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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 #11: Third base turmoil

Eight different players had a piece of the St. Louis Cardinals’ starting third base job in 2009. None of them did much of anything with it.

    .229/.292/.369/.661.

    That was the aggregate batting line of the gaggle of individuals who attempted to play third base for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2009. Each (BA/OBP/SLG/OPS) was the lowest of any of the eight non-pitching positions on the team and the ugly numbers above weren’t close to the next-worst spot. It is clear to say that the 91-win club excelled in spite of third base, not because of it.

    What a difference a year makes.

    Troy Glaus (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)In 2008, veteran Troy Glaus was a rock on the left side of the Cardinals infield. The veteran third baseman played in 151 games and his 544 at-bats represented his personal highest single-season total since 2002. He contributed 27 home runs and drove in 99. His line was .270/.372/.483/.856.

    Yet late in the season, a shoulder ailment was reported. Originally thought to be minor in nature, it wasn’t. Just a few days after stating he was fine at the team’s January 2009 Winter Warm-Up fan event, Glaus underwent surgery. Original estimates of an early season return were questioned from the start and later proven to be wildly optimistic.

    From that point on, the third base job became as unstable in 2009 as it was steady the previous season. Following Glaus’ surgery, at least seven others either held the job or was considered the front-runner. The position had as much turnover as the drummer in Spinal Tap, though none of the players actually exploded on the field, at least not literally.

    By February, another surprise in a long list of them ensued as rookie David Freese, the new leader coming into camp, reported soreness in his Achilles tendon that was later disclosed to have been related to a January auto accident in which his automobile was totalled. Freese would be among the first cuts of the spring as he was unable to play.

    Joe Mather, primarily an outfielder as a professional, was instilled as the new spring training favorite to take the interim starting third base job. However, an illness coincided with a long hitting slump that soon relegated Mather to competing for a reserve outfield spot. He lost out and was optioned to Triple-A Memphis before ongoing wrist problems effectively scuttled his season.

    In another unexpected and unusual move, Freese was recalled from minor league camp in late March and made the major league club to start the season. With Mather cut, a pair of long-time minor leaguers, journeyman Joe Thurston and Brian Barden, also both joined the 25-man roster out of spring training.

    As the regular season got underway, time at third base was split between the left-handed hitting Thurston and the righty Barden as Freese was not right and was sent down by the third week of April. Barden, the opening day starter, went on to enjoy his 30 days of fame, actually earning the National League Rookie of the Month Award for April. After a .132 May, Barden was back in Memphis by early June. Thurston also began fairly well in April, posting his best period of the season. He quickly became exposed, with his OPS dropping each subsequent month.

    In long-rumored move, but still a bold stroke, Mark DeRosa was acquired on June 27 from Cleveland for two relievers who had seen major league duty, Chris Perez and Jess Todd. The excitement was short-lived, however. By July 1, DeRosa was on the disabled list with a wrist problem, a torn tendon sheath that would require post-season surgery.

    DeRosa returned in the later half of July, but despite having slammed eight home runs in his first 22 games with the club, DeRosa would bat a career-low .228 in his first and only partial season with St. Louis and add just two home runs the rest of the way.

    During one of his numerous rehab outings, troubled shortstop Khalil Greene was converted to third base, but he was clearly not the answer, either. Rookie Tyler Greene had seven starts at the hot corner though Brendan Ryan did not appear there after having made 29 appearances at the position in 2007 and 2008.

    The eight named third basemen did not even include the man some had expected to step in and take over by mid-season. Top prospect Brett Wallace had barely been given a look-see in spring camp and after a partial-season with Springfield and Memphis, was dealt to Oakland in late July as the centerpiece of the Matt Holliday trade.

    Following a long minor league rehab and several setbacks, Glaus was finally reactivated on September 1, but was clearly not ready for starting duty. Freese returned to St. Louis once Memphis’ season was complete and hit well in limited action, but could not be added to the post-season roster since Glaus was deemed to be “healthy”. Despite Glaus missing more time with a September oblique injury, he made the NLDS roster as a reserve.

    Amazingly, Thurston was the only one of the eight third basemen who spent the entire season active in the majors, including the post-season. After having posted a dismal .225/.316/.330/.646 line over an amazing 307 plate appearances, Thurston was removed from the 40-man roster following the season.

    Ironically, both Thurston (minor league deal) and Glaus have signed with Atlanta for 2010. Barden inked a minor league contract with Florida. DeRosa is a new member of the San Francisco Giants. Khalil Greene is a free agent whose career seems in jeopardy.

    Currently, it is as difficult to forecast how third base will evolve in 2010 as it was to predict at this time one year ago when Glaus’ surprise surgery set in motion a season of complete turmoil at the position.

    Freese, Mather and Tyler Greene all remain on the 40-man roster and should return in 2010. Rookie Allen Craig is also expected to compete for a job, though among the four, only Freese is considered a full-time, major league-quality defensive third baseman. The latter’s reputation has been sullied by a December drunken driving incident, his third alcohol-related arrest.

    It remains to be seen whether this band of survivors will be augmented by another veteran third baseman from outside the organization. My guess is yes.

    Regular season starts, third base, 2009 St. Louis Cardinals

    DeRosa 58, Thurston 55, Barden 20, K. Greene 13, T. Greene 7, Freese 5, Glaus 4, Mather 0.

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

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