Albert Pujols doesn’t owe Bobby Bonilla?

Consider it news to the entire Cardinals’ fan base or a non-issue to some. In B.J. Rains’ article this morning about Albert Pujols’ 10 year anniversary of making that opening day roster in 2001, Cardinals’ manager Tony LaRussa is quoted saying that the story that Bobby Bonilla’s injury gave Pujols his opportunity to make the roster, isn’t true.

As the story goes, Pujols was destined to begin his 2001 season at Triple-A Memphis. However, he was dominating in Spring Training. Ultimately, it was a hamstring injury that resulted in Bonilla hitting the disabled list that opened up a spot and allowed Pujols to make the team. Since then, it’s been history.

Pujols has dominated at the majors becoming one of the best hitters in baseball history.

Today, that story was thrown into doubt as LaRussa was quoted. “That story has been retold a bunch of different times, and that was all because of Bonilla. That wasn’t true. That’s been worked over a little bit. I think it made for a better story, but no.”

Obviously in 10 years, recollections can change and your opinions can change. There’s no doubt that Pujols earned his spot and maybe that’s what LaRussa is referring to with the statement, but would he have had one if Bonilla hadn’t gotten hurt? Was the team prepared to eat the $900,000 on Bonilla? Was it another spot that he was going to take?

But what can we find out? Well, we can look at quotes from articles about Pujols. If the Bonilla story wasn’t true, wouldn’t you have had one of the top members of the Cardinals speaking up sooner than 10 years after the fact? To me, I think it highly unlikely that it was never brought up in an interview.

In a May 16, 2001, article by Steve DiMeglio for USAToday Baseball Weekly, DiMeglio talked about the rise of both Albert Pujols and Rafael Furcal. In this article, Walt Jocketty, the Cardinals’ GM at the time, was quoted. “Each week when we had our cut meetings, there we were, figuring he had to go back to the minors at some point, and each week he kept impressing us more and more. It got to the final week and we just said, ‘Look, we’re a better club with him,’ the way he was playing.”

In the same article, Tony LaRussa said that veterans politicked to have Pujols on the major league roster, and it was injuries to McGwire and Bonilla that gave him the extra playing time in Spring Training.

Yet nothing indicating that the team intended to keep him with the major league team, if anything the quote by Jocketty indicates that they intended to send him to Memphis.

We can also look at the 2001 Opening Day roster.

There were the usual suspects on that roster. Mike Matheny and Eli Marrero on as the two catchers. Mark McGwire, Fernando Vina, Edgar Renteria, Placido Polanco, Ray Lankford, Jim Edmonds, and J.D. Drew as your starting position players. The bench players on the roster were Craig Paquette, John Mabry, Larry Sutton, and Albert Pujols.

Now, that’s 12 position players and they kept 13 pitchers on the roster, which we know is something LaRussa likes to do, especially on a west coast road trip. St. Louis started the season on the road against Colorado and then Arizona.

Other position players competing for a spot in Spring Training for the Cardinals that season were Bobby Bonilla and Bernard Gilkey.

Since you aren’t going to remove anyone from the starting lineup, where do you go from there? You look at the bench players. John Mabry was a favorite of LaRussa’s. So much a favorite that he played for the Cardinals’ three times. Brought back three times via free agency, despite being traded away once. Odds are he makes the roster.

Craig Paquette was viewed as a member of the third base platoon with Placido Polanco. Paquette didn’t hit for average in 2000, but he did hit fairly well for power, hitting 15 homers in 420 plate appearances. At first glance he might be cuttable, but then you notice his $1.5 million salary in 2001 and he becomes quite less so. So he makes the roster.

How about Larry Sutton? He was a utility player whose name I’d never heard. He hit .320 in 23 games and 33 plate appearances for the Cardinals in 2000. Also, according to a USAToday Spring Training recap on the NL Central from March 28th, he was hitting .464 with a week to go. Odds are they were going to take an established .300 hitting pinch hitter who was more familiar with the role coming off the bench than an unproven rookie.

