Change-UpJanuary 21, 2011
Wait, What? A Look Back at the Cardinals' Offseason
By Patrick Sullivan

Aside from a role player here or a bullpen part there, the St. Louis Cardinals' roster is set for 2011. They bring back a big part of the nucleus of a team that won 86 games and finished five games short of qualifying for postseason play in 2010. St. Louis has not won a playoff game since they clinched a title in Game 5 of the 2006 World Series, and they have averaged just shy of 85 wins over the last five seasons. No shame there, but with Albert Pujols in the middle of the lineup and a rich tradition of success, it's not a stretch to say that it's been a frustrating run since October of 2006. GM John Mozeliak and Manager Tony La Russa have to be feeling hungry to get back to the early-to-mid aughts glory days of 100-win seasons and perennial contention.

That desire for a return to greatness in St. Louis makes this past offseason puzzling, to say the least. Before delving into the individual moves, it's important to acknowledge the constraints St. Louis faces. They're paying Matt Holliday and Chris Carpenter top dollar, Kyle Lohse is making an eight-figure salary as well. They'll pay Pujols $16 million this year, and the team payroll right now is coming in at just north of $100 million, an honest commitment to winning from a club situated in a modest Midwestern city. Throwing the biggest wrench in their plans, however, is the looming Pujols extension (or departure). Without knowing what it will take to sign one of the true all-time greats, it's difficult for Mozeliak to bring on other parts.

That's fine. I understand. But this is a roster that's a lot of the way there, building off of an 86-win season with cause for year-over-year improvement scattered throughout. Even though he was excellent, 2010 was one of Pujols's worst seasons of his career. Colby Rasmus, who has all the makings of a future star, clashed with La Russa in 2010. With that situation seemingly smoothed over, he figures to see another 100 plate appearances or so in 2011. Jake Westbrook is in the fold for the whole season, taking innings from Jeff Suppan and others who aren't as good as him. Brendan Ryan, for all of his defensive wizardry, managed just a 57 OPS+ in 2010. He's now playing for the Mariners (more on that move in a moment).

This is a club screaming for a couple of savvy tweaks on the margins to thrust them right back into contention with the upstart Cincinnati Reds. Instead, they made a big splash when they decided to add Lance Berkman to the fold. Berkman may well be a future Hall of Famer, but he has had knee troubles and is coming off his worst year. It's likely that he can still swing the bat, but he's a first baseman or designated hitter at this point in his career, and look at what the Twins just paid Jim Thome coming off a .283/.412/.627 campaign. The Cardinals saw fit to hand Berkman $8 million with no DH rule that I am aware of in the NL and maybe the best first baseman ever on their roster. He hasn't played the outfield since Curt Schilling, Mike Lowell and Manny Ramirez were leading the Red Sox to another title, and over the past six seasons has played just 124 games at a position other than first or DH. With two right-handed bats in Pujols and Holliday in the middle of the lineup you can understand prioritizing a lefty, but not to this extent. An option like Magglio Ordonez or Matt Diaz or heck, waiting around for Johnny Damon, would seem to have made more sense.

The other big move was for the Cardinals to throw in the towel on Ryan, their shortstop in 2009 and 2010, in favor of Ryan Theriot. There's no excusing how Ryan hit last season, but consider that he was still a 1.0 fWAR player as a 28-year old. That's how good his glove was. What's more, it was clearly an outlier season for Ryan at the plate. He's a better hitter than he showed in 2010. When you watch this video of Mozeliak addressing the Berkman signing, there are any number of alarms that should sound for Cards fans, but the biggest red flag for me is how he says he wants to address the offense, and that the middle infield seemed like a good place to do it. My guess is that thinking led to Ryan's departure and Theriot's arrival.

Theriot has been a full-time player for four seasons now and has hit at an 87 wRC+ clip over that time. Ryan has played two full seasons in the Bigs and posted an 81 wRC+. If Theriot is a better hitter, he's only marginally so. Ryan did hit .292/.340/.400 in 2009. Since 2007, Theriot ranks 6th in plate appearances among all shortstops and 5th in games played. He's 19th in fWAR over that time. Ryan, in half the plate appearances, has posted a fWAR of 5.0 to Theriot's 6.8. Theriot will make $3.3 million in 2011, Ryan $1 million. Did I mention Ryan's two years younger? I should note, too, that I spared Cards fans the B-Ref WAR comparison. It's even kinder to Ryan. It's great that Mozeliak thought he'd try and upgrade his offense at shortstop, but even if you grant that he did so with the addition of Theriot, what good does it do when you give those runs right back in the field?

