the Cardinals pen and remained in the major leagues the entire season. He tied Chicago’s Carlos Marmol for tops in the National League with 30 holds. This despite the fact he had accrued just 30 innings of experience at Double-A and no Triple-A time prior.

For 2009, McClellan will likely reprise his bullpen role, but with an appealing four-pitch repertoire and his versatility, the club might be tempted to move him back to starting. This could be dependent upon at least four factors:

  • Carpenter’s ability to recover from an ongoing nerve problem as noted above.
  • The team’s success in acquiring another veteran starter via trade or free agency.
  • Whether Mitchell Boggs, with six starts last season, can step up and claim a rotation spot.
  • Whether or not another reliever can move up and assume McClellan’s current role.

Depending on who you ask, the relative importance of those four factors vary.

Over the weekend, McClellan made an appearance at a sports memorabilia show at John A. Logan College in Carterville, IL. There he addressed the question openly, closing with the expected “team-first” remark, while also honestly expressing his personal preference.

“I would like to start, but really, it doesn’t matter to me whether I start or relieve. Whatever helps the club the most,” McClellan told The Southern Illinoisan.

Cards pitching coach Dave Duncan, perhaps McClellan’s strongest supporter, seems to agree. The Post-Dispatch’s Jeff Gordon says Duncan is leaning toward moving the second-year pitcher back to starting if Carpenter isn’t 100 percent this spring.

Duncan made this observation during a recent radio appearance on KFNS about the 24-year-old:

“He has four pitches and three are above-average pitches. That’s what you look for in a starting pitcher. I’m of the belief Kyle McClellan has the attributes to become a starting pitcher, and a good one, at the major league level.”

In remarks on another radio show on 1380 AM last Friday, La Russa said his clear preference is to not shift McClellan and acquire another starter instead.

“I think it is just going to come down to maybe literally the first day of spring training and you look at who you signed. I think Kyle could move into the rotation competition in spring training and have an excellent chance to be a good pitcher.

“But if we’re identifying the end of the game as our number one priority and if you are taking a guy out of the bullpen who was a major weapon for us, that doesn’t seem to add up to me.

“We’ve got other starters so yeah, if we don’t do anything else for the starter and you do something for a reliever, then you’d consider Kyle that way. But if you don’t do anything for the bullpen – if you have the same guys there as you do now – I would hesitate to take a guy like Kyle McClellan, who is such an effective reliever, and in 2009 make him a starter when we’re looking for help at the end of the game.”

The following is the scenario I prefer, but it would require a perfect storm to actually occur. If Carpenter AND the new starter are proven to be ready to go AND the Cards acquire a ninth-inning man, as are on their shopping list AND everyone is healthy, it would probably take much of the month of March to play out. So here is what I would do.

Proclaim McClellan to be a starter, now and for the forseeable future. After all, it seems his greatest value to the organization is in that role. Have him start the season in Memphis to re-familiarize himself with the routine of starting and to increase his endurance. He would be of more value if he could get into the final three innings of the game, an unlikely occurrence out of the gate. After all, McClellan has pitched over 76 innings in a season as a professional only once, way back in 2004.

This way, McClellan would get stretched out and probably become more at ease with starting at the upper levels of the game. He should then be more ready for the call if/when Carpenter or another starter goes down during the season.

Bottom line, no matter how good McClellan is, I would consider having just one month of spring training to execute a successful shift to a major league starter to be taking an unnecessary risk, both for the player and the club.

Like so many other parts of the yet-to-be-fully-assembled 2009 Cardinals, McClellan will need to remain flexible and be prepared to play any role come spring. There is no reason to believe he won’t be up to the task, especially if handled properly.

Cardinals one of three in Kawakami hunt

The Sunday Japan Times mentions a report in the Chunichi Sports paper that may be important to St. Louis Cardinals fans concerned about the club’s perceived slowness in acquiring another starting pitcher.

The article notes that the pool of MLB teams in the hunt for what they call one of two prize Japanese free agents, former Chunichi Dragons ace pitcher Kenshin Kawakami (pictured in both photos, AP), is down to three clubs: the Baltimore Orioles, St. Louis Cardinals and Minnesota Twins.

A MASN report out of Baltimore confirmed the O’s interest in the right-hander, but the writer did not know the terms of the club’s offer. He did mention that the deep-pocketed Boston Red Sox were previously considered to be stiff competition for Kawakami, but interest has cooled substantially since the Sox signed Brad Penny last week. The offer the BoSox were considering was rumored to be three years, $21 million.

A Friday report from the Baltimore Sun debunked a rumor that the Orioles made their “final offer” to Kawakami. Several days prior, a Japanese network reported that the O’s were worried about the pitcher’s shoulder and had offered agent Dan Evans an incentive-laden contract at a lower base than the agent was looking for.

Mid-December reports from Japan also mentioned the San Francisco Giants, Atlanta Braves, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and Milwaukee Brewers as having been interested in Kawakami.

The other top Japanese free agent is Koji Uehara, 33 years old like Kawakami. He has both started and closed for the Yomiuri Giants. The Times wonders out loud why speculation about his prospects for the majors has been quiet as of late. The paper expected that Uehara should have been signed by now by an MLB club. Earlier rumors had Texas making him an offer of $10 million for three years and the Orioles reportedly coveted him as a starter.

In referring to either player, it did not seem to me that any of the reports acknowledged the general slowness of the market.

For additional information on both players, check out my post from December 18. (Note: Hitoki Iwase, mentioned in that report, has since signed a four-year deal to remain with Chunichi, according to NPB Tracker. (Iwase was Kawakami’s teammate and closer for the Dragons.)

In December, the Cardinals signed another Japanese pitcher, left-hander Katsuhiko Maekawa, who is expected to be a minor leaguer in the US. (links to related articles one and two)

Additionally, Kawakami’s career stats are listed below. Since having been selected as the top draft pick by Chunichi in 1998, he has pitched for the Dragons ever since.

The right-hander has not suffered a losing season since 2001 and has been durable prior to 2008, when he missed time due to an illness and with a strained back. (I could not find any mention of shoulder problems.) His career strikeout to walk ratio of 3.78-to-1 is impressive.

Year G CG Starts* W L IP Hits HR BB K Runs ER ERA
1998 26 4 21 14 6 161.1 123 14 51 124 48 46 2.57
1999 29 3 22 8 9 162 173 20 43 102 84 80 4.44
2000 14 0 10 2 3 60.1 65 10 20 24 32 32 4.77
2001 26 3 22 6 10 145 153 12 36 127 61 60 3.72
2002 27 3 24 12 6 187.2 170 13 34 149 54 49 2.35
2003 8 1 7 4 3 53.2 60 2 14 37 22 18 3.02
2004 27 5 22 17 7 192.1 173 27 38 176 72 71 3.32
2005 25 3 22 11 8 180.1 186 20 28 138 75 75 3.74
2006 29 6 22 17 7 215 166 22 39 194 74 60 2.51
2007 26 0 26 12 8 167.1 175 18 23 145 72 66 3.55
2008 20 1 16 9 5 117.1 99 11 25 112 33 30 2.30
Totals 257 29 214 112 72 1642.1 1543 169 351 1328 627 587 3.22

* Starts total does not include complete games.

YouTube video on Kawakami on the mound.

Projected Top Five St. Louis Cardinals Stories of 2009

In the first four installments of this series (links at the bottom of this page), we looked at the top 20 stories affecting the St. Louis Cardinals last year. Now it is time to predict the top story lines for 2009 as well.

Right up front, I will set aside the easiest and most logical entry – the results of the 2009 team on the field. The nature of that story has yet to be determined, shaped by the five items discussed here and many more.

Without further ado, here are my projected top five St. Louis Cardinals stories of 2009.

Are those car keys in his hand or a detonator? (AP)

1. Lame duck La Russa

Are those car keys in his hand or a detonator?

I am conflicted about this choice. I don’t really believe this will turn out to deserve recognition as the true top story of the year. Instead, like the right elbow of Albert Pujols, it will become such big news only because some people will make it out to be.

As has been the case several times before, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa heads into the final year of his current contract in 2009.

Cardinals Chairman and CEO Bill DeWitt, Jr. has stated many times on the record that La Russa can manage the Cardinals as long as he likes, yet La Russa’s contract status often seems to be made into an issue by those looking for a reason to make noise or a place to hang blame.

This situation presented itself most recently in 2007, two years ago. Even with the Cardinals coming off a World Series win, when that next year’s club started slowly, those who love to stir the pot latched onto the silly idea that La Russa’s contract status was a detriment to his team.

Case in point. Though the St. Louis Post-Dispatch conveniently removes their old articles from the internet, I kept a copy of a May 17, 2007 column entitled “La Russa’s uncertain status only hurts Cards” because I found it as incredible then as I do today.

Here is the link, though as I mentioned, you can’t access it.

Among the amazing assertions offered (my comments outside the quotes):

“Just about everyone assumes La Russa is moving on after the season, and that lame-duck status only damages his ability to lead,” said the article in its third paragraph.

As a result, there was no fear of La Russa among the players, negatively impacting their motivation. With a contract, supposedly everything would be different.

“The fear factor was in place. Players don’t want to get on La Russa’s bad side. And staying motivated to maintain La Russa’s respect and keep their jobs will only help players’ performance,” was the exact quote.

DeWitt in particular, was challenged to step up and “make a new commitment to La Russa,” this despite the clear open offer from the lead owner to the manager sitting on the table as noted above.

The column closed with the worn and tired line, “the fans deserve to know”. This was apparently designed to incite the torches and pitchforks mob who can’t think for themselves to take to the streets.

The reality is that all anyone from DeWitt on down deserves is a “hard nine”, an honest effort, from La Russa every day. In my opinion, they have received that since the day the manager arrived in St. Louis in 1996. Even his harshest critics cannot argue about La Russa’s commitment to his job.

Still, look for these same old “lame duck La Russa” storylines to be recycled once again during the 2009 season as the drama writers look for an easy target.

Sadly, even La Russa has come to expect it.

During a Friday radio interview, Post-Dispatch sports staffers Bernie Miklasz and Joe Strauss quizzed La Russa about his contract status. Tony sidestepped the question several times, saying he was only focused on spring training and the 2009 season.

La Russa even joked about it. “I just know that if the club is playing reasonably well and nobody is arguing then Joe is going to find something I am doing wrong to agitate and get some controversy going. You know, it’s part of the deal. I almost enjoy it. Almost,” La Russa jibed.

As in the case most of the time with humor, there was more than a hint of reality likely being presented. The good news is since the 2007 articles can’t be accessed anymore, the scribes can just dust off their two-year old La Russa contract distraction columns – especially if the 2009 Cardinals don’t get out of the gate quickly.

A new twist may grow in importance as some are already trying to create the storyline that would link an Albert Pujols contract extension to La Russa’s status as manager. As big of a stretch as that seems, expect it to be hashed and re-hashed over the upcoming season.

To his defense, two years ago, La Russa ignored all the noise and waited until after the season to make his decision, as he always does. More familiar with the heavy office politics at the time than any of us reading this, La Russa’s inactivity proved to be smart as his boss, then-GM Walt Jocketty, was sacked after that 2007 season.

The manager had every right and reason to step back and see how the search for the new man to whom he would report would be carried out before making his personal decision as to whether or not to remain. In my opinion, La Russa played it right. Despite the incessant badgering guaranteed to be coming in the months ahead, I bet he will do the same in 2009.

2. Chris Carpenter’s health

The ace of the St. Louis staff hasn’t contributed since signing a huge contract extension prior to the 2007 season, one that covered five years with a team option for year six, worth a minimum of $63.5 million.

In my opinion, the 2008 Cardinals were kept in limbo much of the season waiting for a Carpenter return. When the long-awaited time finally arrived, it lasted just three starts. Then Carp went back into a holding pattern for the remainder of the year.

The same questions were asked over and over again, despite there being no ready answers.

  • When will he return?
  • Will he start or relieve?
  • Will he be the one-game-per-series closer?
  • Will he have surgery?

For 2009, none of these questions have changed.

While the front office seems interested in adding another starter to their 2009 mix, there is no way it would be a pitcher of Carpenter’s caliber (former 20-game winner, Cy Young Award recipient, etc.).

As recently as that Friday radio interview with Miklasz and Strauss, La Russa seems to be waiting like the rest of us to see what use Carpenter can be in the spring.

The manager expressed the thoughts of many when he seemed to wish out loud for some way to determine whether it would be best for Carpenter (and therefore for the Cardinals) for him to pitch every fifth day and throw 100-110 pitches as a starter or come out every second or third day and throw 20-30 pitches as a reliever.

La Russa, who admitted he purposely chooses to be optimistic this time of year, did not mention the third option for Carpenter, a return to his home away from home, the disabled list.

Following the 2008 season, Carpenter received at least three different opinions before deciding to forgo another surgery, instead taking a rehab approach to prepare for the upcoming campaign.

No matter what is said by whom, the only valid proof will be offered when Carpenter actually takes the mound again. A full return would be a huge lift for the 2009 Cardinals. Instead, if he is once more unable to contribute, the club may again have trouble reaching the first division of the National League Central.

He is that important – the Cardinals’ pitching Pujols, so to speak.

3. Calm or chaos at the closer position?

When ranking the 2008 top stories, at number four I documented in detail the chronology of the Cardinals closer hot potato. It began with Jason Isringhausen, passed to Ryan Franklin, shuffled to Kyle McClellan for a few games, tossed back to Izzy, then flipped to rookie Chris Perez (left) and finally landed right back in the lap of Franklin. And that doesn’t count proposals for both Adam Wainwright and Carpenter taking the role at various points during the year.

All we know heading into 2009 is that the Cardinals don’t believe that either Perez or hard-throwing rookie Jason Motte are ready for that important ninth-inning lead role.

They tried to grab Californian Brian Fuentes, but the free agent lefty closer turned his back on St. Louis in favor of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

It is not yet clear if the club will sign a lesser former fireman, such as Isringhausen or Trevor Hoffman, trade for one, or install as closer another pitcher who has never previously performed in that role (see Chris Carpenter above). It is worth noting that Franklin had never closed prior to 2008, either.

Whatever the combination chosen, La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan must find a better way to deploy them in 2009 to avoid the ugly record of blown saves and bullpen losses that played a major role in the failure of the 2008 Cardinals.

