After battling the Cubs and Brewers most of the year, the Cardinals became one of the National League's elite teams just before the July 31 trade deadline when they acquired a struggling Matt Holliday from the Athletics. He stopped struggling then and there, leading the Cardinals to a 39-24 finish and a 7 1/2-game advantage in the NL Central.
His return after testing the free-agent market pretty much clinches the Cardinals' identity as a team of studs and duds. Already led by the best hitter in the game in Albert Pujols, they now have two of the top 15. And with former Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter bouncing back from Tommy John surgery and Adam Wainwright joining him as a Cy Young candidate in his own right, they also have arguably the best top of the rotation in baseball.
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But after that duo, questions abound. Will Kyle Lohse battle the same forearm injury that sent him to the DL twice last year? Will Kyle McClellan make the conversion from setup man to fifth starter? Will prospect Jaime Garcia or reclamation project Rich J. Hill pitch well enough to win the job instead? Do any of them actually deserve rotation spots, or will they compete for them simply because the Cardinals couldn't find anyone else?
Likewise, the starting lineup doesn't offer many certainties after Pujols and Holliday. Ryan Ludwick gives the Cardinals a third power bat in the middle of the order, but he's not the All-Star he was in 2008. Maybe when Colby Rasmus turns the corner and becomes the Fantasy stud his pedigree suggests he should, the Cardinals will add a little more quantity to their quality, but until then, they'll have to get by with steady-but-unspectacular types.
Then again, manager Tony LaRussa has a way of getting the most out of those types, so as long as the studs hold up their end of the bargain, the Cardinals should continue to thrive.
Breakout: Colby Rasmus, OF
Rasmus didn't have the most notable rookie season, struggling with his plate discipline and hitting only .216 after the All-Star break. But the former will improve with experience, and the latter he blames on weight loss -- a side effect of illness and stress that he hopes to remedy with improved offseason conditioning. With Rick Ankiel gone, he won't have to worry about inconsistent playing time this season, and if he bats in front of Albert Pujols as projected here, he'll have the best lineup protection of any player in baseball. At age 23, Rasmus probably won't hit his stride for a couple more years, but he at least figures to take a big step forward this year. If the Cardinals let him run more than he did last year, a 20-20 season is possible.
Bust: Ryan Franklin, RP
After resisting the move for perhaps longer than he should have, manager Tony LaRussa finally made Franklin his full-time closer last April. He responded with an All-Star campaign, compiling a 1.05 ERA over his first 52 appearances. No doubt, it was a dominant performance -- perhaps a little too dominant for his less-than-dominant stuff, which might explain why he fell apart with a 7.56 ERA in September and continued to struggle in the postseason. He isn't a bad reliever, but he didn't impress with his average of 6.5 strikeouts per nine innings, especially when most closers at least approach a strikeout per inning. The role demands a pitcher be nearly unhittable, and turning 37 only figures to make Franklin's stuff more ordinary. Pitching for a contender helps his case, but not if he doesn't pitch well enough to keep his job.
Sleeper: Brad Penny, SP
After he put together a 5.61 ERA in 24 starts for the Red Sox -- most of the six-inning variety -- Penny looked like a goner, presumably the latest casualty of continual shoulder trouble. But when the Giants signed him to make six starts at the end of the year, everything changed. He pitched deep, and he pitched well, only once falling short of seven innings and only once giving up more than two earned runs. Maybe facing the DH made that much of a difference to him, or maybe his shoulder simply started to feel better, but whatever the case, Penny is back. He has never been an ace, but under the tutelage of pitching guru Dave Duncan, he could have one of his better seasons, perhaps even winning 15 games. He probably won't cost you much even in NL-only leagues.
| ||Pos.|| |
|1||Skip Schumaker||2B||1||Adam Wainwright||RH|
|2||Colby Rasmus||CF||2||Chris Carpenter||RH|
|3||Albert Pujols||1B||3||Kyle Lohse||RH|
|4||Matt Holliday||LF||4||Brad Penny||RH|
|5||Ryan Ludwick||RF||5||Kyle McClellan||RH|
|6||Yadier Molina||C||Alt||Rich J. Hill||LH|
|7||David Freese||3B||Top bullpen arms|
|8||Brendan Ryan||SS||CL||Ryan Franklin||RH|
|Top bench options||SU||Jason Motte||RH|
|R||Julio Lugo||INF||RP||Dennys Reyes||LH|
|R||Allen Craig||OF||RP||Trever Miller||LH|
|R||Tyler Greene||INF||RP||Mitchell Boggs||RH|
|Came back strong from Tommy John surgery, dominating Triple-A hitters with 12-to-6 curve.|
|Ankle injury ruined first crack at the 3B job last year. Could hit .300 with pop in second chance.|
|Bat is ready after hitting .322 with 26 homers last year, but glove might relegate him to bench.|
|4||Shelby Miller||19||SP||Class A||Class A|
|A ways away, but '09 first-rounder and future ace has the most upside of any Cardinals prospect.|
|Raw athlete who passed on football scholarship refined his game last year. Primarily a speedster.|
|Best of the rest: Lance Lynn, SP; Daniel Descalso, 2B; John Jay, OF; Eduardo Sanchez, RP; Bryan D. Anderson, C; P.J. Walters, RP; Adam Ottavino, SP; Robert Stock, C; Fernando Salas, RP; Tyler Herron, RP; Francisco Samuel, RP; Shane Robinson, OF; and Steven Hill, C.|
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