SweetSpot: Rafael Furcal

Key position switches for 2014

February, 10, 2014
Feb 10
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A year ago, the St. Louis Cardinals tried the unorthodox move of switching third baseman Matt Carpenter to second base, a position he had played just 18 innings previously in the majors and never in the minors. Players rarely move up the defensive spectrum, but the risk paid off for the Cardinals as Carpenter played a solid second base -- he rated as league average via defensive runs saved (DSR) -- and had a big year at the plate, hitting .318 and leading the National League in runs, hits and doubles.

Carpenter will move back to third base in 2014, clearing room for rookie second baseman Kolten Wong. That will allow the Cardinals to upgrade defensively at two spots: Carpenter over David Freese at third base and Wong, considered a plus defender, over Carpenter.

With teams opening up camps later this week, here are some other key position changes to watch in spring training:

[+] EnlargeJoe Mauer
Hannah Foslien/Getty ImagesJoe Mauer played eight games at first base last season.
Joe Mauer, Twins: Catcher to first base
Mauer has started 54 games at first base in his career, but it appears his catching days are over as he takes over for the departed Justin Morneau. It's the right move by the Twins. It appears that rookie catcher Josmil Pinto will be a solid major league regular, and the move will help keep Mauer healthy and his bat in the lineup more often. Plus, he hasn't really been a regular catcher in recent seasons anyway: The past two seasons, he started 73 and 72 games behind the plate. Mauer may not provide the prototypical power you'd like from a first baseman, but his .400 on-base percentage plays anywhere. He's a good enough athlete to be decent with the glove (he's plus-1 DRS at first base in his limited time there).

Carlos Gonzalez, Rockies: Left field to center field
Like the Carpenter move, this one involves a player shifting to a more demanding position. Gonzalez hasn't played any center field the past two seasons, but did play there earlier in his career (187 games started). This one is interesting because Gonzalez's defensive metrics in left field have been all over the place: plus-8 in 2011, minus-13 in 2012, plus-10 in 2013. Gonzalez, who missed time with a finger injury in 2013, underwent emergency appendectomy surgery in January but is expected to be fully ready for spring training. The Rockies did acquire Drew Stubbs and Brandon Barnes in the offseason, two guys who can play center if Gonzalez is deemed lacking in range.

Ryan Braun, Brewers: Left field to right field
All 817 of Braun's games in the outfield have come in left, but he'll move to right as the weaker-armed Khris Davis takes over in left. DRS has rated Braun as a plus fielder over the years in left -- plus-28 runs -- but his arm has rated slightly below average at minus-10 runs. Still, he should be to handle right field, although opposing baserunners will surely test his arm early on.

Carlos Santana, Indians: Catcher to third base
By far the most intriguing position change, this one isn't written in stone, but Santana has played some third base this winter. With Yan Gomes emerging as a plus defensive catcher, the Indians want to keep Santana's bat in the lineup and Lonnie Chisenhall may be out of chances at third base. Santana was originally an infielder in the low minors before switching to catcher, so moving to third base won't be completely foreign to him. Still, the catcher-to-third move is a rare one midcareer, most notably done by Joe Torre, Todd Zeile and Brandon Inge (who had been a shortstop in college). Most likely, Santana settles in as a super-utility guy, filling in at third and first if he's not the full-time DH.

Alex Guerrero, Dodgers: Shortstop to second base
This is the most common position change as shortstops without quite enough arm are shifted to second. In Guerrero's case, he played shortstop in Cuba and will move because Hanley Ramirez is entrenched at short. The Dodgers sent Guerrero to the Dominican Winter League, but early reports on his defense were not good, with stiff hands being the big issue. He played only a few games there, however, so spring training will be a crash course at second base. The Dodgers are banking heavily on Guerrero since the backup appears to be Dee Gordon, who has struggled at the plate the past two years.

Shin-Soo Choo, Rangers: Center field to left field
Choo had been a right fielder with the Indians and then played center for the Reds. He had a huge year offensively but showed a lack of range in center. The Rangers will wisely move him back to a corner slot, with Leonys Martin in center. Even then, Choo may prove to be a below-average defender as his metrics in right field in 2012 were not good (minus-12 DRS).

Miguel Cabrera, Tigers: Third base to first base
The Tigers will have new infielders at all four positions, certainly an interesting twist for a likely playoff team. But they have arguably upgraded defensively at all four spots: Cabrera over Prince Fielder at first, Nick Castellanos over Cabrera at third, Ian Kinsler over Omar Infante at second, and Jose Iglesias over Jhonny Peralta at shortstop. Cabrera isn't a great first baseman, no matter what people try to tell you; he has good hands, but he still moves about as well as a redwood tree.

Rafael Furcal, Marlins: Shortstop to second base
After missing all of 2013, Furcal is hoping to hang on with the Marlins. He hit .264 AVG/.325 OBP/.346 SLG with the Cardinals in 2012, which would be only a minor improvement over the .235/.292/.349 mark the Marlins got from their second basemen in 2013.

NL's defensive winter moves

December, 29, 2013
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Today, Buster Olney rated the top defensive teams in the majors. We thought we would take the time to look at the offseasons for each team from a defensive perspective. Here’s our National League look:

NL East
Braves: The big change for Atlanta will be dealing with the departure of Brian McCann, whose strike-stealing skills will be hard to replace. Evan Gattis and Gerald Laird will try. Gattis may be better than you think (3 Defensive Runs Saved in 2013). By our tally (and that of StatCorner’s publicly available data), he ranked among the best in the majors at getting pitches in the strike zone to be called strikes.

Marlins: The Miami infield rated as average last season, but it has a new -- and potentially worse -- look in 2014, with shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria as the lone holdover. The Marlins will try Garrett Jones (and his negative-22 career Runs Saved) at first base, Rafael Furcal at second base (last played there for two innings in 2004) and Casey McGehee at third (bad numbers there in 2009 and 2010, but average in 2011). They’ll also have Jarrod Saltalamacchia catching; he typically rates bottom of the pack when it comes to defensive metrics.

Mets: The big story for the Mets will likely be how three center fielders coalesce in the outfield. If it works, the Mets could have the best ground-covering combo in the league. The likely alignment will be Curtis Granderson in left, Juan Lagares in center and Chris Young in right, though Young could shift to center (with Granderson moving to right and Eric Young to left) if Lagares’ offense isn’t to the Mets liking.

Nationals: Washington hasn't done anything to tinker with its primary starting unit. Arguably the biggest worry will be making sure Bryce Harper doesn’t overhustle his way into any walls as he did last season. The other thing that will be intriguing will be how new acquisition Doug Fister fares with a better infield defense behind him than he had in Detroit the past couple of seasons. Some think that could bode really well.

Phillies: Many scoffed at the Marlon Byrd contract, but he represents a huge defensive upgrade for the Phillies in right field. The transition from John Mayberry Jr., Delmon Young, Darin Ruf and Laynce Nix to Byrd represents a swing of 31 Runs Saved (the four combined for negative-19 Runs Saved; Byrd rated among the best with 12).

The Phillies still have a lot of defensive issues, though. First baseman Ryan Howard has minimal range. Shortstop Jimmy Rollins may still pass the eye test but has rated poorly three years running (negative-30 Runs Saved in that span). Their third-base combo rated almost as badly as right field. And primary center fielder Ben Revere had all sorts of issues with balls hit over his head last season. There is a lot of potential trouble brewing for 2014.

NL Central
Brewers: Ryan Braun will not just be returning from a performance-enhancing drug suspension. He’ll also be playing a new position, right field, as the Brewers announced their intention to shift him from left field. Braun has 23 Runs Saved over the past four seasons, but the deterrent value of his throwing arm, which is minimal to below average, will now be a bigger factor. He’ll have to be pretty good all-around to match what the team got from Norichika Aoki & Co. (combined 13 Defensive Runs Saved).

Cardinals: St. Louis ranked second to last in the NL in Defensive Runs Saved last season and had only one position that rated above the major league average. That shouldn’t happen again.

The Cardinals have moved Matt Carpenter from second to his natural spot at third, where he should be an upgrade over David Freese. Freese was traded to the Angels for Peter Bourjos, who, if his hamstrings are healthy, could be a 20-plus run improvement over Jon Jay in center field. Another great glove in Mark Ellis signed to share second base with Kolten Wong, which will be an improvement over Carpenter. And Jhonny Peralta probably is no worse than on par defensively with the man he’ll replace at short, Pete Kozma. In sum, the Cardinals could be the most-improved defensive team from last season to this season.

Cubs: The Cubs aren’t vastly different from what they were at the end of last season, at least not yet. Their outfield defense needed an upgrade, and the one thing they’ve done to that end is obtain Justin Ruggiano. He has fared both well and poorly in center field in the past. Ruggiano may get a full-time shot to see what he can do in 2014.

Pirates: Pittsburgh liked Russell Martin so much it brought in a defensive standout to back him up in Chris Stewart. Stewart excels in all areas and could invert what the team got in 2013 from its backup catchers (negative-6 Runs Saved). The Pirates were also smart about keeping Clint Barmes around on a low-salary deal. He’s no Andrelton Simmons, but he rates among the best defensive shortstops in the league.

Reds: Cincinnati will give Billy Hamilton every chance to be the every-day center fielder in 2014. He rates as “fine,” which will be a major upgrade from the struggles of Shin-Soo Choo, who was forced to play out of position last season. The Reds will also fully take the training wheels off Devin Mesoraco with outstanding defender Ryan Hanigan having been traded to the Rays. Keep an eye on that one. The security of having Hanigan could be a big loss on the defensive side.

