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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 2011 top story #15: Changes up the middle

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.

On July 31, GM John Mozeliak made another deal with the Dodgers, this time shooting much higher in acquiring veteran shortstop Rafael Furcal.

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.

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

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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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28 Responses to “The Cardinal Nation Blog 2011 top story #15: Changes up the middle”

  1. blingboy says:

    “. . . the organization could not deal with Ryan’s personality. . . ”

    I take issue with that statement, and propose this instead:

    . . . a small but influencial group of uniformed personel could not deal with Ryan’s personality. . .

    • crdswmn says:

      I have to agree Bling. The Cardinals have never sold me on the story they put out on Brendan. Even if it were entirely true, all it did was convince me that the team has or had a few pretty thin skinned prima donnas. I shudder to think in that instance what might have transpired if the Cardinals had had a Milton Bradley or a Carlos Zambrano on the team.

      But, in the words of our esteemed blog commander, that ship has sailed. No crying in baseball. 🙂

  2. bigchieftootiemontana says:

    That does seem to be an overpayment with Furcal, especially with all his injury problems. He sure made a defensive difference tho when it mattered a lot and I agree Brian, that his enthusiasm brought some needed life to the team. When the team should have been called DeadBirds.

    crdswmn doesn’t agree, but if Greene has a good spring I would like to see him get a couple months of daily playing time at the beginning of the season, see if he can relax and play consistently better.

  3. JumboShrimp says:

    Mo likes to settle SS early. He showed this in signing Cesar Izturis (2008), and when trading for Khalil Greene (09) and Theriot (11). Greene, IIRC, cost $6.5MM and turned out to be spiritually damaged. Furcal seems like a bargain in relation to Khalil. When with the Braves and Dodgers, Furcal has been among the top SSes of his era, a remarkable throwing arm, speed, and an OPS often above 800, very high for a SS.
    Anybody who we sign during November or December is going to be pricey, since its a pricey time of the salary season. Bargains await in January and February.

  4. JumboShrimp says:

    I don’t believe the story about Brendan Ryan’s personality being a factor.
    TLR liked well established ML SSes, from Clayton to Renteria to Eckstein. Eck got hurt during 2007, giving Ryan a chance and he hit well. Did Ryan get rewarded with the job in 2008? No, we signed Izturis and traded for Khalil Greene to play during 09. But KGreene was damaged goods, supplying Ryan lots of play. Because of this, for 2010, Mo and TLR chose to go with B. Ryan, but then they got sandbagged, since Brendan had a horrible season with the bat.
    In baseball, GMs and Managers do not want the risk of repeating past mistakes, in case it turns out just as badly and they get fired. The 2010 season was very disappointing, with a late season dive. The Cards had to be shuffled. One change was to add Theriot to be an alternative to Skip at leadoff, to help the offense that failed down the stretch in 2010.
    We did not dump B. Ryan. Instead, we got Cleto, who has a big arm. The trade may have helped everybody: Ryan, the Mariners, and the Cards.

    • Brian Walton says:

      Feel free to believe what you choose, but I was there enough to see with my own eyes and hear with my own ears that there were issues. No sense in digging it all up again but that doesn’t mean we should re-write history to create happy endings, either.

      • blingboy says:

        Perhaps pacific northwest air cures personality problems. Or maybe they retired or moved to California.

      • JumboShrimp says:

        Ryan’s ending in St Louis was an OPS of 575, during a 2010 season when the Cards were overtaken by the Reds. For 2011, a few changes had to be made. One was at SS. Sometimes discussion about “personalities” can be obscuring. If Brendan had had an OPS above 700 during 2010, he might have remained the SS throughout 2011. How do we know this? Because it already happenned, just the year earlier! Ryan became the SS during 2009, hit well and fielded well. Mo and TLR elected to rely on Ryan during 2010. Let us assume Ryan had the same personality, during both 2009 and 2010, no surprise, since he is literally the same man. In 09, Ryan played well, the second year he had a poor season at the plate, so the team went another way for 2011.

        • Brian Walton says:

          Take a look at Dal Maxvill’s career OPS. Good teams can find room for a guy with a special glove.

          Regarding people, relationships can have a way of souring over time. Any of us should be able to relate to that in our own lives.

          • JumboShrimp says:

            In 2009, Ryan filled-in for Khalil, who had to go to the funny farm. Ryan played well, including an OPS of 740, helping the Cards reach the post-season. For this, Mo and Tony were happy to rely on Brendan for 2010.
            Then during 2010, despite paying big bucks to Pujols and Holliday, we faded late, while Ryan had an OPS of 573. Somebody had to take the blame. It was not going to be DeWitt, Mo, or Tony. If Brendan’s OPS had remained 167 points higher, as in 2009, Mo might have wanted to keep him for 2011.
            Piniella is one of Tony’s celebrity buds. My guess is Sweet Lou advised Tony that Theriot did a good job on Lou’s playoff teams of 2007-8, and could provide a hard-nosed leadoff hitter that TLR needed, after the decline of Skip.

    • blingboy says:

      Brendan makes $1.75M this year, nearly doubling his career earnings. He will either be re-signed or become a free agent.

  5. blingboy says:

    The Cards thought they had cut out the bullpen cancer last year when they gave longtime servant Marty the heave ho. But they found that they didn’t get it all, so they went back in after Murph.

    That has to be it.

    This year, the guy who rubs up the balls will be closely watched.

  6. JumboShrimp says:

    To help make up for the forthcoming suspension of Ryan Braun, the Brewers have inked the Mitey Cesar Izturis, to a minor league contract.
    Cesar was one of the early free agent signings of reigning Executive of the Year, Mo. Cesar obtained an OPS of 630 during 2008. For this stellar performance, he actually landed a TWO year deal from the Orioles. During 2010, Cesar’s OPS was a hapless 545, 30 points lower than Brendan Ryan’s own sorry 2010 OPS.

  7. blingboy says:

    The Angels and Scioscia have started looking into rearranging the furniture to accomodate an 800 pound gorilla.

    They have two leadoff candidates, but both have had to make up for rather low OBP by stealing some bases. . . . . thereby opening up 1st for an IBB . . .

    There are two ways to protect Albert, who will bat third, says Scioscia . . . so they have had that talk, then.

    The two ways are a #2 to get on ahead and a #4 to make them pay, yada, yada…

    Who do we have, if this guy can revert to past form, if that guy can progress, more yada, yada…

    Of course, as we know, whatever they have will not be what they need. So at some point, Scioscia will go to DiPoto who will go to Moreno.

    And getting new accent pieces will prove to go only so far, the wobbly ones will have to be shipped out, along with those 700 pound gorillas who cannot accept the new order.

    Arturo will learn. He could speed up the learning curve by getting Tony on the payroll.

    The LA sports writers are taking their first baby steps too.,0,3956049.story

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