Cardinals' 'other guys' breaking out

October, 12, 2011
10/12/11
12:24
PM ET
One of the great things about the postseason is the way in which players familiar to a team’s die-hard fans can finally get some deserved national attention. It’s easy to get hung up on the star power (and the stars’ power) in the middle of the Cardinals' lineup: Albert Pujols, Lance Berkman and Matt Holliday. Add in Yadier Molina behind the plate and the addition of Rafael Furcal, and you have a lot of wattage to obscure the lineup’s “other” guys.

Happily, there’s nothing quite like performance to draw attention, and that’s where two of the team’s other regulars -- third baseman David Freese and center fielder Jon Jay -- are doing just fine this October. So far, Jay has given the Cardinals a .400 OBP to help set the table for the big boppers in the postseason, while Freese has hit a team-leading three homers between the LDS and LCS.

For Freese, the power outburst is a reminder of the power he’s shown throughout his career and why he was worth getting in a straight-up deal for Jim Edmonds in December 2007. In his abbreviated time in the majors, Freese’s isolated power (batting average minus slugging percentage) is just .131. In the minors, he hammered out a .224 ISO over six seasons. To see him tap into his power potential now couldn’t come at a better time for the Cardinals.

Jay is a homegrown product who has had to play years of expectations of “just”: that he might be just a fourth outfielder or just a tweener, just a player with a nice bat but not enough power for a corner, just a nice glove in center, but not so great that you’d go out of your way to play him every day. Given the opportunity to play every day, Jay has just methodically gone about proving that those reservations were wrong.

A few of my fellow statheads might complain he doesn’t walk enough and, after going 8-for-19 on stolen-base attempts, that he shouldn’t be encouraged to run, or that his career .344 BABIP “must” come down. But if he’s cranking out a .773 OPS while playing a good center field, he’s an obvious asset. Pairing with Furcal atop the order gives the Cardinals the kind of top-to-bottom offensive meat grinder that can chew up pitchers, even in the postseason.

That isn’t to say both players don’t have warts. Jay is going to have to live with being the guy who isn’t Colby Rasmus. That’s a lot easier to be right now as the Cardinals take their chances in the postseason. The trade that sent Rasmus to Toronto was about winning now, and if the Cards do that, whatever Rasmus subsequently does in Toronto will be easy to overlook. If they don’t and Rasmus winds up a regular All-Star, there will be plenty of time for regret.

Freese has had to deal with significant injuries in each of the past three years, having to go under the knife to repair both ankles as well as this year’s wrist injury. All told, he’s missed 231 days during the past three seasons.

As a result, you can wonder how much of Tony La Russa’s willingness to swap in Daniel Descalso at the hot corner isn’t just about chasing a platoon advantage or exploiting Descalso’s excellent glove. It also can guard against Freese’s tendency to get banged-up. And Freese isn’t a platoon player, having managed a .764 OPS versus big league right-handers so far. Health is as much of a player’s skill as any of the others, and so far, Freese doesn’t have it. That doesn’t mean he’ll never get it -- Paul Molitor famously went from fragile in his 20s to an iron man in his 30s.

But that raises another point, which is that Freese is already in his age-28 season, while Jay is already 26 years old. If you accept that players generally give you the most productive years of their careers during their age-25-to-29 seasons, it’s possible that Freese and Jay won’t get any better than they are right now. As the Cardinals pursue the pennant, the way the two are playing, the Cardinals may not need them to.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

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