As the year 2010 comes down to its final few days, I think it’s safe to say that the past five months have been nothing short of a roller coaster ride for St. Louis Cardinals fans. From the horrible lows of a late summer meltdown to the promising highs of a quality offseason, the Cards are ready to put last season behind them and begin what could be a bounce-back year. There may be a couple of factors hanging in the balance right now, but, for the most part, things are looking fairly positive moving forward.
After the Cards lost the NL Central Title to the Cincinnati Reds, the road to redemption began with their clear decision to pick up the 2011 option on Albert Pujols’ contract. This was followed by the near simultaneous decisions to bring back manager Tony La Russa, pitching coach Dave Duncan, hitting coach Mark McGwire, first base coach Dave McKay, third base coach Jose Oquendo, and bench coach Joe Pettini. Next, John Mozeliak brought back Jake Westbrook for two years and signed lefty Brian Tallet to sure up the bullpen. Finally, the Cards acquired Ryan Theriot, Lance Berkman, and Gerald Laird, and they decided to cut ties with Brendan Ryan, trading him to Seattle for Maikel Cleto.
This array of moves seems rightly appealing to St. Louis fans, and it would be hard to argue that the team didn’t get at least a little bit better this winter. However, as any smart sports fan knows, there is a downside to almost all roster changes. In this case, the Cards may have sacrificed one important aspect of the game that could end up coming back to haunt them next season: Defense.
First, I’ll start with the trade for Ryan Theriot and decision to make him the starting shortstop for next season. Originally, I saw this as a smart move for the Redbirds considering the fact that they needed an extra spark with the bat. However, when they traded away Brendan Ryan, the team took a step back defensively. Ryan was robbed of a Gold Glove last year and there wasn’t a play he couldn’t make with the leather. I thought St. Louis could have moved Theriot to second or at the very least kept Ryan as a utility man so he could learn from Theriot’s veteran presence, but neither happened. Shortstop is arguably the most vital position on the diamond, and guys like Ryan don’t come around every day.
Secondly, I’ll move to the signing of Lance Berkman, who projects to be the starter in right field on opening day. I outlined the risk/reward factor of Berkman in a previous post, but for now, I’ll focus solely on the risk. While he has played more than 100 games at every outfield position, Berkman fits best at first base. Obviously, that spot is occupied by the greatest player in the game right now. So, Berkman, who isn’t fast by any stretch of the imagination, could be a liability in the St. Louis outfield. His career range factor in right field is just 2.63, and he has a lower fielding percentage in right than any other position (.970). Not to mention, “The Big Puma” is just one year removed from left knee surgery, leaving his durability in question.
Finally, I’d like to point out some defensive concerns that I have about the rest of the Cardinals infield (Minus Pujols). Third baseman David Freese is coming off two ankle surgeries this offseason, and I’m not sure he can hold up for a full season at the hot corner. Even when healthy, Freese hasn’t shown anything too special with the glove, posting a fielding % of .953 in just 190 total chances. On the other side, second baseman Skip Schumaker finished second on the team in errors last year (16). While he did show some good range, Schumaker must cut down on the costly mistakes.
Just how much does defense matter? Well, consider this. The NL Central Champion Reds committed just 72 errors in 2010, posting a fielding % of .988. The Cardinals, on the other hand, committed 99 errors and finished with a team fielding % of .984. Although these numbers aren’t exactly mind boggling, it’s the little things that are the difference between making and missing the post-season. The Cards must limit the number of mistakes that they make, especially in crucial situations. I’m not so sure that their offseason changes put them in a position to do that.
Having Gold Glovers like Pujols and Molina to anchor the defense is great, but other than them, I just don’t see any consistent defensive standouts on the roster. Of course, it’s too early to tell if fielding will be a problem for the team next season, and maybe the offensive improvements will cancel out any defensive question marks. All in all, if the Cards fail to make the playoffs again and struggle in the field, the organization will surely need to place a greater emphasis on fielding. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out. After all, as the old saying goes, defense wins championships.