When the 2008 baseball season began, the St. Louis Cardinals found themselves at a crossroads. There were changes in the front office, changes in the major-league club and changes in the farm system.
Gone was long-time general manager Walt Jocketty, the casualty of a dismal 2007 season and an internal power struggle between Jeff Luhnow, whom ownership brought in to revamp the farm system, and Jocketty, who had served as GM since 1995, enjoying nearly a decade of success in tandem with field manager Tony La Russa.
Luhnow's power and influence had grown significantly since he came onboard in 2004. In September 2006 he was promoted to vice president of player development, a testament to the club's newfound emphasis on statistical evaluation and growing players in the farm system rather than trading for them in their prime, a modus operandi Jocketty had favored (and excelled at).
Since Jocketty was replaced by his former second-in-command, John Mozeliak, harmony has reigned in the Redbirds organization. That's no small accomplishment on Mozeliak's part — he has had to mend fences in the front office and simultaneously build a relationship with La Russa, whose partnership with Jocketty had been remarkably strong, enduring and extremely fruitful.
The 2008 season seemed to put most of those fears to rest, as the Cardinals put together a surprisingly strong campaign, finishing ten games over .500 and contending for a playoff berth for most of the season.
But in the midst of a September nosedive that saw the team plummet to fourth place in the NL Central, La Russa increasingly trotted utility infielders (and starting second sacker Adam Kennedy) to the outfield when injuries knocked his starting contingent out of commission. The move was widely viewed as a message from the skipper to the front office, a response to the club's failure to trade for an impact bat at the July deadline — and, by extension, a response to the front office's repudiation of Jocketty.
To be fair, if John Mozeliak's job is to put the team's long-term goals first, La Russa's job is to win now. And the manager's consistent ability to accomplish precisely that, over a long career, has surely punched his ticket to the Hall of Fame.
Still, this simmering conflict will again come to the fore in 2009. The talent pipeline Luhnow has established is humming along; the first wave of players from the Cards' improved farm system began arriving last year. Now the question is how that talent is going to be used.
The drama will likely play out in three key spots: the bullpen, third base and the outfield.
The Great Bullpen Debate
At the end of 2008, the bullpen may well have been Mozeliak's highest priority, as he sought to improve upon a team that finished four games out of the NL wild-card race. The '08 edition of the Cards bullpen blew 31 save opportunities, and while that number has been unfairly taken out of context — not all blown saves are blown by the closer, not all lead to losses, etc. — it is a fact that the Cardinals would have improved several games in the standings with even an average bullpen.
Going into 2009, the pen sports a new look. Gone is Jason Isringhausen (Tampa Bay). Ditto Russ Springer (Oakland), the steadiest member of the '08 squad. Gone too is the entire '08 lefty contingent of Randy Flores and Ron Villone.
The turnover sets up a fascinating competition among right-handed relievers in the Cardinals system. Coming into spring training, Chris Perez and Jason Motte were seen as the top candidates for closer, the Cards having failed — perhaps tellingly — to sign a closer via free agency. Both pitchers excelled in the minors, and both come with question marks: Perez has almost unreal raw stuff, with movement, velocity and a breaking pitch that can make him unhittable at times — but he fails to command his repertoire consistently. Motte throws, if anything, even harder than Perez, and can fill the strike zone with the best of them — but his fastball is much straighter and his breaking ball much less effective than Perez's.
Along with the youngsters, Josh Kinney, the 2006 postseason hero who missed the last two seasons after elbow surgery, and Ryan Franklin, the veteran starter convert, stand to get late-inning opportunities. Meanwhile, Kyle McClellan, with an eye-catching rookie campaign under his belt, and 27-year-old bullpen old-timer Brad Thompson, are in line for long-relief roles.
Thus the intrigue: Even in a seven-man Tony La Russa bullpen, there aren't enough spots for all of those pitchers. The Cards will certainly carry two lefties, leaving a total of five spots for right-handed pitchers. Six pitchers, five spots. See the problem?
