Commentary

St. Louis Cardinals fantasy team preview

Updated: February 15, 2008, 5:40 PM ET
By Will Harris | ESPN.com

Only six National League teams finished 2007 with a worse record than the Cardinals' 78-84 mark, and this season there could be even fewer. St. Louis had serious issues in the rotation and bullpen last season, neither of which have been addressed. The offense also could be down a notch or two, and would be in big trouble if surgery is required on the elbow of all-everything slugger Albert Pujols.

The Cardinals' biggest offseason move was the swap of third basemen with the Blue Jays that brought Troy Glaus to the Gateway City in exchange for Scott Rolen. Fantasy owners should consider his new environment before targeting Glaus, however. Busch Stadium is the newest venue in baseball, but thus far it has suppressed home runs by right-handers at a clip of 19 percent below average, while Toronto's Rogers Centre produces 21 percent more home runs from the right side than the average park. While the trade with the Blue Jays was the team's major offseason deal, the biggest news may actually be across the diamond at first base. Pujols has plainly stated that he'll opt for surgery this season if the pain in his elbow flares up again. (See more under "trainer's room" below.) Fan favorites Jim Edmonds and David Eckstein are gone as well, but otherwise the lineup resembles last season's edition. Cesar Izturis was signed to take over for Eckstein at shortstop, while former pitcher Rick Ankiel is set to step in for Edmonds in center field after a solid debut season. Catcher Yadier Molina, second baseman Adam Kennedy and outfielder Chris Duncan are back at their 2007 positions, while holdover Ryan Ludwick will try to fend off top prospect Colby Rasmus for the third outfield spot.

What's Changed?

Key Additions
Matt Clement, SP
Troy Glaus, 3B

Key Losses
Scott Rolen, 3B
David Eckstein, SS
Jim Edmonds, CF
Troy Percival, RP

The rotation was not a bright spot last season, but only one slot is changing hands, with free agent Matt Clement coming over from Boston to take the place of the departed Kip Wells. Chris Carpenter and Mark Mulder are recovering from serious arm injuries. Although neither will be ready for spring training, both hope to contribute sometime in 2008. Adam Wainwright is the ace of a staff that also includes Braden Looper, Joel Pineiro and Anthony Reyes. Troy Percival departs for Tampa, earning a two-year contract from the Rays after his surprisingly effective comeback season. The bullpen is otherwise intact, with Ryan Franklin, Randy Flores and Russ Springer back to set up closer Jason Isringhausen.

Ballpark: Busch Stadium is the third St. Louis venue to bear the name of the famous brewing family. Opened in 2006, the latest Busch Stadium is also the newest venue in major league baseball. Data on the park is therefore limited, but thus far it has been a pitchers' park, slightly depressing runs scored and limiting home runs from both sides of the plate to around 80 percent of the major league average.

The Offense

2007 Team Stats
OBP+SLG (OPS): .743 (20th)
Runs Scored: 725 (22nd)
Home Runs: 141 (24th)
Attempted Steals: 89 (27th)

Busch Stadium Factor:
Runs: 0.933 (22nd) | HRs: 0.717 (28th)

Probable Lineup
Name
Pos
Proj. Rd*
Cesar Izturis
SS
NR
Rick Ankiel
CF
25th
Albert Pujols
1B
1st
Troy Glaus
3B
18th
Chris Duncan
LF
NR
Ryan Ludwick
RF
NR
Yadier Molina
C
NR
Adam Kennedy
2B
NR
*Projected round a player will be drafted in an ESPN standard 10-team league.
Top sleeper: Josh Phelps will see a little time in the outfield, but his primary role is that of backup to Pujols at first base. Pujols' admission that he'll opt for surgery should his elbow pain trouble him again makes the former MVP a big risk this season, especially given the likelihood that the Cardinals will not be serious playoff contenders in 2008. A Pujols injury could pay big dividends for Phelps owners. Phelps is a low-contact hitter with a marginal walk rate, but he has major league power. Don't expect him to be a help in batting average, but he should slug 20-plus home runs if he gets 400 at-bats. Phelps had a big second half in Pittsburgh last season, posting a .343/.439/.671 line with an impressive 15 percent walk rate. It's also worth noting that the Pirates' PNC Park is even worse for right-handed power hitters than Busch Stadium. Phelps could easily earn his draft price even as a backup, and will be a major bargain if Pujols goes down.

