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Springtime Storylines: Can the Cardinals survive the loss of an ace?


Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: The National League’s winningest franchise.

The Big Question: Can the Cardinals survive the loss of an ace?

In reality, the biggest question facing the Cardinals in 2011 is whether they can keep baseball’s best hitter in St. Louis. But Albert Pujols has asked that contract extension talks be shelved until after the World Series and the front office is planning to comply, so it’s not something that should have any real bearing on the course of the regular season.

If anything, it’ll be a positive. Pujols clearly has an eye or two on a free agent contract and commanding something close to Alex Rodriguez’s 10-year, $275 million behemoth might require another year of Ruthian numbers. If his health complies — and there’s no reason to think it won’t — El Hombre will be on a mission.

While Pujols’ agent Dan Lozano continues to dream of more zeros, the Cardinals are left only with the strategy of focusing on having a successful 2011. They suffered the season’s first blow in February when ace Adam Wainwright tore a ligament in his elbow during a spring training bullpen session and was forced to undergo Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery. He won’t be healthy again until the summer of 2012 and right-hander Kyle McClellan has been plucked from the bullpen to act as the rotation’s savior. A 26-year-old north St. Louis County native, McClellan has a full arsenal of pitches and has performed well as a setup man but he’s made over 200 appearances in the big leagues and not one as a starter.

The question marks don’t start and end at Wainwright’s vacancy. Offseason addition Lance Berkman hasn’t roamed the outfield regularly since 2004 and the Cardinals are going to play him in a spacious right field. Fourth starter Kyle Lohse was dreadful last year and is signed through 2012 at over $10 million per season. Young center fielder Colby Rasmus, a potential star, has already requested two trades and his baseball-coaching father continues to take public jabs at the organization.

If St. Louis is going to weather the storm and return to the top of the National League Central, things that haven’t gone right in the past will need to reverse course. Somehow, someway, Rasmus and La Russa have to find a common ground so that the kid isn’t distracted and the All-Star potential can surface. You heard Pujols say last year that the Cardinals should “figure out a way” to get Rasmus “out of” St. Louis if he really wants out, but the Cards can’t really afford to do that. If they’re going to reach a long-term deal with Pujols in November, productive cost-controlled players like Rasmus are exactly what they’ll need to stay afloat in the standings while forking over $28-or-so million to one player annually.

Then there’s the Berkman thing. If he manages to defy the odds and remains athletic on those surgically repaired knees, the middle of the Cardinals’ batting order would have league-best potential with a 2-3-4-5 of Rasmus, Pujols, Matt Holliday and Berkman (in whatever order Tony La Russa’s sunglasses deem fit).

There’s firepower in that lineup and Chris Carpenter is still an ace. But can the Cards change their luck?

So what else is going on?

  • The 2010 hiring of admitted steroid user and current Cardinals hitting coach Mark McGwire is a mere blip on the radar as we prepare for Opening Day 2011. Why? Because he acknowledged publicly that he used performance-enhancers, then opened himself up to questions from reporters in away cities throughout the 2010 season. After a while, people just sort of got tired of the story. Big Mac may never climb his way into the Hall of Fame, but he has already made peace with the St. Louis fanbase and is already back in a somewhat high profile professional baseball gig. Barry Bonds could take a hint.
  • If the Cardinals are going to flourish in 2011, young left-hander Jaime Garcia will have to provide consistently good results just as he did last year as a rookie. The 24-year-old native of Mexico turned in a 2.70 ERA across 28 starts and nearly made it to 170 total innings before the Cardinals decided to shut him down. He had issues near the end of the season, he didn’t have a strong spring training, and his raw stuff isn’t necessarily overpowering, but there’s reason to believe that Garcia can be a steady and inexpensive No. 3 starter for St. Louis over the next several years. Now it’s proving time.
  • The Cardinals have always been kind of a weird and drama-filled team under La Russa — and that’s not to say that Tony hasn’t been successful, because he has — but this year looks likely to have more than your normal number of strange happenings. A benches-clearing, fist-flying, leg-sweeping brawl took place late last season between the eventual division champion Reds and the Cardinals, and a kick to the face from Cincy starter Johnny Cueto put an end to catcher Jason LaRue’s career. LaRue was well-liked in the St. Louis clubhouse and several Cardinals players have admitted this spring that there’s unfinished business between the two clubs. The Reds visit Busch Stadium for a weekend series on April 22-24.

So how are they gonna do?

Though the National League Central still lacks a true elite team, the division is much improved and the Cardinals will have to play at a level above present expectations for a run at the division title to become realistic. They’re a team capable of winning 90 games, but they’re also capable of completely falling flat without Wainwright’s guaranteed 200 innings of dominance. Our guess is the Cardinals will reach close to 85 wins and make a run at the wild card but ultimately miss another postseason.

