How Will the St. Louis Cardinals Approach the Shortstop Position in September?

ST. LOUIS, MO - MAY 8: Tyler Greene #27 of the St. Louis Cardinals fields a ground ball against the Milwaukee Brewers at Busch Stadium on May 8, 2011 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

So much for momentum.

Last week the St. Louis Cardinals breathed new life into their season and their dwindling playoff chances by sweeping the first-place Brewers in Milwaukee. However, the Cardinals were unable to parlay that sweep into weekend success, losing their series at Busch Stadium against the Cincinnati Reds. Meanwhile, the Brewers swept the lowly Astros. The Cardinals now find themselves 9.5 games out of first place in the division.

Even with the three-game series against Milwaukee beginning this afternoon at Busch it seems appropriate for the organization to approach the remainder of the 2011 season with an eye toward 2012 and beyond. How the club approaches the position of shortstop over these final weeks will give us an indication of their plans for the position moving forward.

At the non-waiver trade deadline, the Cardinals acquired 33-year-old shortstop Rafael Furcal from the Los Angeles Dodgers to replace Ryan Theriot, who had foolishly been handed the starting shortstop position over the winter. To make room on the big-league roster for Furcal, the Cardinals made two corresponding roster moves--one of which was optioning shortstop Tyler Greene to Memphis.

The Furcal trade created a glut in the middle infield and Greene was "the odd-man out." Manager Tony La Russa made the type of statements he often makes when the club options a player back to the minors:

"If he stays here, he's not going to play much," said manager Tony La Russa. "That's not good for him, or us."

"He's the odd-man out for all the right reasons for him," La Russa said. "If you're going to be in the big leagues and not play, you're going to get a little short-term time in, and then lose in the long-term because you're not down there developing your skills."

"He's having a good hear down there," La Russa said. "He's got plus skills, everything about him is above-average."

La Russa's assessment is no less accurate today than it was a month ago.

Entering play on Sunday, the 28-year-old shortstop had annihilated Pacific Coast League pitching to the tune of a .323/.424/.584 slash line, which comprises a .444 wOBA. Greene's tools are enticing. Cardinal fans have caught mere glimpses of his athletic ability in the majors, but nothing like those tools which he consistently displays for Memphis. To see Greene play for Memphis is to watch a player who performs like a custom player created on a video game: speed, power, range, and a rocket arm. Skill and production notwithstanding, Greene has nearly aged out of prospect status and into the Stavinohan territory of AAAA organization filler. With Ryan Jackson knocking on the Memphis door and an opening in St. Louis next season, it truly is now or never for the former first-round draft pick out of Georgia Tech. Given Greene's performance at Memphis and the Cardinals' fade from legitimate playoff contention, it would seem that the Cardinals owe it to themselves and to Greene to give him significant playing time over the remainder of the season so as to assess whether he is at all a factor in the club's plan for shortstop in 2012.

General Manager John Mozeliak gave what seems to be his endorsement of this approach when discussing September callups with the media after the Cardinals had fallen 10.5 games behind the Brewers in the National League Central standings but before last week's sweep.

Mozeliak said the more likely moves people will see when rosters can be expanded next Thursday would involve players who hadn't received everyday chances to play here "just to see what they're capable of."

Most have been here at one point or another, including Memphis shortstop Tyler Greene, who has failed in several trials here but really hasn't played more than a few games in succession.

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Mozeliak, who met with his staff Wednesday morning and then with manager Tony La Russa after Wednesday's game, said, "I would like to see (Greene) get more of an opportunity to play, just so we can have a better idea for planning 2012."

Whether manager Tony La Russa is on board with Mozeliak on Greene's playing time remains to be seen. Not long after Mozeliak's comments were published, Brian Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch provided some interesting quotes from the manager:

"(We need) people seeing us competing at a high level (again)," said La Russa. "That means guys who play the best and pitch the best, play the most."

