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