UCB Project: Top Stories of 2011

This month’s United Cardinal Bloggers project is to break down what we thought the top-5 Cardinals Stories of 2011 were. Albert Pujols‘ departure and the Cardinals winning the World Series will be two very big stories that my fellow bloggers will likely be hitting on today. But those are easy. That’s the low hanging fruit. What really contributed to the Cardinals being there in October and getting their chance to come through and why? That’s what I’m going for.

#5. Adam Wainwright out for the season after Tommy John

Those dreaded words crossed my Twitter feed in February, just three months after I embarked on my Cardinals’ blogging mission. The names “Tommy John” and “Adam Wainwright” were mentioned in the same tweet. And to top everything off, Cardinals’ GM John Mozeliak was not feeling optimistic when he talked about Wainwright’s injury. And so we waited with baited breaths wondering how Wainwright’s doctor’s appointment in St. Louis would turn out. Would we lose our ace?

Many looked back to 2007 and 2008. Those were two seasons where we lost Chris Carpenter, then our clear #1 pitcher, for the majority of the season. He made 1 start in 2007 and 4 starts in 2008. The Cardinals finished 3rd in 2007 and 4th in 2008 in the NL Central. Was our season over before it began?

Many fans packed it in and it would have been easy for the Cardinals to dwell on the loss of Wainwright. But they moved on without the ace of their pitching staff determined to compete without him. That determination would come in handy throughout the season. Little did we know it would set the tone for the season. Whether it was Matt Holliday‘s appendix, a moth looking for a new home, Allen Craig‘s knee cap, or Albert Pujols’ wrist, the team was determined to give everything when it would have been very easy to mail it in without their key players. It would have been a good excuse that everyone would have bought. The Cardinals were a team ravaged by injuries all year.

The determination to get over the injury of Wainwright and move forward served the team well. From day one they were being prepared for a difficult season.

#4. The Search for a Closer

For a few years the Cardinals had been relying on Ryan Franklin to be the team’s closer. And I’ve been saying for just as long that Ryan Franklin isn’t a very good closer and we needed some insurance for him because it was simply a matter of time. However, I think the Cardinals were attempting to ride it out at least one more year with Franklin taking the ball in the 9th inning.

But when the season started and Ryan Franklin was ineffective, it threw the entire Cardinals’ bullpen into chaos. First it was Mitchell Boggs who got the 9th inning opportunities. Then he blew one and Eduardo Sanchez got a chance. Then Sanchez struggled to throw his slider for strikes when batters realized they could just take the pitch and Fernando Salas finally got the opportunity.

Salas, the only pitcher near ready to pitch for the St. Louis Cardinals who had closing experience. Going into 2011 he was a perfect 44-for-44 in save opportunities between Springfield in 2008 and Memphis is 2010. Why he didn’t get the first opportunity is quite a bit of conjecture, but when the Cardinals needed a stabilizing influence in the 9th inning, they found it in Salas. He got his first save opportunity on April 28th. It was a little exciting with a hit and a walk, but he got the job done. He would save 10 games before blowing his first on June 1st. Over the summer he became a little homer happy, opening the door for Jason Motte who was having a dominant summer.

Jason Motte went from June 26th to September 6th, a span of 34 appearances and 26 1/3 innings, without allowing an earned run. It was enough to get Tony LaRussa to say he wanted to get Motte some time in the 9th inning role, but stopping short of naming Motte the team’s closer. On August 28th he got his first save as the team’s 9th inning man and racked up a total of 9 as the season went on.

#3. Wheeling and Dealing at the Deadline

Colby Rasmus was the future of the franchise. Or so we all thought going into 2011. He had a really good start to the season as well, with many, including myself, thinking that he had finally turned the corner and unlocked that potential. However, it wasn’t long before Rasmus was mired once again in a huge slump at the plate and was making big mistakes in center field. By July, most Cardinals fans were debating the merits of making Jon Jay the team’s starting center fielder. Apparently, so was Tony LaRussa as Jay started getting more and more playing time in center field.

John Mozeliak, the Cardinals’ GM, had apparently been working on an extension with Rasmus that would have bought out his arbitration years. The team still viewed him as a major part of their future. They denied wanting to trade him, but everyone recognized that Rasmus would be the organization’s largest trading piece.