That leaves a three-way competition for the final spot. Bobby Bonilla, Bernard Gilkey, and Albert Pujols. Before the season started, the Cardinals released Bernard Gilkey. And then there were two.

Pujols was tearing up spring training and LaRussa was highly favorable of Bobby Bonilla in the same Spring Training recap I mentioned earlier. “If you know Bobby (Bonilla), it’s not a surprise. He’s got excellent hands, he runs good routes, he gets good jumps. This guy has played on winning ballclubs. And what’s been really positive has been his conditioning. He’s put a lot of time into all parts of the game.” Not really the words of a person getting ready to cut a guy in just under a week, who will cost you $1 million to cut.

Ultimately the decision was never made and there are only a handful of people who know where Pujols was going to end up at the end of the season. It was a decision that LaRussa never had to make. But I think there’s more than enough evidence out there to show that Pujols was destined to make the trip down I-55 to Memphis.

Was he worthy of making the roster? Definitely. I think that’s what LaRussa is getting at with his comment, but I don’t think for a moment that he would have actually made it had Bobby Bonilla not had hamstring problems.

As LaRussa was quoted in the Baseball Weekly special on Pujols and Furcal:

“You don’t do what we’ve done with Albert very often. You’re mindful of shattering a player’s psyche, concerned about bringing a player up too soon considering the lack of experience and age. It is rare – very rare – that a player so young and so lacking in seasoning and experience will survive.”

That’s about all you need to know.

Game 2: Padres 11, Cardinals 3

If you thought Thursday’s game was bad, Saturday’s was worse. Ugly is about the only word I have to describe what happened.

Thanks to Allen Craig, who picked up where Holliday left off, the Cardinals scored a pair of runs on his two-out double in the bottom of the first. But Padres worked Jake Westbrook hard all afternoon. He had thrown 51 pitches by the end of the second inning. In the second inning, Chase Headley tripled in a pair of runs to tie up the game.

Albert Pujols said no, when he led off the bottom of the third with his first hit of the season. A solo shot. But that could be all the Cardinals could muster while the Padres continued to dominate Westbrook.

The Padres added another in the top of the fourth and then broke it open for what LaRussa would call a crooked number in the top of the 5th. In the end, the Cardinals pitchers had trouble throwing strikes and a fielding error by Theriot, his second error in as many games, cost the Cardinals.

If one game with a severe lack of fundamentals wasn’t enough to panic, is two? Two games into this season and the Cardinals are still showing all the same issues we point out as things that killed their chances last season.

We can only hope that Jaime Garcia has put his Spring Training struggles behind him tomorrow and can pitch a gem. Because that’s what we’ll need to win, but if you ask Chris Carpenter, even that’s not a guarantee.

Boxscore

Hero of the Game: Tough to call this one, but it’s between Albert Pujols and Allen Craig. I will give Albert Pujols some love for breakout out of his 0-for-6 to start the season in style. So it goes to Albert Pujols (2-for-4, 1 HR, 1 RBI)

Zero of the Game: This one was pretty easy. Jake Westbrook gets it. (4.1 IP, 6 H, 5 BB, 3 K, 8 ER)

Preseason Approval Ratings: Position Players

Many readers are familiar with the Approval Ratings that Daniel at C70 at the Bat does over the course of the Spring. With his permission, I’m taking them to the next level (cue cool voice voicer).

I’m a little late, but real life has kept me away from writing much for the blog the last couple days. Today though, the Redbird Dugout Approval Ratings make their debut as I talk about our position players.

As mentioned during Wednesday’s UCB Radio Hour, the man who is now without his appendix is the highest rated Cardinal. That would be Matt Holliday. Holliday, who is entering his second full season, scored a 9.3 with Cardinals fans. Out of all the fans surveyed, he scored just one 7 and one 8 and the rest were 9s and 10s. Personally, I gave him a 10 because I he has far surpassed my expectations. When he came in, I expected him to be a .300, 20 HR guy because those were his career averages outside of Coors Field. Then he had his 2010 season and that all changed.

