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

Why the Cardinals need help at third base

Rookie David Freese’s season-ending injury and fill-in Felipe Lopez’ leadoff role means RBIs from the St. Louis Cardinals third base position have been increasingly rare.

Felipe Lopez (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)Ideally, third base would be a power position, where a big bat can drive in runs with regularity. The reality is that the during the Tony La Russa years, since 1996, the St. Louis Cardinals had multiple good years from Scott Rolen and one year each by Fernando Tatis and Troy Glaus. That has been about it.

The position hit bottom in 2009. Many Cardinals fans recall the continuing problems at third base all season long. Eight different players had a share of the job from spring training through October, but none of them produced for more than a few weeks at a time and others, not at all. Some of it was injury, some ineffectiveness, while others were overexposed. Whatever the reason, their aggregate line was .229/.292/.369/.661, worst in MLB.

Another indicator of the lack of production was their meager total of 65 RBI. That is the lowest sum by a group of St. Louis third basemen since La Russa joined the organization prior to the 1996 season.

This spring, the Cardinals came to camp with rookie David Freese anointed as the starter at the position. The 27-year-old got off to a quick start before leveling off a bit. Still, he drove in 36 runs over his first 70 games. Projected to 140 contests, Freese would have plated a respectable 72 runs over the full season. Over an unrealistic 162 games, Freese’s rate would have led to a total of 83 RBI.

Problem is that Freese suffered a bone bruise on his right ankle early in June and by the 28th was placed on the disabled list. A dropped weight, a rehab stint that lasted less than one game due to a season-ending injury followed by another surgery is how it ended for him.

The Cardinals had little choice but insert veteran Felipe Lopez at the hot corner, where he has a .287 average and a .364 OBP. His offensive profile is better suited for second base with a game consisting of less power and more on-base. As such it is easy to see why La Russa addressed his club’s inadequacies at the leadoff spot by stationing Lopez there. Bottom line, we should not be completely surprised that Felipe has just 15 RBI in 188 plate appearances as the Cardinals third baseman this season.

Extending Lopez’ RBI rate over the remainder of the season if he played at third every day would get him to 34 RBI. Adding that to Freese’s 36 and Tyler Greene’s two would project to a total of 72 RBI from the club’s third base position through 162 games.

The good news is that 72 RBI would still be a slight improvement from last season’s black hole. The bad news is that it would tie for the third-lowest production from the position in the La Russa era, with only last season and 1998 worse and equaling 2005, a year in which an injured Rolen drove in just 28 and journeyman Abraham Nunez tried valiantly to hold down the fort, but knocked in just 31 himself.

If this doesn’t illustrate why the Cardinals need to get more out of the third base position, I don’t know what does.

St. Louis Cardinals third basemen, RBI, season, 1996-present

3B RBI Team Leader #
2010 proj 72 Freese 36 Lopez 34 T. Greene 2
2010 YTD 53 Freese 36 Lopez 15 T. Greene 2
2009 65 DeRosa 27 Thurston 18 K.Greene 8 Barden 6 Freese 4 Glaus 2
2008 101 Glaus 96 Lopez 3 Miles 2
2007 77 Rolen 58 Spiezio 12 Ryan 3 Miles 2 Cairo 1 Branyan 1
2006 122 Rolen 95 Spiezio 27
2005 72 Nunez 31 Rolen 28 Seabol 5 Luna 4 Mabry 4
2004 138 Rolen 124 Mabry 10 Luna 2 McKay 2
2003 109 Rolen 104 Perez 4 Delgado 1
2002 89 Rolen 43 Pujols 24 Polanco 20 Cairo 2
2001 83 Pujols 44 Polanco 27 Paquette 12
2000 99 Tatis 62 Paquette 31 Polanco 6
1999 122 Tatis 107 Paquette 13 Polanco 1 D.Howard 1
1998 68 Gaetti 36 Tatis 24 Mabry 6 Jordan 2
1997 79 Gaetti 66 Sheaffer 7 Bell 4 Gallego 1 Gulan 1
1996 75 Gaetti 72 Bell 2 Sheaffer 1

Special thanks to Tom Orf for the data table above.

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Brian Walton

Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation and The Cardinal Nation Blog, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.
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