Tag Archive | "Gaping Hole"

St. Louis Cardinals Might Not Be Favorite To Win 2012 NL Central

Optimism reigned the day following the St. Louis Cardinals’ 11th World Series championship, but three months later that optimism might turn to skepticism.

The Cardinals had just won one of the most dramatic World Series ever played on October 28, and it looked like the team might bring back the entire coaching staff and nearly the entire roster.

At that point St. Louis celebrated the championship with a parade on the Sunday following Game 7, and many people thought things would only get better in 2012 because the team had gelled so well toward the end of the 2011 season.

The next morning everything changed, and the fallout has continued all the way into the first week of January.

Tony La Russa announced his retirement Oct. 31, leaving the Cardinals in a spot where they had to find a new manager for the first time in 16 years.

So one big piece of the 2011 championship puzzle left, but surely the Cardinals would make a smart decision and find a new manager who fit in well with the current structure of the team and everything would still be all right.

I’m not saying hiring Mike Matheny was a bad decision at all. The Cardinals made a smart, calculated decision when they hired him and any criticism of that move before the season starts is unfounded.

But, then Albert Pujols left to sign with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim on Dec. 8, leaving a gaping hole in the middle of the Cardinals lineup and on their team. Pujols had been the premier Cardinals player for a decade. That type of player doesn’t get replaced immediately no matter what move the team makes the rest of the offseason.

With Allen Craig out for the start of the season because of offseason surgery, the Cardinals suddenly had a hole in right field with Lance Berkman moving to first base.

The team used the money it saved by not signing Pujols to sign outfielder Carlos Beltran, 34, and resign shortstop Rafeal Furcal, also 34.

While those moves may have filled the positions on the field, it is a real stretch to say the Cardinals should be better in 2012. Remember, this team didn’t even win its division last year, and now possibly the best pitching coach in the history of the game, Dave Duncan, has taken a leave of absence.

That means the Cardinals will return on Opening Day with nearly an entirely different coaching staff and middle of the lineup.

Sure, starting pitcher Adam Wainwright will be back to lead the rotation, but there are other teams in the NL Central that are younger, have good starting rotations and have more potential than the Cardinals in 2012.

This isn’t to say the Cardinals won’t be highly competitive this coming season. The Chicago Cubs, Houston Astros and Pittsburgh Pirates will likely still lease the bottom half of the division for another year. The Milwaukee Brewers also have lots of troubles with first baseman Prince Fielder expected to leave and left fielder Ryan Braun out for the first 50 games because of a suspension for using a banned substance.

All things considered, the Cincinnati Reds might be the team that walks into the season as the favorite in the division. This is a young team with a powerful middle of the lineup, and MVP at first base and a pitching staff that continues to progress.

The Reds are just one year removed from winning the NL Central in 2010, their core players have another year of maturity under their belt and the pitching staff looks better on paper for 2012 than it did in 2010.

The addition of Mat Latos and maybe Aroldis Chapman to the starting rotation along with the returns of Johnny Cueto, Bronson Arroyo, Mike Leake will almost certainly keep the Reds in strong contention throughout the season.

Plus, a rotation with Latos and Chapman looks better than the one that included Aaron Harang, Homer Bailey and Travis Wood in 2010 when the team won 91 games.

With hitters such as Pujols and Fielder leaving their respective teams, the NL Central will likely be down on power in 2012. The Reds have a solid rotation but will also likely send out a more-powerful lineup than the rest of the division.

That could put the Reds in a better position than anybody in the NL Central, including the defending world-champion Cardinals, to make a run to the postseason.

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Naturally Speaking: Future Cloudy For Playoff-Bound Colon

Christian Colon left college with glowing accolades and a reputation as a good-character, team-first player. But he’s struggled at the plate from day one, and is having a hard time living up to the expectations that come with being the fourth player chosen in the draft.

Christian Colon

Colon is laboring along in his second season with the Royals, providing solid but unspectacular play at shortstop for the Northwest Arkansas Naturals. But his future at that position is tenuous.

Ever since the 2010 draft, it has been rumored that Colon just didn’t have the physical tools to stay at shortstop. His short, stocky build may not allow him to field the position. But to this point, Colon isn’t anticipating a move.

“I’ve been playing some second, but it’s been pretty much “You’re our shortstop.” They just put me at second to get some reps in case something happens. But I feel comfortable at second base.”

Some speculate the best Colon can become is a solid-hitting utility player, backing up starters at second, short and third. According to Colon, he’s played a little at third in the past, but never in the professional ranks.

So what do the Royals have in Colon?

