For two years, with the Cardinals fielding a roster of players that had dealt with a history of injuries, I’ve been one of the voices saying that “if the Cardinals stay healthy, they can win.”
I was wrong last year, on two fronts. I didn’t think Lance Berkman, Kyle Lohse or David Freese could stay healthy and be highly productive. But they did keep Berkman on the field for 145 games, Lohse made 30 starts and led the team in wins, and despite playing in only 97 regular-season games, Freese became a star in October.
Last year’s club was able to overcome the downfall and release of closer Ryan Franklin, the disintegration of center fielder Colby Rasmus’ relationship with Tony La Russa that led to his trade and a season-ending injury to Adam Wainwright, plus injuries that limited Matt Holliday to 124 games. The Cardinals also got limited work out of young slugger Allen Craig.
This year, the Cardinals have real problems at the quarter pole. Jon Jay’s shoulder injury will keep him out for a while. Berkman has hit the disabled list for the second time, with what may be a serious knee injury. Chris Carpenter has yet to pitch. Kyle McClellan will miss at least 10 weeks with an elbow injury. Carlos Beltran is dealing with a balky knee. Craig again has been beset by leg injuries. And lefty reliever J.C. Romero didn’t work out, with righthander Scott Linebrink yet to see action.
Can the Cardinals overcome injury and misfortune the way they did last year? Absolutely. These injuries are the kind that can be overcome. Craig has a hamstring injury that should heal. Hopefully Jay’s shoulder won’t require surgery, and he’ll be back and effective again before July. And we simply have to cross our fingers with Berkman.
Here’s how the Cardinals can overcome what ails them. They need their current starting rotation to stay healthy. They can’t afford to lose another starter. They need Craig back in two weeks, and for him to stay healthy for the final four months. They need to keep Freese on the field for 135 games.
Obviously, Jason Motte needs to stay healthy. And the biggest key, in my mind, is that when Rafael Furcal gets hurt (he’s missed at least 65 games in three of the last four seasons), it’s going to have to be when the other guys get back. Furcal has been a revelation for the Redbirds, hitting .352/.410/.472 with 29 runs and 20 RBIs in 40 games. When Furcal goes down, his replacement is going to have to be effective. Whether it’s Tyler Greene or Ryan Jackson, who’s hitting over .300 with an OBP of .353 at Memphis, that guy is going to have to step up. And hopefully, Furcal is able to stay reasonably healthy and play in 140 or more games this season.
The other thing that has to happen for this team, and it might be up to John Mozeliak, is that the bullpen needs to step up. In the finale against the Dodgers, Mike Matheny had more confidence in lefty Marc Rzepczynski than any righthander other than the used Victor Marte to get out right-handed hitting Scott Van Slyke, who hit a three-run homer.
Last year, the Cardinals turned their season around when Mozeliak rebuilt the bullpen, methodically bringing up youngsters Fernando Salas, Lance Lynn and Eduardo Sanchez, then dealing for or signing Octavio Dotel, Rzepczynski and Arthur Rhodes.
Right now, the Cardinals’ bullpen ERA of 4.21 is 11th in the NL, and they’ve converted seven of 12 save opportunities. Only the Cubs have fewer saves than the Cardinals. A large part of their struggle is a result of having to pitch too much. In their last 10 games, the Cardinals have had only one seven-inning start, that being from Jaime Garcia on Wednesday night in San Francisco.
It will be tough, but Mozeliak may have to rebuild the Cardinal bullpen during the season again. It doesn’t seem that the power arms that were available at Memphis are there this year. And, the Cardinals don’t have a chip like Rasmus to move in a deal for veterans like Dotel, Rzepczynski and Edwin Jackson.
Can the Cardinals overcome these issues and succeed this year? Sure they can. They’ve done it before. But the more key players get injured, and the more the starting rotation struggles to deliver innings, the more difficult it’s going to be.