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Preview: Outfielders

Ryan Ludwick: It looked for a while at the beginning of the off-season that the Cardinals' surprise of the 2008 season might be patrolling the outfield sumwhere else this year. But a rumored deal to Colorado for Matt Holliday fell through and he'll find himself back in the clean-up spot behind first baseman Albert Pujols.

What a difference a year makes. Last spring I was deeply concerned that the Cardinals would release Ludwick based largely on his age, his injury history and the thought that the Cardinals were determined to bring Colby Rasmus to the big leagues as soon as possible. I expected Ludwick to at least be a nice fourth outfielder and a decent hitter. But I never expected him to threaten the .300 mark, bash 37 homers or crack the 100 RBI barrier. This year he is expected to be the Cardinals second most productive offensive player. So, was 2008 a fluke, or can he do it again? That is the question that will determine if the St. Louis offese is productive or lame.

Over his six-year career, Ludwick is a .273 hitter who averages 11 home runs and about 45 RBIs a season -- largely because he has only once before 2008 played in more than 47 games a year. (2008 Stats: .299, 37 HR, 113 RBI, 104 R.)

Rick Ankiel: His 2008 was one of the most remarkable seasons in baseball history. Only one other guy -- Babe Ruth -- as successfully made the transition from pitching to playing a regular position. Ankiel's power was something to behold -- and so was his defense in centerfield where he had the unenviable task of replacing Gold Glover Jim Edmonds.

The downside is that the injury bug that helped to hinder his pitching career derailed his second half. What was described as a sports hernia sapped his power and lowered his batting average before he finally succumbed and went on the shelf.

Ankiel's ability to play all three outfield positions makes him valuable in my mind, regardless of the role Rasmus plays on the team in the future. Still, the Cardinals shopped him all winter and tried to trade him to Atlanta at least on two separate occasions. Ankiel is a free agent at the end of 2009 so, one way or another, his days in St. Louis seem to be numbered. And that's a shame. Not only because he is a Cardinal through and through and the fans have a lot of emotion invested in him. But because he is a darn good player who is young enough to still have a lot of future ahead of him. I wish the team would rethink letting him walk. (2008 stats: .264, 25 HR, 71 RBI, 65 R.)

Skip Schumaker: In an ideal world, Schumaker would be a heckuva fourth outfielder. He is excellent in all three outfield positions and hits well enough not to be a liability. But he isn't really a power guy. He's not really a leadoff guy and he struggles mightily against lefthanded pitching. In my mind, those qualities are a little less than one would like to see in an everyday player.

Schumaker did everything the Cardinals asked for him and more last season. If they could limit his exposure to lefty pitching, he'd probably do even better. (2008 stats: .302, 8 HR, 46 RBI, 87 R.)

Colby Rasmus: He flamed out in Class AAA last season, struggling to hit .200 before being shut down with a knee injury. He pouted when the Cardinals didn't bring him up in September. But why would they? He was rusty and if he struggled, not only would it further damage his confidence, but it would have started his free agent clock that much earlier.

Rasmus, who refused to play winter ball and instead hit the weights over the off season, will get a shot to make the team out of spring training. And, even if he doesn't make it then, he will be up soon. Whether he plays well or not. The Cardinals are determined to promote prospects to the majors in 2009 as evidenced by the effort to trade Ankiel. (2008 stats: did not play in majors.)

Chris Duncan: Two years ago, despite his horrible defense, it looked like Duncan was emerging as an offensive force. He cut down his swing, although he'll always strike out a ton, and he was hitting the ball over the boards with regularity. Now, he is at the back of the class in a school fll of lefty Cardinals flychasers. 

To make matters worse, Duncan followed a season cut short by a hernia with a season that ended with a career threatening neck problem. Even if he can get back to full speed, it is debatable if Duncan has a long term home in St. Louis. After all, besides all the things against him like the glut of lefty outfielders, his defense and his questionable health, his father -- Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan -- is expected to leave along with manager Tony La Russa when their contracts run out at the end of the 2009 season. (2008 stats: .248, 6 HR, 27 RBI, 30 R.)

Brian Barton: Barton was trapped on the St. Louis bench last season as a Rule V draftee. He couldn't be sent to the minors without offering him back the Indians, but he didn't progress as a player by sitting on the bench.

After a lost year, I can't imagine him starting the season in St. Louis. He isn't ready to crack the top three outfield spots as a hitter and he is a terrible defensive outfielder. He looks tentative going after the ball and he looks like he is a left hander throwing with his right when he tries to get the ball back into the infield. (2008 stats: .268, 2 HR, 13 RBI, 23 R.)

Joe Mather: There is a lot about Mather to like. He is a gamer and he does everything the team asks of him. But he also has limitations that will limit him to being an extra outfielder -- like a long swing that makes him prone to striking out. Mather will likely ride the Memphis shuttle this year if outfielders listed above are healthy. (2008 stats: .241, 8 HR, 18 RBI, 20 R.)

Overall grade: B

If Rasmus makes a smooth transition to the big leagues, the Cardinals could have a really solid outfield. But the odds are, if he does, that one of the guys ahead of him on the depth chart will be hitting the road. 

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