NL West
Diamondbacks: Mark Trumbo shifted back and forth between first base and the outfield with the Angels, but he should be the full-time left fielder in 2014 for a team that had four players with 25 or more starts at the position last season. Trumbo showed he could handle left in a stint there with the Halos two seasons ago (a better fit there than in right). My guess is the Diamondbacks will play him deep and concede some singles to limit the number of times he’ll have to retreat to chase a potential extra-base hit.

Dodgers: Yasiel Puig posted a terrific defensive rating in his initial stint in the big leagues (10 Runs Saved), but one concern the Dodgers will have was visible in the NL Championship Series -- how Puig does at limiting his mistakes.

Puig ranked 20th in innings played in right field last season but had the seventh-most Defensive Misplays & Errors (22) based on Baseball Info Solutions’ video review. Over 162 games, that might not affect his overall rating, but that sort of thing could play a large role in swinging a couple of important games one way or the other.

The loss of Mark Ellis could also be big, though the jury is out until we see how Alexander Guerrero handles second base.

Giants: San Francisco cast its lot with a pair of outfielders who will look a bit awkward in the corners, with Mike Morse in left and Hunter Pence in right. This could be a problem if the pitching staff is fly ball inclined. Pence is at negative-16 Runs Saved over the past two seasons. Morse fits best as a DH, and his value will be in whether he can drive in more runs than he lets in. Whoever the Giants' center fielder is this season will have his work cut out for him.

Padres: San Diego will look to run Seth Smith, whom it got from the Athletics for Luke Gregerson, in right field. This could be a little dicey. Smith has negative-13 Runs Saved in the equivalent of about a season’s worth of games there. Expect Chris Denorfia (21 career Runs Saved in right) to remain as a valuable fourth outfielder, late-game replacement.

Rockies: The big defensive-themed news for the Rockies this offseason was their decision to commit to Gold Glove left fielder Carlos Gonzalez as a full-timer in center after trading Dexter Fowler. So long as he’s not the Gonzalez of 2012, who looked a little heavy and finished with negative-13 Runs Saved, that should work out all right.

Colorado does have a lot of flexibility in its outfield with Brandon Barnes and Drew Stubbs coming off the bench for now. Either could come in as a late-game replacement for Michael Cuddyer if needed, and we wouldn’t be surprised if either got some significant playing time in left field too.

Cardinals' options at shortstop

November, 16, 2013
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Defending a pennant and with money to spend, the Cardinals, you'd think, have it made. They're the model organization, a reliable contender, well-stocked with young talent -- and they really need to come up with an alternative to Pete Kozma at shortstop. Between his .548 OPS and defense that isn't game-alteringly excellent, he's hard to warm up to as anything better than an injury replacement to your regular. And after doing just that last season, filling in for oft-injured Rafael Furcal, it's time to find a better answer.

So let's say the slate is clean. What are the Cardinals' options at shortstop?

Sign me up!: The free-agent market isn't replete with great choices. Jhonny Peralta is the class of the field after putting up an .815 OPS for the Tigers around his PED suspension, but after a year afield which Baseball Info Solutions' Plus-Minus graded him at zero and UZR rated him just slightly positive, we're talking about a guy who might not be a perfect fit over the length of the three-year deal he's looking for. Add in the expectation that he'll run you eight figures per annum.

[+] EnlargeJhonny Peralta
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsSuspended 50 games for PEDs last season, Jhonny Peralta batted .303 in 107 games for Detroit and was named an All-Star.
Is Peralta in reach? Absolutely, if the Cardinals decide he's to their taste, yes. Between Chris Carpenter's retirement and having multiple free agents, GM John Mozeliak has almost $28 million back in the till relative to the Cards' 2013 payroll, with just David Freese likely to take a noteworthy bite out of that via arbitration. So spending money with a talented young pitching staff already in place seems doable. The opportunity cost of signing Peralta is that it would probably preclude re-signing or replacing Carlos Beltran. Even that seems doable -- Allen Craig moves over to right field full time (at least until top prospect Oscar Taveras arrives), leaving Matt Adams alone at first base for the time being. But is that really where Mozeliak wants to go?

More cheaply, if Kozma's Game 1 fielding snafu in the World Series is still on your mind, defensive upgrades are out there: Clint Barmes in particular, and arguably Brendan Ryan (if he doesn't simply re-sign with the Yankees). But they're even less likely to contribute an OPS above .600 than Kozma is, and barely merit the investment beyond providing a spring training alternative.

Which really leaves only two noteworthy potential market solutions: Stephen Drew, returning to free agency after his one-year, $9.5 million deal with the Red Sox, and old friend Rafael Furcal, back on the market after missing the second season of his two-year, $14 million deal with the Cardinals with an elbow injury.

Drew is apparently already receiving multiyear offers but should still cost less than $10 million per year, which would leave the Cardinals with money to spend on Beltran (or not). Between last year's .777 OPS and adequate defense (his postseason heroics afield aside, Plus-Minus and UZR don't peg him as a significant positive), He'd be a worthwhile and fairly safe solution.

[+] EnlargeStephen Drew
Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY SportsStephen Drew's defense was stellar during the Red Sox's championship run.
What about Furcal? He'd have to be a fairly late selection, since he's going to have to prove that his elbow is sound in winter ball in the Caribbean. Until that happens, Mozeliak would be better off exploring alternatives. But between their familiarity with Furcal, his past value on both sides of the ball, and his comeback campaign, he'd cost less than Drew while providing a better index of risk versus reward.

Let's make a deal: Surely there are teams with veteran shortstops nearing the end of their contracts, or with kids on the way up that might make their current placeholders at short expendable. Talking to the Rangers about Jurickson Profar or Elvis Andrus is the obvious fantasy scenario that excites everybody. A Taveras-for-Profar deal in an exchange for top prospects is one of those tantalizing notions that sounds great on the back of an envelope. It's probably also about as likely to happen as your landing a date with whichever half of Brangelina you fancy.

Asdrubal Cabrera of the Indians would be a great fit: He's a free agent after next year, and the Tribe has top shortstop prospect Francisco Lindor on the way up. But Lindor only just had a sniff of Double-A, and it would be an especially bold -- unlikely, actually -- move for GM Chris Antonetti to swap Cabrera after the Indians' 90-win season anticipating Lindor's arrival before the tail end of 2014. Similarly, the Rays might be eventually willing to talk about Yunel Escobar after having picked up his option, but they'd first need to see how prospect Hak-Ju Lee is healing from his season-ending knee injury.

Another cheaper option would be talking to the Diamondbacks about Didi Gregorius. Considering Arizona just received Gregorius in a deal after the 2012 season, that might sound like a surprise, but homegrown Chris Owings could take the job from the former Reds farmhand in the spring. That solution, however, may not exist until after that job fight resolves itself.

More likely, if Mozeliak wanted to go this route, we're talking about someone like Alexei Ramirez of the White Sox, who is locked up for $20.5 million for the next two years, or $29.5 million over the next three with a club option. A lot of his slugging is U.S. Cellular Field-powered and he's already heading into his age-32 season, but he's durable. Yeah, I'm not too excited about this idea either.

Stick with in-house solutions: Nobody should love this choice, but it isn't like the Cardinals lack for alternatives to Kozma. A little more than a year ago, Ryan Jackson was the guy who looked to be the franchise's first call-up if (or when) something happened to the fragile Furcal. He had been graded a better defender than Kozma, and he has a career walk rate of 9 percent after more than 2,400 minor league plate appearances. On the other hand, Jackson's power dipped in 2013; maybe that's a matter of not adjusting well to being shunted into a utility role, and maybe he's just not that big an upgrade from Kozma.

Which leaves me thinking that, barring a fantasy-fulfilling conversation with the Rangers about either of their shortstops, the idea I like best is using this winter's budget surplus to go get Drew for two or three years (or a two-plus-option deal). If that fails, settling for an incentive-laden return engagement for Furcal if Mozeliak gets to mid-January and no other solution has presented itself.

Is Pete Kozma a draft success or failure?

May, 13, 2013
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Pete KozmaDilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesWith Rafael Furcal injured, Pete Kozma has proven to be a worthwhile investment for the Cardinals.
CHICAGO -- We’re in draft season, so it’s easy to get excited about who your team could pick. After the draft, all 30 teams' selections will be graded and assessed and opined over, and you’ll be hearing about Mark Appel for years, perhaps having already heard about him for years. But there are many guys you won’t hear from again, and some guys you’ll want to quickly forget before moving on to the next new crop to obsess over.

But sometimes, years later a guy you might have forgotten shows up and provides you with a reminder that he was picked for a reason. Not because he was a slam-dunk obvious great, not because he was an easy pick, but simply because he can play. Case in point: Pete Kozma of the Cardinals.

The Cardinals’ first-round pick in 2007, Kozma has already been seen as everything from a safe pick to a flop to a success. Just within the 2012 season, he went from a farmhand being prepped for a utility role and someone in danger of slipping off the 40-man roster to a stretch hero at shortstop for the defending world champs. Kozma helped power St. Louis' return to October action with his bat and glove, belting 10 extra-base hits and slugging .569. But after what he’d done beforehand, slugging 200 points lower than that would have been considered a success.

Now Kozma is settling in as the Cardinals’ shortstop of the present after the latest Rafael Furcal injury. Maybe that constitutes a successful first-round pick, but at different points Kozma has been both a failure and a success. And because of that, he’s a good example of the danger of judging a player too quickly, or too simply.

