Some quick thoughts on the St. Louis Cardinals after their sudden and shocking demise in the National League Championship Series against the San Francisco Giants:
* It really wasn’t that shocking. The Cardinals have been wildly inconsistent all season, especially on offense. The big bats in the St.
Louis lineup aren’t always big. Left fielder Matt Holliday had a two-month hot streak, but was nothing close to dangerous for much of the season. Carlos Beltran cooled down in the second half. David Freese was up and down. The only consistent hitters for the Cardinals were catcher Yadier Molina and first baseman Allen Craig, both of whom struggled for much of the NLCS.
* The starting pitching failed, too. Obviously, Chris Carpenter wasn’t ready to assume such a big role in the rotation after missing all but a small portion of the regular season with a shoulder and neck injury. Lance Lynn wore down in the second half. Kyle Lohse just had an off night in Game 7 on Monday night and Adam Wainwright wasn’t fully recovered from Tommy John surgery in the spring of 2011.
* Now what? The Cardinals have to beef up their rotation, especially since it looks like Lohse, their ace, will be leaving town as a free agent. I think Lynn is best suited for the bullpen. The Cardinals had three exciting young pitchers up at the end of the season and into the playoffs: Trevor Rosenthal, Shelby Miller and Joe Kelly. Miller should get every chance to earn a spot in the rotation in 2013. And if I were Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, I would be torn about the best roles for Rosenthal and Kelly. Those are two power arms who can provide shutdown help in the bullpen. But Rosenthal will be a starter at some point and his stuff, beyond his occasionally 100 mph fastball, is suited for a starting role. I don’t think the Cardinals can count on left-hander Jaime Garcia in 2013, and who knows how effective veteran right-hander Jake Westbrook will be after missing the final month-plus with an oblique strain. Pitching is a big key. I expect St. Louis to resign Adam Wainwright, who can become a free agent at the end of the 2013 season. Carpenter, hopefully, is good to go. Westbrook has a spot and so might Garcia, if he’s healthy. One or two spots, though, could be open.
* With Edward Mujica, Mitchell Boggs and Jason Motte, the back end of the Cardinals bullpen is well stocked. The Cardinals need to add a left-hander to the bullpen mix who isn’t named Mark Rzepczynski, who took a big step back in 2012. I like young Sam Freeman, who pitched at Kansas, but I’m not sure he can be the main southpaw out of the pen. I think Fernando Salas can bounce back and have a productive season and I’m not giving up on Eduardo Sanchez, who was so dynamic for a portion of the 2011 season. And don’t count out Jordan Swagerty, who missed the season with Tommy John surgery. He should be in the mix somewhere, either at Triple-A or with an outside chance of getting into the St. Louis bullpen. And which of the young power arms goes to the pen? I like Lynn and Kelly as relievers.
* Middle infield is a problem. Pete Kozma isn’t ready to be an every-day shortstop. He might be a utility guy, but I’m still not convinced he’s good enough either offensively or defensively to be on a major league roster for a full season. Daniel Descalso just doesn’t hit enough to play second base every day. Kolten Wong is proceeding through the minors and is destined to arrive at second base soon, maybe even in 2013. But the Cardinals can’t bank on that. Rafael Furcal missed the final five weeks with an injured elbow and at his advanced age there are no guarantees he’ll be back. Middle infield is a need area and the Cardinals have to jockey some to fill this need. A trade from the surplus of young, starting pitching could be made to help beef up the infield.
* Freese and Craig look good to go at third and first, respectively. However, I would not be shocked to see one of these guys traded. Matt Carpenter looks like a plus-hitter and he could step in to play either position. Young slugger Matt Adams looks like a future star at first base. Again, I think Craig, as good as he is, could be on the trading block this winter. He would be viewed as a valued bat by a lot of other organizations.
* Molina is the catcher, signed to a long-term deal. He is one of the best players in the game and isn’t going anywhere.
* When will outfield prospect Oscar Taveras get the call to St. Louis? Holliday is a fixture in left with several years left on his contract. Jon Jay is prone to slumps, one of which he went through in the NLCS. But he’s an outstanding defensive center fielder and the Cardinals don’t really have anyone waiting in the wings. Taveras, considered perhaps the best hitting prospect in the minor leagues, played some center field for Springfield in the Texas League this season, but he projects as a right fielder. Beltran is signed for one more season and his gimpy knees make him iffy. I could see Taveras getting a call to the Cardinals in the spring of 2013 and staying in St. Louis for the next 15 years. Maybe. You never know.
* I don’t think the Cardinals will try to solve issues through free agency, but I could see a couple of trades to help in the middle infield and the bullpen. And I look for some changes to the coaching staff for Mike Matheny’s second year as manager. I hope the Cardinals hang on to hitting coach Mark McGwire, but I think he’s one who could go. And it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Cardinals replace Derek Lilliquist with a more-experienced pitching coach, either.
* Thanks for reading and indulging me about the Cardinals. I’m already looking forward to the Hot Stove League and spring training.