Video: Jonathan Lucroy who? Roberto Perez homers twice in World Series opener for the Indians

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 25:  Roberto Perez #55 of the Cleveland Indians hits a three-run home run during the eighth inning against the Chicago Cubs in Game One of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field on October 25, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
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Back in July, then-Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy vetoed a trade that would have sent him to the Indians, helping the club make a significant upgrade behind the plate after losing Yan Gomes to an injury. At the time, Roberto Perez had only played in 11 games, batting .043. Gomes had hit .165 before his injury, and Chris Gimenez batted .202 over 42 games. It was not much of a logical leap to think the Indians would eventually falter due to a lack of production at the catching position.

But here the Indians are in the World Series facing the Cubs. In Game 1 on Tuesday night, Perez — who finished the season with a .183 average and three home runs in 184 plate appearances — drilled a pair of home runs, accounting for four of the six runs the Indians would score in a shutout win over the Cubs.

Perez’s first blast was a solo that that just cleared the left field fence at Progressive Field, coming on an 0-1 fastball from starter Jon Lester. That padded the Indians’ lead to 3-0.

The second homer put the game away, as he punished reliever Hector Rondon for hanging a 2-2 slider with two runners on base, slugging this one enough to clear the left field fence by plenty. That doubled the Indians’ lead to 6-0, the score by which they would eventually win.

Perez is the first catcher to homer twice in a World Series game since Gary Carter did it for the Mets against the Red Sox in the 1986 World Series. Perez is the first Indian to homer twice in the same playoff game since Jim Thome in the 1999 ALDS against the Red Sox.

Corey Kluber dazzles as Indians blank Cubs 6-0 in Game 1 of the World Series

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 25:  Corey Kluber #28 of the Cleveland Indians throws a pitch against the Chicago Cubs during the first inning in Game One of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field on October 25, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

From the moment Kris Bryant struck out looking for the second out of the first inning in Game 1 of the World Series, the Cubs knew Indians starter Corey Kluber brought his A-game and that they were in for a long night. Bryant was Kluber’s second strikeout victim in as many batters and he would go on to strike out eight batters through the first three innings, setting a World Series record.

The Indians, meanwhile, gave Kluber an early cushion, scoring twice in the bottom of the first inning. Francisco Lindor hit a two-out single, then stole second base against starter Jon Lester. Lester proceeded to walk Mike Napoli and Carlos Santana to load the bases. Jose Ramirez brought one run home with an infield single to the left of the pitcher’s mound. The lefty then hit Brandon Guyer with a pitch to force in another run, giving the Indians a 2-0 lead.

The Indians scored one more run in the fourth inning when catcher Roberto Perez snuck a solo home run over the fence in left field, victimizing Lester yet again.

The Cubs struggled to get any kind of momentum going, wasting a leadoff double by Ben Zobrist in the second inning and a two-out double by Kyle Schwarber in the fourth. Through six innings, Kluber yielded only three hits with zero walks and nine strikeouts. He took the mound to start the seventh but departed after Zobrist led off with a single to left field.

Reliever and ALCS MVP Andrew Miller entered the game, but the Cubs seemed to have a better time against him. Schwarber drew a walk and Javier Baez singled to left, loading the bases. At the very least, it seemed, Miller would give up at least one run, if not two. The average team scored two runs with the bases loaded and no outs, according to Baseball Prospectus. But Miller showed why he was named the MVP of the ALCS, getting Willson Contreras to fly out to shallow center. Schwarber thought the ball would drop, so he was way off the second base bag, but center fielder Rajai Davis didn’t notice and fired home to ensure a run didn’t score. Despite the mistake, Miller rebounded by striking out Addison Russell and David Ross to escape the inning with no damage done

Miller returned to the mound for the eighth inning for his second inning of work. After getting Dexter Fowler to fly out, he walked Bryant. Miller got Anthony Rizzo to fly out to shallow center, but Zobrist singled to center to put runners on first and third with two outs. On his 46th pitch of the night, Miller struck out Schwarber to escape the inning.

Perez decided to double the Indians’ lead to 6-0 in the bottom of the eighth. Cubs reliever Justin Grimm walked Guyer and allowed a single to Lonnie Chisenhall, forcing manager Joe Maddon to replace him with Hector Rondon. Rondon hung a 2-2 slider and Perez crushed it, this time clearing the fence by plenty for a three-run homer. He’s the first catcher with two homers in a World Series game since Gary Carter in 1986.

Closer Cody Allen, who thought he was going to be used in a save situation, took over in the top of the ninth. After striking out Baez, Contreras doubled to right field. Allen then struck out Russell as well as pinch-hitter Miguel Montero to end the game in a 6-0 victory for the Indians.

Game 2 of the World Series will start an hour earlier than usual on Wednesday due to forecasted inclement weather late at night. Jake Arrieta will make the start for the Cubs opposite the Indians’ Trevor Bauer.