The second highest rated position player is none other than Albert Pujols. He scored a 9.0 from Cardinals fans. I find it interesting that he slots in behind Holliday, and also did on C70′s approval ratings. There are two potential reasons that Pujols falls, in my mind. First would be last season where his 7.3 WAR was the lowest WAR he’s had since his sophomore season in the majors and combine that where he slumped while the Cardinals kept falling farther and farther behind the Reds near the end of last season. Second would be with his contract situation. I know that I knocked him a point for it to just an 8. It takes two to tango and if they really wanted to come to an agreement over this offseason, Pujols and the Cardinals could have.

Moving on, we come to Yadier Molina, who came in third with an 8.0. Molina has been one of the most durable catchers in the major leagues. I know he caught the most innings in 2009, and I suspect he did the same in 2010 even with his removal from the lineup in the closing weeks to rest his knees. The knees and high innings are an issue to me, but that’s got nothing to do with my approval for Molina. Rather that rests on the guy who pencils him onto the lineup card everyday. I gave him a 9.

Colby Rasmus will be entering his third year in the majors, and most will tell you that it will be the make-or-break year for him. Mental maturity has impacted his success to this point, but he definitely has the physical tools. Despite some lack in his play last year on the defensive side of the ball, Rasmus still scored a 7.3 with the fans. In his third year and getting the opportunity to hit in front of Albert Pujols, Rasmus is poised to have a breakout year. Can he overcome the mental aspects of the game and put it all together? I’m excited to find out, I gave him a 7.

After spending the last half of last year on the disabled list, David Freese makes his return this season to the lineup. Despite the injury, Freese is probably riding high on his quick return from the injury and the performance he put on last season, when he was one of the top rookies when he went down with injury. Freese ended up with a 7.0 from the fans, and he got a 9 from me. Hopefully he can stay healthy this year and can become the player we all hoped.

A little surprising to me, but the next three guys on the list are expected to be bench players. Jon Jay scored a 6.9 from the fans and a 7 from me. Last season he proved himself a solid defender and solid with the bat. Coming off the bench, he’s going to do all we need him to do.

Allen Craig scored a 6.6 from the fans and got a 7 from me. I was a little surprised that he got relatively high marks. Many fans that I know think that he is nothing more than the AAAA player who is great in AAA, but below average in the majors. Personally, I think he can turn into a successful major leaguer if he gets a chance. With Holliday’s appendectomy, he seems to be ready to get that chance. Hopefully he takes it and runs with it.

Meanwhile, Daniel Descalso is riding his successful September as he scored a 6.2 from the fans and got a 7 from me. It’s no secret that I’ve called shotgun on the Descalso bandwagon and feel that he’s ready to start at second base. I’d love to see him take the starting role at second base away from Skip Schumaker this season, but he will hopefully get his chance there next season at least as Schumaker’s in the final season of his contract.

Back to the starters with Lance Berkman who scored a 6.0 with the fans. I gave him a 7, which wasn’t too far off. He suffered the case of getting a lot of 5s from people who didn’t want to make early judgements on new players.

Skip Schumaker comes in with a 5.7 from the fans. Schumaker had the largest disparity, as he was the only player to get a 1 and a 10 on his card. On the UCB Radio Hour, Mike Metzger of Stan Musial’s Stance said he would have given Schumaker high marks because he accepted the move from outfield to second base. I can understand that, but I gave him a 3. With experience, he should be improving at second base, but he’s not. And his bat fell off last year with the defensive struggles. To me, he’s just got more to show me before I can give him anything higher than a 5.

After Schumaker, comes Gerald Laird who scored a 5.6 with the fans. As the backup catcher, he doesn’t have much to do. I gave him an 8, but a lot of guys were reluctant to move him above a 5 because he’s new.

Then we have Tyler Greene who scored a 5.3 in the ratings. I gave him a 6 and was honestly surprised I had rated him that high. I’ve not been very impressed with Greene at any time. Well, except maybe that one diving catch in the outfield during spring training. But in general, I’ve not thought of him as a special player. I do hope he can prove me wrong though.