As the 18th overall selection of the 2007 draft, Kozma was picked before such highly touted talents as Rick Porcello and Ben Revere, as well as high-upside arms such as Aaron Poreda and Andrew Brackman. He was picked before Todd Frazier. Of course, you can play this game with almost any draft, to try to make one team look smart or less so, and it’s not reliably fair. The Cardinals wanted a shortstop, and Kozma was the best on the board in 2007 after starring for Owasso High School in Oklahoma. It was a defensible, sensible pick, tabbing the best talent at the toughest position, but it wasn’t a choice with a ton of upside possibilities. Kozma was seen as a defense-minded pick, a kid who would earn his playing time through his glove work.

Could he hit, though? Thinking back, Kozma observed that hitting was one of the two biggest challenges he had to deal with. “Definitely the hitting; pro ball is just a huge jump from high school. And literally playing every day is just a huge adjustment, both on offense and defense,” Kozma said last week at Wrigley Field, when the Cards swung through Chicago.

It can be easy to forget that high school and college teams don’t face the grueling multimonth daily grind that pro players endure. Going pro isn’t simply an opportunity to show off your signature skills, it’s a test of your ability to use them daily for seven or eight months, going up against the best competition you’ve ever faced.

At any rate, it wasn’t long before picking Kozma looked like a poor choice, even as he was being pushed up the rungs of the farm system fairly aggressively. He spent very little time at high Class A before reaching Double-A in 2009, for example -- less than two years after leaving high school. He wasn’t ready to hit there, putting up a .600 OPS; repeating the level in 2010 got him up to .702. Moved to Triple-A in 2011, he struggled again (.569 OPS), contributing to the Cardinals’ decision early in 2012 to shunt him to second, making room to test farmhand Ryan Jackson regularly at short in his place. Kozma again improved at the plate while repeating a level, but not by a lot (.647 OPS). He was 24 years old, and already being written off.

Rather than sulk over being asked to move around, Kozma took it as an opportunity to remind the organization that he had value, in any way they wanted to put it to work for them. “I looked at it as a challenge because of my versatility, proof that I can do it," Kozma said. "If I can play short, I can play anywhere on the field. Second base took a little bit of an adjustment period, but I got used to it after a month or so. The more versatile you are, the better."

That, and he could still play short, which is why Kozma is a nifty fallback for a Cardinals team that needed one after risking big money on the fragile Furcal. Kozma's been on quite a roller-coaster ride, so it's understandable he doesn’t want to spend too much time reflecting on his journey now that he’s finally settled in this season.

“It feels good, looking back on last year. I mean, yeah, I did it, but I’ve got a lot to do in the next five months. It’s definitely different. Some guys are obviously pitching me differently than they did last September. I’m making an adjustment; everyone goes through it,” Kozma said.

Kozma turned 25 last month, young enough to improve, and an example of somebody who has improved after consistent exposure. At the same time, he now has more than just the advantage of an opportunity and his skills going for him. “There are a lot more tools I use here, a lot more video on pitchers and hitters. It’s easier to do homework here,” Kozma said.

With an OPS just over .600 right now -- right around where Baseball Prospectus projected him to be -- and solid marks on defense from scouts and advanced metrics, he has a wins above replacement almost smack-dab on zero.

Maybe for some that means he’s a real-world illustration of replacement level. Or of why replacement level is a fairly arbitrary standard, because what Kozma does on the field and at the plate isn’t without value. More than a few teams would love to have him at short right now, because there may not be 30 better big league shortstops on the planet right now. Then again, Kozma’s opportunity is a product not of some rational distribution of shortstop talent. It’s equal parts the product of his own ability and what he does control, but also of chance and what he does not, like Furcal's injury.

And also because the Cardinals invested a pick in him that might have seemed wasted a year ago, or three. But was it ever really a bad pick?

As one MLB team official noted about first-rounders in particular and prospects in general, “I think it’s easy for us to get lost at times in star chasing. Even the best teams have five or six stars, and 19 other roster spots. How you fill those is incredibly important, and we lose sight at times at how valuable those players -- like a Kozma -- can be. There are players in any system who are going to be big leaguers. Guys worth a 25-man roster spot despite the fact that they will not be stars.”

Is that really what you’re supposed to get with a first-round pick, though? Are people inside or outside the game so much in love with upside risk and the built-in expectation that those risks pay off -- even when upside arms like Poreda and Brackman clearly have not -- that they might lose sight of the value of a “solid” pick?

As the team official notes, “Sure, I think early in the [first round], you have to draft stars. But at 18, how many stars have been drafted 18th overall? That’s gotta be a tiny group. It may sound crazy, but if you get a big leaguer at No. 18, you’re doing well.”

The man has a point: From the past 30 years, only two players picked 18th overall have generated double-digit WAR totals on their careers, Joe Magrane (’85) and R.A. Dickey (’94) -- and Dickey only got that far by reinventing himself as a knuckleballer, something no talent evaluator might have foreseen. The best No. 18 of more recent vintage is Ike Davis of the Mets (’08), followed by Aaron Heilman (’01). By this statistical standard, Kozma is already the fourth-best No. 18 pick of the past 20 years, thanks almost entirely to one great September. Which is goofy, but there again, you can play that game with particular draft picks almost every year.

In the meantime, Kozma has an opportunity, having already made an impression. His value, as a regular, as a shortstop, as a first-round pick and as a ballplayer, can be many things. But whatever WAR might say, the numbers don’t really just add up to zero, not when there are players worth literally nothing, not in a world in which you can’t conjure up a Kozma on command when you lose a star at shortstop. It’s the Cardinals’ good fortune to have Kozma on hand when they’ve needed him.

I did a phoner with Michele Steele talking about the Cardinals' shortstop situation now that Rafael Furcal needs season-ending Tommy John surgery.

A quick point: Pete Kozma and Ryan Jackson shared shortstop duties at Triple-A Memphis last year. Actually, that's not quite right. Jackson played 102 games at short and Kozma played 45, which tells you who the Cardinals thought was the better shortstop. The numbers back up the belief that Jackson is the superior fielder, as he made 4.18 plays per game at Memphis, Kozma 3.02. Jackson had a better fielding percentage and turned a higher percentage of double plays. Jackson even hit better -- .272/.334/.396 versus Kozma's .232/.292/.355. In fact, Kozma played poorly enough at Memphis that the Cardinals have admitted they nearly removed him from the 40-man roster last summer.

Of course, Kozma got the call when Furcal was injured last September and hit surprisingly well (.333/.383/.569). He then delivered a couple big hits in the postseason, although if you remember his defense was very shaky, and not just on that infield fly pop-up to shallow left against the Braves in the wild-card game.

Look, Jackson is the better player. Kozma isn't anything close to a .300 hitter and I don't see the evidence that he has the ability to play shortstop in the big leagues on a regular basis. He may win the job out of spring training based on September's performance, but I think Jackson eventually takes over.


We just witnessed one of the most amazing games in postseason history. Whether this game will eventually earn itself a place alongside other legendary games remains to be seen -- after all, Cardinals-Nationals doesn’t quite have the same buzz to it as Red Sox-Yankees or Dodgers-Giants -- but I can assure you this: None of us has ever seen this before.

No team had ever rallied from more than four runs down to win a sudden-death postseason game, and only two teams had done that -- the Pittsburgh Pirates in Game 7 of the 1925 World Series against the, yes, Washington Senators, and the New York Yankees in Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series.

The St. Louis Cardinals made history in remarkable fashion.

Of course, that means, with the 9-7 loss, the Washington Nationals made history in the most heartbreaking fashion possible.

I had an entire post written, telling Nationals fans that winning in the postseason isn’t easy, that even holding a six-run lead is never easy, that playoff baseball makes your stomach churn and all that.

I wrote that assuming they would hold on to the lead. Even after Gio Gonzalez once again lost the ability to throw a ball over home plate and the Cardinals scored three runs. Even after Edwin Jackson was for some reason summoned from the bullpen to pitch an inning and allowed a run. Even after Daniel Descalso homered in the eighth off Tyler Clippard to make the score 6-5. But when the Nationals added an insurance run in eighth, it felt like Nationals fans could finally breathe.

[+] EnlargeDaniel Descalso
AP Photo/Nick WassDaniel Descalso, right, drove home the tying runs, then scored the final one of the Cards' comeback.
On the other hand, as Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma -- a man apparently of few words -- said after delivering the go-ahead two-run single: "Never give up."

Damn.

* * * *

Friend of mine after the game, not a Cardinals fan or Nationals fan: “If the Mariners ever lost a game like this, I'd be in a hospital.”

Postseason baseball is the most exhilarating ride in sports.

Postseason baseball is the cruelest of sports.

* * * *

Carlos Beltran is awesome. He singled in the first, walked and scored in the fourth, walked in the fifth when the Cardinals scored twice off Gonzalez, doubled in the seventh to move Jon Jay to third (Jay would score), doubled to deep right-center off Drew Storen leading off the ninth. What a game. Five plate appearances, five times on base. One of the great sudden-death game performances a hitter has had.

* * * *

Calvin Schiraldi, Bill Buckner, Donnie Moore, Grady Little and company, Jose Mesa, the guy pitching in the Francisco Cabrera game (actually it was two, Doug Drabek and Stan Belinda), David Cone and Black Jack McDowell … and, yes, even Mariano Rivera. And now Drew Storen.

* * * *

Yadier Molina had a terrific at-bat in the ninth inning with two outs and Beltran on second. He was 2-for-18 in the series when he stepped in and had left the bases loaded in the fifth, flying out to right field on a 2-0 fastball from Gonzalez. The pitch sequence:

Slider low.
Fastball fouled back. (Fans standing, cheering, mustering strength to wave their red towels, two strikes away!)
Fastball outside.
A 96-mph fastball fouled away. (One strike away!)
A slider that dipped low. I don’t know how Molina held up. Tremendous pitch awareness and bat control.
Fastball high.

