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

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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.

Free agent reliever Eric O’Flaherty weighing interest from four teams

New York Mets pitcher Eric O'Flaherty throws against the Miami Marlins during the ninth inning of a baseball game in Miami, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2015. The Mets defeated the Miami Marlins 8-6. (AP Photo/Joe Skipper)
AP Photo/Joe Skipper
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Veteran reliever Eric O'Flaherty is coming off the worst season of his career, but there’s still plenty of interest in a bounceback, as ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick reports that he’s deciding between four teams and “should sign a deal by the weekend.”

You really can’t sugarcoat O’Flaherty’s 2015. The 31-year-old was flat-out bad, posting an 8.41 ERA and 21/18 K/BB ratio over 30 innings of work between the Athletics and Mets. Opposing batters hit .343/.427/.482 against him. I keep going back to check if that’s a misprint, but nope, it’s real. He also missed some time with shoulder inflammation. On the bright side, Tim Brown of Yahoo Sports reported last month that O’Flaherty feels healthy and believes that he has fixed his mechanics.

O’Flaherty’s career has veered off track since Tommy John surgery in 2013, but he has enjoyed plenty of success in the past and throws from the left side. He’s the kind of guy who will continue to get chances.

Mets sign outfielder Roger Bernadina

Cincinnati Reds v Arizona Diamondbacks
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Veteran outfielder Roger Bernadina has agreed to a minor-league contract with the Mets that includes an invitation to spring training.

Bernadina was a semi-regular for the Nationals from 2010-2012, but never developed as much as hoped offensively and didn’t play in the majors at all last season.

At age 32 he’s a career .236 hitter with a .661 OPS in 548 games as a big leaguer and given the Mets’ outfield depth–they already have Alejandro De Aza and Juan Lagares in bench/part-time roles–Bernadina seems likely to begin the season in the minors.

J.R. Graham is in The Best Shape of his Life

Minnesota Twins starting pitcher J.R. Graham celebrates after the final out as the Twins beat the Chicago White Sox 12-2 in  a baseball game, Thursday, April 30, 2015, in Minneapolis. The Twins won 12-2. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)
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Rhett Bollinger of MLB.com reports that Twins reliever J.R. Graham has lost “roughly 30-40 pounds this offseason.” It’s not a result of workouts, though. Just a change in diet. Bollinger says that Graham cut out sugar, alcohol and foods heavy in carbs and focused on a high-protein diet with lots of salads, meats and vegetables.

That’s an awful lot of weight to lose in four months, but the dude is only 26 and guys in their 20s lose weight just by thinking about it. Which is so very annoying to those of us who aren’t guys in their 20s.

The real test, of course, will come when he is working out far more strenuously once spring training starts and gets into the season. Normal schmos like me can keep up that kind of diet without much of a hitch as long as we have the willpower. An athlete’s energy requirements are far greater and far more specialized, so he’ll need more fuel than he’s probably been getting this offseason. Word is, however, that professional sports teams have people on staff that, you know, have made monitoring that kind of thing their life’s work.

In the meantime:

“I can just feel the change,” Graham said. “The energy. Everything. I feel great. I’m excited to see how it’ll translate into spring. I know I shouldn’t have any problems because I’m stronger than I’ve ever been. I’m faster. All that. So it’s really exciting.”

It’s very exciting indeed. Because, with that, Graham becomes the latest baseball player to be . . . In The Best Shape of His Life.

The time my family invited itself to Gaylord Perry’s house for lunch

Gaylord Perry
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I mentioned my Gaylord Perry story in the last post. I feel like I’ve written this up before, but I couldn’t find it in our archives. Couldn’t find it anywhere. Maybe I’ve just told it to friends and radio hosts and people so many times that it feels like I’ve written it before. Oh well, I’ll tell it again because I like telling this story.

