Throughout the course of this off-season a lot of attention has been placed on upgrading the St. Louis Cardinals middle infield. And for good reason; the middle infield was a liability for the entire 2010 season. The positions were no longer hitting for average and the defense was leaky. In response, General Manager John Mozeliak signed SS Ryan Theriot this off-season, hoping to boost the offensive production of that position and address some chemistry issues.
A lot has been said about that signing, both good and bad. But, there is still a glaring problem the Cardinals are going to have deal with sooner rather than later; the third base quandary.
Everyone remembers the years of “MV3”. That trio consisted of 1B Albert Pujols, 3B Scott Rolen, and CF Jim Edmonds. That combination produced four division titles, two NL pennants, and one World Series championship. Cardinals fans look back longingly on those days. What that lineup had is what the Cardinals of the last four years have been missing tremendously; a threat at third base.
Since Rolen’s trade to Toronto, the Cardinals have floundered at the hot corner. The position has become a turn style for injuries, mediocre players and long shots. It’s been a chink in the armor of some otherwise good Cardinal teams. Without a quality anchor in the infield and at the plate, the Cardinals have struggled to reach the heights of the 2000’s.
In 2010, it was suppose to be different. The player who was dealt to the Cardinals in the Jim Edmonds trade was finally going to be given a shot. His bat and glove were supposed to stabilize the ship. For the first half of the 2010 season, it appeared this was the case. From April to June David Freese hit .296/.361/.404 with four homers, 12 doubles over 240 at-bats. More importantly, he hit for .324 with RISP. Because of that, he drove in 36 runs, providing some relief for the middle of the order.
His glove became a solid addition as well. Yeah, there was that brief melt down in Milwaukee on April 11th when he committed multiple errors that lead to runs (I remember vividly because I was at that game). However, David did a tremendous job of showing poise as he regrouped himself and became almost flawless in the field the rest of his season. That is, until tragedy struck at the position again.
Freese suffered a bone bruise on his right ankle in June. He went on the DL on June 29th. While on the DL he hurt himself again by dropping a weight on his left foot. His eventual rehab with Double-A Springfield only lasted a game as he suffered another ankle injury. The season was over for him when it was determined another surgery was required on his ankle.
Entering the 2011 season, Freese is again projected to be the starting third baseman. If Freese stays healthy and builds on his success from last year, this could be a great thing. A lineup with Pujols, Holliday, Berkman, and a healthy Freese could do a lot of damage to opposing pitchers. The key is if Freese stays healthy. Depending solely on the health of Freese is not the safest of options.
If Freese once again gets injured, what will Mozeliak & Tony LaRussa do? Their options are limited yet again. The organization does not have a lot of depth at the position, obviously. A veteran utility player would help on the bench in case of another injury to Freese. But, at the moment there is no one to fill that role. And coming out of winter meetings it is clear this is not a priority.
An opening at third base could help provide more playing time for Allen Craig. In his time at Memphis, Craig has torn the cover off of the ball. But in the big leagues he has suffered from spot duty playing time, which affected his plate performance. Playing regularly at third along with Freese could help Craig find his rhythm and provide more punch to the lineup.
Another option the Cardinals have is turning to a thin minor league system. Players like Ruben Gotay and Zach Cox are third basemen in the making. Both offer promise of someday filling in as the “anchor”. But at this time are they big league ready? Of the two, Gotay has the most experience. He hit .285 with Memphis but has not posted big league numbers since 2008.
Zackary Cox offers a lot of promise but needs growth. He was drafted by the Cardinals in 2010. After signing, he hit .400 at the plate and fielded 1.000 while playing with the Gulf Coast League Cardinals. He could be the future but he shouldn’t be rushed through the system to help in 2011.
Another option would be to play Daniel Descalso at third. In 2010 he played 11 games with the big league club. He hit .265 and drove in four runs. Though, I am not sure if I would classify him as a true third baseman.
That leaves adding a third baseman via the trade route. As Cardinals fans last year found out, the organization doesn’t have a lot to deal. Therefore, the prospect of gaining an impact player is small. Nothing exemplifies this better than the trade made last year for Pedro Feliz. The Cardinals gave up a live arm in reliever David Carpenter for the “bat” of Feliz. It was a desperate move done by a desperate team. Not surprisingly it didn’t pan out. Feliz hit an anemic .208, making third base a liability rather than a strength once again.
There is still a lot of time left before the season begins. “Mo” might once again turn to picking some “low hanging fruit” to give third base some stability should Freese not be able to stay healthy the entire 2011 season. Let’s hope something is done to provide depth to the position. Without a solid presence at the third base position, the Cardinals will find it difficult to field a productive lineup again.