From the moment that Allen Craig struck out, Storen threw 12 pitches, any of which could have ended the game. Six pitches to Molina. Six more to David Freese, who also walked. The 13th pitch was a 94 mph fastball that Descalso ripped hard up the middle, off the glove of Ian Desmond, the ball bounding far enough into center field to easily score pinch runner Adron Chambers with the tying run.

* * * *

Kozma, a guy who hit .232 in Triple-A, playing only because of the September injury to starting shortstop Rafael Furcal, then lined a 2-2 fastball into right field to score two more runs. (Descalso had smartly stolen second base).

Washington manager Davey Johnson could have walked Kozma once Descalso stole second base. Cardinals closer Jason Motte, who had pitched the eighth inning, was due up next, although Cardinals manager Mike Matheny had sent backup catcher Tony Cruz, the last player left on the bench, to the on-deck circle as a decoy. He’d be entering the game anyway for Molina, who had been run for. Kozma has been pretty hot, hitting .333 for the Cardinals during his September call-up and homering earlier in this season.

Johnson could have put Kozma on and pitched to Cruz, which would have served two purposes: Force Matheny to bat Cruz, a guy who hit .254/.267/.365 in 126 at-bats, but also a guy without an at-bat in nine days. More importantly, it would have likely forced Matheny to pull Motte. Matheny already used Joe Kelly, Trevor Rosenthal, Edward Mujica and Mitchell Boggs, so that would have meant the Cardinals would be using, at best, their fifth-best reliever in the ninth.

Huge mistake by Johnson and I can only guess he was in such a state of shock he didn’t have time to think the situation through properly.

* * * *

Yes, the Nationals could have used Stephen Strasburg. That’s obvious. Whether that lost the series for them is debatable. But I’m pretty sure he would have helped somewhere along the line.

Cardinals' unhappy formula for failure

September, 16, 2012
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If there’s one takeaway where the defending world champs are concerned, it’s this: Even wounded, these Cardinals could still fly. Most teams, you scratch a No. 1 starter, a leadoff man and a cleanup hitter, and you might expect them to be long since dead in the water. But even without Chris Carpenter, without Rafael Furcal, without Lance Berkman -- all of that in the post-Pujols era -- no matter how many blows the Cards take, they aren’t dead, not by a long shot.

The big question, though, isn’t why they’re still going, but why they’re not ahead just the same. With a record that is games worse than expected, they’re supposed to be able to lose games like Saturday night’s -- a 4-3 defeat in Los Angeles -- and not break a sweat. But that’s not where they are. Instead, they’ve fallen into a tie with the Dodgers for the National League’s last slot.

It isn’t supposed to have worked out this way. Allen Craig plated every run the Cardinals scored, a Pujolsian feat that also reflects a creeping problem for the Cards’ offense: The league-leading attack that had been scoring 5 runs per game before the All-Star break has dropped off to score 4.4 runs per game since. They were allowing 4.2 runs before the break, and they’re at 4.0 runs allowed per nine after, but because of the offense’s drop-off, the margins they get to work with have narrowed.

The first-half question over why the Cardinals weren’t doing as well as they should has become more persistent in the second half, and after a swing game like Saturday’s, the uncomfortable questions are unavoidable.

Is it the manager? Rookie manager Mike Matheny’s under fire, but he was tasked with the impossible task of following in Tony La Russa’s footsteps as the old mast heads down the road to Cooperstown. It’s easy to single out the Cardinals’ record in one-run games -- now 18-25 -- and assert that some better manager to be named later would do better than that.

But that’s looking for a fall guy, and Matheny may not really deserve that, save as a matter of expectations as the first-year skipper managing a defending world champ. Any suggestion that La Russa might be the Cardinals’ missing man most missed might have needed one particular proof this night: Would the bullpen deliver? Love it or hate it, that’s the gold standard by which most managers get judged by many commentators and fans, because ’pen management is the one task that’s transparent to the public.

After getting a good game from Jaime Garcia, without getting too clever playing matchup games Matheny ran through his crew in straightforward style: Edward Mujica to Mitchell Boggs to Jason Motte ... and Motte blew it, giving up a two-out double in the ninth to Luis Cruz for the tie, then gave up the game-losing single to Juan Rivera.

There was no special brand of genius involved, just a scripted set-up gone wrong: Closer tasked with closing, leaves the door open, then sees it blown off its hinges. If Matheny’s to be judged, it’s by exactly the same standard that Casey Stengel suggested back in the day, in happier circumstances after winning the 1958 World Series: “I couldna dunnit without the players.”

To Matheny’s credit, he managed other elective tasks just fine on Saturday night. Swapping around in the middle infield midgame is the Cardinals’ lot. Early on they paid the penalty of making Daniel Descalso a shortstop as a matter of need: His first error in the first inning created the Dodgers’ first score. With second baseman Descalso playing short and converted outfielder Skip Schumaker starting at second, the Cards have been sacrificing defense to put their best available players in the lineup. Is that on Matheny? No more than the subsequently regretted decision to dump key utilityman Tyler Greene on the Astros.

With a lead six frames into the game, out came Schumaker, in came good-glove Pete Kozma at shortstop, and Descalso slid back to his natural position. Lineup management isn’t particle physics. Inveterate tinkerer La Russa may be history in every sense of the word, but this sort of lineup tinkering can still go on without him as Matheny tries to compensate for losing Furcal.

Given the Cardinals’ increasingly narrow margins, watching every run, every opportunity, forces Matheny to make tough calls. You can’t really blame him for the choices he made, given the options he had. No less than the bullpen blowing the game, you can’t blame him too badly for having Descalso at short. The agony for the Cardinals right now is that it’s adding up to just enough to lose.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Jason MotteHarry How/Getty ImagesWell that Jason Motte might cover his face after blowing the save on Saturday night.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

Is the stretch Freese's time of year?

September, 2, 2012
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Every season has its bright lights, new and old alike. Take the question of whose star burns brightest at the hot corner in the National League, right now. David Wright might be the obvious answer for best ballplayer at third base, but playing for the Mets, he might as well be shining down on the rest of us from the galaxy Irrelevant, light years away from a pennant race. Chipper Jones would probably be the next-best answer, but he’s a month and change from going nova and calling it quits, a superstar so bright he’ll be putting people in the shade from Cooperstown for decades to come.

Instead, right now, as the shadows of the season grow long, the question might be whether it’s that time of year again, that time when it will be David Freese’s star that burns brightest. That’s because the hero of last October’s action for the Cardinals could not have chosen a better time to reignite than on Saturday, because now, as then, the Cardinals absolutely need him.

Against the Nationals, Freese ripped a second-inning two-run homer that helped run Jordan Zimmermann out of the game early, then plated the deciding score in the ninth off Nationals set-up man Drew Storen in the Cardinals' 10-9 victory. It was a nice time for Freese to step up for all sorts of reasons: He helped end a four-game losing streak, he fueled an offense that had been limited to a lone run in those games, and he broke with his own recent bad run, as he’s struggled with a .650 OPS over the previous four weeks.

Last year might have represented Freese’s coming-out party, when he starred in October for the eventual champs by plating 21 October runs while clouting five homers, coming right on the heels of a nice September run (.844 OPS). Well-timed, sure, and maybe just that. But nice to have if he's on your team.

But coming-out or not, Freese's arrival has been something of a slow-moving development because of a career frequently interrupted by injury: He lost the second half of 2009 to surgery on his left foot, more than half of 2010 to ankle surgery on his right foot, and almost a third of the 2011 season to surgery to repair a broken hamate. As a result, Freese is already in his age-29 season, so there is no better time for him to blaze away than right now.

His recent slump aside, he’s nevertheless in the front rank of third basemen in this or any league. Despite the injuries he’s been remarkably strong year-to-year in his three full-ish seasons in the majors, never delivering a BABIP below .356 -- no, everybody does not inevitably “regress” to .300 -- while putting up career-best power (.172 Isolated Power) and a career-best walk rate (over 9 percent) in 2012. Hitting as many line drives as he strikes out -- 22 percent of the time for both -- puts Freese in rare company with younger sluggers like Carlos Gonzalez, Giancarlo Stanton, Freddie Freeman and Paul Goldschmidt.

The Cardinals haven’t had a long-term answer at third base since they traded away Scott Rolen, and one of Freese’s many tests is whether he’ll be more like Rolen and less like another injury-prone temporary fix like Troy Glaus was for the Cardinals, briefly -- good to rent, but not reliably available. If he stays healthy, Freese could be better in his 30s than he was in his 20s, because you marry his past consistency with regular availability, and it's easy to anticipate good things.

In the meantime, if the Cardinals are going to have any shot at repeating last year’s 18-8 September run to get to October, they need Freese to heat up. Sure, they need Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday to deliver as well -- but both have struggled badly to get on base, putting up OBPs in the .260s in the last month. But a strong offense fires on more than one piston, or two. The ill-timed loss of Rafael Furcal to a torn-up elbow is a bad break, but even then, the Cardinals’ lineup has plenty of potential heroes. Allen Craig could fend off his own lengthy injury history and star down the stretch again. The Cards can hope that Lance Berkman’s comeback from an injured knee isn’t limited to sporadic spot starts and a whole lot of pinch-hitting. They’ll need Yadier Molina to bounce back from his most recent home-plate collision and continue crank out his own brand of MVP-level production from behind the plate.

