During the first week of the season the Cardinals looked like they'd be lucky to win 70 games in 2011, kicking balls left and right while fumbling away games they led late with a leaky bullpen.
Ryan Theriot didn't have the range to play shortstop, Skip Schumaker was still playing out of place at second instead of at his tradtional spot in the outfield. Centerfielder Colby Rasmus made several eyebrow raising gaffes in the outfield, giving up on balls that it seemed he had a chance to catch and shying away from balls that were near the wall or that may have caused him to get too close to the corner outfielders. Closer Ryan Franklin's and free agent reliever Jose Batista's skills seemed to have evaporated over the off-season while the Birds hadn't had an effective lefty all season. All of those problems are now gone.
The Cardinals have a completely new crew up the middle of the defense and a much more viable bullpen that should give the team a realistic chance to make a run for the post season.
People seem to get a kick out of knocking outfielder Jon Jay. But he's really the single most responsible piece for the Cardinals overhaul. His emergence both as a defensive and offensive force allowed the Redbirds to part with the malcontented Rasmus for starting pitcher Edwin Jackson, relievers Mark Rzepczyski and Octavio Dotel and outfielder Corey Patterson. And that move started a domino effect across the active roster.
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Following the release of Batista and later Franklin, the Cardinals relied on a rookie combo of Fernando Salas and Eduardo Sanchez to set-up and close until Sanchez hurt his shoulder. Now the veteran fire balling reliever Dotel has joined the bullpen from the right side and the promising youngster Rzepczyski has taken over lefthanded duties. The addition of Jackson to the starting rotation sent Kyle McClellan back to the bullpen where Lance Lynn also emerged as a force. Once unable to find a single reliable option after the starting pitcher departed, manager Tony La Russa now has a number of effective options.
Most people don't seem to think that Jay can be as productive offensively as Rasmus could. But, at least so far, that hasn't been the case. Jay's hitting .309 with seven homers and 27 RBIs in 307 plate appearances. Rasmus hit .246 for the Redbirds with 11 homers and 40 RBIs in 386 plate apperances. Jay's consistency has been much better than Rasmus. His power has been a little bit off. But the Cardinals don't need middle of the order slugging from their centerfielder. They need a guy who can get on base to be driven in by Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, Lance Berkman, David Freese and Yadier Molina. I don't think there is any argument that Jay is the better outfielder. The only advantage Rasmus has is a stronger arm. But he had a lot of problems putting that arm to use, making lousy throws and missing the cutoff man.
The infield dominoes started to fall when Daniel Descalso was freed to move to shortstop when David Freese came back from injury to take over at third base. He's played very well on both sides of the ball, hitting nearly .300 over the last two months and showing a lot more range than Theriot. I think Descalso's play threw a spotlight on Theriot's deficiencies and the Cardinals finally addressed them late Saturday with a trade for Rafael Furcal from the Dodgers. The move, which has been rumored for several days, has caused the Birds to bump Theriot over to second base where, ala Fernando Vina, he can play much deeper to maximize his range. And the nearer proximity to first base will minimize the problems caused by Theriot's weak arm. Theriot griped about playing second base in the past with the Dodgers. But he seems to embrace the idea now that it's his only option. And, being thrust into a highly competitive infield situation, Theriot collected six doubles over the last two days to finally turn around his sinking batting average.
The roster shuffle has helped re-shape the bench, too. Daniel Descalo now will be able to fill more of a utility role now that there are more viable starters in place. He gives the Cardinals a good defensive option anywhere on the infield. And he'll still get plenty of playing time spelling Freese at third base, starting at second against righty pitchers and giving Furcal a break if he needs it. Skip Schumaker is a poor second baseman, but he's an excellent outfielder. So he's going to get most of his playing time for the rest of the season where he'll make the most impact. Schumaker will fill the fourth outfielder role that Jay used to fill, most often coming in as a defensive replacement for Berkman. Patterson will provide a veteran presence off the bench as a pinch hitter and will serve as the fifth outfielder.
I wrote last week that the Cardinals might as well not bother to try to make a deal or two at the deadline because it didn't seem like they could fill all of their holes. It's true that they didn't go out and add an ace starting pitcher or a major slugger. But they didn't need to. Kudos to GM John Mozeliak for getting the most out of the Rasmus trade -- and by the way, Colby is 0-for-15 through three games with Toronto. Rasmus had to be dealt because of the dark cloud his situation had cast over the team. They Birds might have liked to trade him for a bounty of young players like they did with J.D. Drew a few years back. But other teams knew Rasmus had to be dealt and the Rays and White Sox wouldn't part with the young talent the Redbirds desired. So, like with Scott Rolen, Mozeliak made the best out of a bad situation.
The national pundits seem to think that the Birds are going all in because they know they're going to lose Pujols so they're trying to one last hurrah before its rebuilding time. But I don't see it that way. I think the club did the most logical thing available to it. And, if anything, as Pujols watches the big spending Cubs and Mets crash and burn, the Cardinals are proving their commitment to win. And that only makes him more likely to stay, not less.