Intriguing spring battle: Duncan and Ankiel are assured of starring roles in the St. Louis outfield to start the 2008 season, but uber-prospect Rasmus could unseat incumbent Ludwick for the third spot with a strong spring. If Rasmus wins a job, he would actually take over center field from Ankiel, moving the former pitcher to Ludwick's right field spot. The 21-year-old Rasmus has power, speed and plate discipline to go with natural athleticism and plus bat speed. He's coming off a fantastic Double-A debut in which he hit .275/.381/.551 with 29 home runs, 37 doubles and 18 stolen bases. Rasmus will be given every opportunity to win a starting spot this spring, and could well be this season's Hunter Pence. It's unlikely that Ludwick, who offers legitimate power but has contact issues, can hold the youngster off for long.

Stephania Bell on Albert Pujols

Pujols played through an assortment of muscle strains last year (calf, hamstring) and seemed to tough it out, even when he was clearly not feeling his best. Not anymore. Pujols said it himself: He will not put his body through the same kind of torment this year. This was revealed at the same time he announced he would not seek surgery on his problematic elbow, the one he reportedly can no longer fully extend. A bit foreboding, don't you think? When an athlete announces before the season starts that he will not subject his body to the same stresses that he has in the past, and he sounds a bit exasperated from what he has put himself through, that does not inspire a lot of enthusiasm that he'll play 140-plus games, no?

So how worried should fantasy owners be? Well, the fact that Pujols has some elbow pain and limitations would be of more concern if his responsibilities were on the mound. As a first baseman, he has shown that he can handle his duties without much interference. In fact, he showed he could remain a dominant hitter despite the presence of some musculoskeletal aches and pains. The key to Pujols' success is maintenance. If he can keep his body at a steady state, he should be able to survive the majority of the season while playing the way we have come to expect. If, however, he has a setback, such as an acute episode of inflammation at the elbow, or a worsening of his current condition, then the circumstances change. Pujols is more likely to take that stint on the DL to allow his body the rest and recovery it needs in an attempt to prevent the issue from being severe the remainder of the season. At 28, Pujols is no longer a young man, but he has plenty of playing time left in him. The uncertainty here is his durability across the entire season, especially when he already has made it clear he will step back as needed to protect himself.

Trainer's room: Three starting pitchers -- Clement, Mulder and Carpenter -- are attempting comebacks from serious arm injuries. Clement will be ready for spring training and should step into the rotation immediately. Mulder hopes to be ready in May, while a midseason return is the best case for Carpenter. Duncan, Glaus, Kennedy and Molina all had minor surgery late last season and are all expected to be ready for spring training. Juan Encarnacion will miss all of 2008 and likely will never play again as he tries to rehabilitate his vision after a horrific eye injury suffered at the hands of a foul ball last season. Pujols, as mentioned above, has acknowledged that the elbow ligament troubles he has battled since 2003 have continued to plague his offseason workouts and he will opt for major surgery this season if he cannot play without pain. Pujols' situation could well become the biggest injury story in the game this season, and all owners are strongly advised to think twice before spending a first-round pick or 40-plus auction dollars on a player that is a self-admitted risk to cut his season short to treat a pre-existing injury.

Platoons: The Cardinals have no platoon arrangements written in stone, but manager Tony La Russa may opt to sit left-handers Duncan and Kennedy against left-handed pitching. Either Rule 5 pick Brian Barton or Ludwick (should Ludwick become a backup if Rasmus earns a starting job) could man Duncan's outfield spot against lefties, while top utility infielder Brendan Ryan would take over for Kennedy at second base.

Schedule preview: The Cardinals' schedule calls for a fifth starter only twice before Mulder's anticipated return in early May. If Mulder has no setbacks and remains on schedule, that would mean only two outings for likely fifth starter Anthony Reyes to show improvement from last season's poor campaign. Reyes therefore has little speculative value outside of keeper leagues if the spring health news is good regarding Mulder and rehab-mate Clement.

Future closer: Isringhausen has a stranglehold on the Cardinals' closer job as long as he stays healthy and even moderately effective. The club simply doesn't have any prototype dominant short relievers in the bullpen. That will change when Chris Perez is ready for the majors. Perez was a first-round pick in 2006, and has advanced all the way to Triple-A already. He was a closer in college and has been used in that capacity at three minor league levels. His control is a serious issue, but he keeps the ball down and has great velocity and movement on his mid-90s fastball and wicked break on his hard slider. He's the heir apparent at the back of the Cards' bullpen, and if he improves his control, he will debut this season.

