Chemistry, Grit and the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals

It appears the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals are set.  On paper, it appears the Cards are going to have some trouble on defense.  Most of talk radio is pointing to the fact that having a pitch to contact staff with the downgrades at defense is going to be an end to the team.  The trading of Brendan Ryan was really something I hoped wouldn’t happen, allowing us to keep him as a late inning defensive replacement.  But it’s apparent now he was a player that got under the skin of other players and coaches, and wasn’t good for team chemistry.  Reports are out that say he was constantly late to meetings, and the thing that strikes me the most is that there wasn’t then, or hasn’t been a teammate come to his defense in the press.  So, is team chemistry all that important, and will grit be enough to make up for defensive range of Theriot, Schumaker and Berkman? 

Before I get into this in detail, I want to touch on one thing I hope will happen.  I hope that before spring training starts, John Mozeliak sits down with Lance Berkman and asks him for a little favor.  I hope that favor is to spend extra time with Colby Rasmus.  I hope Lance can take Colby out to dinner, sit next to him on the bench, shag fly balls with him, and many more things.  I don’t think Colby is a problem child like many others do.  I do believe him when he says he feels out of place with certain teammates though.  I hope Berkman can help Colby in certain matters in that way.  Maybe Edmonds will come back for a bench role for pop off the bench to be able to help as well, but I doubt it. 

None of us really knows what goes on inside the Cards clubhouse, on the plane rides, in the hotel rooms, etc.  For whatever reason, Colby doesn’t feel like he fits in.  The problem with this is that the Cardinals need Colby.  They need his cost controlled body roaming center field, continuing to improve, and hopefully becoming the 5 tool player we all hoped he would be.  Their success in the next few years is going to be based a lot on Colby’s production.

Their success will also be based on Matt Holliday, Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter, Albert Pujols and the development of prospects.  But the fact is, there’s no way they can sign Albert Pujols to a long term contract and not have players like Colby putting up big numbers for fewer bucks.  So, I hope the team goes out of their way to make Colby feel more like a teammate.  I have a feeling that Tony LaRussa wants to get rid of Colby, and I have a feeling that Mozeliak made the compromise with TLR that he will shake things up at other positions, but Colby has to stay.  If you look around the league, you’d be hard pressed to find the output from another centerfielder that puts up the stats that Colby has with the money he makes.  I think we all see the potential for a lot more, and I project him to be more like Grady Sizemore from 2005-2008.  Right now, it looks as if Colby’s stats are looking a lot like Jay Bruce, and the Reds just gave him 6 years and $51 million.  Bruce doesn’t play CF, but offensively they are pretty similar.

So, let’s go back to team chemistry and grit.  As I said, we don’t know what goes on inside the Cards clubhouse, plane rides, hotel rooms, etc.  I think those things are probably pretty important.  The only thing I really know is what David Eckstein said once about how he had to stay in his hotel room as much as possible to keep on weight during the year so he didn’t get too weak.  A lot of comparisons have been made regarding Theriot and Eckstein, and their numbers are fairly similar.  The one thing I loved about Eck was his ability to get hit by a pitch throughout his career, usually placing in the top 10 in the league every year.  The man did everything he could to make up for his lack of skill.  He would work a count and really annoy the opposing pitcher.  He would dangle off first base in ways to distract the pitcher and catcher.  So, do those little things that don’t show up in the box score really mean that much?

In my opinion, they do.  I love sabermetrics and have done many articles about them, but also love and believe what I see during the games that can’t be measured as easily.  In that sense, I believe the Cards have built a strong team for 2011.  Injury may bite the Cardinals somewhere in the beginning of the season that derails 2011, but I like the direction the team is heading for this year.  I could complain like the rest of the folks about how a ground ball staff like ours is doomed based on Schumaker and Theriot being the SS and 2B regulars, but we all need to accept it and hope for the best. 

I may not agree with Tony LaRussa a lot of the time, but the fact is that the man knows baseball, knows his team, and knows what it takes to win it all.  I think you also have to factor in what the pitching staff thinks personally about the men playing behind them.  Will it be easier for Carpenter to shrug off a bad play made by Theriot because he knows of Theriot’s grit, for example?  Maybe Carpenter knowing that Theriot will make up for it with the bat will help.  I think it would be naïve to think that the incident in Cincinnati with Brendan Ryan and Carpenter was only about a glove.  It was probably the result of a lot of other things that had built up over time, and that just happened to be the boiling point.

The Cardinals are putting a lot of emphasis on team chemistry this offseason.  For all of the writers and talk shows that want to denounce it, that’s fine.  But we’ve seen it with the Cardinals over the years in many ways.  Every game I go to, a starting pitcher is throwing his side session and every other member of the starting staff is there watching, encouraging, and looking for anything that might help that teammate come game time for that pitcher.  Is that not grit?

Berkman and Theriot may be as bad defensively as advertised.  Schumaker may continue to struggle at 2B.  However, Theriot was the starting shortstop on 2 Cubs teams that won the NL Central.  Berkman’s best days may be behind him, but he wanted to be a Cardinal, and he wants to re-establish himself.  He is going to strike fear in opposing pitchers at the plate, and hopefully his offense will clearly outweigh the defensive problems he will have.  They both have something to prove, as does Schumaker.  That grit and determination must account for something, as well as team chemistry, or it wouldn’t be talked about by scouts.  Players like David Eckstein wouldn’t have ever made it to MLB.  I think the only way you can discount it is if the team stays healthy and doesn’t win the NL Central. 

There now appears to be an Evil Empire in the National League.  They are called the Philadelphia Phillies.  They may win it all again, and are certainly the favorites to win the NL.  Money can’t buy championships, but like the Yankees and Red Sox, it can almost guarantee that those teams will get to the playoffs most years.  If the Cardinals stay healthy, though, I like their chances.  If the Cardinals make it past the Phillies, it won’t be based on talent alone.  Grit and team chemistry will play a big part.

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