The Cardinals are almost certainly headed for their fifth consecutive season without a playoff victory, but there are still some compelling reasons to watch the team during the month of September.
Here are 10 of them:
1. How well this team finishes could play a major role in Tony La Russa’s decision about whether he wants to come back as manager for a 17th season.
The routine has been the same for the past several years. At the end of the year, La Russa says he wants to evaluate how the team performed, whether he still has the desire to manage and whether the front office, players and fans want him back. If all of those responses are positive, he will come back.
There appears to be more of a negative opinion among the fan base towards La Russa this season than in previous years, and that feeling likely will only increase if this team sleepwalks through September. Finish with a strong month, and some of those feelings may be quieted somewhat.
Many of the fans may make their displeasure known by staying away from the ballpark, which is one certain way to attract the attention of ownership. Attendance already is guaranteed to decline from a year ago, and fans who want a new manager also could voice their displeasure by failing to renew their season tickets for next year – sending a very financial message to Bill DeWitt. Perhaps the only way DeWitt would decide it was time for a change, and not let La Russa do whatever he wants, is if he gets the message that fans will stop coming to Busch Stadium if La Russa is back in 2012.
2. Who will win the power struggle between General Manager John Mozeliak and La Russa over the amount of playing time given to the extra players who will be coming up from Memphis.
The results of this interesting clash of egos might also play a role in any decisions about whether DeWitt will make a change in managers or with the general manager. Mozeliak wants the players coming up from Memphis to play, so the team can get a better reading on who can possibly help the big league club in 2012.
La Russa has said publicly that he will play the players who play the best, and he routinely has not been fond of putting too many extra players on the roster for the final month of the season. There are six players occupying spots on the 40-man roster, led by infielder Tyler Greene, who are at the crossroads of their career – it is either time for them to be on the regular major-league roster or time to move them out of the organization, freeing up places for younger players not only on the 40-man roster but for playing time at Triple A Memphis.
In addition to Greene, the other players who fall into this group are catcher Bryan Anderson, first baseman Mark Hamilton, outfielder Andrew Brown, third baseman Matt Carpenter and shortstop Pete Kozma. All, except Anderson, have had very limited chances to play in the majors, but Mozeliak would like to see them play for an extended period to make the decision about their future easier.
The poster-boy for this group likely will be Greene, who will be 28 before the 2012 season starts and needs to either prove he can be a big-league player or hope for a chance somewhere else. Nobody would be served by having him return to Memphis for another season. He has played 143 games spread over the last three years in the majors, but has never played more than five consecutive games. He has a lifetime average in the majors of .213, but everybody except La Russa, it seems, thinks he can hit closer to his current .326 average in Memphis if he gets that extended chance.
The Cardinals do not have a projected starting shortstop for 2012, and if Greene, a former first-round draft pick in 2005, proves he can do the job it will help give the team some financial relief over having to sign a free agent or make another trade for a shortstop. He also would give the team a legitimate stolen base threat, something the Cardinals have badly needed all season.
3. Can Pujols and Lance Berkman finish 1-2 in the National League home run race.
Through Sunday, Pujols and the Dodgers’ Matt Kemp were tied for the league lead with 31 homers while Berkman, Dan Uggla of the Braves and Mike Stanton of the Marlins all had 30. Prince Fielder of the Brewers was one behind that group with 29.
Pujols is trying to win his third consecutive NL home run title, something no Cardinal has ever done. Berkman is trying to break the franchise record for most home runs hit by a switch-hitter, currently 35 by Ripper Collins in 1934.
4. Can Pujols hit well enough to reach 100 RBIs and finish with a .300 or better batting average.
With 28 games to play, Pujols’ average is at .288 with 78 RBIs, meaning he needs 22 RBIs to get to 100 for the 11thconsecutive year. In his career, Pujols has driven in more than 22 runs five times during the month of September, with a high of 28 in 2006. He also has driven in less than 22 runs in the month five times, with a low of only 10 RBIs in September of 2003.
