Looking ahead to spring training and looming questions for the Cardinals in 2011

As we get hammered with ice and snow, all I can seem to think about is that in 27 days, the Cardinals will be playing their first spring training game for 2011.  I’ll be in Jupiter at the end of March, and I look forward to meeting the few of you that I’ve spoken with that are going.   There have been a lot of little things talked about in the last few days, depending on how you rate the news that Albert Pujols will veto any trade to any team.  I didn’t find that to be a surprise, and I still don’t think the Cardinals and Pujols will reach a deal before his deadline of February 19th.  I think the negotiations may be getting a little ugly, but that’s just my personal opinion.

So I just wanted to go over a few things that are lingering out there on chat rooms and in the media.  One, I think the Cardinals are going to play this year without worrying about the Pujols contract.  On paper, the Cardinals have a team that could go all the way.  If the Cardinals win the World Series this year, I think it takes some of the pressure off of them having to sign Albert after the season.  It buys the team a couple of years to come up with a good mix and a more balanced team without Pujols.  It allows the Cardinals to retain Chris Carpenter, and it doesn’t put the worry out there about the future of other players, most notably Colby Rasmus and Adam Wainwright.  It allows the Cardinals to make additions on the fly, and allows them the flexibility over the next 7-8 years that they won’t have if the re-sign Albert.

It allows the Cardinals to see if Lance Berkman has a few more years left in him, where they can possibly move him to first base for 2012 and possibly 2013, and look for a stud for right field.  Not signing Pujols now also lets the Cardinals evaluate David Freese, and see if they need to spend money at 3B as well. It also allows the organization another year to look at players like Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller, Zack Cox, Matt Carpenter and others in the minors, giving them more time to project how fast some will contribute to the big club.  Do the few words that Dave Duncan spoke to Adam Ottavino last year in a phone call continue to help him progress?  I think there are a lot of benefits to not re-signing Pujols, seeing what happens with some of the other players on the team, and gives a better overall view of what the future may hold.  Building an offense around Matt Holliday, Rasmus, and another premier hitter and filling the gaps until the next superstar comes along while keeping a dominant pitching staff is the way to go in my opinion.  I just don’t want the Cardinals to pay for past production.

Aside from Pujols, there are a few other things out there that seem to have some fans worried.  One is Ryan Franklin, and his lack of being a closer that overwhelms opponents with strikeouts.  It worries me as well, but I’ll be more concerned about it when we get in the playoffs than in the regular season.  Some of the worry has gone away because of the potential of the offense.  It appears the Cardinals will have the ability to come back more often this year, and if healthy, opposing teams shouldn’t have too many innings where they have an easy 1-2-3 inning against us.  Another thing is the maturity of Mitchell Boggs, Jason Motte and Kyle McClellan, especially considering the rotation the Cards have.  Again, health will be the biggest concern for the Cardinals in 2011, but if Wainwright, Carpenter, Jake Westbrook, Jaime Garcia and Kyle Lohse all stay healthy and pitch to their potential, the power arms in the bullpen should be well rested as the starters pitch deep into most games.  Josh Gilliam from Pitchers Hit Eighth likes McClellan as the successor to Franklin.  I’m not sure who it will be, but I like some of the internal options.

A lot of worry in Cardinal Nation right now is about the defense.  I think a lot of it comes down to whether or not you believe in mental toughness, the scrappy little white guy, team chemistry, UZR, and defensive lapses being carried over from rough offensive stretches, and vice versa.  We’ll never really know how much David Eckstein was protected at shortstop from Scott Rolen on defense.  I think it helped quite a bit more than most people do.  While not a complete Eckstein clone, the question is will Ryan Theriot be able to produce offensive numbers similar to 2008?  If so, then I think his mistakes in the field will be less troubling.  Can Skip Schumaker play on offense and defense like its 2009?  Both Schumaker and Theriot will be in the spotlight, as the Cardinal pitchers produced more than 100 ground balls than the next closest team in 2010, and Dave Duncan isn’t going to change his philosophy anytime in the near future.  So, do we believe in these guys or don’t we?  Do we now have enough offense to not worry about it so much?

The other main topic seems to be who will be the Cardinals main competition in the NL Central.  I’m sold on the Brewers, as I think they have the most balanced team on paper next to the Cards.  While I don’t think the Reds were a one year wonder, I think they had a lot of things go right in 2010 and look for them to finish 3rd.  I like the Cubs to finish 4th, but I expect the race to be a close one 1-4.  There also seems to be a few experts out here who say that Houston could be a part of the race, but I’m not one of them.

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