Top 10 Cardinals questions for '10
Many offseason decisions tied to Holliday negotiations
ST. LOUIS -- As the new year dawns, it becomes more and more appropriate to look ahead to the 2010 season rather than looking back at the 2009 season. With that in mind, here are 10 of the most pressing questions facing the '10 Cardinals as they look to repeat as National League Central champions -- and some attempt at answering those questions.
1. Who will play left field?
This is the question that has everyone -- including the front office -- awaiting an answer. The more time that goes by, the more the Cardinals indicate that they believe they are in good shape to re-sign Matt Holliday. If they felt they weren't in a solid position, they would already have moved on to other targets.
However, it's still no guarantee they'll get a deal done. And if they don't, they could be scrambling. The options are dwindling, and whoever they bring in won't be the same kind of impact player that Holliday is.
2. Who will play third base?
This one goes hand-in-hand with the left-field issue. If Holliday re-signs, David Freese remains the favorite. But even in such a case, Freese's standing is probably not the same as it was a few weeks ago. A DWI arrest, and the subsequent reports that it was his second such incident, has clouded his situation.
When and if the Cardinals back out of the Holliday sweepstakes, they would then likely look externally. The third-base market is filled with intriguing options, a group headed by another Scott Boras client, Adrian Beltre.
3. What happens at the back of the rotation?
Unfortunately for anyone seeking quick and simple answers, this one also depends somewhat on what happens with Holliday. After initially saying that they expected the No. 5 spot to go to a youngster, the Cards backed off of that notion somewhat during the Winter Meetings. However, if Holliday re-signs, it will leave very little room for a free-agent signing. The Cards might in such a case sign a swing-type pitcher, somewhat like they envisioned Ryan Franklin when he signed before the 2007 season.
Should Holliday leave, though, the Redbirds would likely act more aggressively to add a veteran fifth starter. John Smoltz remains something of an intriguing possibiity, but he's only one of several options. Vicente Padilla could hold some intrigue, as could an injury-rehab project like Ben Sheets or Erik Bedard.
4. How secure is Franklin's hold on the closing job?
Quite secure, for now. However, the club has made no secret of the fact that it would like to sign a late-inning reliever. Such a reliever would be able to pitch in a setup role, and give Franklin a break on nights when he's been worked hard. So while St. Louis is not seeking a closer, it is seeking an insurance policy. And if things were to go poorly with Franklin, that would allow the Cards a fallback option.
5. What's in store for Colby Rasmus?
Big things, most likely. Rasmus' final line for 2009 -- .251 average, .307 on-base percentage, .407 slugging percentage -- won't dazzle anyone. But for a player in his age-22 season, following all of 218 games in the high Minors, it was a very nice year. And Rasmus showed some great signs in the postseason, when he was one of the few Cardinals who consistently took excellent at-bats.
Rasmus may have several more years of development in front of him. He's not likely to hit his peak right away in 2010. However, he is likely to take a big step forward, the kind of step that would make him a fine fit in either the No. 2 or No. 5 spot in the order.
6. Is Skip Schumaker a lock to be the second baseman?
Just about, yes. It would take a very surprising opportunity at second base for the Cardinals to pursue something there. It wouldn't be fair to Schumaker after all that he put in last year, and moreover, Schumaker's bat plays much better at second base than at a corner outfield spot.
7. What young players might emerge in 2010?
Freese may yet get a chance, but he hasn't helped himself with his difficult offseason. Allen Craig is an intriguing bat, but something of a man without a position. Still, he impressed with his hitting last spring, and if he hits like that again this year in Jupiter, Fla., it will be tough to send him down. Jaime Garcia is coming off of injury, so the Cardinals will proceed cautiously with him, but it won't be surprising if he contributes significantly. Relievers like Mitchell Boggs and Blake Hawksworth could also see much higher profiles in '01.
8. What impact will Mark McGwire have as the hitting coach?
For some hitters, he may well help. McGwire clearly has a connection with Schumaker, and he may prove to be a more hands-on coach than Hal McRae. But as frustrated as some fans seemed to be with McRae, it's not as though he has no résumé. McRae isn't a bad coach. He just may have been a coach who was a bad fit for the roster he was coaching. If McGwire is more hands-on, it might be beneficial for some of the Redbirds' young hitters, like Rasmus, Brendan Ryan and even Schumaker.
9. What can be expected of Chris Carpenter?
To some extent, Carpenter's health will always be a question mark. But there's nothing specific that he's dealing with, so there's no specific condition to worry about. The bottom could always fall out, but Carpenter isn't coming off of any health issue, and he could well turn in 30-plus starts.
10. What is the big-picture prognosis?
Looking around the NL Central, it's pretty good. With or without Holliday, the Cardinals are going to have a different roster when Spring Training opens than they do now. They've got money to spend, and they already have a good core. Perhaps more important, though, is there hasn't been a lot of good news for fans in most of the other NL Central cities. It's hard to name one club in the division that has taken a significant step forward, with the possible exception of the Brewers. The Cubs appear to have moved backward.
Nothing is promised for the Redbirds, and as of this moment they aren't a better team than they were at the end of last season. But they probably are as good a team as they were at this point 12 months ago, and it's hard to argue that the division has gotten stronger. Ninety or so wins will likely take it again, and by the time the team is fully assembled, the 2010 Cards will likely be about a 90-win team.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.