4. The future of Rick Ankiel

It could be that 2009, only Rick Ankiel’s second full year as a major league outfielder, will also represent his final season in a Cardinals uniform.

Amazingly, though he was drafted as a left-handed pitching phenom all the way back in 1997, it will have taken Ankiel 13 calendar years to accumulate the six years of major league service time that is a prerequisite for free agency.

Ankiel is the most intriguing of a class of several high-profile Cardinals to be eligible for free agency following next season (Troy Glaus, Todd Wellemeyer, Khalil Greene, Adam Kennedy, Ryan Franklin).

The widely-despised and feared Scott Boras serves as Ankiel’s representation. The super-agent is well-known for working the market to his clients’ advantage while fully exploiting the leverage free agency offers.

While Ankiel’s well-documented history includes strong emotional ties to the Cardinals, that alone will likely not be enough to overcome what could be a major difference financially between what the Cardinals would feel comfortable in spending to keep him and what the market demand for a long-term contract may be.

La Russa may have put it best last month when he said the following.

“Well, the Giants just signed a guy that I had an affinity for, (Edgar) Renteria, right? We lost him. You develop a respect and a relationship with players and sometimes it’s free agency that they move or sometimes it’s a trade because that’s the business of baseball.

“So, yeah, I have a strong personal relationship and respect and affection for Rick Ankiel, but this will be the last year of his contract, so he goes out and hits 40 balls, he may not play for us next year. There’s that business. I mean, I’ll always feel the same way about him.”

With top prospect Colby Rasmus in the wings, there is a true centerfielder almost ready to replace Ankiel. Other options exist in the corners with Ryan Ludwick and Chris Duncan, if the latter is healthy.

With a glut of other left-handed outfielders in Skip Schumaker, Duncan and Rasmus on the roster, General Manager John Mozeliak publicly floated Ankiel’s availability in the trade market this off-season. To date, there have been a few rumors of mild interest, but nothing that seemed serious.

Coming off a nagging sports hernia injury that cut short his initial campaign as an outfielder, perhaps other clubs want to see more from Ankiel in 2009 before becoming sold on him.

Yet if Rasmus finally realizes his potential during 2009 and “shoves” others aside and makes his way into the lineup, using La Russa’s recent words, could Ankiel be a mid-season trade option?

With Rasmus’ already carrying his own share of intrigue, how intertwined will his story become with that of the 13-year Cardinal Ankiel and will it be resolved painlessly or become a big distraction for the 2009 club?

5. When will Colby arrive and where will all the outfielders play?

As already mentioned, the Cardinals have too many outfielders, especially from the left side with Ankiel, Duncan, Schumaker and Rasmus. Primary right-handed hitters are Ludwick and Joe Mather with Brian Barton and Nick Stavinoha likely Memphis-bound.

Earlier in the off-season, Mozeliak made a very blatant announcement that Ankiel and Ludwick could be made available in the right deal. Ludwick, the more interesting of the two to many clubs, was linked to aborted deals with Atlanta and Colorado.

The latter trade, for Matt Holliday, would have sent both Ludwick and Schumaker west, helping to at least alleviate some of the outfield logjam. In the remainder of this off-season, the Cardinals may continue to try to swap that depth for needed pitching, though there are a number of free agent outfielders still out there as competition.

Current course and speed, Rasmus will be blocked to start the 2009 season. With only a partial year of experience at Triple-A, that would not be a terrible injustice, despite how Rasmus performs in spring training. There is also a strong financial incentive for the Cardinals not to add Rasmus to their roster until the season is underway. (That is due to his accrued service time prior to free agency.)

Schumaker has no options remaining so should begin 2009 in St. Louis with Ankiel, Duncan, Ludwick and Mather as the other four outfielders. Ankiel’s status was covered above, while Duncan has to re-prove himself after major neck surgery before his market value can be re-established.

In the aforementioned 1380 AM interview, La Russa said the following about Rasmus:

“In Colby’s case, he has the talent that when he is ready, he is going to shove somebody aside. I remember last year, there was some kind of… I got a question or two that there was some inkling that I didn’t like Colby. That was ridiculous. I love the kid’s talent but in spring training, he had a nice spring, but he didn’t have a better spring than Rick or Skip for example or Ludwick. So he went to Triple-A for his first full year in Triple-A.

“This year, he’ll be a year older, he’ll come to camp and he is getting in the middle of a competition. He is on my list to call here at the first of the year. Here is one of the things I am going to tell him. If he was a middle infielder, and with less of a competition, with his talent, you might play him before he’s quite ready because we are a little thin there. But that is not the case in the outfield and that’s just one of the realities.

“In Colby’s case, we’re just going to play him and the thing that you recognize – and I am going to repeat it again because I want our fans to remember this – he has the talent that when he is ready, he will move somebody aside. He is that good,” La Russa said.

What will happen if/when Rasmus forces his way into St. Louis? Injuries or ineffectiveness by others could happen, but are impossible to predict. La Russa often says that these kinds of problems have a way of working themselves out. We shall have to see about that.

(Dis)honorable mentions

There are at least two other topics that could easily vault onto this list if the right (or maybe more appropriately, wrong) conditions present themselves during 2009. Like so many of these stories, the two that follow are related to each other.

Albert Pujols’ contract extension. Though noted briefly above in the “La Russa Lame Duck” section, this could easily step out from the shadows to even eclipse the level of questions about the manager’s future. It shouldn’t, but it could.

Despite the fact that the first baseman is under contract for three more seasons, through 2011, the noise about his long-term status is already increasing. Some fans want it resolved now as a measure of ownership’s long-term commitment to the team, nervous that the price goes up with each passing day.

Others, like me, think the organization should wait another year or more before getting deeply into discussions, giving time for Pujols’ elbow as well as the economic situation to heal.

Speaking of…

The economy. Bill DeWitt’s now-infamous battle cry to “keep the powder dry” is being felt all over the organization – from the ticket windows to free agent signings to re-using minor leaguers’ uniforms, to the aborted purchase of the Triple-A Memphis franchise.

While hardly a Cardinals-only theme, the financial status of the organization will be under increasing scrutiny, both behind the closed doors of ownership meetings as well as among fans all over The Cardinal Nation.

Already posted:

Top 20 Cardinals Stories of 2008: #16-20

Top 20 Cardinals Stories of 2008: #11-15

Top 20 Cardinals Stories of 2008: #6-10

Top 20 Cardinals Stories of 2008: #1-5

Top 20 Cardinals Stories of 2008: #1-5

5. La Russa Keeps Cards in Contention despite No Deadline Help

I guess one could argue that every year’s top story is how the club did during the season, yet in 2008 the ending seemed incomplete with a second-division finish in the National League Central.

In this countdown, we have already considered the instability in the rotation, masked somewhat by the most fortunate March rescue of 15-game winner Kyle Lohse off baseball’s scrap heap.

The next storyline in this series will delve into the bullpen meltdown, in which Cardinals manager Tony La Russa could be considered an enabler, at least.

Together, these two segments illustrate the career-long conundrum with the 30-year MLB skipper. On one hand, his loyalty to his veterans, which is admirable to a point, can at times work to the detriment of his team.

On the other, his preparation and intensity have clearly taken his clubs to heights they would never have reached otherwise. Such was the case in 2008, as La Russa demonstrated an uncanny ability to take what appeared to be an average club and get more from them than expected.

Exemplified by the rotating crew of outfielders, of which at least four spent considerable time on the disabled list and his unconventional deployment of batting his pitcher in the eighth spot in the order, La Russa used 147 different lineups in the Cardinals’ 162 games.

While he has taken heat in many corners for his “gimmick”, sabermetricians have proven there is a slight edge in La Russa’s move to bat his pitchers in the number eight hole. Who can argue against any edge, no matter how small it may be?

That wasn’t enough to save the season, though.

Eleven days prior to the July 31 trade deadline, the Cardinals had played exactly 100 games, or 62% of their schedule. They were 57-43, 14 games over .500 and just two games back.

Not two games back in the Wild Card race, mind you. The Cards were just two games out of the Central Division lead! Clearly anything could happen – especially with some help. The Chicago Cubs had already added Rich Harden.

On July 21, the Milwaukee Brewers came into Busch as the Cards had just swept the San Diego Padres out of town, four straight. Led by their shiny, new acquisition C.C. Sabathia, who shut out the Cards that Saturday, the Brewers won all four games. They would go on to make the playoffs despite sacking their manager while the Cardinals waited for help that never came.

I believe this series was the turning point in the season. More on that later.

I do understand why the club did not mortgage their future on a Sabathia-type trade, yet I do not accept the argument offered to fans that every single one of the 29 possible trading partners wanted too much in return for every potential deal.

Not every proposed trade had to be of a Colby Rasmus magnitude. For example, in past years, useful pitchers like Jeff Weaver and Joel Pineiro were picked up at the deadline for spare parts at the Double-A level.

Rumors surfaced of the Cardinals’ interest in players such as left-handed relievers Will Ohman and Brian Fuentes and outfielder Matt Holliday. Yet, ownership and management did almost nothing while the team fell short by just five games from capturing the Wild Card instead of the Brewers.

Do you really believe no help was available or that the bosses weren’t completely trying? To me, it almost seemed as if they had predetermined their 2008 club just wasn’t good enough. If true, it would be most strange since this team won three more regular-season games than the World Champions of 2006.

I chalk up the 2008 season as an opportunity lost, though La Russa deserves kudos for keeping them in contention as long as he did.

4. The Decline of Izzy and the Bullpen Woes

Coming into the 2008 season, Cardinals fans had every reason to feel optimistic about the bullpen and especially the ninth inning.

Club career saves leader Jason Isringhausen seemed to have put his hip surgery behind him. Izzy was coming off a league-leading 2007 during which he saved 94.1% of his opportunities (32 of 34). He ended that year by converting 18 consecutive save chances.

Veteran set-up men Russ Springer and Ryan Franklin were back to reprise their roles, but the left side was a bit uncertain. Randy Flores’ production had begun to decline, while Tyler Johnson’s health problems lingered. As a result, minor league signee Ron Villone made the team instead.

I have never been a strong proponent of the “roles” argument, i.e. “I didn’t know my role and that is why I did not pitch effectively.” Yet in 2008, the unsettled nature of the closer’s job did seem to impact the efficiency of the pen and therefore the team.

Let’s look at the chronology:

May 9: The first-place Cards drop a 4-3 game to Milwaukee as Izzy blew his fifth game of the young season. La Russa then took the closer out of the ninth-inning role, which a frustrated Izzy welcomed.

May 15: With a depleted pen, La Russa calls on Izzy to protect a one-run lead in the eighth against the Pirates. Four runs scored as Izzy could only get one out. The manager called Izzy’s situation “problem number one” for his club, losers of seven of nine at the time.

I suspect overuse could have contributed.

Though Isringhausen had an injury-free 2007, La Russa went out of his way to explain that during 2008 spring training that he would use his closer sparingly to “save his bullets” for later. Especially considering Izzy’s past hip problems, the plan seemed wise.

Yet as soon as the regular season began, the surprising Cardinals began to play close game after close game – contests they could and did win. A by-product was aggressive use of Izzy.

Specifically, the closer took the ball in half of his club’s initial two dozen games, 12 appearances through April 25. By the time he called it quits temporarily, he was still taking the mound in every other game – 21 appearances in their first 43 contests.

Even in his younger days, Izzy had never pitched in 80 games, as his early usage pace projected. In his seven full healthy seasons since becoming a full-time closer, Isringhausen averaged 64 outings, with a high of 74 achieved four seasons ago.

May 16: One day after saying he had no physical problems, Izzy was placed on the 15-day disabled list. The stated reason was a laceration (cut) to his right hand, caused when he hit a television in apparent frustration one week prior. Interestingly, since that episode, the 35-year-old had been able to make three more mound appearances.

The unstated reason for the move was for Izzy to somehow regain his lost mound confidence after absorbing six blown saves and five losses in his first 17 save situations. He reported to Cardinals camp in Jupiter, Florida. “Closer of the future” Chris Perez was promoted from Memphis for the first time.

June 14: Izzy had been pitching in Palm Beach and Springfield on his rehab tour as Franklin had been closing during the intervening month. Perez was doing well in his MLB introduction in a general relief role.

While Franklin had six saves and a win, he was often in trouble. Compared to his time setting up, as closer his WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) and ERA exploded. (1.25 to 1.40 and 1.80 to 3.87, respectively.) It seemed clear Franklin was not the ninth-inning answer.

June 27: Since his MLB return ten days prior, Isringhausen had been ridden hard again, though not as closer. He pitched in six of the Cardinals’ nine games, including two outings of 2 1/3 innings each. He allowed eight hits and three walks in those 8 2/3 innings, but only one earned run.

July 18: Perez was returned to Memphis to work on his secondary pitches. He had yielded runs in seven of his last ten outings (9 ER/12 1/3 IP).

July 25: In the same Milwaukee series mentioned above where Sabathia spun his shutout, Franklin took losses in Game 1 and Game 4, both via devastating home runs.

A tenth inning three-run blast by Bill Hall started the series and Ryan Braun finished with a two-run shot that turned a potential Cardinals win into a disheartening four-game series sweep for the visitors from Wisconsin.

Franklin’s uncomfortable post-game interview that Thursday was reminiscent of Izzy’s public frustration and disappointment in May. At that point, Franklin’s ERA and WHIP as closer were 5.46 and 1.75. His July ERA was approaching eight.

July 28: Izzy returned as closer but seemed to be on a short leash. Club officials noted that Adam Wainwright, out since June 9 with a finger injury, might be tried in the ninth-inning role.

August 1: Isringhausen collected his only save in his second 2008 stint as closer and what may be his 217th and final save as a Cardinal in a 6-3 home win over the Phillies.

August 6: Perez was called upon in a tight game against the Dodgers and was perfect in getting the final five outs. It was the 23-year-old’s first major league save. He would go on to collect five more during the rest of August.

August 18: Izzy’s season ended as he went onto the DL with tendinitis and a partial flexor muscle tear near his right elbow that would require surgery in September. La Russa admitted the club had been aware of the injury for the previous week to ten days, but did not know if Izzy had been hiding it for a longer period.

September 7: After two blown saves in the first week of the month, Perez picked up his final save and seventh total in the 2008 season in a 3-1 home win over Florida. He won against the Cubs two nights later, but took an extra-inning loss in Pittsburgh on the 13th.

