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.

Cubs sign Brett Anderson to a $3.5 million deal

Brett Anderson
AP Photo/J Pat Carter
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Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports reports that the Cubs have signed pitcher Brett Anderson to a contract, pending a physical. Anderson, apparently, impressed the Cubs during a bullpen session held in Arizona recently. According to Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports, the deal is for $3.5 million, but incentives can bring the total value up to $10 million.

Anderson, 28, has only made a total of 53 starts and 12 relief appearances over the past five seasons due to a litany of injuries. This past season, he made just three starts and one relief appearance, yielding 15 runs on 25 hits and four walks with five strikeouts in 11 1/3 innings. The lefty dealt with back, wrist, and blister issues throughout the year.

When he’s healthy, Anderson is a solid arm to have at the back of a starting rotation or in the bullpen. The defending world champion Cubs aren’t risking much in bringing him on board.

Yordano Ventura’s remaining contract hinges on the results of his toxicology report

DETROIT, MI - SEPTEMBER 24: Yordano Ventura #30 of the Kansas City Royals pitches against the Detroit Tigers during the first inning at Comerica Park on September 24, 2016 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)
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Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports provides an interesting window into how teams handle a player’s contract after he has died in an accident. It was reported on Sunday that Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura died in a car accident in the Dominican Republic. He had three guaranteed years at a combined $19.25 million as well as two $12 million club options with a $1 million buyout each for the 2020-21 seasons.

What happens to that money? Well, that depends on the results of a toxicology report, Rosenthal explains. If it is revealed that Ventura was driving under the influence, payment to his estate can be nullified. The Royals may still choose to pay his estate some money as a gesture of good will, but they would be under no obligation to do so. However, if Ventura’s death was accidental and not caused by his driving under the influence, then his contract remains fully guaranteed and the Royals would have to pay it towards his estate. The Royals would be reimbursed by insurance for an as yet unknown portion of that contract.

The results of the toxicology report won’t be known for another three weeks, according to Royals GM Dayton Moore. Dominican Republic authorities said that there was no alcohol found at the scene.

Ventura’s situation is different than that of Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez, who died in a boating accident this past September. Fernandez was not under contract beyond 2016. He was also legally drunk and cocaine was found in his system after the accident. Still, it is unclear whether or not Fernandez was driving the boat. As a result, his estate will receive an accidental death payment of $1.05 million as well as $450,000 through the players’ standard benefits package, Rosenthal points out.