Thompson is a mediocre pitcher at best, a fringe major leaguer who will not make or break a staff. McClellan is far more talented and was stretched out as a starter this spring, meaning he should be ready to pitch multiple innings, though his stamina — he faded badly down the stretch last season — remains in question.
La Russa, however, has publicly stated that K-Mac will pitch in late-inning situations. With Ryan Franklin, the only other Cards reliever who fits the profile of a long man (outside of Thompson), tapped for a setup role, the odd man out will almost certainly be one of the youngsters.
Motte has separated himself from the pack as the favorite to earn the closer's role, even if the manager has been reluctant to say so. So the smart money increasingly seems to be on Perez starting '09 in Memphis.
But what happens if Motte struggles early? Will La Russa stick with the kid with the big arm? Or will he turn to a veteran presence (albeit a much less talented one), in Ryan Franklin?
And what will become of Chris Perez? How long will he stay in the minors? He certainly doesn't fit the profile of long man, and the big club's stocked with setup men galore. One has to wonder where the right-hander fits into the Cardinals' plans.The Hot Corner
When we learned in January that Troy Glaus would need shoulder surgery and would miss the first month of the season, third base went from a lead-pipe lock to a cage match between David Freese (the player the Cardinals got from San Diego in return for Jim Edmonds) and Allen Craig (a Double-A player with an outstanding bat but dubious defense).
The first wrinkle came when John Mozeliak brought Brett Wallace, the club's top 2008 draft pick, into the conversation. In published reports Mozeliak stated that Wallace would get significant playing time in spring training. The inevitable fairy-tale Albert Pujols comparisons weren't far behind: Just like Albert, Wallace begins his professional career as an outstanding hitter whose body doesn't look suited to the game; just like Albert, Wallace's defensive skills have been questioned; just like Albert, Wallace's day of reckoning might come after very little time in the minor leagues, and thanks to someone else's injury. (Pujols' version of Glaus was Bobby Bonilla, whose injury at the end of spring training in 2001 landed El Hombre on the roster.)
Once spring training commenced, though, Brett Wallace received virtually no playing time — only a handful of at-bats, primarily as a pinch hitter, and not a single start at third. In fact, he was one of the first players cut from major-league camp, a far cry from the scenario Mozeliak had laid out a few short weeks earlier.
Craig also failed to receive playing time. He played sporadically at first base and a time or two in left field before being packed off to the back fields at Roger Dean Stadium.
David Freese fell victim to a more physical variety of misfortune, in the form of a car accident before spring training that put him on the shelf. He was seen as the favorite coming into camp, but the lost time set him back significantly.
The man who received the longest look at third was Joe Mather. "Joey Bombs," as Mather was nicknamed at Double-A Springfield, emerged as the early frontrunner for third in Glaus' absence. Not all that surprising, really, considering what kind of offensive package Mather offers.
But there is one mitigating factor.
Joe Mather is an outfielder.
Sure, he played third in the minors off and on. Hell, he was drafted as a shortstop. But as spring training began, Mather had been a full-time outfielder for the better part of two years. In fact, he was initially moved from third to the outfield because of concerns he wouldn't be able to handle the infield position defensively.
I can almost hear you now, asking why this is so important. Several players came to camp, some received more chances than others, and in the end a choice was made. Happens all the time.
This is important because there's a profound disconnect between not only what Mozeliak said and what La Russa then did, but between the way the two of them looked at the competition in the first place.
Mozeliak looked at the loss of Glaus as an opportunity; there were suddenly all of these free at-bats floating around over there at third base, just waiting for someone to take them. Who better than the player the Cardinals desperately want to stick at third base for the long term?
La Russa, on the other hand, saw Glaus' injury as a challenge to overcome. There was no upside; it was merely a problem to be solved: how to fill the spot with the least disruption to the roster.
As spring training progressed, Mather slumped badly, and Freese re-entered the picture. It now looks likely that Mather will be nudged back into the already overcrowded and chaotic outfield picture — which we'll get to in the next section.Outfield Insanity
Volumes could be written on the subject of the Cardinal outfield in 2009; the story of the three players who will take time catching flies in Busch Stadium this summer could alternately be cast as an Algernon Swinburne tale of rags to riches, a story of hard-fought redemption or a yarn about overcoming long odds and doubters to make good on immense talent...and that's before we even move beyond Ryan Ludwick and Rick Ankiel to the really interesting bits.
