In our preseason evaluation of the Cardinal position players, we pointed out the obvious by suggesting that the middle infield would once again be a source of headaches and hair pulling, and we certainly weren’t wrong. At the season’s outset, it looked like Tyler Greene was all set to get a real shot at taking the second base job. Matheny made good on affording him the opportunity, but Greene once again decided he liked constant whiffing better than steady employment, and he wore out his welcome almost instantly. Greene posted his usual .629 OPS in nearly 200 PA, flashing the usual bursts of speed and power that once made him so intriguing. The flashes have now proven too few and far between, and Greene will be headed back to Jeff Luhnow’s open arms as his new and terrible team, the Astros, moves to the American League.
With Greene showing his true/ugly colors, second base fell more or less to Daniel Descalso. Descalso posted an above-average walk rate, played passable defense, and did well when he managed to get on base. Still, he shouldn’t be starting for a contending team, and a .278 wOBA is enough to make even the most ardent old school fans stop drinking their grit Kool Aid. Matheny did a nice job managing Skip Schumaker‘s playing time, mostly securing him at-bats against righties. This meant a productive-enough 300 PA season from a player who really shouldn’t be exposed more than that. Kudos to Matheny for coming to a realization TLR’s blind love never allowed him to.
To the right of these awful second basemen was Rafael Furcal, or at least that was the case for most of the season until Furcal once again succumbed to injury. Furx still has a great arm and can still run the bases, but let’s allow the compliments to stop there. Aging and often downright impotent at the plate, Furcal managed to trump two great months (.811 OPS in April, .883 OPS in May) with three terrible ones, and his range at short has really started to noticeably wane. Pete Kozma stepped in for Furcal and provided what are certain to be the most productive 82 PA of his career. Small sample sizes and random playoff heroics aside, let’s safely assume Kozma’s not the shortstop of the future; we have ample minor league numbers and scouting evaluations to prove it. Second base and shortstop remain the obvious weak spots in what has otherwise been an incredible lineup, and John Mozeliak will surely examine solutions this winter.
Now let’s move on to the happy parts of the infield! What better place is there to start talking about real baseball players than the catcher position? Yadier Molina not only matched his excellent 2011, he destroyed it en route to becoming on of the most valuable commodities in the game. Molina still threw out every baserunner ever, still called excellent games for his pitchers, and still blocked every ball that ever had a chance at escaping a mere mortal backstop. He also led the team at 6.5 WAR, hit .315/.373/.501, clubbed a career-best 22 homers, and even stole 12 bases for the hell of it. What a player! We’re done doubting our Yadier in any capacity; it’s time to celebrate him and cherish what we have. We love him. I could mention a few things about Tony Cruz, but what’s the point? He’s fine as a backup catcher simply because he doesn’t have to play much, the starter in front of him will play through anything, and he doesn’t cost much more than Victor Marte‘s pre-game velociraptor egg buffet.
Allen Craig stepped in admirably as the primary first baseman after Albert Pujols left to go embrace his full-on decline in Anaheim and Lance Berkman broke his Berkman. Craig, who we’ve long touted a true masher, hit .307/.354/.522 with 22 homers in only 514 PA. Let the record show that all three of Craig’s triple slash stats topped those of Pujols, and that Pujols is also trailing in Awesome Pet Turtles Owned. Matt Adams and Matt Carpenter also saw some time at first, with the former struggling and latter excelling all over the diamond.
World Series hero David Freese finally enjoyed a full season’s worth of playing time at third, and he made the most of it. Freese hit a tasty ..293/.372/.467 with 20 bombs, and his 10.1% walk rate really shows a maturing approach at the plate. He’s one of many extremely solid starters tha Cardinals have the advantage of running out there every day. As we alluded to last paragraph, Matt Carpenter got in on the action at third as well. The Marpster was able to accumulate a value of 1.6 WAR thanks to his patience, gap power, and versatility. We hopped on the Carpenter-to-Second bandwagon a long time ago, and we’re not getting off until it gets done, damn it! Imagine that .355 wOBA coming at the keystone!
There simply weren’t many outfields in the same league as the Cardinals’ trio of grass roamers. First off, we have Matt Holliday. You know him as the gigantic, bald pillar of power that often hits baseballs 1,000 mph and sometimes benchpresses anvils just for kicks. Holliday stayed healthy, which we maintain really shouldn’t be an issue based on his history, and he was second on the team at 5.1 WAR. The left fielder hit .295/.379/.497 with 27 long balls and a walk rate just shy of 11%. There’s nothing not to like about Holliday, and his contract continues to look better and better.
We liked the short-term Carlos Beltran signing when it happened, and the veteran slugger did nothing to cause us to go back on our original opinion. Beltran came out of the gate mashing, and his efforts even earned him an All-Star nod and a trip to the home run derby in his former home of Kansas City. After a prolonged slump (presumably because he got bored or was thinking about the movies he watched the night before), Beltran woke up again and finished strong in September and the postseaon. The end result was a season that saw Beltran hit a team-best 32 home runs, walk 10.5% of the time, and rack up 3.6 WAR. That’s not even taking into account how he often looked like the only hitter with life in his bat during the team’s run to the NLCS. We’ll take more of the same next season, Carlos. Oh, and thank you. Let us know how you like Inception.
