2011 was the beginning of a dynasty for the Saint Louis Cardinals. Their organizational depth at the major league level as well as in their farm system has set them up to go on a run similar to that of the New York Yankees during their heyday. The return of Adam Wainwright to the starting rotation should make them the automatic favorite to win the National League Central, while their lineup that features Albert Pujols (yes, he will re-sign), Lance Berkman and David Freese will give them the advantage over the Philadelphia Phillies in the chase for the National League pennant.
Looking down the road, once players like Carpenter, Kyle Lohse, Jake Westbrook and Berkman move on, the door will be opened for some of the organization’s brightest young stars, including pitchers Shelby Miller and Carlos Martinez, as well as third baseman Zack Cox and outfielder Matt Adams.
Here is a preview of what the future could have in store for the Cardinals as we move ahead into the 2012 season and beyond.
Short-term starting rotation
The return of Wainwright will obviously benefit the pitching rotation tremendously. I will not bore you by gushing about how important having another Cy Young-caliber pitcher will be for this rotation, but keep in mind how well the Cardinals starters performed in the last two months of the season without Wainwright.
Following him in the rotation will be Cy Young Award-winner Chris Carpenter. Carpenter recovered from a shaky start to 2011 to finish with 11 wins, 191 strikeouts (second most in his career) and an ERA of 3.45. Yes, he is entering the twilight of his career, but the 35-year-old showed last season how he adjusted his pitching style to remain effective. His veteran leadership will ensure a smooth transition for young pitchers like Marc Rzepczynski and Miller into the starting rotation.
Jaime Garcia seemed to finally grow up during the playoffs. Fans outside of Saint Louis may not realize, but Garcia showed some serious composure issues during the regular season. Whenever a call did not go his way or the defense committed an error, the young lefty would completely unravel. During the playoffs, however, he matured tremendously. When faced with adversity, he buckled down (à la Chris Carpenter) and found a way to minimize the damage and keep his team in the game. With Dave Duncan as his pitching coach and mentors like Carpenter and Wainwright to help guide him through his career, Garcia should continue to develop as one of the more dominant young pitchers in the major leagues.
Pitching the most innings since he joined the Cardinals in 2008, Kyle Lohse finally showed what he is capable of when healthy. The 33-year-old righty led the team with 14 wins and posted a career-low 3.39 ERA. As if he needs any more motivation, 2012 is a contract year for Lohse. The Cardinals have no reason to re-sign him for 2013, so expect Lohse to step up as he auditions for potential suitors.
The lone question mark in the Cardinals rotation is the fifth starter spot. The most likely candidate is Jake Westbrook. Westbrook was inconsistent throughout 2011, but with Edwin Jackson unlikely to re-sign and prospects Shelby Miller and Carlos Martinez at least a year away from being major league-ready, the Cardinals' only other option would be to trade him away.
With a shallow free-agent pool for starting pitchers, the Cardinals could get a lot in return for a veteran pitcher like Westbrook. However, by trading away Westbrook, they would be relying on someone like Lance Lynn, Mitchell Boggs, Kyle McClellan or Rzepczynski to take over as the fifth starter. Given how McClellan faded after the All-Star Break last season, the Cardinals' best move may be to hold onto Westbrook for 2012.
Long-term starting rotation:
As a Cardinals fan, looking at their potential starting rotation past 2012 is pretty exciting. At the top, they will have Wainwright, Carpenter (who will most likely retire after the 2013 season) and Garcia. Meanwhile, the departures of Lohse and Westbrook will open spots for current reliever Rzepczynski and highly touted prospect Miller.
While Rzepczynski was mediocre as a major league starter with Toronto, his resume as a starter in the minors is impressive. In four minor league seasons, Scrabble compiled a 26-16 record with 338 strikeouts and an ERA of 3.44. Rzepczynski, who was faced both right- and left-handed hitters out of the Cardinals bullpen, will benefit from a full season under the tutelage of Dave Duncan. Again, the presence of a veteran like Carpenter will also help the young left-hander as he develops into a quality starting pitcher.
Barring injury, right-handed pitcher Miller will be ready to make his highly anticipated debut for the Cardinals in 2013. Miller split time between High-A Palm Beach and Double-A Springfield last season for the Cardinals, posting a combined 11-6 record with 170 strikeouts and a 2.77 ERA. Unlike the other Cardinals pitchers who pitch to contact, Miller overpowers hitters with a fastball in the mid-90s and a changeup that he has developed over the past two seasons. The biggest concern with Miller lies with his command. However, a full season with Triple-A Memphis will be beneficial to his development.
Let’s say two seasons and at least one NL pennant later, Cardinals ace Carpenter announces his retirement. Carpenter’s departure will open the door for young Carlos Martinez. In case you haven’t heard, Martinez is a flame-throwing righty who made a splash in his US debut holding opposing batters to a .238 batting average against in 18 starts with 98 strikeouts. Like Miller, Martinez is more of a power pitcher with a fastball that reaches into the upper 90s. “Little Pedro” is ranked 25th overall in MLB.com’s Top 50 prospects and second, behind only Miller, in the Cardinals’ organizational rankings.
