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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.

David Robertson and adventures with the win statistic

CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 26:  David Robertson #30 of the Chicago White Sox pitches in the 9th inning for a save against the Toronto Blue Jays at U.S. Cellular Field on June 26, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. The White Sox defeated the Blue Jays 5-2.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
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David Robertson got the win in both White Sox victories today, a double-header versus the Tigers. In the first game, he got the final out of the eighth inning and pitched a scoreless ninth before the White Sox walked off on an Adam Eaton RBI single.

It was the second game that made things interesting. Robertson took the mound at the start of the ninth inning staked to a 4-1 lead. He’d fork up a leadoff home run to Nick Castellanos. Then, after getting two outs, served up another solo shot to Tyler Collins followed by a game-tying Jarrod Saltalamacchia dinger. Robertson would get out of the inning without any further damage.

In the bottom of the ninth, Melky Cabrera sent the White Sox home winners again, drilling a walk-off RBI single. That gave Robertson the win, his second of the afternoon. As Baseball Tonight notes on Twitter, Robertson is the first player in the last 100 years to give up three home runs in an inning or fewer and still wind up with the victory.

Robertson has had a rough go of it since the All-Star break. He yielded four runs in his first appearance back on July 18. On the season, he’s saved 23 games in 27 appearances with a 4.46 ERA and a 50/21 K/BB ratio in 40 2/3 innings.

Diamondbacks have told teams that Shelby Miller is available in a trade

PHOENIX, AZ - JULY 06:  Shelby Miller #26 of the Arizona Diamondbacks delivers a pitch during the first inning against the San Diego Padres at Chase Field on July 6, 2016 in Phoenix, Arizona.  (Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images)
Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images
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Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports reported on Sunday afternoon that the Diamondbacks have told other teams that starter Shelby Miller is available in a trade. Obviously, Miller’s stock has fallen steeply since the club acquired him from the Braves over the winter.

Miller, 25, was recently optioned to Triple-A Reno after his struggles continued following his return from the disabled list. Over 14 starts in the majors, Miller went 2-9 with a 7.14 ERA and a 50/34 K/BB ratio in 69 1/3 innings. In his only start with Reno thus far, Miller yielded three runs on four hits and two walks with 10 strikeouts over 6 2/3 innings.

In their trade with the Braves, the Diamondbacks acquired Miller and minor leaguer Gabe Speier in exchange for 2015 first overall pick Dansby Swanson, pitching prospect Aaron Blair, and outfielder Ender Inciarte. It’s a trade that, if they could undo it, the D-Backs would in a heartbeat.