What a difference a year makes.
Coming into the 2009 season, expectations for the St. Louis Cardinals were relatively low with all eyes on the defending National Central Division champion Chicago Cubs, installed as prohibitive favorites to repeat. The underdog Cardinals ended up taking the division while the Cubs stayed home in October.
In 2010, the Cardinals followed
the Cubs' unfortunate pattern from the year prior.
The club had a lukewarm spring, 15-14 (.517), with the biggest surprise being left-hander Jaime Garcia seizing the final spot in the rotation. Once again, Kyle McClellan lost out in the starting competition despite also pitching well.
In what was clearly a red flag in hindsight, three right-handed hitting reserve outfielders with no to limited MLB experience all made the team out of camp – Allen Craig, Joe Mather and Nick Stavinoha. None would stick the entire season.
The Cardinals settled into a regular pattern of winning games and series, taking their first three sets of the year before dropping a 20-inning marathon to the Mets which led to an elbow injury to emergency pitcher Felipe Lopez.
The highlight of the month was a four-game home sweep over the Atlanta Braves. The club ended April at 15-8, one game worse than the year before, but most importantly with a three-game lead in the standings.
Among the fast starters was catcher Yadier Molina. His 15 April RBI was the second-highest total by a Cardinals catcher in the last half-century.
It was a month of highs and lows.
Rookie third baseman David Freese was named the NL Player of the Week on the 2nd. At that point, the 27-year-old was leading all NL rookies with a .355 average and was second in RBI with 16.
On May 3rd and
4th, the Cardinals extended their NL Central lead to what would be a
season-best five games, then lost three straight in Philadelphia. Returning home
the next week, they were swept by
Physical problems began to take their toll. On consecutive days, the 22nd and 23rd, starters Brad Penny and Kyle Lohse went down with injuries that would wreck their personal seasons and that of the team.
Lohse's recurring forearm problem required surgery that would sideline him until mid-August, while Penny's shoulder ailment was originally thought to be so minor that he would miss just three weeks. In reality, after nine starts, seven of which were quality ones, Penny did not pitch again.
After a 15-14 May, the Cardinals continued to tread water, with a .500 (13-13) June. The outcome was especially disappointing due to what appeared to be a soft schedule that included Milwaukee, Arizona (home and away), and interleague opponents Seattle, Oakland and Kansas City.
On the 5th against
An unimpressive 4-6 stretch to
begin July was punctuated by a loss to the
Including the final pre-break contest, the Cardinals reeled off a season-best eight-game winning streak that included seven wins over the Phillies and Dodgers. In the process, they recaptured first place.
Freese had recovered from a second injury, a broken toe sustained in the weight room, and was deemed almost ready to begin a minor league rehab stint. His impending return helped give Mozeliak the confidence to make an offense-for-pitching trade that would define the 2010 season.
On July 31, popular right-fielder
Ryan Ludwick was dealt to
Westbrook did his part, exceeding expectations on the mound while tossing nine quality starts in 12 outings with a 3.48 ERA. The already-struggling offense did not rebound from the loss of Ludwick, however. One indication is that the team went just 5-7 in Westbrook's 12 starts.
On August 2, during his very first
rehab game in
The Cardinals had slipped to two
games behind the Reds heading into a crucial three-game series in the
The huge series win was not
without tragedy. In a melee that was touched off by words and actions from Reds
second baseman Brandon Phillips, reserve catcher Jason LaRue suffered a
career-ending concussion when kicked in the head by
Signed at a bargain price in late
February, switch-hitting infielder Felipe Lopez looked to be a versatile
reserve. Instead, because of Freese's injury, Lopez was asked to play third base
on a regular basis and struggled with the bat and the glove. After failing to
secure other alternatives, the Cardinals acquired veteran Pedro Feliz from
Whatever momentum the Cardinals
Despite what was happening around him, Pujols continued to excel and was recognized as the August NL Player of the Month. In 26 games, he batted .379 and led the league with 11 home runs, a .777 slugging percentage and 29 runs scored. On August 26th, Pujols clubbed his 400th career home run, becoming the first player in MLB history to reach the 400-home run plateau in his first 10 seasons.
As the disappointing season wound down, the Cardinals extended their maddening pattern of taking series against winning teams (Cincinnati and San Diego) while dropping series against losing clubs (Milwaukee, Chicago, Pittsburgh).
From August 14 through September 15, the team had won just nine of 30 games and the resulting swing in the standings was nine games, from one up to eight down. The offense scored three or fewer runs 17 times, including 16 losses.
Aces Wainwright and Carpenter seemed to run out of gas and joined the team's struggles down the stretch. Over nine starts between August 14 and September 25, Carpenter went 2-6 with one no-decision and a 4.60 ERA. Between August 18 and September 14, Wainwright went 1-5 with a 4.73 ERA.
By then long relegated to the bench and after several tardiness episodes, Lopez was released on September 21.
The bottom line
The record will forever show that
the 2010 Cardinals finished at 86-76, ten games over .500, just five games
Wainwright looks to improve from his 2009 third-place showing in the NL Cy Young Award voting to perhaps second in 2010. The right-hander was second in the league in wins (20), ERA (2.42) and complete games (five). Wainwright tied for second in shutouts, was third in innings pitched and fourth in strikeouts, while allowing the third-fewest walks per nine innings.