To their credit, the Cards also re-upped Westbrook at a reasonable cost, but that's really it for this offseason. For a team on the cusp, they went out and acquired what might turn out to be a big bat to play a position he can no longer play at best, and one that might force him to the DL at worst. They also swapped out a better shortstop for an older one. The Pujols situation looming might account for budget constraints - nobody is blaming them for failing to land Carl Crawford. It doesn't account for the mismanagement, though.


I agree to a great extent with your article. For the past few years the Cards have seemed on the cusp (which is usually the case with Pujols on your team) just needing another piece or two, but never seem to pull the trigger on that trade or FA signing to make it a great team. When I first heard of the Theriot trade, I figured Schumacher was no longer the starter at second (probably a good move), but then the Ryan stuff started to surface.

It is the belief among Cardinal fans that LaRussa (and/or Carpenter) were the primary reason for the departure of Ryan. Ryan always seemed like he is having fun and has made quite the reputation for himself by acting in webclips/commercials/videos and just joking all around. Many believe this rubbed LaRussa the wrong way with his business like mindset and that they primarily wanted him gone. Moz isn't just going to come out and say that I traded him because I was told to.

Every offseason I still hope to hear that LaRussa is going to be retiring/leaving, because while his run here has been great I think the game and its technological (and sabermetric) advances may be passing him by.

I guess it doesn't matter that Berkman is 20 lbs lighter and has been busting his butt all offseason to get ready to play right field. So, at best as you say, Berkman can't play right anymore. I'd like some evidence to support that other than "he hasn't played there in a while". I also wonder why the author seems to think that Brenden Ryan's .259/.314/.344 career average makes him only "marginally" worse than Theriot and his .284/.348/.356 career average. I also don't think anybody would argue that Ryan can be a leadoff man, like Theriot can and will be. Nobody thinks Theriot is better in the field, but I'll take a guy with 30 more points of OBP for his career every day of the week.

Ryan was a knucklehead that got under the skin of several veterans and LaRussa. He had to go for simple chemistry reasons -- everyone loves his defense but his bad offense also crept into his defense at times, especially with his throws.

The Cardinals needed a more sustainable offense to take pressure off their pitchers and to a lesser extent their defense.

The additions of Berkman and Theiriot have done that plus added some much need grit and hustle factors -- i.e. playing the game right which will only help in the short and long term.

I expect the Cardinals to be more consistent and be able to win the division in 2011.

Berkman = Good signing. Thome = terrific signing. Can't judge the former by comparing it to the latter; unless you think St. Louis coulda put Big Jim in the outfield.

(And I'm sure the Berkman skepticism is in no way motivated by the analysis being penned by a slightly embittered Cub fan who preferred Berkman to Carlos Pena. In no way at all. Really.)

Brendan Ryan was quite, um, eccentric. I don't know much about grit or hustle, but Fat Elvis and Theriot should add some sanity (and maybe even a bit of fun?) to the clubhouse.

Also, what rarely gets mentioned regarding the 2010 Cardinals, their run differential was a solid +95.

That's the highest N.L. differential to NOT make the playoffs since seven years ago. It's a Pythag "total" of 91 wins...much better than the 86 they actually managed. (Speaking of manage, LaRussa's StL teams have overall slightly *outperformed* their Pythag total, so last year represented an extreme outlier.)

In other words, the Cardinals were already "in contention" with the Reds before any offseason moves. With today's (dirt cheap) acquisition of Nick Punto for infield depth, the team is set. A week ago Vegas (per Bodog) already had St. Louis installed as a modest division favorite--or, at least, the shortest odds to win the Series--and with the recently added veteran infielder plus Dave Duncan projects Batista & Snell (meaningful insurance against Lohse awfulness), the gap has slightly widened.

This is a 90-93 win team with average luck. If Berkman hits like '09, add a victory. If he hits like '08, add two more.

I agree that we should've kept Ryan, but I think we should've still traded for Theriot (Theriot does have a significantly better offensive track record than one-year-wonder Ryan) and started out with a 3 man platoon in the middle infield that would eventually be decided by who plays best (although Punto, unlike Ryan, can act as insurance for Freese at 3rd base). However, I have no other problems with the offseason.

Berkman can still hit (even his down year last year was pretty good), and I'll trust the St. Louis medical staff that he can still play outfield. They have more info on the subject than me or anyone else. If he does need some days off or gets injured, we still have an exciting prospect in Allen Craig to fill in.

