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