Much like last season, the St. Louis Cardinals will enter spring training with a little bit of uncertainty, but for the most part the team should feel comfortable and confident. The Cardinals are, after all, the World Series champions. They currently have seven viable options for the starting rotation (if you include Kyle McClellan and Marc Rzepczynski) and could still land Roy Oswalt on top of that. They have four legitimate outfielders in Jon Jay, Allen Craig, Matt Holliday, and Carlos Beltran. The bullpen is stacked with young arms and just enough crafty veterans. Behind the plate, there’s a Gold Glove catcher anchoring the team.
That just leaves the infield.
At first glance, the infield seems to blend in with the other strengths of the Cardinals. You have Comeback Player of the Year Lance Berkman at 1st base, World Series MVP David Freese over at 3rd, a decent hitting shortstop with a solid glove at short, and a bit carousel over a 2nd base, but a couple of good ball players nonetheless in Skip Schumaker and Daniel Descalso.
On paper, that’s an infield that can help get the Cardinals back to the playoffs. But can that group actually stay on the field? And if not, who’s ready to step up and take their place?
The Cardinals’ projected starting infielders haven’t exactly had the best run of luck when it comes to injuries. David Freese missed 65 games last season, and 92 the year before that. Lance Berkman only missed a couple of weeks last season, but missed 66 in the two years prior and turns 36 this month. Rafael Furcal, 34, had missed an average of 70 games per season dating back to 2008, and missed 75 games last season alone. Skip Schumaker, 32, missed more than a month last season due to injury, not including the injury he suffered during the playoffs.
Do the math, and you’ll find that on average, the Cardinals’ four projected starting infielders have missed a total of 424 games over the past two seasons, an average of 53 games per player, or roughly one-third of the season. Yikes.
If the worst should happen, who will fill in over the course of the season?
We’ve already mentioned Daniel Descalso, who may very well be ready to snag a starting position this year similar to the way Jon Jay did in the outfield. Descalso hit .264 in mostly part-time duty, with 24 extra-base hits and 28 RBIs in 326 ABs. Those aren’t exactly Earth-shattering numbers, but Descalso has a steady glove, can play 2nd or 3rd, and every Cardinals fan will tell you that it felt like each of his 28 RBIs were driven in the latter innings of close games. The guy is clutch.
I suppose we could list Allen Craig as an infield reserve, and the whole world found out just how great he can be last October. But… Craig also spent his fair share of time on the disabled list last season, appearing in only 75 regular season games. He’ll also miss at least the first month of the upcoming season due to knee surgery, and might not return until June.
Beyond that, the team has a trio of prospects in Pete Kozma, Mark Hamilton, and Tyler Greene (though Greene doesn’t really qualify as a prospect anymore). Living in Springfield, Missouri, I’ve had the chance to watch all three of these players perform at the Double-A level, and none of them came across as players with great Major League upside.
Pete Kozma is a career .237 hitter in the minor leagues, and had consecutive 34-error seasons in 2009 and 2010. Last year, Kozma cut that number to 14, but hit just .214.
Mark Hamilton is an interesting little case study. A career .285 hitter with average power, Hamilton hit .298 with 20 HRs in 2010, then saw his average jump to .345 while his power dropped to just 2 HRs in 2011. Hamilton played both of those seasons at Triple-A Memphis, making the numbers all the more puzzling. In 61 career at-bats in the majors, Hamilton has been overmatched, hitting just .197 with no home runs.
And then there’s Tyler Greene. What are we to make of the Cardinals’ former 1st round pick? He tears the cover off the ball in the minors, but just cannot seem to rise to the occasion in St. Louis. Greene has hit .295 in nearly one-thousand minor league at-bats over the past three seasons, so that’s no fluke. But in the big leagues, he’s a career .218 hitter. Then there are the brutal errors, including two game-changing dropped pop-ups last season alone. Is he the only big leaguer to drop pop ups? Of course not. Off the top of my head, I can think of two pretty crucial dropped pop ups in Game 6 of last year’s World Series. But Matt Holliday and David Freese can get away with that because they are solid hitters. Tyler Greene? Not so much.
What’s It All Mean?
The Cardinals said goodbye to two pretty solid infield reserves this offseason in Nick Punto and Ryan Theriot. Both brought a good veteran presence to the clubhouse and the plate, and could come up with key hits when called upon.
For the first two months of the season, the Cardinals will have one such reserve with a relatively solid track record in the big leagues, Daniel Descalso. The rest are all question marks. What will happen if one or more of the starting infielders go down to another injury? Who will fill in? Will they step up? Or will the team be forced to make a mid-season trade to fill the gaps?
Right now only one thing is certain: after last year’s injury-plagued season, the Cardinals know how to make it work and get it done, no matter who’s out with injuries. But it would sure be nice to have a little insurance in the infield.