2005 Cardinal Pieces Fitting Together? - Revisited

A look back at one preseason view of ten critical factors for the 2005 Cardinals.

The Birdhouse has been here reporting about the St. Louis Cardinals for a very long time – since 1997 to be precise. One reason we've stayed and thrived while others have come and gone is because we stand behind our work.

After all, if we can second-guess and micro-analyze every move that Tony La Russa makes, the least we can do is shine the spotlight back on ourselves every now and then and see how we have done. That is the case here.

Back on January 22, I posted a story entitled "Can the Cardinal Pieces Fit into a Winning 2005 Picture?" Now that the 2005 regular season is nearing its close, it is a good time to look at the ten factors I identified last winter to see how important these factors actually turned out to be – and assess how good of a job I did in pegging their importance.

So, without further ado…

1. Rick Ankiel becomes the National League Comeback Player of the Year.

January probability: Low
Current assessment: Non-factor

Well, I was half right. It was a low probability, for sure. Turns out that Ankiel was a non-factor on the field for the big club the moment he uttered "No mas" to his promising mound career in Jupiter back in March.

After a very poor start, injuries and a demotion, Ankiel came back to Springfield (Double-A) and played very well near the end of the season. In addition, general manager Walt Jocketty was recently quoted as saying that the team hopes to place Ankiel in winter ball, likely in the Caribbean, to build his experience level.

However, Ankiel is not currently on the 40-man roster and neither the team's plans nor his are completely clear. Ankiel is eligible for free agency after the season and could opt to test the market.

2. Jason Marquis picks up his game a notch further and wins 18 games.

January probability: Medium high
Current assessment: Digressed due to inconsistency

What I said in January still holds up today. "Marquis had a fine 2004 campaign, winning 15 and losing just seven. But, there were nagging concerns about his maturity."

Marquis' numbers during his long, rough stretch this season have been well-documented, as has his stubbornness against greater reliance on his best pitch, a devastating power sinker. With a 12-13 record, the 18-win mark is now impossible; but Marquis could reach 15 and if he continues to pitch well, could become an x-factor in the postseason for the Cardinals.

3. The Cardinals get lucky with a dependable backup outfielder.

January probability: Low
Current assessment: Exceeded expectations

In January, I was depressed by the options: Roger Cedeno, who had not shown the consistency expected of a fourth outfielder since joining the Cardinals and later seemed to totally disappear from the game after being released. I considered 35-year-old (now 36) So Taguchi nothing more than a nice late-game defensive replacement, believing that his shortcomings would be exposed if he had to play every day for an extended period. I dissed John Gall's defense and feared that John Mabry would be needed backing up Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen.

However, I did peg this one correctly, saying "Perhaps the best situation would be to get a dependable corner infield backup and devote Mabry to the outfield. Even that may not be enough, given the advanced ages of outfield starters Reggie Sanders, Jim Edmonds and Larry Walker."

Where would the 2005 Cardinals be without So Taguchi, who has brought timely hitting, a surprisingly high average plus solid defense to 127 of the team's 145 games so far? I still don't believe that So should be a starter in the future, but given the team's situation in 2005, Taguchi stepped up far beyond anyone's expectations. For that, he is to be commended.

4. Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds each have another MVP-contending season.

January probability: Medium high
Current assessment: Only 1/3 right

In January, I said "Pujols would be a lock, except for the issue of his heel pain returning." Well, as he has shown, Pujols was a lock even though his heel spurs returned. Rolen's 2005 season was lost and Edmonds, at 34, now 35, has started a slow, but noticeable late-career drop-off in effectiveness. Still, he's been pretty good.

5. Reggie Sanders performs as the #6 hitter.

January probability: Medium low
Current assessment: Slightly better than expected

Coming into the season, I feared that Edmonds' numbers would decline, not as much due to age or injury as much as because of Edgar Renteria's departure. With Sanders' propensity for the strikeout and durability and age concerns, I was worried that Edmonds had lost his protection in the batting order.

The injury bug did again bite Sanders, who has played in 79 games and missed 66 this season. However, his 18 home runs are still third-best on the team and when playing, Sanders has helped to fill some of the gap left by others.

I am still leery of re-signing Sanders as a 2006 starter, however. In my book, ideally Sanders would become the regular fourth outfielder next year. Yet, some other team may overpay to sign a man who, while in excellent shape, will still be 38 years old when next season begins.

6. Matt Morris and Mark Mulder perform as they have in their best years past.

January probability: Medium
Current assessment: Probability was about right

When "on" their game, both of these pitchers are Cy Young-contender quality. Each was coming off a 2004 season loaded with question marks, however. Morris put his shoulder ailments behind him and registered an excellent first half, just missing the All-Star team. But, since then, he has been offering up a home run per game while registering an ERA well over five.

