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St. Louis Cardinals Preview 2010: May in April

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[Today's thread-with-comments is located directly below this one.] 

Last April the Cardinals' third base problem was that their various minor league suspects were outhitting David Freese, the ideal-world starter, who by the middle of the month had been optioned to Memphis, a month before his eventual ankle surgery. By that May their problem was that the various minor league suspects had all begun to play like themselves again. In April it can be fun to watch Joe Thurston slap doubles all over the place; May is a slightly ruder month, one where everyone realizes at once that a platoon of two minor league middle infielders at third base is finally untenable. 

Joe Thurston hit .204/.338/.403 that much—just as unrepeatable as his first month, but productive enough that the Cardinals waited a while longer to fix the problem. But Brian Barden, an April mainstay, played in 24 May games and hit just .132/.193/.226, and that was it; he appeared in seven games the rest of the year. The Cardinals hadn't managed to solve their third base problem yet, but the pieces that were not working after two months found themselves not working. Colby Rasmus, after Ankiel's May 4 collision, showed off his range in center field and found himself there permanently by Ankiel's May 24 return. 

In 2010 the Cardinals' most pressing May problems seem to lurk in the bullpen—although before (and, unfortunately, after) Ryan Franklin' s unhittable summer the same could have been said of the 2009 club. The pitcher who's actually closing the games isn't the biggest worry for those of us who are neither in roto leagues nor regular Post-Dispatch commenters, but Franklin's hold on the closing role itself isn't a bad way of looking at the kind of problems the 2010 Cardinals might be in, come May. 

He could suck and be replaced, although I can't imagine La Russa reaching for the hook that soon. If it actually does happen by the end of May, it's good news, as far as having a terrible closer goes; I can't see it happening without some other reliever emerging, as Kyle McClellan did in 2008, as the only pitcher Tony La Russa ever trusts in high leverage situations. The Cardinals have plenty of guys who might be good—though given Boggs's control problems and McClellan's odd status as near-miss fifth starter Jason Motte seems like the only one who could unseat Franklin mid-season—and if Franklin both sucks and finds himself demoted the good news is that one of those guys has actually been good. 

He could suck and not be replaced, and as Jason Isringhausen proved on two separate occasions this doesn't necessarily mean that the Cardinals are without other options. But a bad bullpen that doesn't have a single pitcher who can be counted upon to pitch whole innings is one of the most plausible nightmare scenarios of 2010. It doesn't sink the team, but it makes them considerably less fun to watch—and overflow threads considerably more likely to lead to what scientists call testicle explosion. 

It may have been unfair for me to put those two scenarios first, because there exists an alternate universe in which he could even not suck at all! As bad as he's been for two second halves out of three, 2009 was the third consecutive year in which Franklin's been a very useful relief pitcher, and since his stuff hasn't ever been very good there's no reason to think 2010 is the end of the line. If Franklin is an above-average relief pitcher all year he won't be replaced, and if he isn't having any problems that's one bullpen suspect fewer who needn't have a surprisingly excellent year to keep eighth inning overflow threads below 1000 comments. 

Among position players the Cardinals will have the post-Lugo bench to deal with, in grand Barden-Thurston fashion. Mather will have to struggle as he did in 2009 or lose La Russa's confidence in his ability to play center field to end up in Memphis, but at some point—it could come faster if Brendan Ryan has a slow start with the bat, but I can't see it taking much longer than two months—the team will have to find some way to rationalize with the fact that Nick Stavinoha and Allen Craig do the same job. Sample sizes are so small for the backup left fielder/pinch hitter role, especially split into two players, that it's impossible to tell who'll end up with the job, but I'm sure the answer's not both of them. 

By the end of the May we will probably have an idea of how good this 2010 team really is, which is not to say that we'll have a good idea about it; after May the 2006 Cardinals were 32-18.