The Rotation

2007 Starters Stats
Record: 48-72 (27th)
ERA: 5.04 (25th) | WHIP: 1.47 (24th)
Batting Average Against: .282 (23rd)
Home Runs Allowed: 115 (15th)
Team Fielding Percentage: .980 (28th)

Busch Stadium Factor:
Runs: 0.933 (22nd) / HRs: 0.717 (28th)

Projected Rotation
Name
Proj. Rd*
No. 1
Adam Wainwright
13th
No. 2
Braden Looper
NR
No. 3
Joel Pineiro
NR
No. 4
Matt Clement
NR
No. 5
Mark Mulder
NR
No. 6
Anthony Reyes
NR
*Projected round a player will be drafted in an ESPN standard 10-team league.
Backups to watch: Aside from the aforementioned Phelps, the player to keep an eye on is Brendan Ryan. He has already supplanted Aaron Miles as the top middle infield reserve, and given the modest skills of Izturis and Kennedy, could be in line for more at-bats than expected in 2008. Ryan has no power, but he does have plus speed and good contact skills. He owns a career minor league batting average of .296, and could take over for Kennedy or Izturis for an extended time should one of them struggle or be injured. Barton has solid, if unspectacular, skills across the board and could earn significant playing time with a hot streak and a slump by one of the Cardinals' contact-challenged outfielders.

Prospect to watch for 2008: Rasmus will be given the opportunity to win a starting job in the spring. As mentioned earlier, he could replicate Hunter Pence's impressive debut. Even if he fails to overtake Ludwick in the spring, however, owners would be advised to remember that the club has him on the fast track and that he'll certainly make his debut this season. None of the St. Louis outfielders is a sure thing in 2008, and Rasmus' ascension to a starting role is more likely to come sooner than later even if he doesn't make the Opening Day roster. He's worth drafting for 2008 even in non-keeper leagues.

Prospect to watch for the future: Rasmus and Perez will break into the majors this season, but the farmhand to track with an eye toward 2009 is starting pitcher Jaime Garcia. He didn't dominate in his second pro season, but Garcia more than held his own as a 20-year-old in Double-A last season. He has excellent command of his low-90s fastball and outstanding curve, and he keeps the ball down. The Cardinals' rotation is a big question mark after Wainwright, so the opportunity is there for Garcia to make a splash in 2009.

The Bullpen

2007 Relievers Stats
Record: 30-12 (1st)
Saves/Opps: 34/45 (t-25th)
ERA: 4.00 (16th) | WHIP: 1.31 (7th)
Batting Average Against: .252 (14th)
Strikeouts per 9 innings: 6.8 (24th)

Projected Bullpen
Name
Proj. Rd*
Closer
Jason Isringhausen
15th
Setup
Ryan Franklin
NR
Setup
Randy Flores
NR
C-I-W**
Chris Perez
NR
*Projected round a player will be drafted in an ESPN standard 10-team league.
**Closer-in-waiting

Fearless prediction: This could easily be the worst team in the National League. The Cardinals' roster is absolutely full of players whose skills or health make them unlikely to even repeat the performances that led the team to a sub-.500 record last season, let alone improve on them. Pujols should rebound if healthy, but he's an enormous risk to miss significant time. Without him as a force in the middle of the order, opposing pitchers will have more leeway to attack or pitch around other batters as the situation demands, and the entire offense will suffer more than the mere loss of Pujols' own production. Glaus and Kennedy are on the wrong side of 30 and coming off surgery. Glaus is moving from a park that strongly favors right-handed power to one that strongly suppresses it. Duncan also missed time with a second-half injury, and his already poor contact rate plunged to minor league levels last season. Molina is a career .248 hitter who hits the ball on the ground without hitting it very hard. His skills don't support last season's .275 batting average. The same can be said of Ludwick, whose contact rate suggests that he won't even manage another .267 performance. Ankiel is playing under the cloud of an HGH scandal, and certainly doesn't have the plate skills to hit .285 again even if an "unenhanced" performance leads to big power numbers. Izturis, meanwhile, is simply one of the worst offensive starters in the National League.

The pitching situation isn't any rosier. The track records and peripheral statistics of Pineiro and Looper say that they're unlikely to repeat even last season's mediocre numbers. Carpenter, Mulder and Clement are a M.A.S.H. unit with rosin bags, tossing only 17 combined innings last season, and Reyes has been in full-blown regression for three straight years. The top four options in the bullpen -- Isringhausen, Franklin, Flores and Springer -- average 36 years of age and have underlying skills that range from modest to downright bad. Wainwright could well be the only mainstay worth owning at his probable draft price, and he's not likely to get much support from the offense or bullpen. This is an old team full of bad contracts and health risks that's poised to miss the playoffs by a country mile. Expect La Russa and Pujols to land with another franchise soon so that the rebuilding can commence in earnest. St. Louis fans should hunker down over a slab of ribs from C & K and start wondering if the Rams will be any good this fall.

Will Harris is a fantasy baseball and college football analyst for ESPN.com.