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

Projected Top Five St. Louis Cardinals Stories of 2010

A look ahead to the top projected stories across the Cardinal Nation in 2010.

    First, we looked at the top 20 stories affecting the St. Louis Cardinals this past year. Now it is time to predict the top story lines for 2010 as well.

    Cardinals clinch 2009 NL Central Division (AP photo)Right up front, I will set aside the easiest and most logical entry – the results of the 2010 team on the field. The nature of that story has yet to be determined, shaped by the items discussed here and many more plotlines not yet developed.

    Another top story I will not be including is the signing of Matt Holliday. It occurred on January 5, so technically would qualify as a 2010 story, but the reality is that the excitement was quickly over in this calendar year. Now, Mr. Holliday simply needs to produce – for the next seven or eight years.

    As I developed my list and their ranking, I considered the staying power of the story, how long it might remain in the headlines, as well as its potential impact on the 2010 Cardinals and the organization’s future.

    Without further ado, here are my projected top five St. Louis Cardinals stories of 2010. As always, your comments are welcome below.

    5. Continued closer concern?

    Ryan Franklin did a fine job closing games for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2009, far better than his career norms would suggest. He was an All-Star for the first time, was the August Delivery Man of the Month for MLB and came in second for the NL Rolaids Relief Man of the Year.

    Yet Franklin faltered down the stretch and through the far-too-brief post-season. Possible reasons offered up revolved around fatigue and overwork rather than a new contract. Yet to date, the team has not added any external proven relief help for 2010 and is making rumblings they may not. If a Plan “B” is needed for the ninth inning, its details remain cloudy.

    Perhaps Franklin will surprise as he did in 2009, providing stability to a questionable situation coming into the season. Or perhaps the law of averages will catch up with the veteran right-hander, who turns 37 years of age during the first week of March.

    4. Will Freese ice down third base?

    When compiling the Cardinals top prospect list at the main The Cardinal Nation site as I do each winter, it struck me that our rankings named five different individuals as the organization’s top third base prospect over the last five years.

    In the past, when Scott Rolen anchored the position in the majors every year, it didn’t matter, but times have changed. With now-departed Troy Glaus missing most of 2009, third base became the weakest link on the entire team offensively. It also had the most uncertainty, with seven different players receiving regular-season starts at the position – and that didn’t include Joe Mather, once the leader during spring training.

    David Freese heads into camp for the second consecutive spring as the favorite to take the job, but is hardly a lock. Many observers, myself included, believe the team needs to add a veteran as insurance in case Freese has a meltdown either on the field or off.

    While there are plenty of options around, including Allen Craig, Julio Lugo, Ruben Gotay, Tyler Greene and Mather, none are likely considered starting material at third base. Further, there is no obvious help at the position in the upper levels of the minor league system.

    On the other hand, if Freese demonstrates he can handle the job, the Cardinals could have as much as five more years of cost-controlled stability at an important position that was a major problem for them in 2009.

    3. La Russa’s future plans

    Now 65 year-old, previously-ageless Tony La Russa has begun to publicly admit the inevitable – that he will not manage forever. In taking several weeks to decide whether or not to return in 2010 and then accepting only a one-year contract, La Russa made that clear.

    Bringing Mark McGwire back into baseball provided a new vehicle for the fiery La Russa to keep his us-against-the-world competitive juices flowing. His ongoing, unwavering and at times, irrational support of his former slugger and new hitting coach is keeping him on the hot seat.

    By ownership shelling out the money to re-sign Matt Holliday and add Brad Penny, La Russa has been presented with a club that comes into the season with high expectations. If the team does well and presents La Russa with his third World Series championship, the temptation to ride out on top may be too tempting to pass up.

    Yet if the backfire from the McGwire move continues and/or his loaded 2010 team struggles, might La Russa decide to call it quits?

    The manager comes into the season 211 wins short of John McGraw for second on MLB’s all-time list. I tend to side with those who think La Russa will remain in the dugout at least long enough to achieve 212 victories.

    Another way to look at it is that Albert Pujols will presumably stay in St. Louis at least two more years. It is hard to come up with a strong case that La Russa would yet walk away from a player who one day may become the greatest in the history of the franchise and one of the best ever to play the game.

    2. The McGwire reaction

    The return of McGwire from self-imposed isolation was a risky move from the start. La Russa wanted it and ownership agreed. Despite high-profile external crisis-management assistance, the rollout of McGwire’s apology for steroid use did not go well. His credibility remains in question in many corners and as such, he remains a divisive figure both within the Cardinal Nation and across baseball as a whole.

    If the 2010 Cardinals get off to a fast start with their bats, the pressure may diminish a bit and if the hitters are viewed to be successful all season long, McGwire will be singled out for a considerable helping of praise. On the other hand, if the offense falters early, the entire season could tip over what on the surface was the simple hire of a hitting coach.

    If the going remains tough, could any of the principals involved, La Russa, Bill DeWitt/John Mozeliak or McGwire himself, decide to pull the plug? If La Russa decides to retire from managing after the season, what will McGwire do? Finally, as 2010 nears its close, national writers will again be faced with the question of whether or not to vote for McGwire for the Hall of Fame, rekindling heat on this story.

    1. Pujols’ pending payday

    With ownership’s commitment to spend at least $120 million additional on Holliday, Pujols’ previously-expressed concern over whether there will continue to be a competitive team around him in the future should have been answered. Granted, the first baseman has two more years on his current contract, but his post-Holliday signing comments were both encouraging (wants to remain a Cardinal, will consider a discount) and concerning (no issue with testing the free agent market if necessary) at the same time.

    Pujols said he is willing to entertain contract talks until the season begins but not during. As such, if a deal is not done soon, the buzz will quiet until October. By that time, as a player with ten years in the majors, five with the same team, Pujols could not be traded without his consent, an unlikely occurrence anyway.

    With the Cardinals already set to remain pretty much intact for 2011, the noise over Pujols’ future plans could reach a deafening level come fall. Unresolved, his contract status could become the biggest story of all for the 2010 Cardinals and has the potential to remain there for the next year, too.

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

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