No player has ever hit .300 with 30 or more homers and 100 or more RBIs for each of the first 11 years of their career.
5. Who will get the bulk of the playing time at second base and shortstop.
The Cardinals know what Skip Schumaker can do at second, and in the outfield, and there is no reason to play Ryan Theriot anywhere. Rafael Furcal has provided better defense at short since his arrival on July 31, but he has not hit and there would appear to be no way he would be returning to St. Louis in 2012.
For the Cardinals to control costs in 2012, and to have a much better defensive infield, it would be a tremendous boost if the team is convinced that Greene can play shortstop and Descalso can play second. They won’t know that answer, however, if they don’t get a chance to show it in September.
6. Can Fernando Salas pitch well enough in the closer’s role to convince the Cardinals he can do the job in 2012, keeping them from going out and adding a proven closer this winter.
Salas, for not even making the team out of spring training, has performed better in the closer role than most could have expected. Still, there is an uneasy feeling when he comes into the game in the ninth inning with a one-run lead.
Much like the situation at shortstop and second base, the Cardinals are going to need to have some positions on the roster which are filled with lower-cost players next year. It would help the budget a great deal if they were convinced Salas will be better closing games in 2012, and another month’s experience in that role will help them make that decision.
There is no other proven closer on the current roster, and Jason Motte failed in his one earlier attempt at the job. Having to go out and acquire a more established closer, if that is the route the Cardinals decide to go, will certainly cost them more money and perhaps force them to make a cutback at some other position.
7. Will Chris Carpenter pitch well enough to force the Cardinals into picking up his option for next season.
This will be a tough call. Carpenter has been one of the team’s best starters the second half of the season, not to mention the last several years, but $15 million might be more than he is worth for 2012.
It’s not like the Cardinals have a lot of backup candidates in line for his job, however. The collapse of the starting pitching was one of the biggest reasons the Cardinals fell out of the race in the NL Central, and it would not appear they should expect more from Jake Westbrook or Kyle Lohse than they got this year.
With the failure of the “offense first” philosophy this year, it probably would be more logical for the Cardinals to try to improve the quality and depth of their starting pitching in 2012, spending whatever it takes, and Carpenter needs to pitch well in September if he wants to be part of that group.
8. Can Jaime Garcia figure out what he has been doing wrong the second half of the season and finish on a strong note.
Garcia has won only one of eight starts since the All-Star break, with a 5.01 ERA. Coincidentally or not, that was when he signed a new four-year, $27 million contract which was unnecessary and premature. Garcia obviously is a pitcher the Cardinals expect to be an integral part of their rotation for years to come, but for the last two months he has not pitched like someone the team can count on
9. Will the Cardinals break the NL or MLB record for most grounded into double plays in a season, and can they end the year with more than 50 stolen bases.
Allen Craig’s double play grounder Sunday was the team’s 144th of the season. With 28 games to go, the Cardinals are 23 double plays away from breaking their own franchise and the NL record. The 1958 Cardinals grounded into 166 double plays. The major league record is 174, set by the Boston Red Sox in 1990. Pujols has ground into 25 double plays; the team record is 29 set by Ted Simmons in 1973.
As far as stolen bases go, the Cardinals’ league-low total of 44 is three behind the individual league-leader, Michael Bourne of the Braves. They could become the first St.Louis team to finish with fewer than 50 steals in a season since the 1961 Cardinals finished the year with 46.
10. This might be the last month fans will see Albert Pujols in a Cardinals uniform.
The Cardinals’ final home game of the year, and thus perhaps Pujols’ final game in a St. Louis uniform, is Sunday, Sept 25 against the Cubs. The team ends the year with a three-game road-trip to Houston.
With Pujols’ free agency on the horizon, there is no way of knowing if he will be back in 2012, or if one of the greatest eras in Cardinals’ history is about to come to an end.
(For Rob’s roundup of news around the Majors and Minors and other St. Louis sports news check out RobRains.com)