Before the season started, I thought the Cardinals had a good chance to win the NL Central, but added that they needed to stay healthy. With Adam Wainwright already on the shelf for the season, the starting rotation had no reinforcements if someone went down. The bullpen couldn’t afford to lose one of its horses, because Kyle McClellan had replaced Wainwright in the rotation. And because the bench at the start of the season included youngsters Tyler Greene, Daniel Descalso, Allen Craig and Jon Jay to go with veteran catcher Gerald Laird, the club wasn’t in a position to lose a member of their starting eight.
As luck would have it, Matt Holliday suffered appendicitis after the first game of the season, and the Cardinals struggled until he returned a week and a half later. When Holliday did come back, the Cardinals went on a binge that saw them score 6.5 runs a game through Sunday.
During the game in Atlanta Sunday, Braves righthander Scott Linebrink hit third baseman David Freese in the left hand with a pitch, breaking the hand. Surgery will keep him out for anywhere from 6-12 weeks, depending upon who you listen to. Manager Tony La Russa said 6-8 weeks. Freese himself said he plans to play in eight weeks. And general manager John Mozeliak said 9-12 weeks. Either way, it’s going to be a long time.
I’ve broken a hand, and I don’t do anything near as important with my hands as Freese does. And I didn’t have surgery when I broke mine. I did break my wrists and like Freese had steel plates put it, and it took three and a half months to heal. After the healing, it took another month and a half to rehab, and then I had to get a plate removed. Breaking hands and wrists is a hassle.
When the Cardinals acquired Tony Pena from Pittsburgh in 1987, he suffered a broken hand in his first series with the club. Pena was never the same that year and really for the rest of his career. After hitting .286 in his first six seasons with the Pirates, he only hit that high once in his remaining 10 seasons, and that was as a backup late in his career when he hit .295. Pena hit just .214 with the ’87 Cards, and .234 in three years in St. Louis. After the broken hand, he just never got his swing back.
The Cardinals acquired Andres Gallaraga before the 1992 season, and the .288 career hitter had the second-worst year of his career after suffering a broken hand early. The Big Cat hit just .243 for the Cardinals after the injury. He did rebound to lead the league in hitting the following year, but the point is that a broken hand that kept him out from April 7-May 22 ruined his season.
The moral of this story is that it’s unwise to count on Freese being a productive hitter any more this season. He’s very talented, and he’s a terrific young hitter. History and reality tell us, however, that even with all that talent, getting his strength, and then his swing back will be a long road. A longer road than the remaining five months of the baseball season.
With the loss of Freese, the issues that we talked about regarding depth are rearing their ugly head. Rather than having a superb group of hitters in Colby Rasmus, Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, Lance Berkman and Freese, the Cardinals now have Daniel Descalso playing third and filling the role on offense. With Descalso, Nick Punto, Yadier Molina and the pitcher, the Cardinals have four spots in the lineup that aren’t consistent or powerful. Ryan Theriot doesn’t hit for power, so Pujols, Holliday, Berkman and Rasmus are the only power threats now.
This is a major, devastating loss. Certainly the Cardinals have the starting pitching to contend. The young bullpen provides promise for this season and many years to come. It appears to be a group they can win with in 2011. But with limited power and production from most of their position players, it would seem that it’s going to be a difficult hurdle for the Cardinals’ offense to consistently score runs.
We saw what happened when Holliday was out for 10 days. The Cardinals scored just 2.5 runs a game when one of the cogs was out. Then they scored four more per game when he returned. Don’t expect the loss of Freese to result in just a small change. This is a guy that was hitting over .350, over .400 with runners in scoring position, and was driving in a run every 6.7 plate appearances. The dropoff could be dramatic and long lasting, and the Cardinals, and Cardinal Nation, should be prepared for it.