Mulder, putting a disaster of a second half of 2004 in his rear view mirror, has been consistently good, but rarely great. Clearly, Mulder will not come in second place in the Cy Young voting this season as he did in 2001. In fact, he may not get any votes at all. Morris has no hope of again putting up 22 wins this year as he also accomplished in 2001.

But, each could step up and make the regular season irrelevant by becoming postseason heroes. They have it in them.

7. One or more of the following proves to be a major surprise: Mark Grudzielanek, David Eckstein, Bo Hart, Abraham Nunez, Hector Luna and Scott Seabol.

January probability: Medium low
Current assessment: Far exceeded expectations

I was very pessimistic about these guys in aggregate, worrying that they were most likely filler material at best.

I was wrong. And, am I glad for that!

Grudzielanek, Eckstein and Nunez have each been incredible, exceeding everyone's expectations, except perhaps their own. Nunez certainly has to be put front and center here, as he moved from being a super sub to the regular third baseman and continued to amaze with his solid defense and pesky hitting.

In fact, from that list, even Luna and Seabol have contributed, leaving Bo Hart as the only miss here.

8. Kiko Calero and Steve Kline will not be missed in the bullpen.

January probability: Low
Current assessment: Expectation exceeded

I was worried that 34-year-old Al Reyes was a Four-A player at best, assuming there was a reason he was unable to stick anywhere previously. I was quite sure that journeyman Mike Myers would not cause anyone to forget Kline's four solid years in the pen.

Reyes and Brad Thompson slipped behind Julian Tavarez to help make the Cardinals pen one of the best in the game. From the left side, Randy Flores continued to be reliable as Myers was shipped out in spring training. Ray King has been up and down, but overall continues to contribute.

Bottom line, the team has been just fine without both Calero and Kline. However, with most of the pen other than Jason Isringhausen, King and Thompson eligible to become free agents, another relief retooling next season is possible.

9. The top of the lineup is solidified as Eckstein turns out to be a bona-fide leadoff hitter and Larry Walker gets 550 at-bats as the #2 hitter.

January probability: Medium
Current assessment: Exceeded and less-than-exceeded

Here is what I wished in January. "Let's hope Eckstein raises his game a notch in St. Louis. If Tony Womack did it, so can he." Did he ever! Eckstein is the acquisition of the year for Walt Jocketty and as it often seems to be, the best comes from an unexpected source. Eckstein has 53 RBI from the leadoff spot and a .356 on-base percentage.

As he nears the end of a fine career, Walker's 2005 season has not been a surprise. In terms of at-bats, reaching 350 would be a more likely destination. In all fairness, hoping for 550 at-bats from Walker was patently unfair. After all, he had only reached that mark once in his 17-year big-league stint.

John Rodriguez was among those who have helped to hold down the #2 spot in the order as Walker has missed 57 of 145 games so far. The 27-year-old minor league veteran's defense is shaky, as is his baserunning, but Rodriguez delivered a number of timely hits precisely when the team was hurting for outfield depth. I see no reason why he couldn't continue to be a valuable reserve outfielder in 2006.

10. The defense up the middle remains credible.

January probability: Medium
Current assessment: Far exceeded

I will gladly eat these words. "I don't expect Yadier Molina, Grudzielanek and Eckstein to bring home Gold Gloves like many of those who preceded them in recent years did (Mike Matheny, Edgar Renteria and Fernando Vina). But, they need to play better than average defense to help a pitching staff that comes into the season with some questions. However, one question they don't have is about their ability to induce ground balls. The Cardinals have some very good ground-ball pitchers. But, they need the fielders to shag the balls."

Boy, have these three middle infielders produced! There have been so many success stories on the 2005 Cardinals, but I think these three have been the biggest. When I think back to the holes that existed on this team coming into the season and how well these three have executed a seamless transition, I am amazed.

Whether the measure is double plays turned, errors (or lack of them), runners picked off or runners caught stealing, not to mention the timely hits and leadership on the field and in the clubhouse, these three more than measure up.

Summary

While results in all areas have not proven to be as good as hoped, remember that this was a wish list. Hitting all ten was assumed to be most unlikely from the very start.

Still, results in six of the ten areas generally exceeded my January wish levels. They include the middle infield defense, leadoff hitter, bullpen, overall second base/shortstop play and backup outfielder. Many of the other areas were about as expected.

The team's record and position in the standings bear the bottom line measurements, though. Maybe, just maybe, this 2005 Cardinals squad can locate the four most important puzzle pieces of all – the four more wins that separated the 2004 Cardinals from the ultimate prize.

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.


The Cardinal Nation Top Stories