And the final player of our major league run is the new Ryan Theriot. Theriot scored a 4.9 in the ratings, and I had given him a 4. I’m not expecting much out of him and the slow start in spring training didn’t help that any. He was bouyed up with the 5s that a lot of guys gave new players. I think he is the player that is poised to vary the most this season.

I also had two minor league position players on the list. Last season’s first round draft pick, Zack Cox scored a 7.3 riding high on the way he finished the Arizona Fall League and the stories of him showing up early and working hard in the spring. Then Matt Carpenter is riding his strong spring to an 8.1 rating. I expect that to fall over the course of the season as people stop paying as close attention to him. Freese will likely have to get hurt before Carpenter is given an opportunity in the majors this year, and I don’t think anyone is wishing for that.

Look for the breakdown on pitchers on Monday morning. I’m about to dig in for game 2 of the 2011 season. Hopefully this one is better and the guys just had some Opening Day nerves on Thursday.

Matt Holliday Undergoes Appendectomy

After a challenging offseason and Spring Training that saw our best pitch require Tommy John all Cards fans were waiting for the season to start and hope it would turn our luck around. Opening Day didn’t go as well as we had hoped but the bright spots were Chris Carpenter, Colby Rasmus and Matt Holliday. Well earlier today we heard that Holliday was undergoing an appendectomy and will miss at least 2 weeks and up to 6 weeks. So after validating this wasn’t just a bad April Fools joke I started to think what will the Cards do now with Holliday certainly hitting the DL?

First off let’s look at the bright side of this injury: Its only 2-6 weeks and not another injury that loses a key member of our team for the year. We are taking the glass is half full approach. Next we need to take a look at who will replace Holliday in the starting lineup? And what will our batting lineup look like without Holliday? And lastly what prospects will have a chance to get an early call? I will attempt to answer these questions though TLR is very hard to read so I might be way off base!

Who will start in place of Holliday?
To me its an obvious approach based on how TLR typically manages. Jay and Craig will share the duties and if 1 of them gets hot TLR will most likely ride out the hot streak. I personally see Craig as a bigger contributor offensively yet a step behind Jay defensively. Craig has the pop to provide a legitimate threat in the lineup. Jay will provide better overall defense but will spray the ball around and pop an occasional double. One thing is for sure…this is a great opportunity for both of these guys to showcase their growth from last year and might be a chance for opposing teams scouts to take an extended look at each for a potential trade later in the year. My vote is give Craig a chance first and see if his bat will come alive.

What will the batting lineup look without Holliday?

Another great question with a complex answer! TLR likes to shuffle the lineup so I am not sure we will see a consistent batting order. But my guess is more times than not they will stay with Theriot and Rasmus at the top and Pujols stays in teh 3 hole with Berkman sliding to the 4 hole with Freese in the 5 hole. Beyond the 5 hole is where the shuffling will happen. I would say put Craig or Jay in the 6 hole depending on who is starting. That will leave Molina and Skip going 7-8 respectively with the pitcher batting 9th.

What prospect will get the early call?
I would warn any Cards fan that the choice will most likely not be a sexy pick. I don’t think Adron Chambers is ready and there are no other upside OF’s that will be considered. To me if they choose to pick an OF it will be Stavinoha. Not that I don’t like Stavinoha it just isn’t a sexy pick. But the experience will be key and they will be looking for a bat off the bench which Stavi has shown the ability in the past to provide value in this role. But who says it will definitely be an OF that is called up? I personally think with only 1 day off for the next 2+ weeks it would be more beneficial to call up a reliever. The obvious choice is Fernando Salas who was the last cut and had a terrific spring. With McClellan maybe not ready to go more than 6 and Garcia having a very rough spring we might need an extra RP early in the year. My vote says we call up Salas and have that extra arm.

