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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 2010 #13: The muddled middle

Middle infield play was a major concern for the 2010 St. Louis Cardinals. Not everyone is comfortable with the changes made for 2011.

Other than third base and pitching, the second base and shortstop positions delivered the lowest OPS on the 2010 St. Louis Cardinals at .671 and .600, respectively. The two spots had yielded respectable .746 and .736 marks the year prior.

The regular starters up the middle both seasons were second baseman Skip Schumaker and shortstop Brendan Ryan. Schumaker, a converted outfielder, is considered a below-average fielder while Ryan is known for his defense, but also for an approach that rubbed some teammates the wrong way.

One widely-discussed example occurred in sight of television cameras on August 9. Ryan was late taking the field behind pitcher Chris Carpenter because he had the wrong glove. Following the inning, a visually perturbed Carpenter called the shortstop down the dugout tunnel before reading him the riot act.

Ryan’s 2010 had begun on the wrong foot when he underwent elective wrist surgery to address chronic pain that worsened during off-season sessions he and Schumaker were having with new hitting coach Mark McGwire in Los Angeles. The early February procedure meant Ryan fell behind in preparation for the season and he later admitted that he never felt comfortable at the plate.

Ryan’s batting average hunkered below .200 for most of the first two-thirds of the season and he finished at .223. The 28-year-old had batted .292 the year prior, his first as a major league regular. Which season was the outlier became a point of concern and debate. His manager felt Ryan’s offensive struggles had been affecting his play in the field, as well.

The more-experienced Schumaker also suffered through an offensive regression in 2010. After hitting .300 in each of his first two full seasons, the 30-year-old got out of the gate very poorly. Though apparently healthy, he batted just .212 in April and didn’t manage to cross the .250 line until late June. Skip ended the year at a career-low .265. While his desire in the field has never been questioned, several advanced defensive metrics rank Schumaker among the lowest in MLB at his position.

General Manager John Mozeliak stated a desire to get more production from the middle in 2011. Post-season comments from manager Tony La Russa praising Schumaker while putting Ryan’s starting role in jeopardy clarified the team’s strategy going forward. Skip was staying and Brendan was out.

On November 30, the Cardinals acquired infielder Ryan Theriot from the Los Angeles Dodgers in return for pitcher Blake Hawksworth. Theriot, 31, had been dealt to the Dodgers at the July 31 trade deadline last summer after spending his entire big league career with the Chicago Cubs, for whom he started from 2007 into 2009. After a substandard stint with the Dodgers during which he batted a career-worst .242, Theriot had been replaced as a starter and was rumored to be a non-tender candidate.

Theriot, who has played at both second base and shortstop in his major league career, is not considered a strong defender. As the trade was announced, he was installed as the Cardinals’ new starting shortstop and quickly settled on a $3.3 million contract for 2011. That heightened focus on trading fan-favorite Ryan, who had been placed on the block earlier in the off-season.

After Mozeliak was unable to work a deal for Ryan during Baseball’s Winter Meetings, a trade was announced on December 12. The Seattle Mariners acquired Ryan for a hard-throwing but wild Class-A reliever Maikel Cleto. The relatively-low return made the dump trade even more unpopular with a vocal segment of the Cardinals fan base.

Key infield reserves in 2010 are not expected to return. Felipe Lopez, usually a second baseman, had been signed in February. He was pressed into regular third base duty during the summer and struggled mightily.  Earlier, he saw 48 games of action in the middle prior to his September release.

Aaron Miles joined the team in June and following the season left the Cardinals as a free agent for the second time. In between, among the switch-hitter’s starts were 18 at second, often against left-handed pitching. That remains an ongoing and glaring weakness of Schumaker (.211 average in 2010 and .206 career vs. LHP).

Currently slated to be the 2011 middle infield backups are a pair of farm system products with considerably less experience then their predecessors. Tyler Greene, a natural shortstop, had several short stints in St. Louis the past two seasons, while Daniel Descalso, the 2010 Triple-A all-star second baseman, made his MLB debut in September exclusively at third base.

St. Louis’ reserve second baseman in 2011 could see some sporadic starting action replacing Schumaker against lefties, though instead La Russa could easily play Skip even more regularly than in 2010 due to concerns over the inexperience of his new bench.

Behind them at Memphis will be an even greener crew that is projected to include light-hitting Donovan Solano and Double-A players Jose Garcia and Pete Kozma. The latter two are unproven at Triple-A, having yet to appear in a single game there. Solano’s Triple-A OPS last season was an uninspiring .616.

Depending on with whom you speak, the Cardinals either improved their middle infield offense and team culture for 2011 or they downgraded their defense considerably while not significantly improving their hitting.

Either way, the middle infield should remain a closely-watched area of the 2011 club.

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

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