September 8: In what may have been his strangest closer announcement in a season full of them, La Russa seemed to be grasping at straws when he disclosed his new plan to deploy the perennially-rehabbing Chris Carpenter as his one-game-per-series closer. What made it especially odd was at that point Carp had pitched just once since August 10 and did not appear again in any 2008 games following this “announcement”.

September 18: Jason Motte relieved Perez in the ninth against Cincinnati, picking up his first career save. It would be Perez’ last save opportunity of the season as Franklin was re-installed as closer to finish out the season.

How bad was it?

  • The Cardinals tied for second in the majors in games lost by the bullpen with 31, behind only the woeful 99-loss San Diego Padres (34).
  • They tied with a 101-loss club, Seattle, for the most blown saves in MLB with 31.
  • The Cards lost 12 contests in extra innings, worst in MLB.
  • They were defeated in walk-off fashion an astonishing 13 times, also worst of the 30 teams in the majors.

It is impossible for me to believe that this 2008 team would not have been a playoff club with a more stabile closer.

Looking ahead, it is unclear what the plan is for 2009. At least some of the powers want to add an experienced ninth-inning man, but no one is yet on board to play that role.

Perez, Motte and Franklin will be back, while Izzy and the unheralded Springer are likely gone. Kyle McClellan and oft-injured Josh Kinney will also return.

3. Albert Pujols: Overcomes Elbow to win MVP and nine other awards

When reading several other top Cardinals lists for 2008, I was stunned that Albert Pujols’ season was not even mentioned. Being so consistently excellent means he is often taken for granted, even by a segment of his own team’s fans.

In 2008, Pujols ranked second in the National League in batting average and on-base percentage and first in intentional walks, total bases and slugging. Albert’s OPS of 1.114 was not only the league-best, it is his personal career-best.

That is why it is so encouraging to see that Pujols became 2008’s most recognized player across MLB despite the Cardinals’ late-season fade.

Pujols collected ten major awards:

  • The National League’s Most Valuable Player Award, his second (2005).
  • The Dick Schaap Memorial Player of the Year and National League Player of the Year Awards from the MLB Players Alumni Association
  • The Roberto Clemente Award from MLB
  • The Players Choice Player of the Year Award and NL Outstanding Player Award voted by his peer players
  • The Oscar Charleston Legacy Award as the best player in the NL from The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum
  • The Sporting News MLB Player of the Year
  • The NL Silver Slugger Award at first base
  • This Year in Baseball Hitter of the Year Award

All this occurred against a backdrop of concern over lingering problems with his throwing elbow. When the pain increases, Pujols has been known to make comments which are quickly inflated in importance and the resulting over-reaction is widespread.

The issue flared up in January and again late in the season as anxious fans tried to interpret a deeper meaning when Pujols complained of pain and noted his ever-present surgical option. Yet as recently as September, Pujols was quoted as saying he felt the best he had in a year and a half as the Cardinals undertook the unusual action of issuing a formal press release to deny the first-baseman’s season was in jeopardy.

In October, Pujols did undergo surgery on his right elbow in a procedure that was considered more minor. It included decompression and transposition of the ulnar nerve, designed to reduce the pain and hopefully forestall the more-serious Tommy John ligament replacement surgery that could take him out of action for up to an entire season.

Over the next couple of years, the heat will be turned up on team executives to ensure the face of the franchise receives a long-term contract extension that will make him a career Cardinal.

2. Ryan Ludwick: All-Star and Silver Slugger

Just the opposite of the Pujols not-to-be-taken-for-granted story is the totally unexpected emergence of outfielder Ryan Ludwick as an offensive force.

The oft-injured 30-year-old has traveled many miles since having been the second-round draft selection of the 1999 Oakland A’s from UNLV, taken just 14 picks after the Cardinals called out “first baseman Chris Duncan”.

The right-handed hitting younger brother of former Redbirds pitcher Eric Ludwick made his first major league appearance with the 2002 Texas Rangers. He had become a Ranger after having been part of a deal for now-Tampa Bay first baseman Carlos Pena. After 21 games in centerfield, Ryan’s initial season ended when he required surgery to insert a screw to repair a serious hip fracture.

Then ranked as the Rangers’ number seven prospect, Ludwick spent most of the first half of 2003 back in Triple-A before moving to the Cleveland Indians in a trade for outfielder Shane Spencer and pitcher Ricardo Rodriguez, who would later pitch in Memphis (2006). In what became a continuing pattern of injury, Ludwick missed the final month of the 2003 campaign with a contusion of the patella tendon in his right knee. Surgery would be required to remove torn cartilage.

In 2004, Ludwick began the season with a second surgery to remove scar tissue in the knee and then had to deal with a bleeding ulcer. Ludwick didn’t come off the disabled list until July and rehabbed in the minors until receiving a September call-up to the bigs. That is when in a bizarre mishap, an apparent stray gunshot penetrated the Indians’ team bus, grazing Ludwick and striking a teammate.

Ludwick made the Tribe roster out of spring training in 2005 as their fourth outfielder, but soon thereafter strained his shoulder and by Memorial Day was outrighted to the minors. Ludwick signed a minor league deal for 2006 with Detroit and spent that entire season in Triple-A. He agreed to terms on a similar deal with the Cardinals in December, 2006.

After an impressive spring with the big club and continuing to scorch the ball in Memphis early on, Ludwick received the call to return to the majors in early May, 2007. Among his season highlights for the Cardinals were a go-ahead, three-run home run and a career-high five RBI against the Oakland A’s, two home runs against the Reds which included a 473-foot shot, among the top ten longest in Great American Ballpark’s five-year history, as well as a career-best hitting streak of 11 games in September.

Coming into 2008, Ludwick seemed to be in a competition with former American League MVP Juan Gonzalez for a right-hitting outfield position. Juan Gone couldn’t answer the bell so while Ludwick made the team, he entered the season as a part-timer. That changed quickly.

Ludwick ended up playing in 152 games in 2008, batting clean-up against right-handed hitters and following Pujols in the line-up. Ludwick became the first player since Hideki Matsui (2004) and Lefty O’Doul (1929) to hit 30 home runs and have 100 RBI at age 30 while having had 750 or fewer career at-bats.

Ludwick set career highs in at-bats (538), hits (161), doubles (40), triples (3), home runs (37), RBIs (113) and batting average (.299). His .591 slugging percentage was second best in the National League and 80 extra base hits ranked third in the NL.

He and Pujols were named to the 2008 National League All-Star Team as reserves. Ludwick made the team via the Player Ballot, which is cast by players, managers and coaches. Following the season, the two were also selected for The Sporting News’ 2008 National League All-Star team and received NL Sliver Slugger Awards.

Despite the results, during the off-season Ludwick has been mentioned by Cardinals GM John Mozeliak as possibly being available via trade. The outfielder was linked to aborted deals with the Atlanta Braves and Colorado Rockies but remains a Cardinal today and is expected to reprise his surprise role with the 2009 club.

1. The Wounded Arms: Carpenter, Mulder, Clement

The problems and successes of the 2008 Cardinals have been covered in detail already, yet when all is said and done, the lack of a healthy, productive rotation is what I consider to have been the biggest contributor to the disappointing 2008 bottom line.

The stress on the bullpen would have been reduced by dependable starters capable of getting even into the seventh inning. Over the course of the 162-game season, the Cardinals starters averaged just 5 2/3 innings. They tied for last in the league with two complete games.

The starting staff allowed the third-most hits in the NL at 1009, with only Pittsburgh and Colorado worse. They fanned just 576 opposing hitters, 15th of the 16 NL clubs. In part due to stellar middle relief led by Russ Springer, their starter’s ERA was 4.20, in the middle of the NL pack. They also walked the fewest batters at 266.

The acquisition of Kyle Lohse, the emergence of Todd Wellemeyer as a credible starter and the steadiness of Braden Looper were all positives. So was Adam Wainwright, who missed two-and-a-half months with a finger injury.

The inconsistency of Joel Pineiro, Brad Thompson and rookies Mitchell Boggs and Mike Parisi was not unexpected, as the latter three were asked to make 14 starts among them.

Yet the reason this item is number one on my list is that the three big names expected to join the Cardinals during the season, Chris Carpenter, Mark Mulder and Matt Clement, did not contribute.

Over their careers coming into 2008, all three had winning records. In fact, they are a combined 75 games over .500 and have totaled 290 major league victories.

Carpenter 100 69 0.592 229 25 1522 694 4.10
Mulder 103 60 0.632 202 25 1312.1 609 4.18
Clement 87 86 0.503 236 6 1412.2 702 4.47
Total 290 215 0.574 667 56 4247 2005 4.25

With a season-opening payroll of over $99 million, almost one-fifth of it, $17.75 million, was tied up in these three non-starting starters. If you include the buyouts paid to get rid of Mulder and Clement, the total cash burned climbed to almost $20 million.

Here is what the Cardinals received in return – less than one inning per million dollars:

2008 W L PCT GS CG IP ER ERA Salary
Carpenter 0 1 0 3 0 15.1 3 1.76 $10.5M
Mulder 0 0 0 1 0 1.2 2 10.80 $6.5+$1.5M
Clement 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0.00 $1.25+$.25M
Total 0 1 0 4 0 17 5 2.65 $17.75+$1.75M

Of course, it wasn’t known starting the season these three would all fold, yet the Cardinals paid for their lack of preparedness.

With all the injured players, the Cardinals resorted to an unprecedented in-season move with formal weekly medical reports. It seemed more often than not that pitchers were always progressing, yet never quite ready.

Following are some of the specifics.

Carpenter was already throwing bullpens in March with a predicted July return, 12 months after his Tommy John surgery. By mid-April, he was facing live hitters and was up to 60 pitches.

In June, Carp suffered a setback. Elbow soreness led to a trip to famed Dr. James Andrews to ensure there was no serious injury. In early July, Carpenter was back up to 55 pitches, but the club was suggesting he might have to return as a reliever.

After two minor league rehab starts, Carpenter was activated to make his first MLB start since Opening Day 2007 on July 27. By his third start, on August 10, Carp had to be taken out due to a right triceps strain.

He returned to the DL on August 15. Though Carp was activated when rosters expanded, he made just one short September relief outing before being shut down again.

Following a period of intrigue, Carpenter elected a non-surgical rehab in preparation for 2009. To say there remains concern is an understatement.

Mulder’s target return was originally May. He made his first rehab start with Palm Beach on April 15. The lefty struggled upon moving up to Double-A Springfield and Triple-A Memphis, complaining of shoulder fatigue. In May, he was shut down twice with a rotator cuff strain and lack of range of motion in his shoulder due to capsular irritation.

After adjusting his arm slot to a lower position, Mulder finally resumed his rehab back in Springfield in mid-June. He then had to be scratched from a Memphis start with back stiffness later in the month.

Despite that, the Cardinals activated Mulder on June 27 and made him a reliever. In seven minor league starts, his ERA had been 6.55 and minor league hitters teed off against him at a .338 clip.

In another surprise, La Russa and Dave Duncan started Mulder on July 9 in Philadelphia. He lasted less than one inning, leaving the game with “left shoulder irritation”.

After Mulder remained in limbo for over a month, the Cardinals finally officially pronounced his season over on August 20. When the club bought out Mulder’s 2009 option on October 21, his three years as a Cardinal officially came to an end.

Closing the books, the lefty had pitched only 12 2/3 innings on his most recent two-year, $13 million contract signed prior to the 2007 season. Not surprisingly, Mulder’s agent has recently proclaimed his client cured and ready to go. He remains a free agent.

While the financial gamble on Clement was not bad, it was the Cards’ unrealistic expectation that he would be a member of their 2008 rotation that was ridiculous. Clement had three serious shoulder surgeries and was two years away from having been effective.

Once the coaches got a look at him in the spring, the optimism turned to concern. Duncan told me in March that he was surprised Clement was not ready. The righty did not pitch in any spring games, instead being placed onto the disabled list to start the season along with the other two.

Clement began his minor league rehab with Palm Beach on June 2nd. A month later, he was still not ready. With a move required, he cleared waivers and reported to Memphis.

The Cardinals finally admitted the obvious on August 2nd when they released Clement. He was clearly unable to pitch at the level necessary to compete in the bigs with a 4.61 ERA and ten walks compared to eight strikeouts in a dozen appearances.

The 34-year-old never reached the majors with St. Louis, signing a minor league deal with Toronto for 2009.

If any of the three had come through, the Cardinals 2008 season would likely have ended differently.

While Mulder and Clement are gone, the Cardinals have no choice but to hope for the best with Carpenter. They are committed to one another for three more years and a minimum of $44.5 million.

In the next installment of this series, I will anticipate several of which may prove to be the top Cardinals stories of 2009.

Already posted:

Top 20 Cardinals Stories of 2008: #16-20

Top 20 Cardinals Stories of 2008: #11-15

Top 20 Cardinals Stories of 2008: #6-10

Coming soon:

Projected Top St. Louis Cardinals Stories of 2009

Top 20 Cardinals Stories of 2008: #6-10

10. Kyle Lohse: From Jobless to Four-Year Contract

After having been traded at the deadline in two consecutive seasons, right-hander Kyle Lohse arrived in Philadelphia in time for the 2007 stretch drive. Though the Phils fell in the playoffs to the National League champion Colorado Rockies, Lohse wanted to stay in the City of Brotherly Love.

Despite the then-29-year-old’s career record of 11 games under .500 and an ERA pushing five, Philly reportedly floated a reasonable three-year, $21 million offer past agent Scott Boras early last off-season. Rejected then withdrawn, it would be the last bid Boras and Lohse would see until spring.

Meanwhile, the St. Louis Cardinals were patching together their 2008 rotation, hoping Matt Clement, then Mark Mulder and Chris Carpenter could return from injury and lead them into the playoffs.

Even as spring camp began, it became clear that Clement could not contribute and the others may not be able to be relied upon, either. When Joel Pineiro added to the woes with shoulder problems in March, Cards GM John Mozeliak quickly dialed up Boras.

The resulting deal was a bargain – one year at a base of $4.25 million, reaching $4.75 million with innings-pitched incentives. Lohse would go on to lead the 2008 Cardinals in victories with a career-best 15 and post the lowest ERA of his eight years in MLB at 3.78.

Lohse was the first Cards pitcher since Matt Morris in 2004 to start both Opening Day and the initial post-All-Star break game. He cracked off a nine-game win streak that ended in late July which was the longest on the team since Carpenter’s 13-game run in 2005. Lohse’s .714 win mark (15-6) was fifth-best in the NL.

