Monthly Archives: February 2012

2012 Preview: Third Base

David Freese had a spectacular postseason. He then had an amazing offseason that included a stop by Jay Leno’s show and presenting at the CMA Awards with Erin Andrews. The question will now be, can he put it all together, have the season everyone thinks he can have, and then take his place as one of the league’s premiere third basemen?

Of course, that’s what we asked last spring and unfortunately it only half happened. After starting the season hitting around .320, but missed 51 games after being hit by a pitch and breaking a bone in his left hand. It was the only derailment in 2011 for Freese who had ankle injuries force him from the lineup in both 2009 and 2010.

Thankfully for Freese and the Cardinals, Freese didn’t sustain any ankle injuries in 2011. Something that has allowed him to come into this season saying that his ankles feel better than ever. Hopefully that’s something that can continue.

In the end, Freese finished the season with a .297/.350/.441 line with 10 home runs and 55 RBI in the 97 games he did play. For the 28-year-old third baseman, that was just the beginning of the story of his 2011. As has been covered and will be covered for years to come, Freese lit up the NLCS with a line of .545/.600/1.091 and added 3 home runs and 9 RBI on his way to scoring the NLCS MVP award. He wasn’t going to stop there though.
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2012 Preview: Shortstop

For the Cardinals, the Opening Day starter at shortstop is pretty well assured. That would be Rafael Furcal. A mid-season addition at the trade deadline for the Cardinals in 2011, Furcal provided a significant upgrade to the defense at shortstop for the Cardinals. It was a steadying glove when the Cardinals needed one most.

The oft-injured Furcal was in the final year of his previous deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Furcal had a $12 million club option on his contract for 2012 that could automatically vest with 600 plate appearances. Since he ended up with just 356 between the Dodgers and the Cardinals, the Cardinals’ declined the option and made him a free agent. Eventually, they brought him back as their first post-Pujols deal for 2 years at $7 million a piece.

This could be a very short preview post. You see, because of the injuries that Furcal has suffered over the last 4-5 years, it’s hard to get a good read on what kind of player the Cardinals’ can expect Furcal to be.
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2012 Preview: Second Base

Second base looks to be one of the more interesting positions in 2012. The perceived incumbent, Skip Schumaker, is looking at more of a utility role than in years past while both Daniel Descalso and Tyler Greene have been mentioned as potential starters by Cardinals’ GM John Mozeliak. It certainly looks to be the only real positional battle for the Cards entering spring training and it will be one that will have clearly defined battle lines.

Greene, 28, is one of the most polarizing young Cardinals. In fact, a few of us bloggers were discussing him on Twitter today. A few thinking he is the breakout Cardinal of the year while myself and a couple others still question just what type of player he is.

A former first round pick, most of the interest in Greene has been created by the numbers he’s put up the last three years in the minor leagues. What happened three years ago, he turned 25, the age where you start taking the “prospect” tag away from a minor league player. If he hasn’t shown up by then, will he ever? Going into the 2009 season, Greene’s career line in the minor leagues was a paltry .254/.323/.414. His defense is below average at what people would call his “natural position,” short stop.
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2012 Preview: First Base

As I said in the Catcher preview last week, there are only three players expected to start Opening Day at the same place they started it last year. Lance Berkman is the other player who stays in the lineup but will find himself a new home at first base.

Originally signed before last season to a value rebuilding 1 year, $8 million contract with the Cardinals to play the outfield, Berkman re-signed with the Cards in September to the tune of $12 million. He quickly became their insurance policy against the potential of Albert Pujols vacating the position. Pujols took a $240 million offer from the Angels and didn’t look back. That leaves Berkman, affectionately referred to as “Big Puma,” with some mightly large cleats to fill.

