Monday, June 20, 2011

Shuffling the Cards

Posted By on Mon, Jun 20, 2011 at 9:45 AM

If you saw any of the Memphis Redbirds’ recent eight-game homestand, chances are you saw at least one player currently wearing a St. Louis Cardinal uniform. The Redbirds have made an unusually deep impact on the Cardinals’ 2011 season, especially when you consider the All-Star break is still three weeks away. With injuries sapping the big-league roster, no fewer than six Redbirds have headed north to make their big-league debut this spring: shortstop Pete Kozma, third-baseman Matt Carpenter, catcher Tony Cruz, outfielder Andrew Brown, and pitchers Lance Lynn and Eduardo Sanchez. Among these call-ups, only Sanchez can claim a secure spot on the Cardinal roster. (And he landed on the disabled list last Thursday with a tight shoulder.) When (or if) the Cardinals get healthy will, in turn, impact the Redbirds’ chances at a third straight trip to the Pacific Coast League playoffs.

The broken hand David Freese suffered in early May created a vacancy at third base for St. Louis that has yet to be filled, and the domino effect of Cardinal manager Tony LaRussa shuffling his lineup has left Cardinal Nation guessing as to who might fill a lineup card behind Albert Pujols, Lance Berkman, and (when he’s healthy) Matt Holliday. Former Redbird Daniel Descalso has proved valuable at both the hot corner and second base, but not valuable enough to play every day (.242 batting average through Sunday). Tyler Greene (.198) has put in some innings at the same two positions, but hasn’t shown the pop in his bat needed for more than a dozen at-bats a week. Greene is again wearing a Memphis uniform.

Matt Carpenter was a spring-training sensation and nearly made the St. Louis roster for Opening Day. But after going 1 for 15 during a recent promotion, he clearly belongs at AutoZone Park, where he can provide middle-of-the-lineup production instead of the supplementary role he’d play with the Cards. The same can be said for Brown, who opened eyes in Memphis with a .351 batting average, 11 home runs and 41 RBIs over his first 50 games. Brown finds himself in St. Louis filling in for the Cardinals’ top reserve, Allen Craig, who is sidelined with a knee injury. Should Pujols miss extended time with a wrist injury suffered Sunday, you won’t see Brown in Memphis for several weeks.

To Redbird manager Chris Maloney’s credit, Memphis scratched its way back to the .500 mark last week and is again in contention in its division of the PCL. With Lynn back in the rotation, the Redbirds’ pitching may stabilize in time to take control of what looks like a two-team race with Omaha. (Though you never know with the roster fluctuation in Triple A. Last place Iowa is only seven games behind the first-place Storm Chasers.) Adam Ottavino, P.J. Walters, and Brandon Dickson are all “four-A” starters, on the cusp of big-league innings. They, along with Lynn, will determine how far the 2011 Redbirds can go.

• Even with all the injuries, the story of the 2011 Cardinals will be written by its tattered bullpen, at least until help is found. Last Tuesday in Washington, the Cardinal pen coughed up a 6-2 lead in the seventh inning to a Nationals team that sat dead last in the National League East. The next night, former closer Ryan Franklin and Brian Tallett gave up five earned runs in two innings of a 10-0 loss. Then Thursday, having tied the game in the ninth inning, the Cardinals lost their sixth straight when the team’s current closer — former Redbird Fernando Salas — gave up a three-run walk-off home run to Danny Espinosa (a .233 hitter) in the 10th inning.

The bullpen woes run too deep to fix with one or two arms. (Mitchell Boggs is back in the mix after returning to Memphis for fine-tuning and flame-thrower Maikel Cleto has been promoted all the way from Double-A Springfield.) Which means St. Louis is going to have to outscore teams to remain in contention. The return of Holliday from the DL and the hoped-for return of Freese (by the Fourth of July?) may pad the scoring column for the Cardinals. The padding is much needed, as no lead will be safe for this team as summer’s dog days near.

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