Lohse didn’t want to be homeless again this off-season, so in September, he ordered Boras (against the agent’s better judgment) to negotiate an extension to enable the pitcher to remain in St, Louis. A four-year, $41 million deal ensued, announced as the season ended.

It remains to be seen whether the extension will prove to be a wise business move for the club, but where would the 2008 Cardinals have been without Kyle Lohse?

I prefer not to think about it.

9. The Drafting and Success of Brett Wallace

The 2008 First-Year Player Draft was an important one for the St. Louis Cardinals. While the overall reputation of their farm system has been steadily improving in recent years, it seemed more a measure of quantity than top quality.

Other than top prospect Colby Rasmus, few if any Cardinals farmhands were being mentioned by industry watchers as among the best in the game. With the 13th overall pick this June, their best position since prior to the Jeff Luhnow years, the organization had a chance for a big move.

They passed with flying colors by taking third baseman Brett Wallace of Arizona State University, recognized by many as the most polished hitter in the entire draft. The two-time Pac-10 Player of the Year and the only hitter in ASU history to hit over .400 in two consecutive seasons, the California native received a signing bonus estimated at $1.84 million.

The rap on the 22-year-old is his defense, though he is still learning, with only a couple of years of experience at the hot corner. Some critics can’t get past Wallace’s 6-foot-1, 245 pound frame and assume he is a statue defensively.

While at least one writer derisively asserted that Wallace has “falling down range”, others, including yours truly, have seen him play and believe he can be a credible major league third sacker. Wallace hears the negatives and told me he uses them as motivation.

This fall, I asked Wallace where his defensive efforts are being focused.

“The angles for me are a big thing and reading the ball off the bat. I think there are sometimes balls that I am not used to because I haven’t been playing there that long. A ball is hit and it takes me a second… It’s a constant adjustment, reading different hops and reading the angles are some of the main things I am trying to work on.”

There is no doubt about the bat. Between Quad Cities and his season-ending skip-level promotion to Double-A Springfield, Wallace’s line was a solid .337/.427/.530 (BA/OBP/SLG).

He was asked to participate in the prestigious Arizona Fall League and though he started slowly, he then came on strongly. Against the higher-quality arms in the AFL, Wallace improved his slugging while keeping his OPS constant (.309/.381/.585).

With Troy Glaus in his final season contractually in St. Louis, the only remaining question is whether Wallace will execute another leapfrog manuever, this time over David Freese. The latter, acquired from San Diego for Jim Edmonds one year ago, excelled with the bat at Triple-A Memphis last season and currently seems to be Glaus’ heir apparent, though that is a most tenuous title.

If he continues at his current pace, established in less than six months as a professional, Wallace could make his first appearance in the majors before the conclusion of the 2009 season, with 2010 still anyone’s guess.

Mark DeJohn
Mark DeJohn

8. Minor League Success: 60 Games over .500

For some years the laughingstock of those who rank farm systems, the St. Louis Cardinals’ investment in rebuilding their minor leagues is finally getting noticed. Just this past week, it became known that Baseball America plans to rank the Cards as the number eight system among the 30 across MLB.

One measure of success is minor leaguers joining the big league team. As I noted here, eleven different players made their major league debuts for the Cardinals in 2008, nine of whom were products of the farm system. At least three of them became major contributors to the club – Kyle McClellan, Joe Mather and Chris Perez, while Mitchell Boggs, Jaime Garcia and late addition Jason Motte all showed promise.

Two players were invited to join Team USA for the Olympics and five were selected to play in the Futures Game. While Memphis had just one All-Star, Springfield had eight, Palm Beach seven, Quad Cities three and Batavia six. Johnson City and the Gulf Coast League Cardinals had one All-Star each, with the former’s representative, Curt Smith, was named the Appalachian League’s Player of the Year.

In addition to individual success, there were positive results on the field in 2008, too. The Cardinals top six minor league affiliates all had winning records and combined to win 60 more games than lost (376-316, .543).

Chris Maloney’s Triple-A Memphis Redbirds reversed several losing seasons, finishing in second place in the Pacific Coast League American North Division.

The Springfield Cardinals of the Double-A Texas League just missed the second-half North Division crown. Pop Warner’s team actually had the division’s best first half-second half record combined, but did not make the post-season.

The Palm Beach Cardinals won the first-half East Division crown in the Florida State League, but lost in the playoffs to the eventual league champion.

Steve Dillard’s Quad Cities River Bandits ended the season two games over .500 in Midwest League play.

Not only did the Batavia Muckdogs win the Pinckney Division of the New York-Penn League, they took the league crown. It was the first title in the 51-year history of the franchise. Mark DeJohn was named our Cardinals Minor League Manager of the Year.

The Johnson City Cardinals of the Appalachian League finished six games over .500, their first winning season since all the way back to 1996!

Only the Gulf Coast League Cardinals struggled, as they were a feeder for other clubs while relying on high school draftees and Caribbean academy players making their US debuts. One of the league’s youngest clubs finished 17-38.

In addition, a vast majority of the managers and coaches will be returning in 2009, offering continuity and the potential for further improvement next season.

7. Long-Term Extensions for Young Stars Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright

Some may be surprised to see this topic rate so highly. On the other hand, I feel so strongly about it that I can’t help but wish I could have scored it higher.

While many fans focus on the bottom line of payroll spent and agonize over high-priced free agents, the key to be able to afford such luxuries is to grow and protect top talent.

Such was the case early in the year when the Cardinals locked up two important parts of their future, catcher Yadier Molina and pitcher Adam Wainwright, long before they had to. Each player signed a long-term deal that carry into his free agent years, assuring him of remaining with the Cardinals for some time.

Molina was first. In January, he agreed to a four-year contract extension worth $15.5 million with a club option for a fifth season. With the agreement, the Cardinals and Molina avoided salary arbitration and keep one of the game’s best young catchers in the organization through at least 2011. The deal includes the first and potentially second of Molina’s free-agent eligibility years.

The catcher rewarded the club with his trademark defense, recognized as the NL’s Gold Glove backstop for 2008. It was Molina’s first award. He also batted a career-high .304.

Wainwright followed. In March, he inked a deal that covered 2008 plus Wainwright’s three arbitration-eligible seasons, 2009, 2010 and 2011, along with a pair of team option years that would eclipse his first two seasons of free agency. As a result, the now-27-year-old could remain in a Cardinals uniform through the 2013 campaign.

Financially, the contract can be four years, $15 million, five years, $24 million or six years, $36 million. No matter how you slice it, the deal looks to be a bargain for the club, while giving the player earlier financial security than he would achieve otherwise.

6. Troy Glaus for Scott Rolen Trade

Two birds with one stone. Addition though both subtraction and addition.

Characterize it how you want, but make sure you recognize this deal for the masterful stroke it was.

On January 14, Mozeliak and the Cardinals traded disgruntled third baseman Scott Rolen to the Toronto Blue Jays for their third sacker, Troy Glaus. Rolen’s once powerful offensive game had declined after three shoulder surgeries and his dissatisfaction with team management deteriorated to such a level that something needed to be done.

All over baseball, it was known the Cardinals had to move Rolen. Not a great bargaining position to be in. To that time, the best (and perhaps only) public offer for Rolen was made by the division-rival Milwaukee Brewers, who anted up injured left-hander Chris Capuano. Mo wisely passed.

Glaus, while a solid player since coming up with the Angels in 1998, had struggled with foot injuries recently, possibly aggravated by the artificial turf in Toronto. In addition, Glaus’ name was among the many that had come up in the Mitchell Report.

Following the trade, the newest Cardinals third baseman did everything that was asked of him and more. Though lacking the range of Rolen, Glaus was very dependable, with a league-high fielding percentage at the position of .982 against just seven errors all season long, the latter setting a new club record.

Offensively, Glaus answered the bell for 544 at-bats over 151 games, with the former his highest count since 2002. He delivered results, too, with 27 home runs and 99 RBIs that were both third-best on the club as was his OPS+ of 124. Glaus typically batted in the number five spot in the lineup, behind Albert Pujols and either Ryan Ludwick or Rick Ankiel.

As noted above, Glaus is under contract with the Cardinals for 2009. He has the right to test free agency following the upcoming season. On a Cardinals team that was labeled by many as being “in transition” in 2008, the addition of Glaus was huge, though it was generally unheralded.

Already posted:

Top 20 Cardinals Stories of 2008: #16-20

Top 20 Cardinals Stories of 2008: #11-15

Coming soon:

Top 20 Cardinals Stories of 2008: #1-5

Projected Top St. Louis Cardinals Stories of 2009

Where Were You in ’82?

The 1982 World Championship was the St. Louis Cardinals’ first since 1967, a span of 15 years, and would be the only one to break up the long, dry spell from ’67 until 2006.

As most Cardinals fans already know, Whitey Herzog’s 1985 and 1987 clubs would again knock on the door, but those National League champs were turned away in the seventh game of the Series by the Kansas City Royals and Minnesota Twins, respectively.

Not this time.

On October 20, 1982 at Busch Stadium II, the then-American League champion Milwaukee Brewers sent out the former Cardinals Pete Vuckovich and Ted Simmons as their battery for Game 7 of the World Series. The former was the American League Cy Young Award winner that season, while the latter had been arguably the greatest catcher in club history, both having been traded away in controversial deals made by the then-unproven Whitey Herzog.

The Cardinals answered with their “one tough Dominican”, the often unpredictable Joaquin Andujar. “Vuke” was knocked out in the sixth as Silent George Hendrick and Keith Hernandez powered the Cards from a 3-1 deficit into a 4-3 lead they would not relinquish. The final was 6-3.

Hall of Fame closer Bruce Sutter (left) finished up Andujar’s win with two scoreless innings and leadoff man Lonnie “Skakes” Smith had three hits, including two doubles and scored twice. The Cardinals stranded 13 runners or the outcome would have been worse. Catcher Darrell Porter was awarded the Series Most Valuable Player Award.

The club had won 92 games during the regular season and took their first-ever National League Eastern Division crown, then stomped the Atlanta Braves three straight for the NL championship. At, we ranked this 1982 team as the number 12 all-time Cardinals squad.

I don’t need to watch the replay on, part of a series called “Baseball’s Best”, but I encourage everyone to do so who doesn’t already own the game on tape or disc. I purchased my copy as part of the DVD box set entitled “Greatest Games of Busch Stadium”. (Currently on sale at A&E Shop.)

It clearly was one of the greatest!

Looking back, I realize that I had grown up a bit spoiled by the success of the Cardinals of the 1960’s and after the terrible 1970’s, was more than excited about this Series victory.

Just as with other key points in one’s life (Where were you when Kennedy was shot, etc.?), I remember exactly where I was on the night of October 20, 1982.

Sadly, I was not at the ballpark. A business trip put me in Dallas, Texas. I watched the game at the then-Granada Royale Hometel on Stemmons Freeway. Despite the sub-optimal setting, I will never forget the feelings of release of my 15-years of pent-up excitement that night.

Bob Forsch, Keith Hernandez, Bruce Sutter, Whitey Herzog and Willie McGee at a 1982 team reunion in 2005. (AP)
Bob Forsch, Keith Hernandez, Bruce Sutter, Whitey Herzog and Willie McGee at a 1982 team reunion at the old Busch in 2005. (AP)

Maybe it was my then-relative youth, but even the 2006 victory, after a longer wait of 24 years, did not seem as sweet as that long-awaited 1982 championship!

Thanks to Whitey and the boys!

A question to my fellow old-timers out there. Where were you for the ’82 win?

Top 20 Cardinals Stories of 2008: #11-15

15) The Emergence of Kyle McClellan and Skip Schumaker

Kicking off part two of this series is a segment with a pair of positive stories about two unexpected top contributors to the 2008 Cardinals. Only one was a true rookie as the other claimed a starting role for the first time after bit parts in three previous seasons.

Kyle McClellan came into spring camp as seemingly the longest of long shots. He had been in the system since 2002, recovered from Tommy John surgery, been left exposed in the 2006 Rule 5 Draft and not taken and had accrued just 30 2/3 innings of pitching at the Double-A level and above coming into 2008.

Yet Pitching Coach Dave Duncan was intrigued by the right-hander’s four-pitch repertoire. During a solid spring, McClellan was moved from starting to relieving and was ultimately selected to come north with the big-league club.

The local St. Louis product would start strongly, being called upon in more and more important situations. As the season progressed, the 24-year-old’s results tailed off, however.

McClellan went on to make 68 appearances, second-most among National League rookies and third-most all-time among first-year Cardinals. He earned 32 holds, but was just 1-for-6 in save opportunities. McClellan earned the Cardinals Rookie of the Year Award, presented by the organization in September.

Moving forward, McClellan could be asked to return to the 2009 bullpen or be returned to starting.

Skip Schumaker has been in the Cardinals system a year longer than McClellan, since 2001. While the 28-year-old made his MLB debut in June, 2005, he rode the Memphis shuttle for the next three seasons.

The left-handed hitter came into 2008 in his best shape ever and with a chance to assume the old So Taguchi spot, that of pinch-hitter and late-game defensive replacement, able to play all three outfield positions.

With a superb spring, Schumaker held off top prospect Colby Rasmus. He not only made the big club for the second consecutive year, but surpassed his previous peak by becoming a starter and lead-off man.

Injuries, first to Chris Duncan and later to Rick Ankiel, along with an ability to get on base (.359 OBP) helped cement Schumaker’s starting role. As a result, he received 540 at-bats, becoming a key contributor to the 2008 Cardinals in the process. Schumaker’s primary Achilles heel is an inability to hit left-handed pitchers (.168/.238/.185 in 119 at-bats last season).

With at least six outfielders legitimately positioned to contend for at most five jobs in 2009, nothing is assured for Schumaker going forward. Because he has exhausted all his option years, he cannot be sent down to the minor leagues without first being exposed to waivers.

14) Colby Rasmus: Strong Spring, Lost Season

Who hasn’t heard of the Cardinals top prospect in each of the last two, going on three seasons now?

A little over one year ago, then-new general manager John Mozeliak wanted popular but fading centerfielder Jim Edmonds to be gone badly enough that he was willing to pay San Diego $2 million just to take him away.

Many anticipated part two of the move to be the ascension of Colby Rasmus to replace Edmonds in 2008, this despite the 21-year-old having never played above Double-A. To say Rasmus’ year didn’t evolve as anticipated would be a grand understatement.

