The Cardinals are starting to look towards next year as the hope drains out of this one. The future holds some big decisions for the club. Tony La Russa may not be back. Albert Pujols still needs an extension. And the roster needs a jolt.
With the Cards likely out of the race, September is an audition for the future. It’s a chance to make something happen. And a chance to build momentum going into spring training in 2011.
The whispers are building now. Should the Cardinals begin planning for next season?
The center of these debates is the shortstop position.
Brendan Ryan has had a rough season at the plate and at times in the field. He has lost the manager’s confidence. He isn’t always focused out there. Ryan has been benched. He’s been criticized by teammates – most notably by Chris Carpenter on national television. And he’s batted ninth most of the year, a spot usually reserved for pitchers in the National League.
It hasn’t been easy for the Cardinals shortstop. He’s lost his confidence many times this year. And in professional sports, confidence is the key to success. It slows the game down and makes things easier. When it’s gone, the mind races, just looking for something to go wrong.
Plenty has gone wrong for this team and for Ryan.
But unlike the team, Ryan has kept fighting.
Even though the pressure has been unbearable at times, Ryan never stopped caring. He kept quiet and kept working, knowing that he could do this. He was a good baseball player last year and that talent and knowledge of the game didn’t disappear in six months.
In 2009, Ryan batted .292 and played Gold Glove caliber defense at shortstop. He committed eight errors in 105 games at short, good for a .984 fielding percentage. He showed excellent range and good instincts and it looked like the Cardinals had a steady hand anchoring the middle infield – a key to winning in baseball, especially in St. Louis whose pitching staff relies heavily on groundball outs.
After missing much of spring training due to wrist surgery, Ryan never got comfortable. He couldn’t buy a hit early on and Tony La Russa let him know that he’d better improve or he’d be sitting on the bench. The pressure only made it worse on Ryan. His struggles at the dish carried over into the field, where the once aggressive and confident shortstop became timid and unsure.
He made five errors in three games during a stretch in May. At that same time, he was hitting below the Mendoza line.
Fans and the media wondered what went wrong and also searched for a possible replacement.
Tyler Greene was a popular pick and a known contributor in St. Louis. He has performed well in the minor leagues, hitting around .280 and showing some power, but he has failed to put it together at the big show.
He’s one of those guys trying to parlay a September audition into an opportunity.
In reality, he’s had plenty of auditions already. And at 25, he’s really not that young when you consider Ryan is 28. There’s only room for one of them as the starting shortstop. There will be the temptation to go with the younger guy. He could develop into a player who hits 15 home runs every year to go with a solid batting average. And he could provide the jolt this club needs.
But before you kick Ryan out of St. Louis, you should know his complete 2010 story. It starts rough, but the ending is surprisingly positive.
Ryan is currently hitting .226. Hitting has been a struggle all year. But over his last four games, he has piled up eight hits. Not bad. And much closer to that .292 batting average from a year ago. Ryan can hit major league pitching. He has proven that already. But he needs to learn more to sustain it over a career.
He has the desire.
Ryan worked tirelessly with hitting coach Mark McGwire in the offseason to improve his swing. He delayed Chris Carpenter’s start in August because he was taking cuts in the batting cage. He clearly cares about his craft and he wants to get better.
He probably thinks about his mistakes constantly, which only adds to the pressure to make up for every mistake.
In the field, Ryan has been among the best in baseball again. Despite that stretch in May, Ryan is arguably the best shortstop in baseball.
Even though he can’t hit, he’s doing his job well. The pitcher needs to trust the shortstop. He should want every ball hit that way and know that every play is going to be made. Ryan has been eating everything up and that swagger is starting to come back. He’s making more plays than any other shortstop and he’s making all of them.
Ryan has made 15 errors this year, but remember five came in three games. He has been rock solid.
In the world of advanced statistics, Ryan is a plus-31 and tied with Yunel Escobar for first in the category. He has also saved 24 runs this season with glove, which is tops in the majors. And he has played fewer innings than most shortstops in the league due to his troubles with the bat.
The goal in baseball is to win games. Ryan has helped the Cardinals win more games than anyone would think. Sometimes it’s hard to notice defensive impact in baseball. But that doesn’t make it less important. Saving runs wins games in the same way that hitting home runs and doubles does. It may not make the highlight reel, but it’s a big part of the game.
Every time Ryan makes the routine play or the spectacular play or every time he turns a double play with a man on third, he’s helping his team.
It’s clear that despite that overall tinge of failure on the Cards season as a team and Ryan’s as an individual, the 28-year-old is a good baseball player.
And it’s too soon to give up on him.