To recap, here are my projections for the Cardinals’ 2012, 2013, and 2014 starting rotations:
2012: Wainwright, Carpenter, Garcia, Lohse, Westbrook
2013: Wainwright, Garcia, Carpenter, Miller, Rzepczynski*
If Rzepczynski does develop into an effective starting pitcher or the team decides he is more valuable out of the bullpen, they may call Martinez up a year early.
2014: Wainwright, Garcia, Miller, Martinez, Rzepczynski
In terms of position players, the elephant in the room is the Albert Pujols contract situation. I fully expect him to re-sign with the Cardinals. In short, I do not think he wants to go anywhere and I do not think the organization is ready to let him sign elsewhere.
Moving on, the Cardinals’ other primary mission this offseason should be to re-sign shortstop Rafael Furcal. He is much stronger at the position defensively than Ryan Theriot and his upside on offense is better than that of Daniel Descalso.
With Yadier Molina behind the plate, Jon Jay in center and Matt Holliday in centerfield for the foreseeable future, that leaves one outfield position, third base and second base as the only positions left to be addressed over the next two to three years.
Let’s start at second base. The Cardinals have not had a true second baseman in a few years and I do not see that trend changing in 2012. While they did draft second baseman Kolten Wong out of Hawaii in the first round last year, they will most likely sacrifice defense to squeeze another proven bat into the lineup.
In fact, no matter who the manager is, I would have Allen Craig working with third base coach Jose Oquendo every day this offseason at second base. Remember, Oquendo, along with bench coach Joe Pettini, converted Skip Schumaker into a serviceable second baseman, so it is not difficult to see them doing the same thing with Craig. By putting Craig at second base, they would be able to get his bat into the everyday line up without displacing one of their other outfielders.
Speaking of the outfield, let’s say Lance Berkman retires after the 2012 season. With Craig at second base, that would leave the third outfield position up for grabs. Schumaker will most likely be the leading candidate, which I am fine with given his ability as a hitter and fielder, but there are some notable prospects currently in the Cardinal farm system who will get a chance to compete for the job.
Leading the way is 18-year-old Oscar Taveras. Taveras, who is ranked seventh in the Cardinals organization by MLB.com, batted .386 with 62 RBI in 78 games with Quad Cities last season. He tends to hit for average, making him an ideal candidate for a spot towards the top of the Cardinal lineup.
Another prospect worth consideration, and who may actually see some playing time with the major league club during spring training, is Matt Adams. Adams, who was drafted by the Cardinals as a first baseman, cranked 32 home runs and drove in 101 RBI last season with AA Springfield, prompting the organization to move him to left field. In the case of replacing Berkman, Adams could potentially bat in the middle of the order for the Cardinals, providing protection for Pujols.
The last position that is still somewhat of a question mark moving forward for the Cardinals is third base. Yes, David Freese is one hell of a baseball player and has potential to be something special. However, he has been extremely injury prone throughout his entire career. If Freese were to suffer a season- or (God forbid) career-ending injury, there are two key players who could fill in for him at third base.
At the major league level, there is Daniel Descalso. Descalso, who came up with some clutch hits for the Cardinals early on last season, is much better defensively than Freese, but does not provide the same insurance offensively.
The better option at the hot corner may be 22-year-old Zack Cox. While Cox is not a prototypical power-hitting third baseman, he does hit for a high average and could provide some balance in the Cardinals lineup.
For as good as the Cardinals pitching rotation will be over the next decade, their lineup will be just as formidable. Pujols will re-sign, Molina, Freese, Jay and Holliday are already locked up, and there is a plethora of young prospects ready to get their shot at the majors. Also, the addition of Craig at second base will strengthen the team’s everyday lineup exponentially.
The million dollar question: Who will manage the Cardinals?
There is never a dull moment in the Saint Louis sports scene, and Tony La Russa’s retirement has opened the door for rumors to fly and everyone and their brother to speculate on who will get one of the most coveted managerial positions in major league baseball. I compiled a comprehensive list of potential candidates for the job on Bleacher Report earlier this week, but here is my breakdown of the names being floated around:
Home run hire, Joe Maddon: He appears to be an up-and-coming manager who took over a struggling team and turned it into a perennial contender in the toughest division in major league baseball.
Fan favorite, Jose Oquendo: It appears he has been groomed for this job since he joined the Cardinals coaching staff. Known as the “Secret Weapon,” older fans fondly remember him from his playing days.
Dark horse, Terry Pendleton: Another fan favorite from his playing days, Pendleton was considered to replace Bobby Cox in Atlanta and actually withdrew his name from consideration for the Washington Nationals job.
Buyer beware, Terry Francona:While he did win two World Titles with Boston, he did so with an unlimited payroll. He will not have that luxury in Saint Louis, which could prove problematic for him.
Best in house, Chris Maloney (Triple-A Memphis): Familiarity with the players and success during his tenure as a manager in the Cardinals farm system throws his name into consideration for the job.
No matter whom the Cardinals hire to replace La Russa, this franchise is built for long-term success. Its farm system provides plenty of depth at all positions, including pitcher, for when the current veterans retire or are not re-signed.
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