Cheap Seats

Is it 2011 yet?

I’M NOT RUNNING up the white flag, but with the Cardinals’ inability to create any

sort of momentum and the schedule running out of games, there’s no shame in

starting to think about 2011.

There’s a lot to build on for next year. The Redbirds have an excellent core of

starting pitchers and two of the game’s best middle-order bats. But the supporting

cast needs a serious overhaul.

If nothing else, the surprise of the Reds should be a wake-up call that the National

League Central crown isn’t just going to be handed to the Cardinals and they need

to take the regular season more seriously in their planning.

There were far too many holes in the batting order in 2010, making it too easy for

opposing pitchers to simply avoid the big guns on most occasions. Part of that is

because of injuries to David Freese and Ryan Ludwick. But more of the blame can

be placed on the facts that the Redbirds haven’t had a traditional leadoff man in

years and that they took too great of risk with unproven players in key positions.

Freese missed almost all of his rookie season in 2009 with serious ankle problems

— and those same ankles flared up to cost him over half of 2010, forcing the

Cardinals to make do at the hot corner. Skip Schumaker stumbled at the top of the

order, hitting .255 for the first half of the season, which doesn’t cut if for the leadoff

man and he eventually lost that job. That was nothing compared to the struggles of

Brendan Ryan, who hit .179 before the All-Star game in what was to be his first full

season at shortstop.

The Cardinals simply couldn’t afford for any of those players to falter if they were

going to score enough runs to win consistently. While the Cardinals need help in

several areas, I worry most about their ability to fill those holes.

The first order of business must be to sign Albert Pujols to a contract extension.

Sure, the Cardinals have the ability to exercise Pujols’ option and keep him for

another year. But are they really going to risk letting him play out his contract and

possibly walk away at the end of the season with nothing in return? That simply

can’t be allowed to happen because it would be a devastating drain of talent for the

franchise. Either Pujols signs this offseason or — shudder — the Redbirds really

need to consider trading him while they can get something of value in return.

I don’t think you can realistically plan the future of the Cardinals until you know if

Pujols is going to be in the fold for the long term.

Pujols said he didn’t want to negotiate during the season. But, realistically, the

season is over. And, if they were smart, the Cardinals would try to knock out the

most pressing item on their to-do list before the offseason gets started. When the

Cardinals slugger spoke about what a privilege it is to play for the Redbirds in the

Colby Rasmus trade demand fallout, it created the perfect opportunity for General

Manager John Mozeliak to approach the big guy and say he’d like to make Pujols a

Cardinal for life.

After that, I’d like to see them try to make the priorities finding a leadoff man who

can play second base or shortstop and a slugger who can bat fifth.

Getting runners on base in front of Pujols and Matt Holliday is vital to scoring

runs as much as getting pitchers to pitch to Pujols and Holliday is.

By adding to the mix with starters, the Cardinals can send Schumaker back to his

best role as a reserve outfielder and the young players like Jon Jay and Allen Craig

can earn roles instead of being thrust into them.