The business reality of baseball reared its head when Rasmus did not come north with the Cardinals despite his solid showing during spring training. His primary competition from the left side, Skip Schumaker, had an equally impressive spring, earning the leadoff role on the 2008 Cardinals.

Rasmus, upset over not making the team, headed straight to Memphis and into a deep funk. He crawled into June with a 2008 regular-season OPS considerably under .700. Further complicating matters, his father received wide notoriety due to a series of critical comments posted on our message board.

In June, Colby blistered the ball, with an OPS of .976. That same period, fellow Memphis outfielders Joe Mather and Nick Stavinoha each made their MLB debuts instead of the top prospect, earned though solid performances over a longer period this season.

On July 1, Rasmus was added to the Team USA Olympics squad, which by default would either keep him in the minors or he would have to give up his spot. Within ten days, a groin injury put the outfielder onto the disabled list, making it a moot point. Rasmus didn’t return until late August when he played in three games each in the Gulf Coast League and Florida State League.

It was too little, too late for the Alabama native in 2008.

Despite the Cardinals being short-handed in the outfield with Duncan, Ankiel and Mather out, Rasmus did not receive the call to make his MLB debut in September. In the estimation of manager Tony La Russa, Colby hadn’t played enough during the season to warrant the move.

Cardinals Vice President of Amateur Scouting and Player Development Jeff Luhnow spoke to in September about Rasmus.

“I think he’s going to focus 100 percent on being ready for Spring Training and making this club,” Luhnow said. “That’s where his head needs to be. Forget who’s posted what online, or what people are saying about what he’s doing or not doing. He and I had a good long chat [Tuesday], and I believe he’s got the right attitude.

“When you talk to him directly, he has one goal and one goal only, and he’s pretty focused on it. I tried to communicate to him that I have that same goal. That we all do, really.”

2008 was basically a lost year for Rasmus, with nothing considerably different today versus 12 months ago other than the uneven Triple-A experience. As of yet, Colby is not required to be added to the 40-man roster and just as was the case last year, remains a long-shot to make the Cardinals out of 2009 spring training.

So far, Rasmus has been rumored to be virtually untouchable when other clubs make trade inquiries. Once upon a time, the subject of the next top story was in a similar place.

13) The End of the Anthony Reyes Era

Depending on how you look at it, the official date for this event might have been July 26 or perhaps December 11. Others argue the die had been cast several years earlier.

Prior to Rasmus, the Cardinals’ most celebrated prospect was a former right-handed pitcher from the University of Southern California, Anthony Reyes. Only because of injury concerns and signability questions was Reyes on the board when the Cards took him in the 15th round of the 2003 draft.

By 2005 and 2006 as he steadily moved up the line, Reyes was considered the top prospect in the Cardinals system. The possessor of a blistering fastball was called upon to replace the forgettable Sidney Ponson in May, 2006 and would go on to make 17 starts in the majors in his rookie season.

Reyes’ crowning moment as a Cardinal was in Game 1 of the 2006 World Series in Detroit. The Cards, major underdogs to the Tigers, took the opener behind eight-plus innings of two-run baseball by Reyes. He holds the record for fewest career wins (six) by any Game 1 Series starter in the history of the game.

His 2007 began with a solid 3-0, 2.70 ERA in spring training, and concluded in a historic manner, but not in a positive sense. Reyes took ten consecutive defeats to start the regular season, tying the club record set in 1898. In between more time in Memphis and ending the season in the bullpen, Reyes’ .125 winning percentage (2-14 record) tied the franchise’s single-season futility record, established in 1896.

Though he did not make the 2008 rotation, Reyes was placed on the club to start the season as a reliever. Whispers of a difference of opinion between the front office and the coaching staff ensued. Reyes was demoted to Memphis for the fifth time in the last two years on May 5, making room for Mike Parisi‘s MLB starting debut.

Reyes arrived back from Triple-A in mid-June but was scratched from his first start with right elbow inflammation. Once his rehab was complete, Reyes remained with Memphis until the July 26 trade to Cleveland.

All the Cardinals received in return was a 24-year-old reliever named Luis Perdomo, assigned to Double-A Springfield. The Cards thought so little of the Dominican Republic native that they left him exposed in December’s Rule 5 Draft, where he was taken by the San Francisco Giants for $50,000.

With that, the final tie to the Reyes era in St. Louis is officially gone. All that remains are some mixed memories, a feeling that things could and should have been different and the mere pittance of $50,000.

Not mentioned in the above was the ever-present 800-pound gorilla during Reyes’ entire stay in St. Louis. Of course, that is the widely-reported difference in opinion regarding the right-hander’s pitching style that placed La Russa and Duncan in one corner and Reyes in the other.

I was with the Cardinals at the time of the trade and recorded La Russa’s remarks from his office. Here is an excerpt, during which the pitcher and the media were assigned ample helpings of blame.

“I regret some of the nonsense that became a distraction about his style of pitching didn’t match. That didn’t work in his advantage. You just don’t need distractions when you are trying to be… I am talking about veterans; it doesn’t make any difference…

“I regret the fact that people brought up the fact that they didn’t think he was the right kind of pitcher. Dave Duncan gives every pitcher that comes here his absolute best shot, which has been proven over time to do as good of a job as anybody. It was a story line that kept getting pushed that he wasn’t Dave’s kind of pitcher. No.

“You can’t pitch there (gesturing high in the zone). You have to pitch here (middle) and there (low). Everything that Dave told him is what he tells all these guys. It can happen to anybody when you are younger. It can distract you,” said La Russa.

Now 27 years of age, Reyes is penciled into the Tribe’s 2009 rotation. His post-trade, six-start American League debut went fabulously, as he posted a 2-1 record with a 1.83 ERA upon a late-season recall from Triple-A.

12) The Rockies Deals that Weren’t: Matt Holliday and Brian Fuentes

On numerous occasions, La Russa has asked for a power bat to hit behind Albert Pujols in the Cardinals batting order and recently, he has reinforced his desire for a proven closer.

This past summer, two members of the floundering, yet defending NL champion Colorado Rockies were linked to the Cardinals. Outfielder Matt Holliday was one year away from becoming a Scott Boras-led free agent while the contract of closer Brian Fuentes (pictured) would conclude at the end of 2008.

While neither became a Cardinal last summer, nor did any other significant player, unless you count the temporary addition of Washington castoff Felipe Lopez.

Before Holliday was dealt by the Rockies to a surprise suitor, the Oakland A’s, on November 12, the Cardinals reportedly offered three players for him. Outfielders Ryan Ludwick and Skip Schumaker and starting pitcher Mitchell Boggs were the players rumored to possibly be heading west.

Moving two outfielders for one would have relieved some of the outfield logjam. Yet after the emergence of Ludwick last season, there was considerable public debate over how much of an upgrade Holliday would offer offensively.

Another important factor was money. Holliday is set to be paid $13.5 million next season, while Ludwick can remain under club control for three more seasons and will likely make a third or less of Holliday’s 2009 take.

The Cardinals haven’t done any better trying to get Brian Fuentes, though it has been for different reasons.

A lack of confidence in emerging closer Chris Perez and 2009 rookie-to-be Jason Motte left La Russa to proclaim Fuentes as the Cardinals’ top priority during the early December Winter Meetings.

It is true that being left-handed and a closer would meet two of the Cards’ stated needs, yet drawing that high of a profile may or may not have been the manner in which Mozeliak would have preferred to play his hand. Still, the GM backed up the proclamation with a two-year offer reported to be in the $16-$18 million range.

Fuentes didn’t bite, stating he prefers to play in his home state of California with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. The Halos lost their closer, Francisco Rodriguez, to the Mets as a free agent. If they ante more money and/or the third year Fuentes desires, that deal should get done.

In the meantime, the second-fiddle Cardinals have grown tired of waiting and may have withdrawn their offer entirely.

Rarely, if ever, has so much ink been spilled in and around St. Louis over two players that actually never became Cardinals.

11) The Passing of George Kissell (link one) (link two)

George Kissell was undoubtedly the greatest Cardinal organization man of the latter half of the 1900’s, that despite few fans having ever heard of him.

The 88-year-old’s official title was senior field coordinator for player development, but he was more commonly known as the man who taught thousands of farmhands how to play the game the Cardinals way for over a half-century.

Before perishing in October due to injuries suffered in an automobile accident, Kissell served the organization for 69 years. Most recently, he assisted the Cardinals’ minor league affiliates and handled instructional duties for the minor leagues during spring training and extended spring training.

Kissell began by spending ten years in the minor leagues as an infielder and worked in many capacities since 1940. From 1946 to 1968, he was a manager, coach, scout and minor league instructor. Kissell was on the Major League coaching staff from 1969 to 1975 and was special field assistant to General Manager Bing Devine in 1976.

In 2005, the Cardinals unveiled a plaque outside the clubhouse at the Cardinals Complex in Jupiter to honor Kissell which reads, in part: “Every player in the Cardinals’ Organization since 1940 has had contact with George Kissell and they have all been better for it. … Well known for his emphasis on fundamentals, George taught several generations of Redbirds how to play baseball.”

Further, in a December memorial service in Kissell’s former home of St. Petersburg, Florida, Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt, Jr. proclaimed that the club’s four practice fields in Jupiter would be named in Kissell’s honor.

Already posted:

Top 20 Cardinals Stories of 2008: #16-20

Coming soon:

Top 20 Cardinals Stories of 2008: #6-10

Top 20 Cardinals Stories of 2008: #1-5

Projected Top St. Louis Cardinals Stories of 2009

Eleven Cardinals Rookies Debuted in 2008

A comment by CariocaCardinal on the Teixeira/Pujols thread where he suggested the St. Louis Cardinals minor leagues may be peaking got me to thinking.

There is no sure way to quantify this, yet one simple measure is readily available and doesn’t require years to play out before getting an answer.

During the 2008 regular season, the Cardinals called up eleven different players from the minors for their first exposure to the big leagues. Some did very well, while others barely had time to finish their cup of coffee before being sent back.

While this is clearly a measure of quantity, not quality, this total of eleven is the largest number of first-timers to don the Cardinals uniform in any single season since the second year of the Tony La Russa era which began in St. Louis in 1996. 12 players debuted in 1997.

Nine of the 11 in 2008 came up through the Cardinals system, the exceptions being Brian Barton and Rico Washington. Two of them have already departed for other organizations – Washington and Mark Worrell.

Here, we’ll take a quick look back at all eleven 2008 arrivals. I will score each in one of three categories (high, medium, low) to illustrate my view as to their level of 2008 contribution as well as long-term success potential with the Cardinals.

It is worth noting that three players made the MLB debuts during each of the first three months of the season. During the second half, only two newbies arrived.

Position Debut Contribution Potential
Kyle McClellan RP 1-Apr high medium
Brian Barton OF 1-Apr low low
Rico Washington 3B 1-Apr low n/a
Mike Parisi SP 5-May low low
Chris Perez RP 16-May medium high
Joe Mather OF 30-May medium medium
Mark Worrell RP 3-Jun low n/a
Mitchell Boggs SP 6-Jun low medium
Nick Stavinoha OF 22-Jun low low
Jaime Garcia SP 11-Jul low high
Jason Motte RP 3-Sep low medium

April debuts

1. Kyle McClellan. (left) Made the club out of spring training and was a solid performer out of the bullpen all season long, though his numbers tailed off. Was named Rookie of the Year by the Cardinals.

Looking ahead, he could either remain a setup man in the pen or perhaps return to starting in 2009. The latter might require one step backward (a first-ever stop in Memphis) to take two steps forward later on.

2. Brian Barton. High hopes for the Rule 5 outfield pick coming off a nice spring were deflated when Barton seemed quite often to be the second-to-last player off the bench. (The backup catcher is always number one.)

In September, any player that could hold a glove was started in the outfield while Barton just rode the pines more often than not. Turning 27 years old in April, Barton seems destined to be lost in Memphis next season.

3. Rico Washington. A heart-warming story if there ever was one, making the team out of spring training after 11 years of ill-fated minor league attempts. Scott Spiezio‘s self-destruction and Brendan Ryan‘s injury were also big contributors. After registering a sub-Mendoza line batting average, Rico was back in the minors before April was out, never to return with St. Louis. He is currently a minor league free agent again.

May arrivals

4. Mike Parisi. Not overwhelming, but was serviceable when called upon. It was telling that his starting debut occurred when the Cardinals gave up on Anthony Reyes and needed someone to take the hill. Late-season Tommy John surgery scuttled his 2009 season, giving a whole year for others to pass him. Removed from the 40-man roster in November.

5. Chris Perez. (left) The “closer of the future” arrived in mid-May and did fine until he hit a rough start that soon returned him to Memphis to work on his secondary pitches. Despite club dalliances with experienced closers this offseason, Perez has shown he can grow into the role. Here’s hoping he receives the chance.

6. Joe Mather. After tearing up the Pacific Coast League, the man affectionately known as “Joey Bombs” showed not only his power, but also demonstrated very good outfield defense in the majors. Before going down with a hand injury that required season-ending surgery, Mather managed to get enough at bats, 133, to exhaust his rookie eligibility. Expected to compete strongly for a reserve outfield position in 2009.

June rookies

7. Mark Worrell. The reliever with the odd motion didn’t stay long and was not asked back, even in September when rosters expanded. Worrell spoke up about his concerns and within 24 hours, was traded to San Diego. Perhaps that was just a coincidence.

8. Mitchell Boggs. The 2005 fifth-rounder received his chance to make his first ever appearance on an MLB roster and to start his first big league game at the expense of Parisi, who was returned to Memphis. Boggs was the anchor of the 2008 Memphis staff, but had a real problem with free passes while in the majors (22 walks in 34 innings). Should be the first starter recalled from Memphis in 2009.

9. Nick Stavinoha. The outfielder earned his call-up after pacing the Redbirds offense during the first half. He looked overmatched at the plate with St. Louis, both in June and again in September. I hope his ceiling is higher than John Gall‘s, but I cannot erase the comparison from my mind. Seems destined to return to Memphis, where playing time for outfielders should be very competitive.

July new arrival

10. Jaime Garcia. (left) The top left-handed pitching prospect in the entire system by a considerable margin started with Double-A Springfield, yet found himself on a big-league mound three games prior to the All-Star break. Garcia mostly relieved, but also was given one MLB start.

