Looking back at 2010 should give Cardinal Nation a bit of hope for the future. After all, this team was a full game ahead of the Reds on August 12th and fresh off of a 3 game sweep at Cincinnati. A snapshot of 08/12/10 shows that the Cardinals were 64-49 and two games ahead of Cincy (64-51) in the loss column. By August 31st, the Cardinals were 7 games back and pretty much out of the race.
However, the Cardinals are basically returning the team core responsible for that 64-49 start (minus Brad Penny and Ryan Ludwick). They had 2 regulars, Skip and Brendo, who played well below expectations, and a patchwork third base effort after the David Freeseinjury. Just consider for a moment that Freese was batting .296 with 36 rbi, 4 hr, and 12 doubles in 240 at-bats when he went down. His primary replacements, Lopez and Feliz, weren’t quite up to the task of filling the void. Useless tidbit - Feliz hit .221 with Houston and .208 in St. Louis.
As I mentioned in a previous post, the Cardinals go into this off-season with a lot of money already committed to the payroll for 2011, $79.825M or thereabouts for 9 players. Since significant contributors like Rasmus, Motte, Freese, Garcia, and Boggs aren’t yet eligible for free agency, the team should be able to bring them all back on the cheap and stay well under the $90M mark. The wild cards impacting that number could be guys like Reyes, McClellan, and Ryan. I would’ve put the odds of Reyes returning at 20:1 at the end of 2010, but he’s actually starting to look like a bargain at $2M the way the free agent market for LHP relievers is setting up. Scary thought.
This offseason promises to be interesting for hot stove watchers. I still think that 2 years / $15M is a reasonable offer for Westbrook, but the Dodgers did just hand Ted Lilly (age 34) a 3 year / $33M contract with a $3.5M signing bonus and full no-trade rights in 2011 and 2012. Lilly went 10-12 with a 3.62 era while splitting time between the Cubs and Dodgers. Westbrook (age 33) went 4-4 with a 3.48 era during his time with the Cardinals, and it’s likely that his agent will emphasize his NL results over his AL time. With guys like Jon Garland and Hiroki Kuroda out there, Westbrook may have his eyes on $10M+ per year for 2 or even 3 years. Honestly, I just hope that the Cardinals don’t give it to him. To be fair though, I hope they don’t hand that kind of contract to someone like Kuroda, either. Kuroda is already 35, arbitration eligible, and he made $15,433,333 in 2010. Next contestant, please.
Maybe this team does need a lot of upgrades, but I’m not convinced. Mo went on record as saying that he’d like to upgrade the middle infield. Maybe he does, or maybe he just wants to light a fire under Skip and Brendan. Maybe he was just hedging in case an upgrade just happened to fall into his lap at the right price. Who knows? Just keep in mind that these two were the primary middle infielders on a team that won 91 games in 2009, and the 2011 version could certainly be more talented than that team. An “upgrade” could simply be a combined .270 average from Skip and Brendan coupled with a reduction in errors. That’s not too far fetched. Sometimes the best trades are the ones that aren’t made, so I hope Cardinals fans won’t be too disappointed, if the team doesn’t go out and overpay for a big name in free agency. After all, the team has to save money for a very big name that it wants to keep off that free agent list at some point.
If this team simply takes care of business and makes some slight adjustments, it’s got an awful lot of talent and competes in a relatively weak division. I’m a believer in Allen Craig as a potential bench player who could spell Jon Jay, Albert Pujols, and David Freese on a regular basis. That should get him enough at-bats to stay in rhythm and provide some insurance at some key positions. He only had 114 at-bats in the majors last year, but his 4 home runs and 7 doubles are enough to convince me that he can produce runs from the bottom half of the lineup and is a nice compliment to Yadi around the 6-7 spot. The Cardinals lacked power off the bench last year, and he’s one potential answer and an inexpensive one at that. If they can add a backup catcher with some pop, that would certainly help as well in late innings. While they’re at it, go ahead and bring back Aaron Miles so he can try to get his first big league strikeout in a Cardinals uniform as well.
I’m projecting the Cardinals as a team with a max win ceiling of around 95 games. There is no reason to think that they’ll repeat their dismal 5-10 record against Houston or the 6-9 record against Chicago. Ladies and Gentlemen, your 2011 NL Central Division Winner (I hope).