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