The construction of the St. Louis Cardinals pitching staff over the Dave Duncan years has been oriented toward sinkerballers over strikeout machines. Incumbent in that approach is providing a solid defense behind them, especially up the middle.
For 2009-10, the Cardinals had that in shortstop Brendan Ryan, one of the game’s very best defenders. Yet the organization could not deal with Ryan’s personality and sent him packing last winter.
Shortstop Ryan Theriot had bounced from the Chicago Cubs to the Dodgers in 2010 and didn’t perform particularly well at either stop. Arbitration-eligible, he seemed destined to be non-tendered last fall. Instead, the Cardinals acquired him for reliever Blake Hawksworth and named Theriot their 2011 starting shortstop.
Theriot contributed some key hits for the Cardinals, but his defensive shortcomings became painfully obvious. Manager Tony La Russa initially refused to move Theriot to second base, perhaps because he felt he had no better options at short.
Solid-fielding veteran Nick Punto had been signed prior to last season and could have been a credible alternative to Theriot. The problem was that the former Minnesota Twin could not stay healthy, missing big chunks of the season during three disabled list stints.
The 34-year-old solidified the middle infield and served as the Cardinals’ new leadoff hitter. Furcal began slowly with the bat, with a .667 OPS in August before posting a strong .819 OPS in the final month of the season. He struggled in the post-season, with a paltry .569 OPS, but overall was considered a key ingredient in the World Series push.
An energetic performer and enthusiastic teammate, Furcal was re-signed by St. Louis for $14 million for the next two years in a deal announced ten days ago. With few obvious alternatives on the market, the Cardinals are considered by some to have overpaid.
Dogged by injuries in recent seasons, Furcal is no longer an offensive force. Once having stolen 46 bases in a season, his total dropped to nine in 2011. The switch-hitter’s on-base percentage of .316 as a Cardinal was 50 points lower than his .366 mark in Los Angeles the season prior. His career OBP is .348, with the overall annual trend downward.
The club’s main alternative at short is 28-year-old Tyler Greene, a strong performer in Triple-A. After three years of trials with the Cardinals, however, he has yet to prove he should remain in the bigs, let alone be given a starting job. Greene is out of option years, so would either need to stick in 2012 or his time in the organization may be over.
The two veteran middle infield reserves departed following the season. Theriot, again eligible for arbitration, was cut loose by the Cardinals earlier this month. Punto signed with Boston for 2012, doubling his Cardinals salary in the process. Essentially, their role on the team will be assumed by some combination of Furcal, Greene and Daniel Descalso.
For the five years following the Fernando Vina era, which ran from 2000-03, the Cardinals’ second base position was a revolving door of players on low-cost, short-term deals. Tony Womack, Mark Grudzelanek and Adam Kennedy each had their days, augmented by journeymen like Scott Spiezio and Aaron Miles to help hold down the fort.
That changed prior to the 2009 season when La Russa announced Skip Schumaker would become his team’s starting second baseman despite the outfielder’s lack of infield experience. After three years of maximum effort but below-average results defensively, the club seems ready to take another direction in 2012.
Descalso, a 25-year-old rookie in 2011, proved himself as a solid reserve at third base and second last season. If the left-handed hitter proves worthy in spring camp, he seems positioned to take over for Schumaker at second, his primary position as a minor leaguer.
In that scenario, Schumaker, also a left-handed batter, would probably spend more time as an outfield reserve. His roster spot was assured when the Cardinals rewarded him with a new, two-year contract announced earlier this month.
Though Allen Craig also saw action at second base in eight games last season, he would seemingly be considered more of an emergency option than a primary solution there.
Time still remains in the off-season for the Cardinals to acquire another second baseman either as a free agent or via trade, propelling Descalso into a utility infield role along with Greene. Still, given the club’s recent history of low-budget choices at second base, they may just as well decide to ride with what they have up the middle.