Before the season began, we were still longing for the upside of Colby Rasmus and calling Jon Jay things like “a serviceable defender,” “uninspiring,” and a guy with consistently high contact rates. While the last part of that may still be true, it’s time to give credit where credit is due. Jay has transformed himself into one of the better defensive center fielders in baseball, and the numbers and highlight reels both agree on the matter. He’s also found ways to get on base, whether it be a walk rate that is approaching average or a real penchant for getting pegged with baseballs. Oh, and he still knows how to slap singles all over the place too. Jay wound up with an exemplary .373 OBP and tied with Freese for third among the position players at 4.1 WAR. He’s not going to be a star, but neither is Rasmus. We’re content eating our words and watching Jay eat up baseballs that come his way for the time being.
We talked a little bit about outfield backups before the season, and we should go ahead and do the same again now that the 2012 campaign is over. Allen Craig and Matt Carpenter saw some time near the gaps when they weren’t busy slashing baseballs into them, and you already know how we feel about both of those guys. As for Shane Robinson, he looks like a solid defender still, but we maintain that his hitting utensil more closely resembles one of those Fun Noodle pool toys than a baseball bat. Adron Chambers did that thing where he gets called up in September to pinch run for everyone with wobbly knees, and that’s about as close to an actual role as he’s bound to ever get. And yeah, Skipper got plugged in out there once in a while too.
Just as things went smoothly for the big league hitters, things were peachy down on the farm as well. Yep, peachy. Deal with it; you know you love us. Oscar Taveras did nothing but further his reputation as not only one of the best prospects in the system, but one of the most deadly emerging bats in all the land. Taveras hit .321/.380/.572 with 23 homers, and he seems very near the point at which he could help the Major League squad. It really seems like Taveras’s arrival will coincide perfectly with the end of Carlos beltran’s two-year pact, and that couldn’t make us more happy. Taveras’s Double-A teammate Kolten Wong enjoyed a less fruitful year, as a nice start gave way to a sluggish finish and a middling season. Wong hit for average, but his glove isn’t great, his power never showed up, and a .754 OPS in the Texas League is a bit disheartening. He still has the potential to be an above-average regular down the road, but he’s encountered his first bump in the road.
Matt Adams had a rough cup of coffee with the real Cardinals, but it wasn’t a sample size worth fretting about. Now he’s been bandied about as a potential trade chip to acquire middle infield help, but Adams still represents a big time power prospect. He tore up Memphis once again, hitting .329/.362/.624 with 40 extra base hits in just 276 PA, but his season ended early thanks to surgery. He’ll be good to go in 2013, but it’s tough to see where he’ll get at-bats with the big club. Then again, everyone is injury prone and it’s entirely possible he finds a way onto the roster. Adams’s teammate Zack Cox floundered horribly all year, and even a trade to Miami didn’t help spark his bat to life. Much like Tyler Greene and Pete Kozma before him, it’s looking like Cox is another first round bust.
Aside from the big names, a few other minor leaguers warrant mentioning even if they aren’t exactly all over the prospect radar. Shortstop Greg Garcia was 22 in Double-A Springfield, but it’s nice to see anyone get on base at a .408 clip, espcially when the batting average isn’t even .300. All those walks! We were holding out hope that the defensively-hyped Ryan Jackson could be a saviorat shortstop, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. Jackson still needs to do something with the bat, and his progress in the minors doesn’t suggest he ever will. The Cardinals also drafted a few hitters fairly early on, though the early returns have been just about invisible. There’s still plenty of time for some of these guys to figure it out (Steve Bean‘s really young, Patrick Wisdom‘s surname indicates he can figure anything out), but we’re of the opinion James Ramsey is yet another immediate first round fumble.
It’s a winner! The Major League offense was something of a murderer’s row (well, maybe an arsonist’s row) despite not having the star power it once did. Five different men crossed the 20 homer mark, and every single hitter was a threat to do something positive unless he happened to play shortstop or second base. A lot has been made of the weird, elongated cold streaks the entire lineup would fall into from time to time. Well, it happens. Every team’s fans have to deal with stretches like that, even if 2012′s dry spells were more exaggerated than usual.
The offense is still a great asset, and to say anything otherwise would be short-sighted or, if you’re just trying to provoke us, mean. Don’t be mean to us, guys, we’re all best friends! We can always hope Matt Carpenter transitions to second base fluidly and fills another hole that needs filling, but even if the offense does have to absorb a weak spot or two, this is one lineup that can afford it. Oscar Taveras and Matt Adams could easily step in if injuries hit later this season, and Taveras should be ready to take over in right field once Beltran goes elsewhere/retires/buys Jon Niese more body parts after 2013. The twin pillars of stability, Yadier Molina and Matt Holliday, are locked up and the rest of the lineup is still on the cheap. What’s not to like? The offense had an outstanding season and will do so again once baseball rolls back around.