In 1984 I was on vacation with my family in the big RV, driving through North Carolina. As we always did on those long family road trips, my brother and I spent all of our highway time sorting through boxes of baseball cards we brought along with us. As we passed through a little podunk town, my dad suddenly pulled over and stopped to make a call at a pay phone. He got back into the RV and said “we’re stopping for lunch.” As we pulled away from the phone booth, I saw a sign that said “Welcome to Williamston, North Carolina, Home of Gaylord and Jim Perry.” Maybe Jim got first billing since he’s older. I don’t remember. But that was the upshot.

Five minutes later we are pulling up to a house next to a large farm. A woman came out of the house and said, “You’re the fella who just called? Come on in!” She welcomed us inside. “Gaylord will be here in a minute,” she said. My brother and I freaked out as we looked around the living room. There were photos of Gaylord Perry in action. Trophies and awards. Jerseys in frames. All kinds of other stuff. The thing I remember most was a giant leather chair shaped like a baseball glove that, to this day, I wish I had (maybe the 1984 version of this?). Five minutes later Gaylord freaking Perry walked in. He was wearing dirty jeans, work boots, a dirty white t-shirt and a Kansas City Royals cap. It was his first summer not playing baseball since he was a kid and he was spending it farming. Still had the cap on, though.

Gaylord and his wife, Blanche, were warm and welcoming. They said that not too many baseball fans just up and stopped by, but that they were happy someone did. Blanche made us sandwiches. Gaylord signed autographs (we had a few Perry cards in the RV stash). Even at that age I knew Perry’s reputation as a ball-doctorer. He told us a bunch of spitball jokes and stories which he had no doubt honed on the banquet circuit over the years, but they were mostly new to me. My parents, who were not baseball fans and didn’t know much about Perry apart from the fact that he was a famous baseball player, were delighted when Perry asked me to explain to them what I thought a spitball was. You could tell Perry thought that it was absolutely adorable that I thought the best way to doctor a ball was to, you know, spit on it. He talked about Vaseline and all sorts of other stuff, adding “or so I’m told” or “some people say” every now and again with a wink.

After lunch, Gaylord took us back to his office, in a separate building. He opened a file cabinet containing autographed baseballs from his former teammates and his friends in the game. I got a George Brett ball, which Perry said he gave me because Brett was the best player whose autograph he had sitting around handy. My brother said he was a Tigers fan so Perry gave him a Lance Parrish ball Perry had gotten somewhere along the way. He had a bunch of others too, but we weren’t greedy. He gave my mom a T-shirt he had which commemorated the Pine Tar Incident, in which he played no small part. He autographed the shirt for her, apologized for it being so big and said that maybe she could use it as a night shirt. My dad took Polaroids of my brother and me with Perry which I still have around here someplace. Then off we went, with Gaylord and Blanche Perry waving from the porch.

I was saddened to hear a couple years later that Perry’s life took an unfortunate turn not long after we met him. Two years later he lost his farm to bankruptcy. A year later Blanche died in an automobile accident. Perry went on to coach college baseball for a while. I remember seeing an interview with him around that time and he seemed like a much sadder guy than the smiling fellow we met that day in 1984. It makes sense given all that had happened.

In 2012, while in Scottsdale to cover spring training, I walked into the Giants clubhouse one morning and sitting at a table were Willie Mays, Ernie Banks and Gaylord Perry. They were there for some sort of pregame ceremony and were just shooting the breeze and telling old baseball stories. Perry was laughing and animated and at times was practically breathless due to all of the cackling. He had Mays in stitches too. It was fantastic to see him smiling.

When the conversation ended Perry got up and walked from the table. I thought about saying something to him about the time in 1984 when my dad impulsively took his kids to Gaylord Perry’s house and to thank him for the kindness he and his wife showed my family that day. I didn’t, though. He was soon in another conversation and, on some level, it seemed awkward for me to have brought that up there, in the clubhouse, wearing a press credential when people were working and preparing and things. In hindsight I wish I had.

I’m going back to Scottsdale to cover spring training again in March. I hope he’s there again. If so, this time I will.