***Edit: Forgot Stavi is no longer on the 40 man roster which probably negates him getting the call. The only OF on the 40 man not on the big league club is Chambers which I don’t feel is ready. This leads me to believe Salas will be the man called up***

Game 1: Padres 5, Cardinals 3

It was a game that the Cardinals had every opportunity to win. Chris Carpenter turned in 7 stellar innings for the Cards, but that wasn’t enough for the bullpen to hold on. Or the offense to secure the win.

The same issues that plagued the Cardinals last season reared their ugly heads once again. Base running miscues and defensive mistakes cost the Cards this one. During the first seven innings, Skip Schumaker had a defensive mistake that was not credited as an error. Arguably it could have been, giving Carpenter 7 innings allowing just a single run.

Ryan Theriot miss the ball on a routine throw into the infield. In the ensuing play, his throw home was errant allowing the Padres to ultimately put two runs on the board in the top of the 11th.

But it wasn’t just the middle infield, Albert Pujols became the 100th player in major league baseball history, and the first on opening day, to ground into 3 double plays in one game. There was some thought that this was the major league record, but apparently Joe Torre had 4 in a game during his career. Obviously some fans will wonder if he’s lacking motivation due to the contract situation, but the motivation is exactly the opposite. He’ll want to put up big numbers this year because it will play into more dollars at the end of the season. However, trying too hard is something that he may have to worry about. I can’t have been the only one that sees him swinging at things he didn’t before since Holliday showed up.

While Matt Holliday nearly played hero with his solo shot in the bottom of the eighth to put the Cardinals up 3-2. He was still caught stealing and picked off, making two outs on the basepaths. Then Ryan Franklin could not hold onto the lead as he allowed a game tying home run to Cameron Maybin in the top of the ninth.

In the end, the Padres were just more efficient on offense. They scored 5 runs on 11 baserunners. Meanwhile the Cardinals just managed 3 runs on 15.

Seeing the 2011 Cardinals for the first time in action that counts, they have a long way to go. You might say that it’s only April and there’s 161 more games to play. While that’s true, every win you can get in April is one less you’ll need in September. Lots of work for this team to do. If they plan on playing baseball in October.

Boxscore

Hero of the Game: I’m going to give it to Chris Carpenter (7 IP, 2 H, 2 ER, 2 BB, 4 K). It was all set to go to Matt Holliday until Franklin blew the save. At that point, Holliday’s HR was just another homer and the fact that it wasn’t the game winning run

Zero of the Game: This one was a tossup because I felt Ryan Franklin was also deserving. However, after much consideration I felt that if Pujols had had a better day, we wouldn’t have needed Franklin. Plus, is it Franklin’s fault the offense failed to put more runs on the board with the number of hits they got? So the Zero of the Game goes to Albert Pujols (0-for-5, 3 GIDP, 5 LOB).

2011 Predictions

AL East Winner – Redsox (#1 Seed)
AL Central Winner – Tigers
AL West Winner – Rangers
AL Wildcard – Rays
NL East Winner – Phillies (#1 Seed)
NL Central Winner – Cardinals
NL West Winner – Rockies
NL Wildcard – Braves
NL Winner – Rockies
AL Winner – Redsox
WS Winner – Rockies (in 6 games)
WS MVP – Tulo
AL MVP – Longoria
NL MVP – Pujols
AL Cy Young – Matusz
NL Cy Young – Gallardo
AL Comeback Player – Morales
NL Comeback Player – Chipper Jones
AL Rookie of the Year – Moustakas
NL Rookie of the Year – D. Brown
AL Biggest Surprise Team – Orioles
NL Biggest Surprise Team – Nationals
AL Biggest Bust (Player) – Sabathia
NL Biggest Bust (Player) – Greinke
Cardinals MVP – Pujols
Cardinals Cy Young – Westbrook
Cardinals Offensive Minor League Player of the Year – M. Carpenter (O. Taveras 2nd)
Cardinals Pitching Minor League Player of the Year – S. Miller (D. Hooker close 2nd)
Cardinals Biggest Surprise (Player) – D. Freese
Cardinals Biggest Bust (Player) – Berkman