Berkman, who will be 36 on Friday, had a phenomenal year in 2011. According to OPS+ it was his best year as he scored a 166 last year, beating out 2006’s 163 OPS+ campaign. Overall he had a line of .301/.412/.547 as he led the Cardinals in both on base percentage and slugging. He also added 31 home runs and 94 RBI for the Cardinals in a big rebound year.
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Alex Cora agrees to minor league deal

The Cardinals made it official this morning that they have signed infielder Alex Cora to a minor league contract with an invitation to Spring Training. According to Derrick Goold, the move is not only for competition, but to help provide some coaching for the younger players. Cora’s playing days are pretty much up, but he has an interest in coaching.

Cora, 36, hit .224 with 0 home runs and 6 RBI in 91 games for the Washington Nationals last season. He spent time at every infield position for the Nationals through the course of the season as well. In his 14 year career he has spent most of the last 7 as a utility infielder off the bench for the Indians, Red Sox, Mets, Rangers, and most recently the Nationals.

The move on the surface is nothing more than depth for the Cardinals as they enter spring training, just in case one of their players gets injured. However, I think there might be more of a potential for Cora to make the major league squad than we expect.

While his bat certainly won’t light the world on fire with his three-year line of .232/.296/.292, he gives the Cardinals something that the other infielders don’t. Who else plays at least a league average shortstop on the Cardinals roster? Rafael Furcal. Behind him? Tyler Greene‘s career numbers at shortstop stack him closer to Ryan Theriot than Furcal. Daniel Descalso took some time there last year and showed potential, but needs more playing time to adjust to the position.

Cora’s glove will be the second best defensive shortstop in Cardinals camp in a few weeks. I can’t be the only one who realized what effect a better shortstop had on the Cardinals pitching staff. For example, Jake Westbrook‘s ERA after the Furcal acquisition was about half a run lower than it was before the trade. That’s big. Depending on how much value the Cardinals think it might have, could end up getting interesting.

Less than two weeks away from pitchers & catchers reporting. Can’t wait.

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2012 Preview: Catcher

From Opening Day 2011 to Opening Day 2012, there are only two positions that we know will be the same, Yadier Molina at catcher and Matt Holliday in left field. Of course, saying that I’ve probably doomed them both to disastrous spring training injuries. (knock on wood)

For the 29-year-old Molina, 2011 was a big year. He led the Cardinals in batting average with his .305. For all intents, he had a career year. He set career highs in batting average (.305), slugging percentage (.465), runs (55), hits (145), doubles (32), home runs (14), and RBI (65) among others. He won his fourth consecutive Gold Glove and made his third consecutive All Star Game appearance. Picking up his $7 million option for 2012 was a no brainer for Cardinals management.

In my mind, Molina might be one of the most interesting players to watch this season. He is coming off a career year where he hit nearly double the home runs of his previous career high. Not only did he have home run power, he had gap power, notching 32 doubles as well, up from the 19 doubles he hit in 2010. For a man who is considered as slow as he is, that’s a high number, second on the Cardinals only to the other steady starter, Matt Holliday. That shows some potential that 2011 may end up being more than just a statistical fluke.

Another reason that I find Molina’s 2012 to be interesting is that his best friend on the team, Albert Pujols, has skipped town on his way to Anaheim to play for the Angels to the tune of $240 million over 10 years. How will he react after spending the previous 8 years of his career in Pujols’ shadow, will he step into the waiting spotlight or will he shy away from it?

You also have his impending contract situation, which I’ll address a little later.

Because of Molina’s defensive prowess and game calling reputation, any offense you get from the catcher position while he’s playing is a definite plus. It also means he logs a lot of innings behind the plate, 1150 innings in total last year across 137 games. Despite the fact that he logged 12 more innings in 2 more games than he did in 2010, he was used quite less than he had in previous years this season. If you remember, he was shut down for the final couple weeks of the season with knee issues at the end of 2010.

Despite those problems, Molina has been steady as a rock behind the plate for the Cardinals, notching over 1,000 innings behind the plate in 5 of the last 6 seasons. If the Cardinals are playing baseball, over the last 7 years the odds were pretty good that he was behind the plate as he’s proven himself exceptionally durable thus far.

