Posted on 28 November 2011.
The parent site of i70baseball, Baseball Digest, has recently been running their end of the year Report Cards for each franchise. The following is the post written by Daniel Shoptaw for the site about the St. Louis Cardinals.
You know how when you were in college, if the teacher was in a real good mood, you got a nice curve to some of your scores? It is hard not to do the same when you are handing out grades for the team that just finished as World Champions. I mean, those issues and foibles during the season look so cute now, like “look at how that team is so cute hitting into double plays.” The afterglow of a championship is a powerful thing.
That said, it is time to take a serious look at a team that showed its fair share of schizophrenia this season. A team that played just well enough to be tied for first a couple of weeks after the All-Star Break, but then famously found itself sitting 10.5 games behind the Atlanta Braves for the wild card just a month later. They righted the ship, put on a furious run (helped out, of course, by a Braves collapse for the ages) and got into the playoffs, where they used that “every game is your last” mentality to battle through two rounds of National League playoffs and a World Series that will go down in history as one of the most dramatic.
Grades are reflective of the whole season. The bullpen at the end of the year hardly resembled the pen that caused so much heartburn earlier, but all facets of the relief corp had to be taken into account for their final score. So gather around the bulletin board, everyone, it is time to see how the final grades came out.
The Cardinals may have had some pitching problems during the season, but by and large it did not come out of the starting staff, something that seemed so improbable in spring training. When Adam Wainwright went down with season-ending surgery before he was able to throw a pitch that meant anything, it seemed certain that the Cards were going to have to outslug their opponents.
Instead, the Cardinals ranked eighth in ERA and quality starts and seventh in opponent OPS among National League starting staffs. In fact, just about any significant category, the Cards were in the middle of the pack, a fairly notable achievement without their ace. Chris Carpenter stepped up to fill in the gap and the rest of the staff showed just enough brilliance to offset what at times could be some ugly outings.
When you average an F and an A together, it has to come out to a C, right? There is no doubt that the bullpen was the weakest link in the Cardinal chain at the beginning of the season. It started on Opening Day, when Ryan Franklin allowed a solo home run to Cameron Maybin to tie the game in the bottom of the ninth. It became more evident the next week, when the relief corp belied its name in blowing back to back games against the Giants.
Eventually, the Cardinals cut Franklin and Miguel Batista and turned the duties over to a younger group of players. The Colby Rasmus trade made at the July trading deadline brought in two different arms and moved Kyle McClellan from the rotation to the bullpen. The group quickly became a dominant force, with live arms coming out of the pen in almost every situation. The strongest measure of how this facet of the team had come about was in the NLCS, when the relievers pitched more innings than the starters, and the Cards still won four games to two.
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Yadier Molina may have lost a little bit of his luster behind the plate to the serious observer, allowing more wild pitches and passed balls than in past years. That said, a dimmer gold is still gold, as proven by the Gold Glove he won after the season was over. Besides still superb defense, Molina chipped in what might have been his best offensive season ever, easily setting career highs in home runs and OPS. Gerald Laird and, for a time, Tony Cruz backed up Molina and did so with acceptable results, though with Molina playing in 139 games, there were not many opportunities.
Any infield that has a NLCS and a World Series MVP on one side and Albert Pujols on the other can not be all bad, can it? Pujols missed out on some of his yearly benchmarks this year but still showed that he is one of the top players in baseball. David Freese stayed relatively healthy (though he did miss much of May and June) and posted career highs in a number of categories as well, though he saved his best hitting for the playoffs and will never buy a meal in St. Louis again after Game 6 of the World Series.
Where the grade comes down is in the middle infield. Ryan Theriot was brought in and Brendan Ryan was shipped out, a move the Cardinals felt all year long at Theriot made error after error and did not hit enough to make up for his stone hands. Eventually the club traded for Rafael Furcal, who did not hit much either in St. Louis but at least was able to play above-average defense.
At second base, Skip Schumaker started off very cold and then got hurt, returning in mid-May from injury and finally warming up his bat. Daniel Descalso got a lot of time at all the different infield positions, often being switched into games as a defensive replacement for Freese but also seeing time at second and short, and played with a great glove along with a knack for getting some timely hits.
There was a lot of intrigue in the outfield this season, but the one constant was the new guy out there. The signing of Lance Berkman raised a lot of eyebrows in the offseason, as he had not played outfield in a long time. However, his offseason training regimen actually got him into the best shape in his life (or at least the past five years) and he played an above-average outfield. Any miscues he might have made were quickly eliminated by his bat, as he returned to the player Cardinal fans were used to seeing terrorizing them from an Astros uniform. His 31 home runs and 97 RBI carried the team when Pujols struggled earlier in the year and when Matt Holliday was out with, well, whatever ailment he was out with at the time.
Holliday’s year was like something out of House, M.D. After getting three hits, including a home run, on opening day, he had to have an emergency appendectomy. He then had a quadriceps injury in May that kept him out for about a week. He also had a finger issue that sidelined him in September and reoccurred in the playoffs. He was taken off the roster for Game 7 of the World Series after injuring his pinky and spraining his wrist in Game 6. It got so bad that when a moth landed in the ear of a player, well, you knew it had to be Holliday. Between all the injuries, Holliday was his productive self and none of the injuries look to affect him in the future.
Center field was the domain of Colby Rasmus, whose tumultuous time in St. Louis came to a halt in July when he was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays for Edwin Jackson, Marc Rzepczynski, Octavio Dotel and Corey Patterson. Rasmus was having another down year and there was friction again between him and Tony La Russa. John Mozeliak was blasted for that trade at the time, but there is no way the Cardinals are kings of the baseball world without it.
The Cards also got key contributions from Allen Craig, Jon Jay, and occasionally Schumaker out in the outfield, covering for when Holliday was hurt or when the matchups did not favor Rasmus.
Top Offensive Player
For once, this award would not go to Albert Pujols. Pujols did not hit .300 or drive in 100 runs for the first time in his career, though he did have one memorable October night deep in the heart of Texas. However, Lance Berkman put up better all around numbers and was more consistent throughout the year. With an offense that rated fifth in batting average, third in on-base percentage, and sixth in slugging throughout baseball, there were a number of players that had outstanding years at the plate, but Berkman topped them all.
You could consider players like Jason Motte and Fernando Salas, two parts of that overhauled bullpen, but there is really no doubt that this was Chris Carpenter’s team. Carpenter was not perfect, was not the consistently dominant force that Cardinal fans saw in 2004-2006, but he still was able to come through when it mattered and his dominant, bulldog personality brought to mind another warrior in red that toed a different Busch Stadium mound.
C70 At The Bat