How it all plays out may provide the early hints of what direction the franchise is headed in 2012 and beyond. The manager pointedly maintained that he will do whatever is best for the organization. But to add a little intrigue to the mix, La Russa acknowledged that "what's best for the Cardinals" is all subject to interpretation. "Whatever that means on an individual basis, you add it up," he said. "But I don't think (general manager John Mozeliak) is talking about a wholesale Triple-A roster playing games while other guys are sitting. I don't think that's what he means."

I know what it means for La Russa, and he made that fairly clear in his chit chat near the dugout. "My number one priority is for this group of guys and this organization is to establish that we're going to be a real tough club to play in September," he said. "You don't do that by pulling playing time from guys that deserve to pitch and play. You give it to the guys that deserve to play."

The question raised by La Russa's statements is clear. Does Greene "deserve" to play shortstop over Furcal?

Since arriving in St. Louis, Furcal has been a breath of fresh air in the field after the club endured months of the stone-handed, weak-armed, and range-challenged Theriot. However, Furcal's production with the bat has been less revelatory even with a powerful performance that featured two leadoff homers in the Cards' sweep of the Brew Crew last week. 

Entering Sunday's game against the Reds, Furcal had hit .237/.289/.407 in a mere 129 PAs as a Cardinal. His .300 wOBA is certainly nothing to write home about but neither is his .223 BABIP as a member of St. Louis. Furcal's .169 ISO as a Cardinal certainly suggests that his back is not hampering his swing, at least in terms of generating power. (Furcal's .407 SLG with a mere .237 BA is higher than Skip Schumaker's .371 SLG which is backed by a .300 BA.) If healthy and with a bit of an evening out in his batted ball luck, Furcal could potentially offer the club a wOBA of about .350 with good defense next season. On the other hand, Furcal will be 34 in 2012 and has a worrisome injury history. 

There are legitimate questions regarding both Furcal and Greene. Only one is under club control in 2012, although Furcal signing on with the Cardinals for the 2012 season certainly appears a possibility. The Memphis Redbirds' season ends today which means Greene will likely be joining the club tomorrow. Over the remainder of the season, how the Cardinals handle playing time at shortstop will offer us some insight into how they may approach filling the position next season. Will September be an audition for Furcal, Greene, or both? It seems likely that the player the organization views as the most viable 2012 option will receive the majority of the playing time at shortstop in the season's final weeks.

**UPDATE**

In today's St. Louis Post-Dispatch, there is an article on the Cardinals' hopes to bringing Furcal back for next season and perhaps beyond. Here is the quote attributed to Mozeliak:

"When you look at our club since he came to our team, he's just really changed the look of it," Mozeliak said following Sunday's 3-2 loss to the Cincinnati Reds. "To try to find a way to get him back makes sense. But we have a lot of balls in the air. To try to balance it out financially and make it work is a challenge. But based on how he's played, and the type person he is and the energy's he brought to the club, there are a lot of positives."

If the club is truly interested in bringing back Furcal as Plan A, it would seem that they are no longer all that interested in seeing what Greene can do in the majors over the remainder of the season.

**2ND UPDATE**

Tony La Russa again spoke on the topic of Greene at his pre-game press avail today. Per Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatchhere is what the manager had to say:

The plan is still to get Greene an extended look as a starter.

La Russa said that will likely have to come at shortstop, at (curiously) likely at the expense of Rafael Furcal, who the club -- as reported in The Post-Dispatch this morning -- is trying re-sign for 2012.

Of Greene, La Russa explained: "He's never had a prolonged period (of playing time in the majors). He's had the kind of year in Triple-A that you have to give serious consideration. He wants to be an everyday player -- that's what he should be thinking about. ... He hasn't had the opportunity (here). What he's got to show is he gets the chance, he'll play shortstop here."

The question was asked whether Greene should be viewed as a possibility for everyday play at shortstop or -- as was one predicted for him -- at second base. La Russa implied that shortstop is the better bet because that's the position Greene has been "identified" for.

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