The Cardinals went much further than almost anyone expected this spring but then not nearly as far as almost everyone expected once they got to October.
The late July acquisition of left fielder Matt Holliday seemed to put the finishing touch on what largely was an Albert Pujols-generated attack, and, indeed, Holliday drove in 55 runs in 63 games and batted .353 in sparking the Cardinals to a romp to the National League Central title.
At one point, between late July and Sept. 9, the Cardinals won 33 of 44 games, but when they got to the latter part of the season, they began facing better pitching. In the playoffs, the Cardinals basically were putty for the Los Angeles Dodgers, who held them to just four hits in 30 at-bats with men in scoring position in sweeping the Cardinals out of the Division Series in three games.
Even with Holliday in the lineup,
the Dodgers showed the Cardinals that other teams really only fear Pujols.
The Cardinals' lineup seems better than it actually is. They have little speed although Skip Schumaker, who became a more than acceptable second baseman in his move from the outfield, batted .303, mostly as a leadoff man. But Pujols, often gimpy-legged, was the team leader in steals with 16, two ahead of shortstop Brendan Ryan.
Particularly troubling was the Cardinals' average of .227 with runners in scoring position and two out.
In the course of losing starting shortstop Khalil Greene on two occasions because of anxiety issues, they learned that Ryan, spending his first year in the majors, could be not only an everyday shortstop (when he stayed healthy) but an outstanding one. He fielded brilliantly, displayed a strong arm and batted a surprising .292.
The strength of the Cardinals, other than certain league MVP Pujols, who blasted 47 homers, drove in 135 runs and batted .327, was the 1-2 starting punch of right-handers Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright.
Carpenter, despite losing six weeks to an oblique strain, was confident in spring training that he could bounce back from missing virtually two seasons because of arm problems. And he did, winning the league earned run average title with his 2.24 and compiling a 17-4 record.
If Carpenter doesn't win the Cy Young Award, Wainwright will. Wainwright led the league in wins (19) and innings pitched (233).
One of the biggest issues the Cardinals had when they left spring training was the closer. After rookie right-hander Jason Motte blew a save on opening day, right-hander Ryan Franklin, who closed for half of the 2008 season when right-hander Jason Isringhausen was out, took over and became an All-Star.
This offseason, the Cardinals will be on the lookout for at least one starting pitcher because they will lose right-handers Joel Pineiro (15-12) and Todd Wellemeyer (7-10) to free agency. The hitting coach job, held by Hal McRae for five seasons, also might be open.
Notes and Quotes
--RHP John Smoltz, who struck out five men in a row in the final playoff game, is mulling whether to return. Smoltz, who will be 43 in May, said, "In my gut and in my mind, I want to do it. I want to pitch again next year. It's going to be an interesting offseason for me, one in which I'll take a long, hard look and see if I still have the desire to work out." But Smoltz also said, "This would be a great fit."
--3B Mark DeRosa has been on "three-and-out" clubs in the first round of the playoffs for three straight years. DeRosa spent 2007 and 2008 with the Chicago Cubs, who were knocked off in three consecutive games both years, and was on the Cardinals this season. "Maybe it's me," DeRosa said. "It better not be because I'm not planning on retiring." DeRosa, who will have surgery on his left wrist this offseason, wants to come back to the Cardinals. "It's a great city, great fans, great place to play. I'm always going to go where the pitching is, and there's good pitching here," DeRosa said.
--Manager Tony La Russa and
pitching coach Dave Duncan, who have been together in St. Louis since 1996 and
more than 25 years overall, both are expected back although neither was making
that decision known immediately after the Cardinals' elimination from the
--OF Rick Ankiel, who was on the 2000 playoff squad as a pitcher -- his control lapses were big factors in the series -- probably has played his last game as an outfielder with the team. Ankiel hit .231 playing mostly as a fourth outfielder and can be a free agent. "There's nothing about Rick's game that can't be fixed," said manager Tony La Russa.
--1B Albert Pujols finished the season (counting the postseason) without having homered in 89 at-bats, the longest stretch of his career. Manager Tony La Russa, deeming this largely a non-issue, said, "If someone wants to look at his 90 at-bats and say he wasn't strong enough to hit the ball out of the park, they can point to that fact. But I think it's ridiculous." Pujols has a tender right elbow and also was bothered by an Achilles tendon and hamstring at the end of the season.
BY THE NUMBERS: .133 -- Cardinals' average with men in scoring position against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Division Series.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We got beat, so you take the heat." -- Manager Tony La Russa, disappointed that his team was swept in three games by the Dodgers in the first round of the playoffs.
The Cardinals didn't have many needs as the season ended although they probably could use one more veteran starting pitcher to go with RHPs Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright and Kyle Lohse. RHPs Joel Pineiro and Todd Wellemeyer, who filled out the rotation, both likely will be gone as free agents.
BIGGEST NEEDS: When the Cardinals were dismissed early from the playoffs, they set the wheels in motion to try to re-sign free-agent LF Matt Holliday and also 3B Mark DeRosa. Holliday, however, seemed likely to go into the open market.
FREE AGENTS: Free agents likely to file are RHP Joel Pineiro, RHP Todd Wellemeyer, RHP John Smoltz, C Jason LaRue, INF Khalil Greene, INF Mark DeRosa, 3B Troy Glaus, OF Rick Ankiel, LF Matt Holliday. The Cardinals have large interest in keeping Holliday and DeRosa and some interest in both LaRue and Smoltz. The others probably are gone.
ARBITRATION-ELIGIBLE: RHP Brad Thompson, 2B Skip Schumaker, OF Ryan Ludwick. Thompson, left off the postseason roster, probably won't be tendered. Schumaker will make more as a second baseman than an outfielder. Ludwick likely will get close to $7 million and might have to be traded for payroll relief if Holliday signs a multi-year deal.
IN LIMBO: Thompson won't be back. Ludwick, a candidate to be traded last year, could be dealt this time. RHP Josh Kinney, a playoff hero in 2006, probably won't return.
3B Mark DeRosa (torn tendon sheath in his left wrist) will have surgery soon.
1B Albert Pujols (elbow) annually at this time wrestles whether to have serious surgery. He has played with a ligament tear for years.