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