But if now is the time that Freese fires his star back up again, it’ll make one cold August a quickly and easily forgotten memory. As much as the sabermetric community has happily helped kill off notions like clutch hitting as some innate, separate skill from being able to just flat-out hit, you can’t blame a guy like Freese for becoming famous if, now as then, he’s ready to run for the stretch, and perhaps blaze as brightly as any other star.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Bryce HarperBrad Mills/US PresswireJust what the Cardinals need, more home-plate mayhem for Yadier Molina his first night back.

Cueto putting it all together this year

August, 24, 2012
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For a St. Louis Cardinals fan, saying something nice about Johnny Cueto, who in a 2010 brawl literally kicked Jason LaRue out of baseball, is possibly more difficult than complimenting Don Denkinger. (At least Denkinger never meant to hurt anyone.) Still, with Cueto helping the Cincinnati Reds to a National League Central-leading 76-50 record, I'll say it: Cueto is one of the best pitchers in the league this year and should be considered for the Cy Young.

That's less a personal opinion than a fact. Though he didn't pitch quite as well Thursday against the Philadelphia Phillies -- allowing two runs in five innings, while issuing three walks in a game the Reds would lose 4-3 in 11 innings -- as he has for most of the year, Cueto entered the game with a 2.44 ERA, the best in the National League. Not bad for a guy who starts half his games in one of the majors' homer-happiest parks.

Somehow, he's keeping the ball on the ground, as his uncannily low 6.2 percent home run/fly ball ratio attests. But his third consecutive year with a single-digit homer-to-fly rate just might be due to something in his control, such as inducing weak contact. That's in no small part because of an increased reliance on his changeup, which he's featuring twice as often as he did in 2011.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Cueto
Eric Hartline/US PresswireJohnny Cueto and his NL-leading 2.47 ERA have been a constant for the injury-plagued Reds.
His non-traditional stats -- career bests in strikeout/walk (3.65), fielding independent pitching (3.04) and xFIP (3.62) -- are strong, but not as knockout-impressive as other Cy Young candidates such as Stephen Strasburg (11.33 K/9), Gio Gonzalez (2.80 FIP), Clayton Kershaw (2.84 FIP), Cliff Lee (6.04 K/BB) or Adam Wainwright (2.99 xFIP). Still, it's not like Cueto is a one-hit wonder: He would've won the NL ERA title last year with a 2.31 ERA had season-starting and -ending stints on the disabled list not prevented him from pitching a measly six more innings to qualify.

He has been healthy the entire 2012 season and therefore has been a constant for the Reds, who have at various times been without the services of key players such as Joey Votto, Scott Rolen, Drew Stubbs and Ryan Madson. Just how important has the righty been to the Reds? Despite Votto's ethereal .465 OBP, Cueto nearly matches him in WAR (wins above replacement), 4.3 to 4.8. So Cueto may more appropriately qualify as an MVP candidate than for the Cy Young.

As the surging Cardinals head into Cincinnati for a weekend series, Cueto will miss the action (he's next scheduled to pitch Tuesday). In addition to the built-in rivalry between the two contending teams -- including former Cardinals Rolen, Ryan Ludwick and Miguel Cairo, all of whom don a different red-and-white uniform now -- the matchup is a reminder of the ongoing bad blood between the Reds' ace and the defending world champs. The weekend tilt isn't the only meeting with Cardinals players that Cueto has missed this season. Though he was expected to join Yadier Molina (later replaced by Matt Holliday), Carlos Beltran, Lance Lynn, David Freese and Rafael Furcal on the NL All-Star team, former Cardinals manager Tony La Russa passed over Cueto, upsetting both the player and his manager, Dusty Baker. For his part, La Russa denied any vendetta, insisting that he omitted Cueto because he was scheduled to start two days before the game. La Russa also snubbed Zack Greinke, having a better year than Cueto, and of course is no stranger to head-scratcher lineup choices. But even so, the episode wasn't exactly an act of rapprochement.

Cueto made himself persona non grata with the Cardinals two years ago for his cheap shots in the fight. But there's nothing cheap about his 2012 campaign, which he's establishing with his arm. And that's what continues to make his presence on the field an unwelcome sight, not only for the Cardinals but the rest of the National League this year.

Matt Philip tweets at @fungoes and posts everything that doesn't fit at fungoes.net.

Post-Pujols era begins in St. Louis

April, 13, 2012
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Stan MusialJeff Curry/US PresswireMaybe Albert Pujols wasn't at the Cardinals home opener, but Stan Musial was.


ST. LOUIS -- The Clydesdales weren't the only traditional attraction missing from the Cardinals' rain-delayed home opener Friday afternoon.

For the first time in 11 years, Albert Pujols didn't take his place on the first-base line when fans welcomed the team to their season debut in St. Louis. After backing into a starting role when Bobby Bonilla got injured in 2001, Pujols has started every home opener, playing third in 2001, left field in 2002 and 2003 and first base ever since.

The home opener in St. Louis is a sacred event, a religious rite. The gods of its pantheon, mononymously known as Stan, Red, Whitey, Lou, Gibby, Ozzie and Bruce, descend to the field in red blazers. The pregame ritual has an established form: The Clydesdales lead the procession (weather permitting), the gods stride in and the current players are introduced as they pay homage to the greats in a gesture of pope-like reverence today. (Example: Chris Carpenter doffed his cap as he shook Stan Musial's hand.)

Pujols long professed a love for those saints of Cardinals Nation, saying of Musial: "There is one man that gets that respect [of being called The Man], and that’s Stan Musial. He’s the Man. He’s the Man in St. Louis. " Even as an Angel, he has rejected the nickname "El Hombre," which the Angels tried using in a preseason ad campaign, saying "I feel the same way" about not wanting to equate himself with Musial.

Still, if Stan was the Man, Pujols was a close second. But when Pujols left to sign with the Angels last winter, his deal ensured that, even if he and his former team were to thaw their relationship, he won't be joining those Cardinals legends on opening day for a long time: In addition to a 10-year playing contract, the deal includes a 10-year, personal-services agreement following the playing contract's expiration or Pujols' retirement, whichever is later. If you thought that the ice took a long time to melt in the team's relationships with Keith Hernandez and Ozzie Smith, any possible return of Pujols will be at a glacial pace.

Not that it mattered to Cardinals fans today. After a moment of silence for former Cardinal Bob Forsch, who died Nov. 3., the faithful weren't about to mourn the loss of Pujols. After all, they were celebrating the club's 11th World Series title, so they had plenty to cheer about.

And after extending the contract of fan favorite Yadier Molina, re-signing Rafael Furcal and bringing in Carlos Beltran, the Cardinals lead the National League Central and are scoring runs like they did last year, when they led the league in runs and on-base percentage. To hear the crowd laud World Series hero David Freese as he unloaded from his parade truck, Cardinal fans already have a new object of their affection.

As much as Pujols meant in St. Louis, the name on the front of the jersey still matters more than the one on the back, as unknown reliever Victor Marte, who doesn't even have an MLB profile photo yet, would attest. Heck, Shannon Magrane, "American Idol" daughter of former Cardinal pitcher Joe Magrane (who started on Opening Day from 1988 to 1991) received a louder ovation than most players (including those earning their paychecks in Anaheim) hear on opening day.

The Cardinals, who lost 9-5 to the Chicago Cubs, could've used Pujols this afternoon. But today, Pujols seemed as distant as the memory of him hitting into three double plays on Opening Day last year. Like the Clydesdales, who remain part of the Cardinal opening-day celebration long after Augie Busch sold the team, the Cardinals are bigger than any one tradition. It takes more than rain and a departed icon to dampen a home opener in St. Louis.

Spending the Pujols dividend... on Furcal?

December, 11, 2011
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As expected, after losing out on Albert Pujols the Cardinals’ first order of business wasn’t to sign another first baseman, it was to land a shortstop. Re-signing incumbent shortstop Rafael Furcal might not placate mortified Cardinals fans, but it did promptly resolve the most important order of business on GM John Mozeliak’s agenda post-Pujols.

[+] EnlargeRafael Furcal
Scott Rovak/US PresswireThe Cardinals have to hope Rafael Furcal can stay healthy after bringing back the free agent shortstop for a two-year deal.
At a reported $14 million over two years the obvious question is whether the Cardinals overpaid for a shortstop with a superstar rep but less than star-level production. Simply put, Furcal hasn’t had a season in which he’s been great at the plate and healthy enough to play 100 games since 2006. He’s had just two healthy seasons in that span, managing to play 138 games in 2007 and 150 in 2009. He’s been on the DL six times in five years, missing a total of 269 games with assorted injuries.

How good was Furcal when he was healthy? Not very, as it turns out, not relative to other shortstops. Per Baseball-Reference.com, in that 2007 season he ranked just 19th in OPS among MLB players with 300 or more PAs playing shortstop, and 22nd in WAR. In 2009, he moved up to 15th in OPS, and 10th in WAR. For his production over the entire five-year span combined, Furcal rates 11th among big-league shortstops in Baseball-Reference.com’s brand of WAR, and 14th in OPS.

Is he worth the money? He clearly profited from position-related scarcity. The problem Mozeliak was confronted with is that there weren’t that many alternatives on the market, because it isn’t entirely open. The supply of players is limited with the specific goal of improving compensation, and the supply of people better than Furcal was effectively out of the Cardinals’ reach: Jose Reyes was already a Marlin before the Pujols sweepstakes ended, while Jimmy Rollins wants (or wanted) five years and seems increasingly inclined towards a return to Philadelphia. The Cardinals might not have had many rivals for Furcal’s attention, but trying to drive a hard bargain could have brought him into the range of competing bids.

