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 Rejected then withdrawn, it would be the last bid Boras and Lohse would see until spring.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