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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.

With Adam Jones ailing, Orioles add Borbon to outfield

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - AUGUST 13: Adam Jones #10 of the Baltimore Orioles reacts after being hit in the hand by a pitch in the sixth against the San Francisco Giants inning during an interleague game at AT&T Park on August 13, 2016 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
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NEW YORK — With star outfielder Adam Jones nursing a tender hamstring, the Baltimore Orioles selected the contract of Julio Borbon from Double-A Bowie and optioned pitcher Mike Wright to Triple-A Norfolk.

Borbon was inserted in the starting lineup for Baltimore, batting ninth against hard-throwing New York Yankees rookie Chad Green.

“We had some other center field options,” manager Buck Showalter said. “Borbon is our best option at this point.”

Jones left Friday’s game in the second inning with a left hamstring strain. He departed the previous night’s game at Washington in the ninth inning with hamstring cramps and aggravated the injury hustling down the first base line on a soft grounder to third.

“I got a feeling that if he hadn’t had that first swinging bunt, it might not have been a problem,” Showalter indicated. “He’s not going to trot to first base as much as I talked to him about it before the game.”

Although Jones was unable to talk his way into Saturday’s lineup, Showalter speculated that he might be available to pinch-hit.

The 30-year old Borbon was 2 for 9 in five games with the Orioles earlier this season, but was designated for assignment on July 26. To create room for Borbon on the 40-man roster, pitcher Logan Ondrusek was designated for assignment on Friday.

No structural damage found in Andrew Benintendi’s knee

ST. PETERSBURG, FL - AUGUST 24:  Shortstop Matt Duffy #5 of the Tampa Bay Rays tags out Andrew Benintendi #40 of the Boston Red Sox after Dustin Pedroia grounded into the double play  during the seventh inning of a game on August 24, 2016 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
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Good news in Boston: An MRI on Red Sox outfielder Andrew Benintendi‘s left knee revealed no structural damage.

Benintendi slipped while trying to avoid a tag at second base, injuring his leg, but it appears he’s avoided a serious injury. A timetable for his return isn’t known at this point, but the Red Sox expect to get him back before the end of the season.

Benintendi is hitting .324/.365/.485 with a homer and ten RBI in 21 games.