His pitching elbow, which had ended his 2007 early, gave out, requiring him to undergo Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery. If Garcia actually comes back stronger in 2010 as do some post-TJ, NL hitters had better watch out!

September speedballer

11. Jason Motte. Last to be called up, but far from least. The reliever with the upper 90’s heat fanned 15 in his first ten innings during his initial time on the Cardinals roster (in September). His changeup remains a question mark, but if Perez falters, Motte could make a play for the job himself. The numbers game could end up causing him to start 2009 back in Memphis, though even if so, Motte should be back soon enough.

In subsequent articles, I will look backward and forward. I will review past rookies each season during the La Russa years and will also attempt to forecast the MLB debuts for the 2009 Cardinals. Even before doing the analysis, my gut says not to expect another 11 first-year players this coming year.

Kennedy and LASIK: The eyes have it. Or do they?

How many times do we have to see golfing great Tiger Woods on television touting laser eye surgery, attributing it to his improvement from a -11 golfer to the machine he is today, before we scratch out own eyes in frustration?

The procedure, often called LASIK, is becoming more and more common across Major League Baseball as well. (This is not to be confused with lasix, which is a diuretic used to control bleeding in the lungs of stressed race horses and is sometimes prescribed to humans, too!)

In what seems to be the biggest hot stove news out of frozen Minnesota this winter – outside of their re-signing of Nick Punto, that is – first baseman Justin Morneau and outfielder Michael Cuddyer each underwent laser eye surgery on both eyes last month, reports the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Early results from both players are predictably positive.

LASIK seems to be rampant in the Great White North, as outfielder Denard Span led the way with laser eye surgery last off-season, preceded by two other Twinkies. Span attributed his better vision as one reason for his breakout performance for Minnesota this year.

Perhaps with the famous “sky” problems for fielders in the Metrodome losing fly balls against the dingy white fabric roof, the Twins players may be hoping for defensive benefits in gaining clearer vision, too.

Yet in reality, the only time we seem to hear about players having these procedures is when it is perceived to have made a difference.

Not all doctors are sold

Several years ago, two university researchers, one from Harvard and the other from UCLA, studied the offensive performance of a dozen Major League hitters who had undergone the procedure.

Color them unimpressed. From their release:

“The study concluded that there was no offensive benefit to undergoing the refractive surgical procedure in these players. In addition, due to the well-established risks of these elective surgical procedures, the authors conclude that players may be best served by waiting until the end of their baseball career before performing the procedure.”

Despite this scientific research to the contrary, baseball players everywhere are tossing away their glasses and contact lenses to undergo the surgery.

Wonder if those are prescription lenses? (AP)
Wonder if those were prescription lenses? (AP/2007)

Closer to home

How does this relate to the Cardinals, you ask?

Being a long-time contact lens wearer myself, I was surprised the first time I saw now-free agent and former Cardinal Aaron Miles out of uniform and in his regular clothes. The infielder sports a pair of black-framed glasses on his personal time, changing to contact lenses only after reporting to work.

I have made it a point during small talk conversation with Miles several times in recent years, at least partially because I was curious why he hadn’t gone under the laser. I readily admitted that if I could be put to sleep and wake up repaired, I might be willing, but until that is a viable option, I’ll pass.

While not ever being specific about his reasons, Miles acknowledged that while he too had considered it, he wasn’t really interested in the procedure.

The most recent time we had this chat was in the Cardinals clubhouse during 2008 spring training. In the next cubicle was second baseman Adam Kennedy, who volunteered he had the surgery last off-season.

Did it matter for AK7?

I thought it might be interesting to look at Kennedy’s 2008 results in a very unscientific study of my own. Following are his recent batting averages/slugging percentages and on-base-percentages along with his career totals.

One might think that early in the 2008 season, results from the surgery would have started to emerge. You can be the judge.

Maybe it’s like an ink spot test, where we all see different things. Nothing particularly noteworthy catches my eye, though.

Kennedy BA OBP SLG
2007 0.219 0.262 0.290
Spring 2008 0.276 0.345 0.300
April 0.314 0.364 0.357
May 0.161 0.224 0.194
June 0.311 0.358 0.426
July 0.280 0.308 0.380
August 0.304 0.306 0.326
September 0.320 0.358 0.580
Season 2008 0.280 0.321 0.372
Career 0.276 0.328 0.389

What might this tell us?

First of all, coming off the horrendous 2007 season he experienced, I can understand why Kennedy might have felt like he needed to try something, anything. Had he repeated that kind of performance in 2008, it could have spelled the end of his second tenure with the Cardinals, one year remaining on his three-year contract or not.

Yet when comparing Kennedy’s 2008 against his entire body of work as a major leaguer, it was pretty darned average. This past season, his batting average was just four points higher than his career mark, but his on-base percentage and slugging were below the norm.

Looking at the glass half-full, perhaps the Cardinals would be delighted to receive career-average production from Kennedy, a disappointment overall during his second stint in St. Louis.

Based on this case study of one, I’ll have to agree with the two university research doctors and stay on the Aaron Miles, non-surgical side of the fence.

Teixeira Signing Helps Cardinals with Pujols?

Ever since Mark Teixeira signed with the deep-pocketed New York Yankees for eight years and $180 million this past week, articles have appeared all over the country as writers begin to agonize over what this means to the market value of Albert Pujols.

I may be in the minority, but I don’t think this news substantially changes anything with regard to the long-term relationship between Pujols and his employer, the St. Louis Cardinals.

One angle could be played that the Teixeira deal may actually prove to be a slight positive for the Cardinals and their fans.

Other than playing the same position, Tex, while a very fine first baseman, is not in Pujols’ class. Few if any current players are.

Tex said “goodbye” to the Angels (AP)
Tex said “goodbye” to the Angels (AP)

Still, Teixeira is now committed to be the Yankees’ first baseman from now through the 2016 season. As a result, the highest-spending club in the majors would seemingly have no room to play Albert, even if he reached free agency and they wanted to sign him.

Could they dump Tex in a few years down the line? Perhaps, but it would be difficult. In addition to all that money, Tex scored a full no-trade clause in his new deal.

Not all that long ago, the Yanks bestowed a lot of money on the doorstep of one Jason Giambi. Though they later regretted paying Giambi over $20 million per year, they ended up having to hold onto him anyway.

The defensively-challenged Giambi did serve a lot of time as the designated hitter, but when a team is engineered around aging veterans as are the Yankees, there are many more DH candidates than there are places to play them.

Now, one might argue that there are other clubs that could and would pay one player $33 million, especially one with the resume of an Albert Pujols. That is true. The Mets, Red Sox, Dodgers and Angels certainly come to mind, though the latter just lost both Tex and K-Rod to the New Yorkers.

Yet it is impossible to ignore that the most formidable prospective competitor to the Cardinals if Albert hit the free market, the club that sets prices for all the others, just took themselves out of the first base market for the next eight years.

How did I come up with $33 million?

It is very simple. It doesn’t require a lot of deep statistical comparisons. We already know Albert is the best player in the game. Therefore, he should be paid as such. Teixeira and other lesser players’ salaries are completely irrelevant.

Today, that player is the Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez, who will make $32 million in both 2009 and 2010. In what is a surprisingly realistic structure in an out-of-this-world contract, A-Rod’s annual salary will actually decline as he moves into his mid-to-late 30’s to “just” $20 million per year in 2016 and 2017.

In my view, for the Cardinals and Albert, the only question remains “when?”

Pujols is under contract for the next three seasons, all at his 2008 rate of $16 million. (Technically, the final year, 2011, is a team option.)

The Cardinals have two basic options with Albert:

1) Act now, making a serious offer to extend Pujols for essentially the remainder of his career.

As is customary in these kinds of deals, the Cardinals would likely need to increase the amounts to be paid Pujols in each of the 2009, 2010 and 2011 seasons, despite them having him already under contract at the bargain $16 million rate.

That could easily add another $30 million or more to the extension – money that would not have to be spent.

There are several other risks inherent in this move. One is medical, the other financial.

They relate to the case of Pujols’ balky throwing elbow. If the recent nerve relocation surgery doesn’t alleviate the constant pain or if his ligament finally gives out, Pujols would likely miss an entire season recovering from “Tommy John” elbow ligament replacement surgery.

Would you rather see the Cardinals pay Pujols $16 million on his current deal or $33 million under a new contract to spend a year off the field while rehabbing?

2) Wait and see what the future holds and delay making a new offer for a year or more.

Here, the risk for the club is the market. In few years, the top salary dog may not be A-Rod. It could be someone else, but likely not. Let’s face it, there does not seem to be the next Albert in the on-deck circle. This is what may be a one-in-a-lifetime player.

For Pujols, the only risk is his health. Salary-wise, the reason he is underpaid today is because he opted for the security of a long-term deal earlier than was required. He may not be so inclined to leave money on the table like that again.

That is why I believe, as painful as it will feel to some fans, the best business decision for the Cardinals and for Pujols himself is to wait and talk contract in a couple of years.

A lot can change between now and then… or maybe nothing will.

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Odalis Perez: Better off with the Enemy

The St. Louis Cardinals have been a member of the National League Central Division since its creation in 1994. As a result, they have not seen their yearly schedule tipped in the direction of playing the Atlanta Braves, Los Angeles Dodgers or Washington Nationals frequently.

In interleague play, established in 1997, the Cardinals’ “natural rival” was understandably designated as the Kansas City Royals. That means the clubs typically have home and away series scheduled each summer, or about the same number of games as one of the above three clubs play against the Cardinals each season.

Likely, if it wasn’t for the title of this article and its accompanying photo, you would probably have no idea where I am heading.

Here we go. The four aforementioned clubs are those which had employed left-handed pitcher Odalis Perez over his ten-year Major League career – Atlanta (1999, 2001), Los Angeles (2002-2006), Kansas City (2006-2007) and Washington (2008).

Other than a promising start, which led to an NL All-Star berth back in 2002, the Dominican Republic native’s career has been most undistinguished.

His aggregate won-loss record is nine games under .500 at 73-82. Perez last won double digit games in a season back in 2003. His career ERA is 4.46, but he has managed to come in under 5.50 in just one season since 2005. On a more positive note, that was last season, when his ERA with the Nats was 4.34.

Now a free agent for at least the third time in his major league career, Perez’ name has come up on some Cardinals’ fans wish lists as an inexpensive left-handed alternative for the back end of the 2009 rotation. The hope is that pitching coach Dave Duncan could work some magic on the 31-year-old, who made just $850,000 with Washington last season.

Other fans aren’t so sure, noting that the Cardinals, and especially Albert Pujols, would be better off if his countryman Perez continues to pitch for the opposition rather than don the birds on the bat.

The latter group make an excellent point.

Perez has watched Pujols tour the bases five times (AP)
Perez has watched Pujols tour the bases five times (AP)

Over their careers, Pujols’ line against Odalis is an amazing .609/.719/1.391 (BA/OBP/SLG). That makes for a super-human OPS of 2.110!

Over the Scout premium message board, I was asked to assess the statistical impact of Pujols on Perez’ career.

Perez has pitched to 5678 regular-season batters in his time as a major leaguer, allowing 1409 hits. Pujols only has 14 hits of that total, or 1%, in his 23 at-bats facing Perez.

Perez has yielded 661 earned runs in his career, of which Pujols drove in 15, or 2.3%. So one way to look at it is that Albert delivered 2.3% of the damage in 1% of the hits in 0.4% of the at-bats.

If you took away Pujols’ 15 RBI, Perez’ career ERA would drop from 4.46 to 4.36. So, that impact is one-tenth of a run per nine innings over Perez’ ten-year career.

(Of course, all this assumes no other Cardinals hitter would have collected more hits or drove in any of the runs that we took away from Albert in this analysis.)

Unfortunately the Cardinals have only faced off against Perez about once per season over the years.

In 13 career games, ten starts, against the Cardinals, Perez is 3-6 with an 8.53 ERA. He has allowed almost two baserunners per inning and the Cards are batting a collective .344 against the lefty. He’s walked more batters (25) than he’s struck out (23) in those 50 2/3 innings. 14 of the hits yielded left the ballpark, of which five came off Pujols’ bat.

After seeing this, Cardinals fans should be trying to aim Odalis over to the north side of Chicago, where he might be “fortunate” enough to face the St. Louisans four or five times each and every season!

Time to start the “Odalis to the Cubs” campaign!

Top 20 Cardinals Stories of 2008: #16-20

It is fast approaching that time of year to again look back and reflect upon the year that was. I plan to do the same here between now and year-end, with a five-part series highlighting the Top 20 Cardinals Stories of 2008 and a forecast of some of the top storylines for 2009, as well.

We will start with 2008 top stories 16 through 20 today, then 11-15, six through ten, followed by the top five and we’ll finish with the look ahead to the coming year.

While there was no obvious event such as a World Series victory or even a divisional title to crow about during 2008, there were still plenty of interesting stories – many positive, but some less-so.

Whenever I wrote an article during the year on about one of the top 20 events, the link to it or the player page will be embedded in the titles below. If they are subscription-only, the special “insider” icon will be displayed alongside.

Without further ado:

20) Roberto De La Cruz Receives Highest Club Bonus Ever for a Latin American Player

If you are asking yourself, “Who?”, then you are probably not alone.

Following is what I said several weeks ago about the 17-year-old Dominican in our Top 40 Prospect Countdown, which is still going, by the way. I ranked De La Cruz at number 38 and his overall ranking came in at number 35:

“All indications are that this time next year, I will have regretted ranking this player, also previously known as Roberto Pina, so low. In fact, I already do.

Here’s why. Money talks.

The Cards aren’t known for throwing cash around, yet De La Cruz received more in bonus than any other Cards player taken in the June 2008 First-Year Player Draft not named Brett Wallace, a polished college hitter five years older than he. In fact, De La Cruz fetched the same bonus as the #29 pick in the first round, in the vicinity of $1.1 million!

Some scouts considered De La Cruz, like Wallace a third baseman, to have been the best hitter in this year’s July 2nd class – a similar designation to how Wallace was tagged prior to the regular draft.

Since at least 2005 and probably much longer, only Wallace and Pete Kozma (2007) received more in bonus from the club than did De La Cruz. Players further down the money ranking list include first-rounders Adam Ottavino (2006) and Colby Rasmus (2005).