What about a trade? You can always expand the pool of possible shortstops beyond the free agents, but it’s easier to speculate about swinging a deal for somebody else’s shortstop than to actually pull one off; teams have a way of wanting to retain the best players at the position. Chasing after the Padres’ Jason Bartlett might have been the best option out there -- he’s locked in for $5.5 million in 2012, with a 2013 club option for the same (or a $1.5 million buyout), which is a lot less than Furcal is making. But that amount of control at that level of cost would have guaranteed that the Cardinals would have had to offer quality prospects to San Diego, something that seems especially difficult to do in today’s prospect-worshipping market.

You can figure that the Cardinals’ largesse with Furcal is their way of re-employing some major portion of the Pujols dividend. But the notion that there is a Pujols dividend suggests what’s really wrong with this sort of money on Furcal: Not that they didn’t get one of the best shortstops available, but that’s a left-handed compliment -- there aren’t many shortstops available. The real complaint about the expense is whether or not the money spent potentially limits them from spending money on any of their other needs. Or pursuing Carlos Beltran.

As long as we’re spending our time worrying about how people are spending money, the other thing to wonder about is how much of a financial reward the world champion Cardinals will reap in year-after profits. You might think that there’s some room to grow: Last year’s per-game attendance ran at 87 percent of capacity, the lowest it has ever been in their six seasons in the latest Busch Stadium. But that reflects the benefit of having a reliably loyal fan base. The Cardinals have ranked third in the league in attendance for five years in a row -- they don’t have a ton of room to move up. In 2007, the season after their previous title, they got a meager attendance bump of just 145,000 paying customers. Pujols’ defection probably won’t help 2012 ticket sales any, nor will the state of the local economy.

So it’s Furcal for $14 million for two years. If he hits as well as he did for the Cardinals down the stretch, they won’t complain; if they get OBPs in the .330-.340 range, they’ll consider the offensive side of the proposition a success. If he’s healthy enough to play 240 out of 324 regular-season games over the life of the contract, they should consider themselves lucky.

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

NL Central: Three fixes for each team

November, 30, 2011
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Now in its last-ever season as Bud Selig’s six-team division, the NL Central gave us the league’s pennant contenders, and figures to give us one of the most interesting offseasons of any division in baseball. Not least because the challenges confronting the Brewers and Cardinals are so very similar.

Milwaukee Brewers

1. First base: Open. (Prince Fielder, free agent)

Losing a batter of Fielder's quality and stature really shouldn't be the way the Brewers send off their 2011 season, but it remains to be seen whether they can afford to go dollar for dollar with the other teams that want him. If they fail to bring him back, they'll be hoping that the sporadically touted Mat Gamel finally breaks through. Gamel has spent most of the past three years at Triple-A Nashville, hitting .301/.374/.512 as a lefty power source -- or what figures to be a drop at the big league level from Fielder.

Likely solution: It's fairly straightforward. If they lose Fielder, they'll probably bank on Gamel, because he's a better choice than hauling in one of the second-tier free agents.

2. Shortstop: Open. (Yuniesky Betancourt, free agent)

The Brewers' situation is much like the Cardinals' in that if they don't keep their All-Star slugger at first, their highest priority won't be signing another first baseman, it'll be getting a shortstop. They've flirted with the best budget option, Rafael Furcal, but there's also been talk that they'd settle for bringing back Betancourt.

Likely solution: After Fielder signs elsewhere, it won't be surprising if getting a deal with Furcal done happens in short order. If they somehow manage to re-sign Fielder, bringing back Betancourt for much less than Furcal would cost becomes fairly likely.

3. Bullpen depth.

With Francisco Rodriguez and LaTroy Hawkins both on the move as free agents, finding adequate set-up help for closer John Axford becomes a significant item on GM Doug Melvin's shopping list. While you can hope that power lefty Zach Braddock will be back in the mix, after last season's problems they might also be interested in adding a veteran lefty.

Likely solution: They'll sign at least two veterans, but it won't be for huge money or longer for two years or year-plus-option deals.

St. Louis Cardinals

1. First base: Open. (Albert Pujols, free agent)

The blowback if the Cards fail to sign Pujols will be significant but survivable -- they did just win a World Series, after all. And if Pujols does leave, they're set to replace him on the field with Lance Berkman and in the lineup with Allen Craig (taking Berkman's place in right). If they keep Pujols, they'd certainly have a bargaining chip in Craig, which they might use to address their other issues, but it's likely they'd nevertheless keep him.

Likely solution: If they don't sign Pujols, they won't sign a first baseman.

2. Shortstop: Open. (Rafael Furcal, free agent)

Just like their division rivals in Milwaukee, the Cards' top priority if they don't land their superstar is to find a shortstop. While you might expect that a team throwing around the kind of money it will cost to keep Pujols could easily re-employ it to sign Jose Reyes, that doesn't seem likely, as the Cards really only seem committed to opening the wallet to keep their homegrown franchise player.

Likely solution: They beat the Brewers' bid for Furcal if they want to, or make Jimmy Rollins a happy man if they decide to make a longer-term commitment.

3. Second base: Skip Schumaker, Ryan Theriot, Daniel Descalso

The Schumaker-Theriot platoon down the stretch was nice, but Schumaker still plays second base like a converted outfielder, while Theriot's last year before free agency might be an arbitration-inflated expense that GM John Mozeliak decides he'd rather not afford. Add in Descalso's line-drive pop and plus defense at the hot corner, and you've got a number of useful alternatives.

Likely solution: It depends how comfortable new manager Mike Matheny is with the fluid roster situations that Tony La Russa exploited with relish. Theriot can serve as the backup shortstop, Schumaker the chief reserve in center, while Descalso can be David Freese's defensive replacement and spotter at third. If Matheny's adaptive enough to exploit all of that, second base isn't a problem.

Cincinnati Reds

1. Sorting out the rotation.

After not really resolving the situation over 2011, the Reds are still confronted with tough choices from among six plausible alternatives for four rotation slots. (Thanks to still owing Bronson Arroyo $28.5 million, they're stuck with him in the other slot for two more years.) However, GM Walt Jocketty's choice seems to involve a lot of “none of the above,” given rumors that his offseason interests are focused on even more young starters, with Jair Jurrjens of the Braves or John Danks or Gavin Floyd of the White Sox getting mentioned.

Probable solution: Assuming that where there's smoke there's fire, expect the Reds to deal from offensive depth to land a starting pitcher, with some of the overflow splashing over into the bullpen.

2. Closer: Open (Francisco Cordero, free agent)

With the market already overstocked with closers, Jocketty sensibly ditched Cordero's $12 million option for 2012 to explore his alternatives. Then the early-acting Phillies prompted a small run on that market segment with their signing of Jonathan Papelbon, and with Joe Nathan and Jonathan Broxton already signed, the best fit for the Reds' homer-happy park might be ... Cordero, because Heath Bell is out of their price range, while Brad Lidge or Matt Capps would be a bit combustible.

Probable solution: Getting Cordero to come back for a multiyear deal for a lower average annual value on the deal ought to work for the two parties, but if cost is still an object, Jocketty could reach for a mid-market right-hander like Octavio Dotel or Frank Francisco as a placeholder, and groom Cuban flamethrower Aroldis Chapman for the role of save generator.

3. Lineup choices.

The fun challenge for the Reds will be seeing how they integrate the talent they have coming up. Devin Mesoraco should win a share of the catching duties, while Zack Cozart will give them a solid two-way player at short. Juan Francisco and Yonder Alonso could both slug their way into taking playing time from Chris Heisey in left, but Francisco could also start nabbing starts from Scott Rolen at third base.

Probable solution: Dusty Baker has built job-sharing set-ups in the past, so this mini youth movement won't get nipped in the bud. However, Alonso is getting dangled in trade talks; if he's dealt for a starting pitcher, that would at least kill those Joey Votto trade rumors deader than Elvis.

Pittsburgh Pirates

1. Third base: Pedro Alvarez.

Because the Pirates have already signed Rod Barajas to catch and Clint Barmes to play shortstop, their best hope for significant offensive improvement from baseball's worst in 2011, according to Baseball Prospectus' True Average, is going to be for Alvarez to turn into the guy they thought they were getting when they made him the second overall selection of the 2008 draft. A .561 OPS with bad defense simply isn't going to fly, but the danger for the Bucs is that they'll quit on Alvarez too soon -- he's already approaching club options for 2013 and 2014.

Likely solution: Other than working with Alvarez, there isn't one. If he continues to struggle, they can use Josh Harrison for singles and steals.

2. Offense from the corners.

They've already offered Derrek Lee arbitration, which would staff first base while keeping Garrett Jones in right field. But they also have Jose Tabata and Alex Presley to employ in the outfield corners. That doesn't really add up to great power from these three power slots, even if they keep Lee. A Jones-Lee platoon might sound great in the abstract, but you can bet that Lee wouldn't care for it, while Tabata's power is still mostly a matter of anticipation that he'll eventually have some. If Lee walks, platooning Jones with the recently signed Nick Evans is a cheap solution -- but still leaves the Bucs light on power.

Likely solution: Again, there isn't one. The farm system doesn't have the next Willie Stargell on tap.

3. Take stock.

For a team whose upside might scrape 80 wins, the Pirates already have a fairly settled lineup, rotation and bullpen. Shopping closer Joel Hanrahan might have made sense most winters, but with the closer market overstocked with options, there are few guarantees that GM Neal Huntington could add the kind of prospects to make it worthwhile. Gunning for ending the 19-season losing streak might be worthwhile, but if that's this team's upside, how excited about that should anyone really be?

Chicago Cubs

Not trying to be Zen-like about this, but the Cubs' issues transcend single positions and demand expansive solutions ...