Alcides Escobar’s defense leaves Colon in the dust. And with Escobar under contract for the next several seasons, that position appears to be locked up. Chris Getz and Johnny Giavotella are performing adequately in KC, so there doesn’t seem to be an opening at second.

There is always a need for a versatile backup, but the Royals added Yamaico Navarro seemingly for that purpose. Plus Getz is now playing some short. So there is hardly a gaping hole for Colon to fill.

Colon will most certainly advance to Triple-A Omaha next season, but from there his future looks uncertain.

When the Royals made Colon the fourth choice in the draft, were they fooled by his play against lesser competition? Were they too enamored with his character? Or was the problem that there just wasn’t anyone better available?

The fifth player chosen, pitcher Drew Pomeranz looks like a future starter for the Rockies after being dealt for Ubaldo Jimenez. The results are still not in for pitchers Barret Loux and Matt Harvey, taken sixth and seventh. But the 13th pick, Chris Sale, has already pitched excellently in the White Sox bullpen.

Though they had a glaring need for catching prospects, the Royals took Colon over Yasmani Grandal, a backstop who has been solid at several levels in the Reds’ system.

One other player worth comparing to Colon is Cardinals farmhand Zach Cox. The two players are almost exactly the same age, and both came from high-level collegiate programs. Also competing in the Double-A Texas League this season, the 25th pick Cox is hitting .290 with 10 homers in about 100 fewer at-bats.

So it appears that, other than Sale, no other draftee has outshone Colon to this point. Maybe the key is to be patient and not heap unrealistic expectations on him just yet. Colon, himself, is trying to keep things in perspective.

Definitely I have expectations on me, probably a lot more than the other guys who go out there. I try not to think about it.”

Try as he might, however, Colon can’t ignore the pressure that comes with being a high draft pick.

“It gets to me sometimes. But I’m just doing what I can.”

Like the consummate team player that he is, Colon chooses to focus on the team, which recently clinched first place in the North Division of the Texas League and is now in the playoffs.

“That’s the important thing. You know, we barely missed winning the first half, and now we’re right here in the drivers seat.”

Colon recognizes the challenges ahead – tougher pitching, a possible position change, stiff competition for playing time, and high expectations. But he’s focused on only what’s within his control.

“The Royals have a plan for me, so I’m just doing what I can, trying to get better every day and see what they do with me. I’m just focused on getting better each day.”

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Back Where He Belongs

During the six weeks that Mike Aviles was in Omaha, something was missing.

Aviles

Up until last week, if the Royals had wanted to rest Chris Getz, their only option at second was Wilson Betemit. If Alcides Escobar had gotten hurt, their only option at short would have been… uh…

The Royals recalled Aviles last week, filling a gaping hole in their bench that didn’t need to be there. Luckily, all major fiascos were avoided.

But just days after Aviles was called up, Escobar missed a game and a half. What would KC have done if Aviles hadn’t been available? Perhaps Billy Butler could have turned a couple of double plays in Escobar’s absence.

Aviles has been awful at the plate this year, and he’s never that great with the glove. But the Royals need him, no matter how poorly he plays.

Aviles was hitting just .213 when he was sent down to make room for Mike Moustakas (never mind how poorly HE’S hit since the call-up), and needed to find his groove against minor-league pitching. He probably wasn’t too happy about the move, but at least he accepted it for what it was.

“What am I supposed to do? Complain and get upset that I’m getting sent down?” Aviles said in June. “Nobody wants to get sent down but, honestly, like I said, sometimes you have to take a step back to take a step forward.”

To his credit, he didn’t pout. At least not while at the plate. He hit .307 with an impressive nine homers in just 35 games. By comparison, Moustakas had only 10 homers in 55 games.

Aviles has been nothing but frustrating ever since his breakout rookie season in 2008. Expectations shot sky high, and injuries and slumps seem to be all he’s experienced since.

But Aviles is still an important guy to this franchise. He’s experienced, athletic, and capable of playing second, short and third. When the team chose to go it without him, they left themselves dangerously thin on the infield.

The plan all along was probably to dump Betemit and recall Aviles in July. Management probably just hoped some games at AAA would jump-start Aviles’ bat. It hasn’t happened yet, but his versatility is needed in KC nonetheless.

Aviles comes up for arbitration after this season, and his numbers won’t warrant a huge raise. After that he’ll become eligible for free agency. The next year and a half for Aviles will be an audition that both the Royals and others will watch with interest.

Christian Colon, no juggernaut himself, is seen by some as a potential utility backup of the future. Certainly the Royals would like to get some value from the fourth pick in the 2010 draft. But if Colon doesn’t get it going soon, Aviles may just become a part of the Royals’ plan long term.

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