Ever since the first draft Jeff Luhnow was fully in charge of, one name has remained constant in the Cardinal farm system: Colby Rasmus. As talented a ballplayer as there is on the face of this earth, Rasmus has taken on an almost mythic quality in the eyes of his fan base.
The thing is, Rasmus has the potential to be every bit as good as the hype. A true five-tool talent, he can change a game with his bat, his legs, his glove and his arm, one at a time or in various combinations. This was to be the year Colby finally broke through, the year he forced his way to the big leagues and staked his claim in center field for years to come.
We all know the story of Rasmus' abortive 2008: monster performance in spring training, only to be pushed off the roster by a numbers crunch; struggling with disappointment and a plain old slump early in the season; turning on the jets in the middle; and, finally, ending '08 on the shelf, the victim of a knee injury suffered on a swing.
We all also know the reality of the Cardinals outfield at the dawn of 2009: a numbers crunch even worse than last year's. Already several ways of alleviating the logjam have been tried.
Rick Ankiel and Ryan Ludwick are locks. Beyond that, little is certain. Chris Duncan, the Wallopin' Wookie, has returned from experimental neck surgery hitting the ball with authority, and has firmly thrust himself into the picture as the everyday left fielder. The problem with Duncan, of course, is that for everything he contributes with his bat, he gives back a decent chunk with his defensive ineptitude. Brian Barton was thought to have the inside track on an opening-day gig by virtue of his right-handedness, but he was unceremoniously packed off to Memphis. Jon Jay, a talented young outfielder playing in the shadow of Rasmus, has also garnered praise this spring for his batting acumen. And finally, Joe Mather, in the midst of his attempted takeover of third base, remains one of the very few right-handed options the Cardinals have in the outfield.
Keeping all that in mind, let's line up the Legend of Colby against reality.
In the real world, Rick Ankiel plays center field for the Cardinals, and will likely do so for as long as he wears the Birds on the Bat. Why? Because somewhere along the line, it was decided that Ankiel was a center fielder, and that's all there is to it. Not only that, but both Ankiel and Rasmus are left-handed, so there's no possibility of platooning them.
Right field is also taken, with Ryan Ludwick coming off an MVP-caliber season. It's difficult to unseat a player who puts up numbers like Ludwick's '08, and if the Cardinals want their offense to produce anywhere near what it did last season, Ludwick needs to be in the lineup every day.
That leaves left field, and a competition between Rasmus and Chris Duncan. All along, there has been resistance to framing the debate that way: It isn't Rasmus versus Duncan, the Cardinals have said, there's plenty of playing time for four outfielders, after all.
But it is between those two. As with Ankiel, Duncan's a lefty. So only Rasmus or Duncan can play on any given day. Something has to give. Joe Mather would present an ideal platoon partner for either Duncan or Rasmus if one were needed, so he's probably in even if the third-base conversion (see above) fails. In that scenario Duncan or Rasmus (whoever fails to win the starting job) becomes the fifth outfielder, relegated to 200 at-bats a year and occasional late-inning defensive work (also known as the So Taguchi Memorial role).
Oh, wait! Duncan can't do late-inning (or any other), defensive work! Therefore, the likely odd man out is...Colby Rasmus.What Have We Learned?
What we've learned from this exercise is that it isn't enough to develop the talent. Once honed, the talent must be put to use. What we have here, in these three battles for roster spots, is much larger than just La Russa versus progress, or Mozeliak versus La Russa, or even Rasmus versus Duncan. What we have is two opposing views of the Cardinals' immediate goals. The organization has begun to build an impressive pipeline of major-league-ready talent, but getting that talent onto the field may prove harder. Winning today is — and must be — part of the equation, even as the future is being built. The danger is in allowing the present to choke out the future.
There's talent on the farm for the first time in a long time for the Cardinals, and that is a very good thing. Over the next six months or so, we're going to discover whether the team can effectively make use of it.