1. Achieve closure. (Carlos Zambrano)

Before moving on to new business, the Cubs' new brain trust needs to be sure that it's finished up with the most noisome bit of old business. To get even a middling prospect, the Cubs would need to eat just about all of the $18 million that Zambrano's due and get him to waive his no-trade clause.

As tense as Big Z's relationship with his employers has been, you can understand some of his frustration -- moving him to the bullpen in 2010 was genuinely stupid, and who wouldn't get exasperated with being a Cub? Whether the choice is to clean the slate or make a deal, it's worthwhile to choose and move on.

Likely outcome: Unless the Marlins' idea of getting him to defer salary goes anywhere, get used to the idea that Zambrano will be with the Cubs in camp when pitchers and catchers report.

2. Acquire patience and power (6.9 percent walk rate, 29th in MLB)

This isn't just the fault of veterans Alfonso Soriano (5.3 percent walk rate in 2011) and Marlon Byrd (5.2); kids like Starlin Castro (4.9) and Darwin Barney (3.9) don't work their way aboard either. It's hard to sustain any kind of offense without baserunners, and right now the only regular with a walk rate better than league average is Geovany Soto. And with Carlos Pena and Aramis Ramirez vacating the infield corners, the Cubs are losing two of their best power sources.

Likely outcome: Top prospect Brett Jackson (73 walks in 512 PAs in the minors) will make the team at some point, likely replacing Byrd in center (if he's dealt). The Cubs just signed David DeJesus for right field, but short of re-signing Pena or landing either Pujols or Fielder to man first base, it's going to take some pretty creative wheeling and dealing to significantly improve matters in Year 1 of the Theo Epstein era.

3. Improve the defense (.699 Defensive Efficiency, 26th in MLB)

The new crew in charge talks about defense a bit, and it's easy to understand why, given the weak performance afield of the group it's inheriting. In particular, it's no secret that Castro's brand of shortstop play didn't do the Cubs any favors, as he ranked last among big league shortstops in Total Zone and BIS' Defensive Runs Saved.

Likely outcome: The upside of having a young star at short will mean a lot of extra infield practice for Castro in February, and Jackson will improve the outfield once he's up. But if Castro's footwork doesn't improve, moving him to third and the much more slick Barney to short (where his bat would profile better) could eventually be part of the solution.

Houston Astros

1. Picking a GM.

This is it, the wellspring from which everything else will flow, and hiring Ed Wade for the pointless kamikaze run of 2008 represents what you get when you choose the bitter dregs. The good news is that Jim Crane's gang certainly seems to have the right names on its short list, with GM Andrew Friedman of the Rays and Rangers assistant GM Thad Levine at the top. Guys like AGM Rick Hahn of the White Sox, DeJon Watson or Logan White from the Dodgers, former Royals GM Allard Baird or former D-backs AGM Peter Woodfork might also turn up. As many people as opted out of the Orioles' front-office gig may want in on Houston's.

Likely solution: It's entirely dependent on who gets interviewed and who makes the right impression, but it already looks like they've got the right people in mind. If they were only picking between Friedman and Levine, there wouldn't be a wrong answer.

2. Shortstop: Open (Barmes, departed to Pittsburgh as a free agent)

Barmes provided plus defense and modest offense, but cashed in on that already, leaving Houston with Angel Sanchez atop the depth chart. Sanchez's poor range translates into ugly defensive numbers. With the rotation representing one of the few assets the Astros can brag about, they'd do well to provide the men on the mound with an assist afield with a defensive upgrade.

Likely solution: The interim until they pick a GM could hamstring their efforts to get someone like Alex Gonzalez signed to help maintain the starting pitchers' value and hold the fort until Jon Villar or Jiovanni Mier is ready.

3. Outfield: Open.

“Open” not in the sense that the Astros are losing anybody of note, but in that the new GM is going to have to decide if some combination of Brian Bogusevic, J.D. Martinez, Jason Bourgeois and Jordan Schafer is really what he wants out there, with Carlos Lee to plant in left whenever he isn't at first base.

Likely solution: Don't be surprised if a cheap veteran who can play all three slots -- say, a guy like Fred Lewis -- gets added to the mix.

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

No medal for fourth place in SS race

November, 20, 2011
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You’ve already seen the Jose Reyes rumors. If he makes a decision to sign with the Miami Marlins, the team would suddenly have two of the very few playable people at short between the former Met and Hanley Ramirez. Such a signing would make an already grim bit of holiday shopping for several NL contenders into a deal-or-die exercise.

Consider which players are on the market at short beyond Reyes: Jimmy Rollins, Rafael Furcal and... and a collection of people you sign with a sense of necessity, if not outright regret. Clint Barmes. Ronny Cedeno. Even Cesar Izturis. It’s the sort of market that might make even Nick Punto or Jack Wilson start to look good, even for guaranteed money.

Then consider which teams have postseason ambitions for 2012, and who also need a shortstop -- and their chance for Reyes already gone. Start with the world champion Cardinals sans Furcal, the Phillies sans Rollins, the Braves, the Brewers and the Giants. They’re all more likely to spend on a shortstop than the back-of-the-pack teams needing to find a shortstop, like the Astros and Pirates.

And that’s the problem in a nutshell at shortstop: There aren’t all that many somebodies capable of playing a good short and contributing on offense to go around. If Reyes settles early, the subsequent scramble could be the most interesting development of the winter. At the very least, the bidding on Rollins could go nuts, especially those teams that don’t have a shortstop prospect worthy of the name in their very near future. The Phillies have their hopes for Freddy Galvis, the Braves their own for Tyler Pastornicky; both clubs are probably the willing “losers” on this winter’s shortstop market, gunning for veteran shortstops they can sign for a year to keep the seat warm.

But that kind of consideration aside, this is one line you don’t want to be fourth in. The expectation the Pirates will pay Barmes eight figures over two years illustrates the downside. Even if you like Barmes’ defense, he’ll struggle to achieve a .300 OBP -- he’s at .302 career, 10 points better than Yuniesky Betancourt, 11 better than Alex Gonzalez.

As a result, the chance is obviously there for teams with some depth at short to make a trade. The Red Sox have their surplus with Marco Scutaro, Jed Lowrie and Mike Aviles all marking time while Jose Iglesias approaches the majors. There’s some speculation the Nats could swap Ian Desmond, which might involve pushing Danny Espinosa across the bag to short to make room for Stephen Lombardozzi at second. (That sort of creative expansion of shortstop alternatives helps explain why the Twins struck early to add Jamey Carroll, despite questions about his defense.) Given the potential payoff in prospects if the Padres are willing to deal, Josh Byrnes may well decide to peddle Jason Bartlett’s remaining season under contract -- for $5.5 million, or what now might be referred to as Clint Barmes money -- to a contender.

Indeed, the market's so weak and the contrast between the big three of Reyes, Rollins and Rafael Furcal versus all of the alternatives so significant, that you can understand why a team that doesn't get its top target this winter might decide to change gears and chase one of the shortstops. Take the Cardinals' situation. If they can't convince Albert Pujols to stick around, they shouldn't throw the money at another first baseman -- they have Lance Berkman already available to move to first, creating an opening for Allen Craig. They'd still be short at shortstop, though, which might drive GM John Mozeliak's top priority to be going after Rollins or retaining Furcal.

For those teams that don’t get Reyes or Rollins or Furcal, they can still potentially win with the other guys. The D’backs made it into the postseason with Willie Bloomquist doing his gosh-darned best bit of David Eckstein impersonation at short, and the Brewers treated people to the spectacle of being the first and probably last team to reach a League Championship Series with Betancourt as its everyday shortstop. And the Cardinals got by with Ryan Theriot at short for a significant portion of the season -- before taking off down the stretch for, among other reasons, replacing him with Furcal.

But with Furcal starting the Cardinals went 29-18. It’s that sort of immediate pick-me-up that will help inspire GMs to try and avoid finishing fourth in this particular race, because the difference between the shortstops you want to pay to play, and the ones you employ because you have to is so stark.

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

No time for moping in Atlanta

November, 4, 2011
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The misery of the Braves’ 2011 meltdown demands a certain resiliency and response. However, from the wreckage of the banged-up ballclub that would have been hard-pressed to replicate the Cardinals’ postseason success, there’s plenty of material to work with. The Phillies are far from invincible, the wild card’s in play every year, and the chances of retooling and winning 90 games or more in 2012 are good.

Dealing away Derek Lowe took back $5 million for the 2012 payroll -- which the arbitration cases of Michael Bourn, Jair Jurrjens, Martin Prado, and Eric O’Flaherty will gobble up in no time flat -- but the Braves’ overall payroll picture shouldn’t be cause for concern. Which leaves a question: What do the Braves need?

Not starting pitching, certainly. With Tommy Hanson due back from shoulder surgery and with Brandon Beachy, Mike Minor and Randall Delgado already looking good, with Julio Teheran, Arodys Vizcaino and J.J. Hoover not far behind, the Braves can avoid repeating the Lowe mistake -- overpaying for a veteran mediocrity in the rotation. The bullpen’s also stocked with top-shelf arms. And because Freddie Freeman’s already set at first base, Atlanta also doesn’t have to play in the most expensive sweepstakes of all this winter.

The Braves’ needs are simple: They need a thumper for left field, and they need a better all-around player than Alex Gonzalez at shortstop. And fortunately for Atlanta, the market has both things on offer.

Whether or not the Braves could renew their relationship with Rafael Furcal to provide the answer at short may well prove to be the key decision of their offseason. In part, there’s the possibility that Furcal will cost less than the alternatives: Jose Reyes would be perfect, but Liberty Media’s purse strings open only so far. And convince Jimmy Rollins to abandon Philly’s evil empire? It’s possible, but a deal longer than three years for a thirtysomething shortstop might be too rich for their blood as well.