While the Cardinals and farm director Jeff Luhnow have a lot riding on De La Cruz, Luhnow went beyond just praising the third baseman’s play in the fall Instructional League. He gushed to that the youngster was “the most impressive player there offensively and defensively”.

We are talking about a pool of 49 of the organization’s best young players at Instructs, of which 11 already have full-season experience. Other than Wallace, every signed 2008 draftee through Round 24 was in camp. Yet, De La Cruz was the one singled out.

Like I said, I am pretty sure I ranked him too low.”

19) Cardinals Announce Intent to Purchase Memphis Triple-A Affiliate

(second link)

A story line that first raised its head a year ago surrounded the impending end to the Cardinals’ Triple-A affiliation with Memphis, set to expire at the end of the 2008 season.

The locals were unhappy about their recent teams’ lack of competitiveness on the field, a reflection on the upper levels of the Cardinals farm system. With minor league veterans clogging the roster, there was little youth, excitement or winning baseball played. The 2007 Pacific Coast League entry hit rock bottom, as their 56 wins set the all-time franchise futility record.

That changed completely in 2008, on the scoreboard and in the standings (19 more wins than the year before) and with the upcoming stars on the roster, including Rasmus, Bryan Anderson, Joe Mather, Chris Perez and Jason Motte.

Still, there was no public information flow on any negotiations between the Cardinals and Memphis ownership after a May meeting. Finally on September 11, the Cards and Redbirds announced an extension of their player development agreement for another four years.

Less than a week later, the Cardinals, the Memphis Baseball Foundation and Blues City Baseball announced the signing of a non-binding letter of intent to begin the process for the Cardinals to acquire the Triple-A Pacific Coast League franchise from the non-profit Foundation.

It may take months for the details to be worked out, with the transition from the non-profit foundation to the for-profit Cardinals being one of the more challenging issues still on the table.

Forbes recently ranked the Redbirds as the second-most valuable minor league franchise and its acquisition seems a wise business decision for the Cardinals to increase their holdings, which already include Double-A Springfield, A-Advanced Palm Beach and four other lower-level clubs.

Update: A December 28 article in the Memphis Commercial Appeal quotes a senior team official who says the sale should be complete by the start of the regular season in April.

18) Chris Duncan’s Unprecedented Neck Surgery

Coming off season-ending hernia surgery that ruined his 2007 campaign, Cardinals outfielder Chris Duncan reported to spring training hoping to work his way back into his old power-hitting shape.

Instead, the 27-year-old looked extremely rusty, with a spring line of just .167/.222/.328 (BA/OBP/SLG) in 54 at-bats. He dealt with minor back and hamstring problems, but the results just weren’t coming.

By Memorial Day, Duncan was on his way to Memphis. News of any physical ailments were very guarded, with public words only that the player needed to get more work in to relocate his stroke.

Duncan only remained in Triple-A for 25 at-bats, but the results were awful, as he posted a .160/.300/.240 line before returning to St. Louis less than two weeks after being demoted. Just ten days after returning to the bigs, Duncan was placed on the disabled list.

News began to trickle out about the severity of his problem, a damaged cervical disc in his neck. Duncan had been administered multiple shots intended to reduce pain in his neck and weakness in his left arm and hand, but ultimately, it was not enough.

First the disc was said to be bulging, then herniated and finally it was determined to require replacement. Duncan elected to undergo a first-ever procedure on a professional athlete piloted in Europe that substituted the damaged disc with a metal prosthetic one.

At the recent Winter Meetings, manager Tony La Russa offered a very positive report on Duncan’s progress. “He’s doing well. He’s excited, we’re excited. He’s on time at the beginning of the year to jump right into the swing of things and everything else,” explained the manager.

Still, on the Cardinals, with no designated hitter and a rock-solid first baseman, Duncan will have to play regularly in left field to get his 2009 at-bats. While a below-average fielder, Duncan can never be accused of not going all-out defensively. Unfortunately, that often means diving catches that if continued would seem to put unnatural pressure on his new robo-neck.

Yet, if Duncan has to back off on his fielding to protect his body, he will likely move from an acceptable outfield alternative to a liability.

17) Billy Southworth Enters the Baseball Hall of Fame

Too often, our baseball heroes of the past do not receive their just due until it is too late for them to enjoy the recognition. Such was the case for the Cardinals’ skipper from their 1940’s dynasty, Billy Southworth.

Born in Nebraska in 1893, the outfielder had a nice 13-year playing career with Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Boston Braves, New York Giants and the Cardinals. “Billy the Kid” had been a member of the 1926 World Champion Cards and placed in the top 20 of the National League Most Valuable Player Award voting that season.

Southworth first received the call at the age of 36 to become a major league skipper as a player-manager for the Cardinals of 1929. He crashed almost as quickly as the stock market that year.

Not yet ready for the weighty task of managing the club the first time around, Southworth was returned to the minor leagues that July. He would not ascend to the managerial chair in the majors again until 1940. Having been in and out of the organization in the 11 years since, Billy returned to St. Louis a much wiser man.

The 1940 Cardinals had a .341 winning percentage when Southworth took over and played .633 ball the rest of the way. That set the stage for his teams to win a total of 620 games through 1945, including three straight National League pennants and World Championships in both 1942 and 1944.

In a time when clubs played a 154-game schedule, Southworth’s 1942-44 Redbirds won 105 or more games each season and his .642 career Cardinals winning percentage is the best of any St. Louis manager in the modern (post-1900) era – even better than icons Red Schoendienst, Whitey Herzog and La Russa.

Moving to Boston in 1946, Southworth would lead the Braves five-and-a-half more seasons, including another NL pennant in 1948. His .597 career win mark is fifth-best all-time in the major leagues.

Finally in 2007, the seeds of change took root with the National Baseball Hall of Fame Veterans Committee. The results of their voting were announced at the December, 2007 Baseball Winter Meetings and Southworth was inducted into the Hall in Cooperstown on July 27.

While Cardinals Chairman Bill DeWitt, Jr. accepted the award on behalf of Southworth, to the best of my knowledge, there was no formal acknowledgment of the event at Busch Stadium. That is a shame for a former Cardinals great.

16) Scott Spiezio Ruins His Career

Utility infielder Scott Spiezio began his professional career with the Oakland A’s, won a world championship with the 2002 Angels and signed a three-year contract with the Seattle Mariners only to wash out and be released during the 2005 season.

Having hit bottom professionally, Spiezio won a spot on the 2006 Cardinals despite having been a non-roster invitee signed to a minor league deal shortly before spring training. Sporting a bright red spot of facial hair, he quickly became a fan favorite while playing a big part in the team’s run to a tenth World Series championship.

That season, Spiezio hit .272 with 13 home runs and 52 RBI in 119 games played. The switch-hitter played five different positions, all four infield plus left field, and made 61 starts. He led the team with eight pinch-hit RBI and finished second on the club with eight pinch hits. Spiezio continued his clutch comeback into the post-season with six RBI and two triples, including a key triple in Game Two of the National League Championship Series.

His fortunes reversed in 2007 as the then-35-year-old appeared in only 82 games while batting .269 with four home runs and 31 RBI. Spiezio missed more than a month of the season while receiving treatment for substance abuse and was on the team’s Restricted List during that time. Prior to that point, he missed time supposedly due to odd maladies such as an upper respiratory infection, allergic reaction to medication, food poisoning, hand infection and the like.

In late February, 2008, it became known that an arrest warrant was issued by the Irvine, CA Police Department for Spiezio on six charges stemming from an automobile accident and subsequent altercation in December.

The warrant alleges he was driving under the influence, driving under the influence with a blood alcohol content of .08 percent or more, hit and run, aggravated assault and assault and battery.

That was the last straw as the Cardinals immediately released him despite the fact Spiezio was entering the final year of a two-year, $4.5 million contract signed prior to the 2007 campaign.

A month later, Spiezio inked a minor league deal with the Atlanta Braves, with that organization willing to offer him a “second chance”. That chance lasted all of five games in Triple-A Richmond in early April before he was released again. Spiezio had agreed that he would submit to testing, continue his rehabilitation and report to the ballpark each day prepared to play, but failed to live up to the latter condition.

The Braves didn’t try to hide it or make excuses. Spiezio was sent packing again, his third release in less than three years. At that point, his personal life had hit rock-bottom, too.

Just a week prior, Spiezio pled guilty to misdemeanor drunken driving and hit-and-run charges stemming from the December, 2007 incident in California. He was sentenced to three years’ probation and agreed to undergo a three-month alcohol program, attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and complete 80 hours of community service.

The two-time world champion has since fallen off the baseball map. Maybe for him, it is better that way.

Coming soon:

Top 20 Cardinals Stories of 2008: #11-15

Top 20 Cardinals Stories of 2008: #6-10

Top 20 Cardinals Stories of 2008: #1-5

Projected Top St. Louis Cardinals Stories of 2009

Ex-Cards Minors Player, Coach Steverson Back to Bigs at 37

Todd Steverson, most recently the manager of the Sacramento River Cats, the Oakland A’s Triple-A affiliate, has been named first base coach with their major league club. It is his first return to the big leagues since his playing days in 1996.

The 37-year-old also has a long history with the Cardinals, first as a drafted teenager, then as a minor league veteran and finally as a coach in the system.

(Sacramento River Cats)

The former outfielder was originally selected out of Culver City (CA) High School by the Cardinals organization in the sixth round of the June 1989 First-Year Player Draft. He did not sign with them however, instead electing to attend Arizona State University. Three years later, in 1992, he was drafted again, this time in the first-round (25th overall) by the Toronto Blue Jays.

By 1995, Steverson reached the majors for several short stints that totaled 31 games while posting a .256 batting average with Detroit and San Diego. His seven-year professional playing career as a corner outfielder concluded at the age of 26 with the 1998 Triple-A Memphis Redbirds, his only season as a player in the Cardinals organization.

Steverson kept the uniform on, making a transition to coaching the next year for the Cardinals. He would remain five seasons coaching in the farm system at the Single-A level. Steverson began with the A-Advanced Potomac Cannons in 1999 and also returned for the 2001-02 seasons. He also coached with A-level Peoria in 2000 and A-Advanced Palm Beach in 2003.

The native of Los Angeles moved over to the A’s organization in 2004, serving as the hitting coach for the short-season Vancouver Canadians. The next two seasons, Steverson received his first managerial shot with the A-Advanced Stockton Ports. In 2007, Steverson was promoted to helm the A’s Double-A affiliate, the Midland RockHounds of the Texas League.

(Sacramento River Cats)
(Sacramento River Cats)

Steverson moved up again in 2008, leading the River Cats to both the Pacific Coast League and Triple-A Championships (in the Bricktown Showdown over the International League champ Scranton/Wilkes-Barre) in his first season as their manager. The Cats repeated the dual feats from 2007.

Steverson’s 2008 club had finished 83-61 in the regular season to take the PCL’s Pacific South Division title. The Arizona resident carries a lifetime managerial record of 297-264.

He had already been announced as returning to Sacramento for 2009 before he received the call to join the major league staff of A’s skipper Bob Geren.

Steverson replaces former Cardinal infielder Tye Waller as Geren’s first base coach. Waller has slid over to the bench coach role. Steverson will be working alongside yet another former Redbird infielder as Mike Gallego was hired as the A’s third base coach and infield instructor earlier in the off-season.

Our A’s affiliate,, interviewed Steverson two years ago. In this interview, he discussed topics such as coaching Albert Pujols and his major league aspirations – part of which have now been realized.

Cardinals Add Two Young Latin American Relievers

Now and then, playing in winter ball creates an opportunity for as-of-yet unsigned players to find a professional home.

Such is the case for two young men, one from Colombia, the other from Venezuela.

One is getting his first chance, while the other has found a new home.

Both are being given the opportunity to come to Extended Spring Training in the hope of making a short-season club in 2009.

Luis Orozco (Sincelejo Toros)
Luis Orozco (Sincelejo Toros)

The St. Louis Cardinals have signed 18-year-old Colombian right-handed reliever Luis Orozco to his first professional contract with any MLB organization.

The signing is not all that surprising since Orozco is currently playing winter ball for Sincelejo in Colombia. His manager is Cardinals minor league catching coordinator Dann Bilardello and pitching coach is Tim Leveque, who will be playing the same role with Batavia in 2009. Of course, the two recommended the contract.

This winter, Orozco has pitched in 16 games, 19 1/3 innings for the Toros, all in relief. The good news is that he’s yielded just six earned runs (2.79 ERA) on only five hits and has collected four saves. Unfortunately, Orozco has issued ten walks and served up two long balls. He has 20 strikeouts, just better than one per inning.

Cardinals Director of International Operations Moises Rodriguez offers this report on the 5-foot-11, 160-pounder. “Orozco is competing against players with professional experience, showing lots of mental toughness and is not afraid of any game situation. He is being used as a reliever and occasionally closes games. When his changeup is on, it’s an excellent pitch,” observed Rodriguez.

Despite his youth, because of his success in Colombia, the 2009 plan for Orozco is to bypass the academies entirely and allow him to compete for a short-season job right out of Extended Spring Training.

“Based on what we’ve seen this winter, we envision him playing at a low US minor league level in 2009,” forecasts Rodriguez.

In the Venezuelan winter minor league, the Liga Paralela or Parallel League, the Cardinals sponsored one entire team and supplied additional players to another.

That provided them the opportunity to bring in a number of young men who may or may not have what it takes to become Cardinals. The league allows tryout players, ones that are not signed to a regular contract, to participate.

Eight to ten prospective Cardinals were given look-sees from between one and 13 games in duration during the just-completed Liga Paralela season.

One of them scored a contract, though he does have previous professional experience.

Left-handed pitcher Julio Castellano has come to terms with the Cardinals and has also been invited to travel to the US in the spring for Extended Spring Training.

While that is a bit unusual for a new signing, Rodriguez’ explanation is clear. “Castellano has exhausted all his Venezuelan Summer League years, so he’ll have to make the Gulf Coast League squad to remain under our control.”

Castellano was recently released by Houston after playing in the VSL for the Astros the past four summers. In 2008, he went 2-4 with two saves and a 5.26 ERA in 15 games. In what seems to be a common thread among minor league free agent signings, Castellano has troubles with walks. He issued 20 free passes in his 37 2/3 innings, though he also fanned 24.

In aggregate, as a professional, the 6-foot-2, 170-pounder has a 4.69 ERA in 128.2 career innings over 54 games, 46 in relief. Castellano registered 86 strikeouts and 67 walks.