Despite the rumors of teams like Tampa Bay offering a very good starting pitcher for Rasmus, Mozeliak decided to take an offer that was viewed as lesser of the deals, but it did two very important things for the Cardinals. It filled holes in the rotation and the bullpen, something the other deals didn’t. Mozeliak knew Rasmus was his biggest (and likely only) bullet, he needed to it fix as many problems as possible. It also brought the Cardinals back draft picks for Edwin Jackson and Octavio Dotel who left for free agency. They also got to keep Marc Rzepczynski, a talented left handed pitcher, something the Cardinals have been unable to produce on their own in recent years.

He wasn’t done. The Cardinals needed to improve the defense at short stop. Their plan to forego offense for defense during the offseason had come around to bite them when Ryan Theriot struggled to field his position as he had in the past. Mozeliak found a partner in the Dodgers who were willing to send them Rafael Furcal. All the Dodgers wanted was Alex Castellanos, and considering the Cardinals were facing a little bit of an outfielder squeeze at the top of their minor league depth charts, he was expendable.

When all was said and done, for the price of Colby Rasmus and Double-A outfielder Alex Castellanos, John Mozeliak filled every hole on the 2011 Cardinals. It was a move that earned him Executive of the Year awards, but the Cardinals still needed help to get to the playoffs.

#2. September and the Hunt for a Cardinal Red October

Despite the additions, the team went just 15-13 in August and fell from half a game back of Milwaukee when the trades were made to 8.5 games back when August drew to a close. But that was mainly because Milwaukee was really good in August, going 21-7. It’s hard to keep up with a team who is that hot.

But the Cardinals would put together an 18-8 September, finishing as one of the hottest teams in baseball as they slipped into the playoffs on the final day of the season, courtesy of the Philadelphia Phillies beating the Atlanta Braves. Many would say that the Braves choked up the playoff spot, but when you look at the fact they lost their #1 pitcher for the final two months of the season and their #2 pitcher for the final month, I have a hard time saying that. Where would the Cardinals have been this year if they’d lost Chris Carpenter as well? Nowhere pretty.

It was just what the Cardinals needed to get into the playoffs. As Daniel of C70 at the Bat said Wednesday night on the UCB Radio Hour, if the Braves win two more games anywhere in the season, they go to the playoffs and we don’t have this discussion and the trade of Rasmus seems like a huge mistake. What a kill joy.

#1. The Emergence of David Freese and Allen Craig

My top story of the season has nothing to do with the big names Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, and Lance Berkman (though Berkman did have an excellent 2011 season, way better than I expected). I attribute a lot of the Cardinals winning this World Series to the unsung heroes of this team. The Cardinals run into the playoffs and to the World Series Championship was a total team effort. There was no singular player’s performance, at least from a player you could expect.

Allen Craig, the subject of my largest sports man-crush right now, only had about 220 plate appearances for the Cardinals this season, but they were MVP quality appearances. His 2.9 WAR over those plate appearances projects out to 8.6 if he gets 650 plate appearances at the same rate. That’s better than some guy named Ryan Braun, who walked home with the National League MVP trophy. He also had RBI in 5 of the 7 games in the World Series. He had the game-winning RBI in game 1. He had a go-ahead RBI in game 2. His first inning home run in game 3 set the tone for the Cardinals. His 8th inning home run in game 6 was crucial to set up David Freese‘s opportunity. And in Game 7, his third inning home run put the Cardinals on top for good. He was definitely a worthy candidate as World Series MVP in my opinion. Well, were it not for this next guy.

It was a situation that all kids dream about. You play with the bat in the backyard and you call out the situation to yourself, “Bottom of the 9th. Game on the Line. Two out. Down to your last strike. You lose the World Series if you don’t get this hit. In comes the pitch…” It’s a triple off the wall to tie up the game! Even more incredible when you come up to bat 2 innings later and hit your first home run of the World Series to win the game in walk-off style to send it to Game 7. Then he goes and gets the game tying runs in the bottom of the 1st just two nights later in Game 7. Yeah, that’s David Freese.

It was the emergence David Freese and Allen Craig that really propelled this team. Your superstars can only do so much. Teams attempt to minimize the impact your superstars have on the game. Having players behind them who will make them pay too, that just makes things sweeter. And that’s what makes a team a winner.

Those are my top-5 stories. What are yours?

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