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Brian Walton's news and commentary on the St. Louis Cardinals (TM) and their minor league system

The Cardinal Nation Blog top stories of 2009 #15: Shortstop shuffle

No one could have predicted how the shortstop position would have evolved for the 2009 St. Louis Cardinals.

    With the need to improve offensively at shortstop over the .628 OPS of Cesar Izturis in 2008, the St. Louis Cardinals decided to make a move prior to the 2009 season rather than rely on unproven in-house options Brendan Ryan and Tyler Greene.

    Khalil Greene and Brendan Ryan (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)On December 4, 2008, they acquired Khalil Greene from San Diego for what would become two relievers, Mark Worrell and Luke Gregerson. Both appeared in the majors for the Padres in 2009. The former was mostly injured and is now a free agent, while the latter excelled despite having made a direct jump from Double-A. In the trade, the Cardinals also assumed the $6.5 million commitment for the final year of Greene’s contract.

    The ending to Khalil Greene’s 2008 had been well-reported, a self-inflicted hand injury due to a frustration-related punch, followed by his club’s refusal to pay him during his time out and the filing of a grievance against the Padres. There were related rumors of emotional issues, but those were long-forgotten by the time the right-handed hitter batted .408 and drove in 17 runs in 26 games during 2009 spring training.

    In fact, Greene was awarded the cleanup spot in Tony La Russa’s opening day lineup. The bloom was off the rose quickly, however. By Memorial Day, Greene began his second stint on the disabled list. The first was reportedly due to a forearm injury.

    The second time, the official term used was “social anxiety disorder”, though details of a more serious situation of long-term, self-inflicted physical abuse began to emerge. First, Greene had been removed from his starting role. After several pinch-hitting appearances and one return start, that approach was called off. In his first 123 at-bats over 38 games, Greene’s line was a paltry .200/.287/.295 and would not improve much the rest of the way.

    Khalil began a minor league rehab assignment on June 8, returned to the majors ten days later only to suffer another relapse and landed back on the DL by the end of the month. This time, the 29-year-old was instructed to stay away from the team while receiving treatment.

    After rehabbing in the minors again in the latter half of July, Greene was back with St. Louis on August 1. He was now a third baseman but saw just 13 ineffective starts at the position. His arrival coincided with an ankle injury sustained by Ryan, who admirably filled the gap all season long.

    Ryan had actually appeared in 80 games during 2008, but his playing time diminished after the mid-season acquisition of Felipe Lopez. In 2009, while Khalil was in his early-season struggles, Ryan was on the DL due to a hamstring problem. Brendan returned in mid-May and quickly earned a starting role, as much due to his glove as his bat.

    In addition to his ten games started at second base, Ryan would make a team-high 95 starts at shortstop, compared to just 26 for Khalil. The 27-year-old’s .984 fielding percentage ranked in the top five of all MLB shortstops with at least 75 starts and he led the majors in both total chances and assists per nine innings. This was a huge stabilizing factor for the Dave Duncan-led groundball-inducing pitching staff.

    Ryan also stood out with the bat. His .301 average as a shortstop was third among National Leaguers appearing in at least 100 games at the position, behind only Hanley Ramirez and Miguel Tejada. He batted .292/.340/.400 overall, always somewhere in the bottom two and top two lineup positions. Ryan actually led the 2009 Cardinals in starts from both the number eight (29 games) and nine spots (32) and was written on La Russa’s lineup card second-most often leading off (22) and in the number two hole (21 starts).

    Rookie Tyler Greene, taken just two picks after Colby Rasmus in the first round of the 2005 draft, was a star collegiate shortstop at Georgia Tech. In the intervening time, he always seemed fall short of putting it all together. A series of injuries limited Greene’s running game and an undisciplined eye at the plate hurt his results with the bat.

    After a solid 2009 start with Memphis, Tyler had his big break on May 1, with Khalil and Ryan both sidelined. The 25-year-old made a positive impression in his initial 13 big-league games before heading back to Triple-A late in the month. Though he cooled off in later stints with St. Louis, including after Memphis’ playoff run ended, Greene finished strongly with the PCL champion Redbirds. He stole 31 bases and posted a .291/.369/.482 Triple-A line.

    Tyler will surely come to camp in 2010 with an eye on a major league utility job after starting at four positions for La Russa in 2009 – second base (one), shortstop (20), third base (seven) and centerfield (one).

    Ten-year MLB veteran Julio Lugo had the fourth-most starts at shortstop (18) for the Cardinals this past season after having joined the club from Boston on July 22. I will have more on his story in an upcoming installment of this top 20 countdown.

    Link to The Cardinal Nation Blog’s top 20 stories of the year countdown

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