If you think back on the Tony La Russa Era of Cardinals baseball (1996-2011), at least one player immediately should spring to mind at each position in the field. Every position, that is, except for one.
There’s Yadier Molina at catcher, Scott Rolen at third base, Edgar Renteria at shortstop (or maybe David Eckstein if you’re a connoisseur of scrappiness), Matt Holliday or Ray Lankford in left field and Jim Edmonds or Lankford in center. Right field has featured a high rate of turnover but plenty of stellar play, from the likes of J.D. Drew, Ryan Ludwick, Larry Walker and Lance Berkman. I don’t think I need or want to explain first base.
The position conspicuously absent from this list is second base. In the TLR era, the keystone was the kid picked last for kickball or eating lunch by himself in the corner. Always pretty much an afterthought. Not much stability or productivity to be found.
Since 1996, nine different players have led the Cardinals in starts at second base for a season. That’s four more than at catcher or first base, three more than at shortstop and tied with third base. Sure, there’s been some ugliness at third as well (see: The Thurston Debacle of ’09). But while St. Louis’ hot corner saw an MVP-caliber season and two more all-star-caliber seasons from Rolen as well as seasons of 3+ WAR from Placido Polanco, Troy Glaus and Fernando Tatis, second base has been shorter on quality.
Your starting second basemen of the TLR Era were: Luis Alicea, Delino DeShields (two seasons), Joe McEwing, Fernando Vina (three seasons), Bo Hart, Tony Womack, Mark Grudzielanek, Aaron Miles (three seasons) and Skip Schumaker (three seasons). Sixteen players appeared in at least 50 games at the position during that time.
It wouldn’t be accurate to suggest second base was always a black hole during that span. DeShields was really good in 1997 (3.9 WAR) and so were Grudzielanek in 2005 (3.6 WAR), Womack in 2004 (3.2 WAR) and Vina in 2000 (3.1 WAR). The point is there has been no continuity at a position once manned by the likes of Rogers Hornsby, Frankie Frisch, Red Schoendienst and even Tom Herr. Moreover, whatever success the team has found there has been fleeting, and since Grudzielanek left after the ’05 season, the Cards have been willing to turn the position over for three seasons apiece to a guy better suited to being a utility player (Miles) and a converted outfielder with shaky offensive skills (Schumaker).
So why has second base been the Island of Misfit Toys in St. Louis? I can’t answer that. I’ve always had an affection for my old Little League position, but I can’t deny it doesn’t have the identity of other spots on the infield. There are some great second basemen, but sometimes it can be a compromise for guys without the defense for shortstop or bat for third base, or in TLR’s case, for radical experiments in position changes.
This isn’t to say the Cardinals have definitely been wrong in how they have approached filling second base. They just won a World Series with Schumaker, Nick Punto, Ryan Theriot and Tyler Greene each playing at least 25 games at second. But forgive me if my inner Little Leaguer is pining for a long-term solution there anyways. Chase Utleys don’t grow on trees, and if they did, the Yankees would have those trees locked away in a high-tech, heavily-guarded secret underground bunker. But four or five years of solid production from the same player would be awfully nice.
So what are the chances this happens in the near future?
According to this Rick Hummel article, the team non-tendered Theriot, taking him out of the picture, while re-signing Schumaker for two years. However, it quotes GM John Mozeliak referring to Skip as a “super utility” player who will spend more time in the outfield. While the team appears to be working on bringing back Punto as well, all indications are Daniel Descalso will get a crack at starting in 2012, presumably with Greene taking some assignments against left-handed pitchers.
While I like Descalso and think his glove can make him a useful player, there’s no real reason to believe he’s going to hit enough to be the next very good Cards second baseman. His wOBA last season was a paltry .296, and the Bill James projections peg him at .300 for 2012. Even if you think that’s on the pessimistic side, it’s a long ways from the type of guy I’m looking for.
Zack Cox-to-2B pipe dreams aside, it seems clear that if anyone is going to break through at the position in the next five years, it’s going to be Kolten Wong. This year’s first-round pick out of Hawaii debuted at Low-A Quad Cities this summer and smacked around Midwest League pitching for a .335/.401/.510 line in 47 games as a 20-year-old.
Obviously 47 games in Low-A is light years from contributing at the major league level, but scouts seem pretty high on Wong and seem to believe he can move quickly through the system. Baseball America recently named him the organization’s fifth-best prospect (a much higher honor than it was only a few years ago), while Baseball Prospectus’ Jason Parks picked him as the best second base prospect in the minors. Of course, he also mentions that Wong could end up in left field.
If the Cardinals’ roster or Wong’s progression necessitate a switch to the outfield, I’ll understand but also be disappointed. Here’s to hoping that when we look back on the Mike Matheny Era, we don’t have to think too hard about who represents it at second base.