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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 2011

A look ahead to the top projected stories across the Cardinal Nation in 2011.

First, we reviewed at the top 20 stories affecting the St. Louis Cardinals this past year.

Now it is time for my annual predictions for the top story lines of the coming year as well.

Right up front, I will set aside the easiest and most logical entry – the results of the 2011 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 (potential) return of Tony La Russa for 2012. While this is not done, I suspect the story will only rank in the top five if the manager decides NOT to come back for at least one more season. I think that chance is small.

As I developed my list and rankings, I considered the staying power of the story, how long it might remain in the headlines as well as its potential impact on the 2011 Cardinals and the organization’s future. In reality, number one dwarfs the other four in importance this year.

Without further ado, here are my projected top five St. Louis Cardinals stories of 2011. As always, your comments are welcome below.

1. Pujols’ pending payday

I suppose it would be considered a major cop-out to make this my top stories one through five, but especially if Albert Pujols reaches free agency, it will almost certainly be on top. While I felt the same thing a year ago, this story should run out of shelf life before December 31.

If one wants to think positive and believe Pujols will remain a Cardinal, the next set of questions to consume is for how long and how much? Will it cover the remainder of Pujols’ career? Will there be significant deferred money? Will it be front- or back-end loaded?

Whatever is decided will be a major part of the franchise for years to come. While it may or may not become the biggest contract ever, I bet it will be the biggest percentage of a team’s payroll ever taken up by one player. Think about that.

2. Berkman’s stand

With the benefit of hindsight, the signing of veteran first baseman Lance Berkman to play right field for the 2011 Cardinals may prove to be either have been a bold move or a bad risk. The club has had decent success in taking on end-of-career hitters previously successful elsewhere, stars such as Will Clark and Larry Walker.

At least in the latter case, however, the collective wear and tear on the player led to him being unable to play a full state of games and eventually a date with retirement earlier than expected.

Will Berkman, previously of bulky build and with balky knees, be able to endure the rigors of daily play in the outfield? At 35 years of age, can the switch-hitter find magic in a once-powerful bat that has been in decline?

If Berkman can’t at least replace the offense of the traded Ryan Ludwick, where will that leave the 2011 Cardinals offense? And even if Berkman delivers, how could they afford or replace his production in 2012?

3. Third and last time for third base?

After two years of failed gambles on David Freese at third base and no viable back up plan, at least currently, the Cardinals seem ready to give it a third try. If Freese’s fragile ankles fail him again this coming season, it could very easily mean major problems for the 2011 club. It could also signal the end of the Freese experiment.

Looking at this from the positive side, even if Freese has a relatively injury-free 2011, would one good year erase all the memories of two bad ones? It may take more than one season for him to fully shed the injury-prone tag.

At least the organization may have a couple of 2012 options coming up through the ranks in Matt Carpenter and Zack Cox. I expect they will be the starters at Triple-A and Double-A, respectively and should be two of the most closely watched prospects in the system in 2011.

4. Keeping Carp

Speaking of Carpenters, will Matt and Chris Carpenter ever become teammates? Chris is a cornerstone of the St. Louis Cardinals, a former Cy Young Award winner and ace of the staff. Yet by April 2012, Carp will be 37 years old. He has yet to string together three consecutive healthy seasons in his career, though 2011 could finally be it.

More importantly, will the Cardinals have the money and interest in picking up their 2012 option on Chris? The club option is for $15 million of which $2 million is deferred, identical to 2011. Instead, the Cardinals could buy out the option for $1 million.

If the organization feels they have the cash after signing Pujols, they could approach Carpenter about a more-team friendly extension to cover his later years, perhaps superseding the 2012 option year.

A third Carpenter in the system, reliever David Carpenter, was dealt to Houston in the Pedro Feliz trade last August. A Chris Carpenter trade would seem doubly unlikely since he has spent ten years in the majors, the last five with the Cardinals. That means he could not be moved without his consent.

Letting him walk seems unthinkable, yet it must be at least considered in the financial context of the post-Pujols contract Cardinals.

5. Who follows Franklin?

With the core of the Cardinals either under contract or option for 2012, one position that may turn over is the closer’s job, held by Ryan Franklin since 2008. While Franklin says he may return in 2012, his hold on the ninth inning may slip if his performance declines.

The player groomed for the position, Chris Perez, is now closing for Cleveland, but the Cardinals do not lack candidates. Mitchell Boggs and Jason Motte have major league seasoning while youngsters Eduardo Sanchez and Adam Reifer have a year to look for an opening to burst onto the scene.

Who can forget that the Cardinals chased former Rockies closer Brian Fuentes and thought they had him prior to the 2009 season? They avoided dropping at least $15 million in the process and hopefully, will not again look in the free agent direction for ninth inning help any time soon.

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

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