Rodriguez explains why the 21-year-old native of Puerto Cabello, Venezuela caught the Cardinals’ attention. “Castellano is lefty with a live arm who in our estimation will benefit from our pitching instruction in Jupiter,” he explained.

Castellano career stats:

2005 VSL Astros 0 1 5.03 14 0 0 0 19.2 22 18 11 16 12
2006 VSL Astros 3 0 6.00 17 0 0 0 33 42 26 22 14 26
2007 VSL Astros 3 1 2.82 8 7 0 0 38.1 37 14 12 17 24
2008 VSL Astros 2 4 5.26 15 1 0 2 37.2 44 26 22 20 24
Total 8 6 4.69 54 8 0 2 128.2 145 84 67 67 86

Ex-Cardinals News: Mulder, Edmonds, Looper

In my opinion, one of the better sources of Hot Stove rumor mill information is a weekly Sunday column by Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe. In Sunday’s article, three ex-St. Louis Cardinals received prominent mention.

First up was the next chapter in the continuing and heartwarming Mark Mulder feel-good story, clearly designed to try to drum up a market for a pitcher that hasn’t been able to pitch effectively for at least the last two years.

More details were “leaked” about the current nature of Mulder’s infamous arm slot – not as high as when he was dominant, but allegedly higher than with St. Louis this past season. The spices were emotional comments from Mulder himself, relayed by his helpful agent Gregg Clifton and new Brewers mamager Ken Macha.

While this is at least the third “Mulder is doing great” piece in recent weeks, no one has apparently seen him actually throw a baseball. At this point, the only team rumored to potentially have interest is Walt Jocketty’s Cincinnati Reds, which on one hand would be a curious destination, but on the other, quite fitting in a perverse sort of way. Yet, no teams have been named that actually admit tendering Mulder an offer.

As a result, there is more work for Clifton ahead. Expect the next installment of the Mulder propaganda in a couple of weeks. Feel free to ignore it, if you are so inclined.

Jim Edmonds, who is not being asked back to the Chicago Cubs for 2009, could become a target of the Red Sox, suggests Cafardo. The club is in the market for a fourth outfielder and Jimmy Ballgame’s 19 home runs for the Cubs have apparently generated attention.

To put that into perspective, if you add the 2008 home run counts of Cardinals outfielders Chris Duncan, Brian Barton, Joe Mather, Skip Schumaker and Nick Stavinoha, your total would be only 24 long balls. It took them 1105 at-bats to collectively achieve that.

Edmonds delivered his 19 in just 250 ABs.

While there was no doubt that then-GM Jocketty erred in giving Edmonds two years prior to the 2007 season, it is a shame that the outfielder could not have remained a Cardinal last year. In hindsight, perhaps it took his humbling failure with the San Diego Padres for Edmonds to accept he might be better deployed as a platoon player in the latter stage of his fine career.

A mercurial type, he might have never been able to bow to that reality in St. Louis. Too bad, but best of luck to Edmonds in wherever he lands in 2009.

(We’ll have to forgive Cafardo for not knowing JimEd flamed out to start the 2008 season with the Padres rather than the Cardinals. At least he understands there is baseball played outside the Northeast Corridor.)

Last but not least is underappreciated Braden Looper, who Cafardo fingers as being “close” to signing with the Milwaukee Brewers. It seems an ideal spot for the right-handed starter to land. Too bad it is a National League Central rival of St. Louis.

The Brew Crew’s 2008 playoff rotation took a major hit this off-season with the loss of C.C. Sabathia and the almost certain departure of Ben Sheets. They still have exciting youngster Yovani Gallardo and holdover Jeff Suppan, but clearly need outside help.

As an aside, Looper has Suppan partially to thank for receiving the opportunity to convert from relieving to starting in 2007. The two were teammates in St. Louis in 2006, with Suppan in the rotation and Looper in the bullpen. Once Suppan and Jeff Weaver departed after the World Championship season, Looper was drafted to help fill the starting gap the past two years. Now it is his turn to cash in.

Soup, a great guy if there ever was one, priced himself out of the Cardinals comfort range as he headed toward free agency. Suppan ended up signing with Milwaukee for four years, $42 million, a deal quite comparable to what the Cardinals and Kyle Lohse agreed to at season’s end. (Seems longer than 90 days ago, doesn’t it?)

While there is one parallel between Suppan and Looper in that they were cut loose, there is one huge difference.

The Jocketty-led Cardinals of the 2006-2007 off-season were quite comfortable that Suppan would not accept an offer of arbitration. As a result, they offered, Suppan declined as expected and the Cardinals collected a compensation-round draft pick plus the Brewers’ second-rounder when he signed with Milwaukee.

That comp round pick was turned into Clayton Mortensen, who has already reached Triple-A, and is indisputably a top 15 prospect in the system. (Milwaukee’s forfeited second rounder was used by the Cards to take Clemson’s David Kopp, currently our number 34 prospect in the Cardinals system.)

While the take for losing Looper this time around would have only been the sandwich pick, the Cardinals were overly cautious in deciding not to offer him arbitration. I still believe John Mozeliak and the Cards were unnecessarily worried that Looper would accept a one-year deal with them.

The decision not to make the offer to Looper left a valuable comp pick sitting on the table, never to be used. If the Cards go one step further and sign a Type A free agent such as reliever Brian Fuentes, their first 2009 draft pick would be in the 65-70 range. No talent anywhere near a Brett Wallace or Colby Rasmus level will still be left on the board.

Once Looper signs a nice, big two or three-year deal with Milwaukee (or elsewhere), it will become even more obvious that the Cardinals blew their chance to add another premium draft pick in a year when they could really use it.

More on New Cardinal Maekawa from Luhnow and Rodriguez

As I had footnoted on Friday in my original article on the Katsuhiko Maekawa signing, the 30-year-old Japanese left-hander has been signed to a minor league contract by the St. Louis Cardinals, but did not receive an invitation to Major League Spring Training.

Since then, I have communicated with Jeff Luhnow, Cardinals Vice President of Amateur Scouting and Player Development and his leader in the Caribbean, Director of International Operations Moises Rodriguez regarding the signing.

Between the two executives and some additional research, we now can fill in more of the details of the Maekawa story.

Past interest

Luhnow notes this was at least the Cardinals’ second look at the pitcher. “We knew about him last year but we did not pursue him. He did sign a contract with another club (ed: the Washington Nationals) but his visa was held up and by the time he finally got that cleared up, it was too late,” he explained.

Returned to the Dominican

While I had noted in my first article that Maekawa had been pitching in Venezuela for Caribes, I missed the fact he had started this off-season in the Dominican. He returned there in 2008 after putting together a very nice 2-1 record with a 1.82 ERA in seven starts for the Gigantes del Cibao in 2007.

Back in Cibao this winter, Maekawa apparently hadn’t built up much goodwill from the previous winter. Rodriguez explains. “He had been pitching in the Dominican Republic this winter but was released after a few appearances.” Specifically, it was at the end of October after pitching in just two games.

Perhaps rusty from the long layoff, Maekawa only lasted 3 1/3 innings in two starts and was charged with nine earned runs. After his release, he came across Luhnow and the Cardinals contingent while they were on a scouting mission.

Asked the Cardinals for a job

Luhnow explains how it came about. “About a month ago I took a large group of scouts and player development people to the DR. While we were there, we ran into Maekawa and he said he was looking for a place to pitch. We had him come to our academy and face hitters.”

The Cardinals brain trust liked what they saw in Maekawa.

“His stuff was very good for a guy who hadn’t been pitching in a while. His fastball was 90 plus, he showed a sharp curve and a splitty with tumble. He has some deception in his delivery (the ball just seems to appear out of nowhere). The biggest issue with him has always been his control, but he put up some decent numbers in Japan,” Luhnow offered.

Note that over his 10-year career in Japan, Maekawa walked over five batters per nine innings. This winter, it has been almost 12 free passes per nine, so there is a lot of work to be done here.

Moved to Venezuela

Luhnow and the Cardinals signed Maekawa and sent him to work under Enrique Brito with Caribes in the Venezuelan League in late November.

“We decided to get him into some games in Venezuela for a month or so until it was time to head home and get his visa. We are hopeful there will be no hangups this year and he will be in Jupiter in time for minor league spring training,” Luhnow said.

Rodriguez is responsible for making that happen. “I’ve been involved on the administrative side (visa, contract signing, etc.). Maekawa just returned home to Japan to attend his visa appointment this week and will not return to Venezuela,” Rodriguez explained.

Back to Japan

Hopefully for the Cardinals, Maekawa’s visa hearing will go better than it did last off-season. Though he signed a deal with the Washington Nationals for the 2008 season, he was not allowed to fulfill the contract.

The Japan Times confirmed that Maekawa was fired by the Orix Blue Wave in 2007 as the result of the pitcher’s arrest in Osaka in 2006. He allegedly fled the scene of a car-bicycle accident when the police arrived and asked for his license. It had been suspended since another incident in 2002.

Maekawa originally joined the then-Kintetsu Buffaloes in 1997 as their first-round draft pick. In his ten years in Japan playing in both the Pacific and Central Leagues, he had a 31-45 career record with a 5.26 ERA in 149 games. During his final season there, 2006, Maekawa was 1-7 with a 4.37 ERA in 24 games.

Career stats

Following are Maekawa’s stats while in Japan and since.

1997-2006 Jpn 31 45 5.26 149 95 16 1 9 609 628 385 356 48 345 417
2007 Winter
Gigantes Dom 2 1 1.82 7 7 29.2 19 6 10 19
2008 Winter
Gigantes Dom 0 2 24.30 2 2 0 0 0 3.1 6 9 9 1 6 3 2.00 0.400
Caribes Ven 0 2 6.39 4 4 0 0 0 12.2 12 9 9 2 15 12 2.57 0.255

Opening or closing doors?

What with all the Cardinals-related excitement generated over Japan in the last few weeks simply because the general manager met with the agents of a couple of free agents from that country, some overly-optimistic fans look to Maekawa’s signing as a door-opener for the organization overseas.

I recall the same types of comments when the Cards signed their first Japanese player, So Taguchi, back in 2002. Of course, it didn’t happen. At least in that situation, the player was a model citizen and became a favorite in St. Louis.

A Japanese-American friend of mine familiar with the Maekawa situation made it clear that due to his off-field problems, public sentiment against Maekawa in Japan is very strong. In fact, while perhaps only rumors, at least one Washington Post writer believes Maekawa has unofficially been banned from the Japanese major leagues.

As a result, it is hard to believe any attention the Cardinals will receive in Japan as a result of the signing will be positive.

The future

Consider this move comparable to the signing of a six-year minor league veteran free agent to provide depth to the upper levels of the Cardinals’ system.

Maekawa’s past record indicates that he is the type of pitcher flexible enough to serve in most any role, whether as a starter, long reliever or left-handed specialist.

Luhnow basically confirmed that when he said, “We see Maekawa as competing for a rotation spot or bullpen spot in Memphis.”

PJ in PR: Finishing in Style

It seems crazy to even suggest it, but in my opinion, right-hander P.J. Walters may be the most underrated pitcher in the St. Louis Cardinals’ minor league system, at least at the upper levels.

All the 23-year-old did was take the Cardinals Minor League Pitcher of the Year Award for the entire organization last year and our equivalent recognition from, too. That was earned while pitching across three levels, as he began 2007 with Quad Cities. We ranked him as the Cardinals’ #10 prospect in the system last off-season.

Walters started the 2008 regular season with Springfield, then quickly moved up to Memphis. There were some whispers of concern as his won-loss record was not great in the second half. So what? Here are his last three months of results with Memphis:

June 25 0.327 0.431 1.80 4.32 9.72 0.72
July 30.3 0.248 0.284 1.32 3.86 8.60 1.78
August 36 0.203 0.262 1.31 5.50 9.00 0.75

(A tip of the cap to Minor League

We can see his June was rough, as his opposing batting average and on balls in play were very high. Through July and August, the numbers moved back into more of an expected range. There was a momentary blip of home runs allowed in July and the walks are still too high. Other than that, it was a fine conclusion to the 2008 season for Walters.

He was asked to pitch in winter ball for Jose Oquendo and the Gigantes de Carolina in the Puerto Rican Winter League. Getting international experience and prolonged exposure to the coach rumored to be the leading candidate to follow Tony La Russa as Cardinals manager could only be a good thing – if the results followed.

For his part, Oquendo rewarded Walters with the opening night start for both Carolina and the entire league and kept him in the rotation for eight starts. Early on, before the arrival of catcher Yadier Molina, Walters had the additional enjoyment of pitching to a familiar target, Memphis catcher Bryan Anderson, who has since returned home.

Home is the next stop for Walters, too. He pitched his final Puerto Rican game on Friday night per the original agreement and will be home in time for Christmas.

Walters pitched to a Ponce club on Friday whose leadoff hitter was none other than last week’s big signing by the Cardinals, infielder Joe Thurston. His winter average fell to .288 as he went 0-for-4 against Walters and a quartet of relievers as Carolina breezed to a 7-1 victory.

P.J. picked up his third win of the season on 5 1/3 shutout innings of work on five hits, two walks and one strikeout as his pitch counts were carefully being watched. After all, between the regular season and winter ball, Walters has tossed just short of 200 innings.

Here is P.J.’s final line for the winter compared to his Springfield/Memphis regular season totals.

Spr/Mem 10 6 4.50 29 29 158 158 88 79 22 70 156 1.28 0.262
Carolina 3 3 4.34 8 8 37.1 42 21 18 3 11 38 1.83 0.290

Strikeouts better than one per inning, walk rate under control. Ground ball rate was up considerably compared to Memphis. Though opposing batting average was also up, the level of competition was too. Overall, a nice showing.

Importantly, Walters finished his Puerto Rican stint strongly, allowing just four runs over his last three starts, totaling 18 innings, including his longest outing of seven innings last Sunday.

On a footnote, word is that former Yankees great, outfielder Bernie Williams will be suiting up for Carolina soon as he tries to make the Puerto Rican club for March’s World Baseball Classic. Bernie last played in the majors in 2006. Oquendo will repeat as the WBC manager for his homeland.

Walton’s take: You’re going to see Walters listed too early in our Top 40 countdown currently underway at, but it isn’t justified, in my opinion. While he will surely start at Memphis in 2009, Walters is clearly positioning himself to take a spot in the line of contenders for a call up to St. Louis when the need arises.