Like you said, resigning Westbrook was a good move, and we don't have the money for any other big moves. Tallet should be fine when used as a lefty-specialist, and the new backup catcher is fine.

Thanks for the comments, guys.

In order:

@Brian: I place almost no stock at all in reports of players losing weight, getting into shape, etc. There was even one the other day that suggested RF would be easier on Berkman's knees than 1B. He's played 124 OF games since 2005, and none since 2007. It's nuts to think he could do so effectively now. If he hits like he can and stays healthy, he'll still be a good player. But it was a weird allocation of funds as I saw it.

@Terry: Between Rasmus and Ryan, I think La Russa needs to consider how he works with a new generation of players rather than sitting them or shipping them out of town. The Cards are contenders, by the way. You're right. If I implied too strongly they aren't than that's my fault.

@Bob: I compare Berkman and Thome because I think that is the type of player Berkman now is: a very good hitter with ample injury risk and limited defensive utility. Thome coming off one of the best years of his career signed for $3M, Berkman for $8M to play a position he can't play. Also, I'm a Red Sox fan.

As for the Cards run differential, I omitted it when I noticed that they actually outperformed when you look at BP's 3rd order win percentage, which takes into account situational performance and adjusts for competition quality. The Cards were among the best in the league hitting w/ RISP and they had a great LOB% on the run prevention side. Neither are in any way predictive.

And you're right on the contention point. I probably sold them short the way I worded it. I more meant to say they did next to nothing this offseason to help their cause. But yes, they're in contention.

Thanks for the prompt response, Sully.

I hope you don't mind too much if--based solely on some of your remarks over the past few years--I call your objectivity into question, when it comes to the Cardinals.

For instance, in your 2008 preview, you offered that "I say the Cards end the year at least 20 games under .500. They're bad."

That team won 86 games.

In your 2009 preview, there was this nugget:

Jeremy: Albert Pujols is the best player in baseball.

Sully: I don't know, Jeremy. I still would have to take Berkman.

There just isn't any way to rationalize that, even excluding AP's advantages in the field & on the bases.

Now let's look at your comments about the 2009 N.L. Central rotations. The projections in your preview had the StL #1 starter better than Cincy's. The Cardinals were also better at #2, and #3, and #4.

Yet, somehow, according to you, the REDS and Cubs would compete for the division's best rotation. Not even a mention of St. Louis. Quite curious.

Overall, how did you see the 2009 season unfolding?

"I think the Cubs will win their division by a greater margin than any other division winner in 2009."

They finished 8 games behind the Cardinals.

Let's bear in mind that those aforementioned roundtable season previews offered each analyst the chance to balance their remarks; the good, bad, and worst of each N.L. Central team, open for discussion. Positives and negatives can be cited for *any* team, right?

However, at every opportunity, all I can see in past comments (thank heaven the readers were spared a 2010 division preview) is skepticism, dismissiveness or contempt for St. Louis, and persistent praise for their chief rival from the Windy City.

So I incorrectly assumed you're a Northsider. Obviously, you're just a guy who hates the Cardinals.

And that's fine. Just let someone more objective write about 'em. Please.

Bob, wow. I may get it wrong but I don't understand the attack. You're free not to read here.

The Berkman-Pujols comment is totally disingenuous on your part. I made that remark comparing 2009 Berkman to 2009 Joey Votto. Go back and read it.

My Cubs comment was coming off their 2008 campaign when they won 97 games and brought much of the same team back, and added Milton Bradley coming off a killer year. Alfonso Soriano was awful, Geovany Soto was awful, Milton Bradley was awful. I just missed it. Yeesh.

Anyway, to save you some suspense, I will be wrong a whole bunch more.

Bob, I'd like to see your predictions for this season so I can come back next year and ridicule you for how wrong they are.

Blasting a guy for having the balls to have an opinion because he was wrong is pretty low. In case you don't realize, every analyst is going to be wrong about things. Cherry picking those things for one author and even making some of them up makes you look like you're on a witch hunt.

Ease up, Mr. McCarthy.

whew Bob - quit using my name please; you're giving it a bad reputation

The Cardinals better have a modern-day Willie Mays or Paul Blair to play between Berkman and Holliday in the outfield.

Excellent point on the budgetary constraints. The Cardinals have the most loyal fan base around (sorry, Sully), but the size of the St. Louis market will naturally limit what the Cardinals can do in salaries.

For now, toss the Cardinals, Reds and Brewers in a hat and see who comes out on top in the NL Central.