Cards Need 2 of 4 off DL to Compete for Series

Rex Duncan predicts the minimum level of team health required for post-season success.

The St. Louis Cardinals have ridden a remarkable wave of reserve and AAA productivity, quality starting pitching, and plain good luck in rising to the top of the heap in major league baseball this year.  The plain fact is that a group of relative unknowns have vaulted the Cardinals to the pinnacle of baseball even though fully 50% of their starting non-pitchers are enduring lengthy stays on the disabled list.


Now, though, that list is preparing to dwindle and it might be worth taking a look at some of the options the Cardinals will face in the coming days.  By my calculations, the Cardinals would arguably need only two of the four disabled players back in order to carry them through to the World Series.  I feel that I can speculate on the World Series since it is fairly clear (albeit never certain) that the Cardinals are the best team in the National League and that anything less than a World Series appearance would be an upset.


As I review the disabled list and consider the performance of their replacements, it is becoming clear that the key player at this point to come off that list is catcher Yadier Molina.  Of all the replacements who have taken the field, the catchers – Einar Diaz and Mike Mahoney - have been the weakest performers. 


When Molina went down with a broken hand just before the All-Star Break, Diaz had already ridden the pines to a fault as pundits (like me) speculated that Tony La Russa might be wearing down his young catcher.  With Molina down, the Cardinals brought up light-hitting Mike Mahoney from Memphis ostensibly to spell, not replace, Diaz.  The reverse happened as Diaz has shown an occasional inability to work effectively with the starting pitchers and has had some defensive lapses.  Although weaker hitting, Mahoney has gotten the starting nod, demonstrating La Russa's penchant for a solid defensive receiver.


Mahoney, as advertised, has been on offensive albatross, failing to hit over the Mendoza Line for most of his stay in St. Louis.  While better defensively than Diaz, his weak hitting has been a drain on the bottom of the order.  When Molina was injured, he was contributing in all respects of the game – offensively, defensively, and handling the pitchers with the aplomb of a seasoned veteran.  Molina's return is the first priority for the Cardinals to anchor their defense and add more pop to the offense.


Perhaps the most pressing question will be who to keep when Molina returns.  Diaz is seemingly not in La Russa's best graces as a back-up catcher.  Mahoney, on the other hand, is cheaper AND performing better.  Might the Cardinals consider releasing Diaz and keeping Mahoney with the club as opposed to returning Mahoney to Memphis? 


The other key player will be either Reggie Sanders or Larry Walker, in other words certainly one, but not necessarily both.  The reason for that is the unforeseen emergence of So Taguchi as a viable dependable every-day outfielder.    

At this writing, Taguchi is one of the hottest hitting players on the team since the All-Star Break.  The question the Cardinals are now presented with is are they better off with two convalescing regulars and Jim Edmonds, or do they defer to the incredible performance of Taguchi and work out some sort of platooning arrangement.  Benching Taguchi in the midst of his offensive whirlwind would seem wholly counter-productive.  All Taguchi has done is hit .357 since the break, .424 with runners in scoring position, and .463 since August 1.  How can a man with those numbers be relegated to a reserve role again?


This isn't to take anything away from guys like John Mabry and Hector Luna.  Both have played well, especially the versatile and clutch Mabry.  In fact, when one or both of the injured outfielders returns, Luna or Scott Seabol may be the first guy heading south.


The last player on the DL is truly an impact player.  No one plays third base like Scott Rolen.  Rolen is to third base what Albert Pujols is to the bat.  Both may be game-historic figures before their careers are finished with one caveat.  Pujols has been blessed with good health.  Rolen attracts freak accidents like a moth to a candle.  Yet as much as any Cardinal fan would love to see a healthy, contributing Scott Rolen at third, it is becoming more and more unlikely that we will see him again in 2005.  If that is what is in Rolen's best interests, so be it.  With Abraham Nunez anchoring third in Rolen's place, the Cardinals couldn't have asked for a better replacement.


Nunez has done everything single thing asked of him.  He has fielded.  He has hit (.304 on the year and .320 with runners in scoring position).  Scott Rolen at his best is irreplaceable.  But if he is forced to play at some reduced level, the Cardinals have the luxury of Nunez, who has filled in for Rolen beyond anyone's expectation.  Perhaps the smartest move Walt Jocketty made in the off-season was to listen to former Pittsburgh manager and scout extraordinaire Jim Leyland, who preached Nunez's value to the Cards when no one else would listen.


Molina will return soon bringing badly-needed stability to the catcher's position.  Larry Walker and Reggie Sanders will report for duty soon as well, bringing some semblance of 2005 opening roster normalcy to the Cardinal line-up.  Molina is a must, the greatest priority.  One of the outfielders, most likely Walker, is also needed.  As much as I hate it that Rolen may not return this year, my Cardinal cap is tipped to Abraham Nunez for the fine job he has done and will continue to do in the drive to the series.  As this team returns to health, it will only get better, much to the chagrin of the rest of the National League, who can only look up in respect and admiration for the best team in baseball – the St. Louis Cardinals.


Rex Duncan


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