Which is why Furcal would make for an ideal solution. Between a markdown for his injury history, his age (already 34), and his willingness to take a three-year deal during his previous free agency after the 2008 season, he might be a tidy fit into Atlanta’s infield and budget. Paired up with Bourn atop Fredi Gonzalez’s lineup would also give Atlanta some nice potential for basepaths havoc and good OBPs in front of their boppers. Admittedly, Furcal’s coming off a season where he produced his lowest walk rate (7.6 percent) since 2002. And Bourn’s 2011 walk rate similarly plummeted from just shy of 10 to 7.3 percent. But both hitters have done better, and Furcal’s .240 BABIP was the real OBP-sapping development, and that shouldn’t last.

If anything of this starts getting the Liberty execs squawking over the expense, all’s not lost. GM Frank Wren’s roster arms him with considerable freedom of action. Because of that depth in young pitching talent, he can afford to dangle Jurrjens in front of teams disenchanted by a free-agent market overstocked on recently injured thirtysomethings. The Braves don’t have to deal Jurrjens, but they can see what the market for him might be.

Similarly, because Martin Prado’s a moving part who can be wedged into a lineup at second, third or left, he’s also someone Wren can afford to shop around, because he can be taken as a short-term fix for so many teams at several different positions (as handy as it might be to have him around as an insurance policy against Chipper Jones’ next disabling injury or the failure to find a left fielder).

But having both available to peddle plus the bounty of the farm system gives Wren a hand with which he might do more than dump arb-eligibles to control payroll -- he could use them in a package to get an outfield bat for left. The White Sox’s rumored shopping of Carlos Quentin might a great place to start, giving the Braves’ lineup a second right-handed slugger to balance out their attack. Quentin’s also arb-eligible and just a year from free agency, but the potential for a salary-neutral exchange for 2012 is there.

The alternatives on the market aren’t great, but they are interested. Along the lines suggested yesterday, a creative deal for Grady Sizemore could work, but so too might J.D. Drew in a short-term agreement. The problem for both would be that they’d exacerbate the left-wards lean to the lineup. Renewing their acquaintance with Andruw Jones might be part of a cheap platoon arrangement with the ubiquitous Eric Hinske.

Whatever solutions Wren and company land upon, there’s plenty to work with, and perhaps even more to look forward to. But with Chipper Jones’ career winding down and commitments to Brian McCann and Tim Hudson (though there are options for both for 2013), as well as Bourn ending soon, angling for win-now solutions ought to be under consideration.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
CardinalsSteve Mitchell/US PresswireThe St. Louis Cardinals celebrate their 11th World Series title, beating the Texas Rangers in Game 7.

ST. LOUIS -- You fight through the monotony of fielding practice in spring training. The sore elbows, the back pain, the starts when you leave your fastball in the bullpen, and maybe a surgery or two at some point in your career.

Chris Carpenter missed an entire season with shoulder surgery. He missed another season after injuring his elbow on Opening Day and undergoing Tommy John surgery. When the St. Louis Cardinals reached the World Series in 2004, he couldn’t pitch due to nerve problem in his right biceps.

A couple days ago, Tony La Russa wasn’t sure if Carpenter would be able to pitch Game 7. For one thing, the Cardinals had to win Game 6. La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan didn’t officially decide to go with Carpenter until Friday, going with their staff ace on three days’ rest.

There was a time, of course, when that wouldn’t have been a big deal. Christy Mathewson once tossed three shutouts in the World Series over a six-day span. Sandy Koufax pitched a three-hit shutout in 1965 on two days’ rest. Jack Morris’ famous 10-inning shutout in 1991 came on three days’ rest.

[+] EnlargeChris Carpenter
Jeff Curry/US PresswireOn short rest, Chris Carpenter gave up two runs on six hits in six innings to win the clincher.
But Carpenter had only done that once before in his career -- three weeks ago, in Game 2 of the Division Series against the Philadelphia Phillies. He lasted three innings. It wasn’t pretty. He said he’d learned a few things from that experience. La Russa made the call: Go with the big guy, the 6-foot-6, 36-year-old veteran from New Hampshire with a scruffy growth of beard, and on this day, in the biggest game of his career, a toolbox full of pitches.

The St. Louis Cardinals beat the Texas Rangers 6-2 in a Game 7 of the World Series that couldn’t match the impossible drama and excitement of Game 6. The Rangers played hard, but their pitching staff simply ran out of gas, exemplified by the Cardinals’ fifth inning, when they scored two runs without getting the ball out of the infield -- without even getting a hit. Rangers pitchers walked three batters and hit two more, turning a 3-2 game into a 5-2 deficit. Critics will put a lot of blame on manager Ron Washington for the Rangers’ defeat, and deservedly so, but in the end the Rangers simply couldn’t throw enough strikes and couldn’t get the final out they needed in Game 6.

On this night, however, the Cardinals made the big plays: David Freese with another clutch hit, a two-out stinging double into the gap in left-center to score two runs in the first (giving the World Series MVP a postseason record 21 RBIs); Allen Craig with a go-ahead home run in the third, fighting back from a 1-2 count to hit a 3-2 Matt Harrison fastball into the St. Louis bullpen in right-center; Craig later robbing Nelson Cruz of a home run.

But the key was Carpenter. "Dave had a real heart-to-heart with him to gauge just how ready he was to pitch just physically, not mentally, but physically," La Russa said before the game. He then added, "The last thing is ... what he means to our club. I think our guys feel better about him starting than anybody."

Carpenter pitched into the seventh and became the first pitcher to win two do-or-die games in one postseason, after also winning Game 5 of the division series. No, it won't quite go down alongside Mathewson and Koufax and Morris, but it was a terrific effort, especially since he almost didn’t get out of the first inning. The first four batters all reached base as Carpenter fell behind each hitter. But Ian Kinsler slipped while taking an aggressive secondary lead and Yadier Molina picked him off. The play proved enormously costly when Elvis Andrus walked and Josh Hamilton and Michael Young doubled to right field. Carpenter struck out Adrian Beltre and got Cruz to ground, maybe the two key at-bats of the game.

From there, the St. Louis' bullpen mowed down the Rangers, Busch Stadium getting louder and louder with each out, erupting when Arthur Rhodes retired Yorvit Torrealba and Octavio Dotel struck out Kinsler, raising the decibel level when Lance Lynn fanned Beltre to end the eighth, the anticipation building into a loud chant of "Let's Go Cards!" in the ninth and the crowd releasing into a deafening explosion of joy as Jason Motte recorded the final out on a fly ball to left field.

Maybe Game 7 was over as soon Freese hit his home run onto the grass in Game 6. Many people said it was. I didn't think that was the case; I thought the Rangers had a chance. You make your own breaks, but the Rangers sure didn't catch any: Craig steps in for the injured Matt Holliday and has a great game; that 3-2 pitch to Molina with the bases loaded in the fifth could have been called a strike and changed the momentum of the game.

But give credit to Chris Carpenter and the St. Louis Cardinals, a team that could have given up in early September. A team that made the playoffs on the final day of the regular season, that needed to beat Roy Halladay just to reach the National League Championship Series, that was down to its final strike twice in Game 6, and figured out how to win the World Series. A worthy champion and one to be remembered.

* * * *

Of course, this World Series will also be remembered for the many questionable decisions by Washington, moves that led to the Rangers suffering one of the most painful defeats in World Series history. Before we get to that, keep this in mind: Rangers pitchers walked 41 batters, a World Series record worst. They walked six more in Game 7. Too many walks, too many walks.

  • Washington didn't help matters by issuing another ill-timed intentional walk. I said it all series long: the intentional walks were going to come back to haunt the Rangers. A free pass to Lance Berkman hurt the Rangers in Game 6. In Game 7, Washington walked Freese with runners on second and third, which was followed by Scott Feldman's walk to Molina and then C.J. Wilson hitting Rafael Furcal to force in another run.
  • I didn't necessarily have a problem with using Feldman to start the fifth. The best option might have been Mike Adams, but Washington hasn't shown a lot of confidence in Adams' ability to go more than three outs. He was hoping Feldman could get him a couple innings. (Needless to say, using Alexi Ogando would have been a likely disaster).
  • Washington's decision to have Andrus bunt in the top of the fifth after Kinsler's leadoff single was odd. Down by one on the road, top of the order, giving up an out? Play for one, get none. Carpenter got Hamilton to pop out to third on a 3-1 fastball -- Freese made a nice catch as he leaned over the dugout railing and stumbled to the ground -- and struck out Young on a 1-2 cut fastball.
  • In the bottom of the fourth, St. Louis up 3-2, Molina and Furcal singled with one out, bringing up Skip Schumaker and Carpenter. Washington had Feldman warming up, but it made sense to leave in Harrison at that point since Schumaker is a career .210 hitter against left-handers. Schumaker grounded out to first to move up the runners, leaving La Russa with a choice: Hit for Carpenter? There were calls on Twitter to do so. At that point he’d thrown 63 pitches, 34 for strikes, but had retired 11 of the previous 14 Rangers hitters. I thought it was too early remove Carpenter, who had settled down, and especially considering La Russa's own bullpen didn't have a lot of pitches left in it.
  • In the seventh inning, Albert Pujols came up for maybe the final at-bat of his Cardinals career. Oddly, there was no chant, no standing ovation, just a bunch of flashes going off as he struck out. The crowd did stand and applaud as he walked back to the dugout after striking out.

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