At age 35, Carpenter remained healthy and productive, leading the league in starts and placing second in innings pitched while logging 16 victories.
Not even thought to be ready to make the team coming into camp, Garcia exceeded expectations, locking down a rotation spot. His NL first-year player-best 13 wins (against eight losses) and 2.70 ERA make him a legitimate Rookie of the Year contender.
Pujols earned his first National League RBI title with 118 as well as his second consecutive NL home run title with 42. He also led the league with 115 runs scored, 82 extra-base hits and 38 intentional walks. Pujols has been the NL leader in intentional walks for three years running and four times in total. Despite all that, he may finish second in the NL Most Valuable Player voting.
Like Pujols, cleanup hitter Holliday batted .312, fifth-best in the NL, tied for seventh with 103 RBI, was fourth in total bases, tied for second in doubles with 45, sixth in on-base percentage and extra base hits and tied for sixth in slugging.
In his second season, Colby Rasmus eventually slipped into the fifth spot in the batting order after bouncing around for much of the year. The centerfielder hit 23 home runs, posted an .859 OPS but also fanned 148 times in 464 at-bats, just missing the "top" ten in the league in the unenviable latter category. Like the offense overall, Rasmus lacked consistency.
First called up in late April and sticking in July, outfielder Jon Jay was hot during the summer, helping to fill some of Ludwick's void in right field. Though he batted .300 in 105 games overall, Jay hit just .244 over the final two months, putting his starting mettle into question.
At times, closer Ryan Franklin must have felt like the Maytag repairman. While he only blew two save opportunities all season long, he was presented with just 29 chances. McClellan and Jason Motte proved to be solid set-up men, with strikeout to walk ratios over 2.5:1 and opponent batting averages of under .220. Lefty Trever Miller limited left-handed batters to a .203 average and ranked seventh among all major leaguers in inherited runs scored percentage (17.1), allowing just seven of 41 inherited runners to cross the plate.
Perhaps at no time in his 15 seasons as Cardinals manager had Tony La Russa been questioned as often as in 2010.
La Russa's controversial hire of Mark McGwire as hitting coach came under fire as the offense was inconsistent for most of the season. In the big picture, the team averaged .263 and 4.54 runs per game, very comparable to their .263 average and 4.50 mark the year before. Still, many felt the 2010 club lacked timely hitting, which put more pressure on the pitchers.
The manager utilized his pitcher hitting eighth routine 76 times during the season and trotted out 144 different lineups over 162 games. Whether that can be explained as La Russa doing everything possible to exploit matchups or incessant tinkering is open to debate.
While La Russa encourages aggressive baserunning, the Cardinals lost over 100 runners on the bases, too often due to poor decision-making by the players.
In the midst of the aforementioned
disastrous August road trip, La Russa agreed to give an introductory speech for
a humanitarian award to be bestowed upon Pujols. The rub with the
Around that same time, the manager divulged to the press that Rasmus had requested a trade both in 2009 and 2010, setting off a firestorm of controversy about the clubhouse environment past and present. Though Rasmus' spot in the lineup was solidified after the flareup, it remains to be seen whether the talented youngster and his skipper can coexist in the future.
A number of players disappointed, including Lohse and Penny as mentioned above. On the offensive side, three of the four players up the middle had subpar years, catcher Molina, second baseman Skip Schumaker and shortstop Brendan Ryan. Interestingly, the latter two were McGwire hitting disciples long before the coach joined the Cardinals. Going forward, converted outfielder and sometimes leadoff man Schumaker is most vulnerable as a below-average defender.
Despite securing a contract
extension, the general manager did not have a good year, either, as concerns ran
deeper than the failed Ludwick trade. When the Cardinals needed experienced depth,
low-impact castoffs from other organizations were added such as reliever Mike
MacDougal, outfielder Randy Winn, infielder Aaron Miles and starting pitcher
Jeff Suppan. Veteran pitchers Rich Hill, Renyel Pinto and Nate Robertson did not
pitch well enough in Triple-A to get the call to
Heading into the off-season, the biggest free agent of all is again the manager, as the Cardinal Nation awaits La Russa's decision about returning for a 16th season with St. Louis. Same for invaluable pitching coach Dave Duncan and the remainder of La Russa's staff.
Nine players have the right to seek free agency following the completion of the World Series. They are Westbrook, Penny, Suppan, Dennys Reyes, MacDougal, Miles, Feliz, Winn and LaRue. The latter has announced his retirement.
Of the group, the club seems most anxious for Westbrook to return, but money and years could be a make-or-break factor as they also look to sign Pujols to a long-term extension.
All-in-all, the 2010 Cardinals clearly had more talent than they showed on the field. With another starter, a stronger bench, and healthy, productive infielders to compliment Pujols, there is no reason to believe the club cannot again be a serious divisional contender in 2011.
Complacency should not figure into the equation. The bottom line is that despite playing in one of baseball's weakest divisions and having some of the game's top players, the Cardinals are at home watching October baseball for the third time in the last four years.
Note: To follow our entire series of team recaps and Players of the Year at each level of the St. Louis Cardinals minor league system, check back here at The Cardinal Nation daily. To see the roster of winners and article schedule, click here.
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