The Cardinals' off-season checklist sure must have looked a whole lot different than mine. If I were sitting in the fine leather chair in general manager John Mozeliak's office, improving the situation at second base would have been my top priority. Finding a fifth-place hitter -- who could hopefully play third base -- would have been number two and signing a third or fourth-place starter would have been third.
While the Birds filled some holes, others still remain. Here are the top few things that concern me about the Cardinals as we draw about a month and a half away from spring training.
1) Will the starting rotation hold together? Chris Carpenter is always one pitch away from the disabled list. And at his advancing age, one never knows if his next injury could be his last. Jake Westbrook and Jaime Garcia are both Tommy John surgery victims and Kyle Lohse has been a medical disaster since taking a liner off his pitching forearm early in the 2009 season. Adam Wainwright has had some minor elbow concerns in 2010. If the rotation holds together, it's one of the best in baseball. But I worry about 2010 becoming 2009 part II.
2) Will Albert Pujols be a positive force or a major distraction. If the game's best player decides to refrain from inking an extension before he hits free agency, that could change the way the season is prosecuted in many ways. So the Cardinals trade Albert before he leaves them with nothing? I know he's a five and 10 man, so he can't be traded without his permission. But players waive no-trade protection all the time. Who wants to stick around with a club he knows won't step up to pay him what he's worth? Will Albert grouse about the Birds not getting serious about a deal two off-seasons in a row? Hopefully this will all become academic any day now when an agreement is announced.
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3) Will Colby Rasmus tune out daddy and become a bona fide major leaguer? We all know about the power and the speed. But we're becoming too familiar with the long slumps and the distracting feud between future Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa and his high school baseball coaching father. I'm starting to wonder if Colby will ever be the player we think he can be if he doesn't buy in with the major league staff and tell his pop that he needs to stop throwing a monkey wrench into his career.
4) Will the Big Puma's knee hold up? Lance Berkman hasn't primarily been an outfielder for five years. And he hasn't been an elite hitter for three. The Cardinals are gambling he'll bring those elements back together and be the fifth place hitter the club's offense so desperately craves while not giving up as many runs as he produces with shoddy outfield play. The plus: Berkman's lost 15-20 pounds to lighten the load on his surgically repaired knees. The negative: He's become increasingly vulnerable over the years to lefty pitching.
5) Will David Freese be healthy (for once)? Freese missed more than half of his first two seasons with knee problems. And, when he did play, his bat mysteriously lacked the power he displayed in the minors. The Cardinals revealed over the weekend that Freese had bone spurs in his ankles that were sapping his power. So at least there is some hope that he'll be healthy and productive in 2011. But, until he proves on the field that he is over his health problems, he's going to have the reputation as a fragile player. The Birds need Freese to be healt
6) Will the middle infield be passable? The Cardinals needed to improve both its offense and its defense over 2010 levels. They arguably made the defensive component worse by removing Brendan Ryan's glove from the mix and replacing it with journeyman middle infielder Ryan Theriot's mitt. The offensive side is more up in the air. Will Skip Schumaker's crummy 2010 prove to be a fluke? Will Theriot prove he is a starting shortstop after the Cubs and Dodgers each decided he wasn't good enough to fill that role for them?