For the Cardinals in 2012, there is no doubt that Yadier Molina goes in as the incumbent starter. The game is on, however, for the backup catcher role in 2012. Once held down by Jason LaRue and last year by Gerald Laird, the Cardinals under new manager Mike Matheny (to whom Molina was once a backup to) will be having an open competition for the roster spot. The guys who will be matched up in that battle will be Tony Cruz, Bryan Anderson, and free agent signee Koyie Hill.

Tony Cruz, 25, broke out when he got a chance to be the Cardinals backup catcher when Laird went down with a broken finger in May. While Laird was on the disabled list from May 23rd to July 5th, Cruz hit .278 with a .333 OBP over 18 games, 6 of which were starts behind the plate. His versatility was also used by the Cardinals as he made appearances during that time at third base and first base. Until 2009, Cruz had played primarily third base through the minor leagues, notching 130 games there before transitioning to catcher.

Bryan Anderson, 25, has toiled away in the Cardinals minor leagues since being drafted out of Arkansas in the 4th round of the 2005 draft. Since that time he’s played 593 games in the minor leagues and just 15 in St. Louis in 2010. Anderson has been the question mark since he was drafted. Before the 2008 season he was rated the #85 prospect in baseball by Baseball America, and that was after a fairly lackluster year in double-A Springfield. The power that many scouts talked about never developed in the minor leagues and he got off to an ice cold start in Memphis in 2011 while splitting time with Tony Cruz. However, once Cruz made the trip to St. Louis, Anderson regained his stroke and finished up the year with a hitting line of .281/.357/.409.

Despite having gained the approval of new manager Mike Matheny in previous years, which might gain him some favor in the battle for backup catcher, there are still pitchers on the Cardinals’ roster, namely Chris Carpenter and I’ve recently heard Kyle Lohse, who don’t like the way he handles things when he’s behind the plate. That could have a huge impact on the battle if you have two starters in your rotation who don’t like pitching to a particular catcher. However, you could jump him around the rotation to avoid him. He’s worked with Jaime Garcia before when they both played in the minor leagues together and because of his time there, he has caught most of the guys in the bullpen.

Regardless of what happens, Anderson might be happier that this could be his final season with the Cardinals’ organization. Despite solid performances, Anderson has topped out in Memphis the last four years and his trade value is virtually nil. But he now has 6 years of minor league service time, which means he’s a free agent after one more. The Cardinals do still hold one more option on him, so he can be sent back to Memphis without risk of losing him.

The Cardinals also surprised fans by bringing in veteran catcher Koyie Hill, seemingly against their previous statements of letting Anderson and Cruz fight it out for the spot. Hill has spent the last five years with the Cubs and hit .194/.268/.276 with 2 home runs last year in 46 games for the Cubs. He’s never been exceptionally notable at the plate, nor even behind it with a career -0.7 defensive WAR. The move doesn’t really make sense except as a veteran catching option should Molina go down with injury. He would be an exceptionally long shot, but you never know what might happen.

So who do I think will win the backup catcher job in St. Louis. Honestly, I feel it should be Bryan Anderson and just not because I’ve been very high on Anderson the last few years and hate that he hasn’t gotten an opportunity somewhere. The Cardinals will need to figure out where they are going with the catcher’s position beyond this year. Molina is in the option year of his contract and is very likely to command a near $10 million salary in this next deal.

Between the catchers that the Cardinals currently have in the organization, I see Tony Cruz with more of a long-term future with the team than Anderson does. Therefore, I think it’d be better for Cruz’s development to be playing everyday in Memphis than playing once a week in St. Louis. Anderson might get the role simply because Cruz has more of a future with the organization. It wouldn’t be the first time the Cardinals have done something like this. And if Carpenter and Lohse don’t like throwing to Anderson, you have three other starting pitchers who you can pair him with. Or tell them to suck it up.

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