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.

Shelby Miller will undergo Tommy John surgery

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Last we heard from Shelby Miller, the Diamondbacks’ right-hander was contemplating Tommy John surgery for a partial UCL tear in his right elbow. Now, he appears to have decided to go through with the procedure.

Miller decided to skip Tommy John alternatives like plasma-rich platelet injections or stem cell treatment, which have been used to varying degrees of success by other major league pitchers with similar injuries. The surgery will set him back an estimated 12-18 months, FanRag Sports’ Tommy Stokke reports, which puts Miller’s estimated return date somewhere in 2018 if all goes well.

The 26-year-old starter was off to a rocky start this season, posting a 2-2 record and 4.09 ERA through 22 innings and striking out just 20 of 99 batters faced. This was his sophomore campaign in Arizona after muddling through the 2016 season with a 3-12 record, 6.15 ERA and 0.5 fWAR over 101 innings with the club.

Steven Souza Jr. exits game after injuring his hand on a hit by pitch

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Rays’ right fielder Steven Souza Jr. left Saturday’s game after getting hit on the left hand by a pitch from Blue Jays’ right-hander Joe Biagini in the seventh inning. The pitch appeared to hit the top of Souza Jr.’s hand, causing the outfielder to crumple at the plate and requiring assistance from assistant athletic trainer Paul Harker as he exited the field. Postgame reports from the Tampa Bay Times’ Marc Topkin revealed that Souza Jr. sustained a left hand contusion and is scheduled to undergo further evaluation on Sunday.

While the diagnosis isn’t as bad as it could be, it’s still a tough break for the right fielder, who missed 40 days of the 2015 season after sustaining a fracture in his left hand on another hit by pitch. The team has yet to announce any concrete timetable for Souza Jr.’s return, though manager Kevin Cash indicated that they’ll be taking things day to day for the time being.

Souza Jr. is batting .326/.398/.543 with four home runs and 17 RBI through 104 PA in 2017. He went 1-for-2 with a base hit and a walk prior to his departure during Saturday’s 4-1 loss.