Adam Wainwright

Springtime Storylines: Will the St. Louis Cardinals survive the loss of three legends?

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: The New-Look Redbirds.

The Big Question: Will St. Louis be able to defend its World Series title this year in the absence of Pujols, La Russa and Duncan?

For the Cardinals, the 2011 season was a whirlwind. They were 10 1/2 games out of a playoff spot in late August, they had to get through the Phillies in the first round, they were supposed to be out-slugged by the National League Central champion Brewers in the second round, and they were down to their last strike twice in a wild World Series with the Rangers.

But the craziness didn’t stop when Allen Craig caught the final out in Game 7. A day after the Cardinals paraded the World Series trophy through the streets of downtown St. Louis, Tony La Russa announced that he was ending his 33-year managerial career. A month later, longtime first baseman and franchise icon Albert Pujols agreed to terms on a 10-year, $250 million free agent contract with the Angels. And just before the start of spring training, pitching coach and likely Hall of Famer Dave Duncan informed the Cardinals’ decision-makers that he was stepping away from the game for at least a year to be with his ailing wife.

Three giants of the industry, gone in one short winter. And yet the Redbirds seem unlikely to skip a beat.

The return of ace right-hander Adam Wainwright, who missed the entire 2011 season following Tommy John surgery, should help ease some of the pain brought on by Pujols’ departure. Wainwright was worth a whopping 6.1 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) in 2010 according to FanGraphs. Pujols was worth 5.1 fWAR in 2011.

The arrival of Carlos Beltran will also be big. He’s a full two years removed from microfracture knee surgery and has been improving offensively the further away he gets from that procedure. In the second half last season, the 34-year-old outfielder batted .325/.398/.562 with nine home runs and 26 RBI in 53 games.

The Cards were dealt a tough hand this winter, but they were able to come up with — or happen into — high quality solutions. And they should be right near the top of the National League Central standings as usual.

What Else Is Going On?

  • Replacing La Russa will be Mike Matheny, a former catcher for the Brewers, Blue Jays, Cardinals and Giants. There’s no way to know how he’ll operate as an in-game strategist because he enters the job with zero managerial experience. But his opened-mindedness to new ideas is, in a word, refreshing. “I know Bill James,” Matheny told reporters at December’s Winter Meetings. “I’ve done my share of research and realize that there is an advantage to it. … I’m willing to do anything if it gives us a better chance to win. I’ll take whatever information I get. That’s really the long and short of it; it’s really no more complex than that. If something becomes available to me that gives us a competitive edge, I’ll be all over it.”
  • The Cardinals signed catcher Yadier Molina to a five-year, $75 million contract extension this spring. It might seem like an extreme overpay for a guy with a .274/.331/.377 career batting line. But Molina is the best defensive catcher in baseball and his ability to prevent runs — both by controlling the running game with lightning-quick throws and by blocking pitches with unteachable instincts — makes him more valuable than most publicly available metrics would suggest. The 29-year-old Puerto Rican is also coming around offensively, having batted .305 with an .814 OPS, 14 home runs and 65 RBI in 139 games last year.
  • Under former general manager Walt Jocketty, the St. Louis farm system was used mostly to fund trades and rarely produced elite-level prospects. But that has all changed with the arrival of John Mozeliak, who has introduced a better-streamlined organizational philosophy and put more emphasis on the amateur draft and international free agent market. The Cardinals are suddenly stacked in the minors, with top prospects like right-handers Shelby Miller and Carlos Martinez, second baseman Kolten Wong, outfielder Oscar Taveras and first baseman Matt Adams inching closer and closer to the major leagues. There’s nothing better than cost-controlled talent, and St. Louis should soon have it in abundance.

How Are They Gonna Do?

If Rafael Furcal, David Freese, Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman can stay relatively healthy, the offense could be as good as any in the National League. And if left-hander Jaime Garcia continues to develop, right-hander Kyle Lohse remains a steady mid-rotation presence and veteran sinkerballer Jake Westbrook bounces back from an ugly 2011, the Cardinals should be able to breeze through two months sans Chris Carpenter. St. Louis will finish first in the National League Central, just inching out the Reds and Brewers.

Reid Brignac is trying to become a switch hitter

LAKE BUENA VISTA, FL - FEBRUARY 26:  Reid Brignac #4 of the Atlanta Braves poses on photo day at Champion Stadium on February 26, 2016 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images
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Veteran utilityman Reid Brignac is in camp with the Astros on a minor league deal. The 31-year-old is close to being done as a major leaguer as he owns a career .219/.264/.309 triple-slash line across parts of nine seasons. In an effort to prolong his big league career, Brignac is now attempting to become a switch-hitter, MLB.com’s Brian McTaggart reports.

I’m going to try it out this year. It was something that I just thought long and hard about and I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to try and see how it goes.’ I used to switch-hit when I was younger off and on, nothing consistent. I could always handle the bat right-handed. I play golf right-handed, so I do a lot of things that way that feel natural.

I just want to get to the point where I’m trying to stay in games, not get pinch-hit for, not starting games because a lefty is starting. … That could help me stay in the games longer. I’m trying to add a new element. I play multiple positions and now if I can switch hit and be consistent at it, then that can only help me.

As Brignac mentions, he’s also verstile. He’s a shortstop by trade, but has also logged plenty of innings at second base and third base, and has occasionally played corner outfield.

There aren’t any examples — at least that I can think of — where players began switch-hitting late in their careers and actually succeeding in the major leagues. As the saying goes, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. But here’s hoping Brignac bucks the trend.

Video: Andrelton Simmons makes a heads-up play to catch Carlos Asuaje off first base

ANAHEIM, CA - AUGUST 03:  Andrelton Simmons #2 of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim returns to the dugout after scoring in the second inning against the Oakland Athletics at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on August 3, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images
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Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons fell off the map a bit last year due to a combination of the Angels’ mediocrity, Simmons’ lack of offense, and a month-plus of missed action due to a torn ligament in his left thumb.

Simmons is still as good and as smart as ever on defense. That was on full display Monday when the Angels hosted the Padres for an afternoon spring exhibition.

With a runner on first base and nobody out in the top of the second inning, Carlos Asuaje grounded a 2-0 J.C. Ramirez fastball to right field. The runner, Hunter Renfroe, advanced to third base. Meanwhile, Asuaje wandered a little too far off the first base bag. Simmons cut off the throw to first base, spun around and fired to Luis Valbuena at first base. Valbuena swiped the tag on Asuaje for the first out of the inning.