As a Cards fan who has become accustomed to seeing the Birds play into October this decade, it is usually disturbing to face the end of the season knowing there will be no post-season. It is very easy to lament the fact that we ended up only four games behind the wild-card winning Brewers, and even easier to regret the four game sweep in St Louis at the hands of the Brewers in July, when the bullpen pretty much handed Milwaukee three of the games. The four game deficit is even tougher to swallow, given the knowledge, that we all know so well, that our bullpen had over 30 blown saves.
All of that aside, it is not quite as tough to see this season come to a close without the playoffs for a couple of reasons: One, the 2008 Cards were an entertaining team to watch and they exceeded expectations almost across the board. Most people picked them to be anywhere from mediocre to awful, and I even read one pre-season writer that predicted the Birds to lose 100 games. Given the expectations, the 86-76 resilient team that we just witnessed actually made for a pretty enjoyable summer of Bird watching. The second reason for a lack of sorrow is that this team is well-positioned for 2009, and with the right off-season, we'll be in a position to stick it to the Cubs, Brewers and anyone else that wants to take us on in the NL Central. Discussions of 2009 can wait for another day, though....as today, I am assessing the 2008 season, which I think came down to a few key issues, both positive and negative.
What went right:
1) The Outfield: The starting outfield was a major unknown heading into the season. The threesome of Ryan Ludwick, Rick Ankiel and Skip Schumaker all had question marks about their ability to play every day over an entire season and be productive. All three answered the bell and responded quite nicely, thank you. They have combined to make the outfield a major source of depth and a strength on the club. Combined with the usual output from Pujols and the power bat that Troy Glaus provided, this group made for a very productive offense.
2) The reliable Rotation: During Spring Training, the bullpen was considered a team strength and the starting rotation considered a major weakness. The exact opposite turned out to be true. With Chris Carpenter out nearly all year, and with Adam Wainwright missing two and a half months, the remainder of the rotation stepped up and performed very steady, and at times spectacular work. Kyle Lohse came in late, and assumed the role of ace for most of the year. Braden Looper came to pitch every night, and was very consistent. He probably deserved better than his record indicates. Todd Wellemeyer established himself as a solid starting pitcher in this league. Every time the rotation had the chance to fold and collapse, they were the one thing that kept us afloat.
3) The Memphis Connection: Mostly due to injury, the Cards were able to get a look at several key Memphis players, who got chances and showed they could play at the Major League level. Chris Perez, Jaime Garcia, Jason Motte, Joe Mather and Mitchell Boggs all got chances and for the most part made the most of them. All of them showed that they will likely be part of a bright Cardinal future.
What went wrong:
1) Unproductive payroll: Primarily due to injury, the Cards simply had too much of the payroll tied up in non-productive players. Approximately $32Million of the 2008 payroll was spent on Jason Isringhausen, Chris Carpenter, Mark Mulder, and Juan Encarnacion. So, for that $32M, the Cards essentially got a decent April from Izzy and a few appearances from Carpenter. Not enough bang for that much buck. The payroll loss on these players probably also played a role in Mozeliak not making a move at the deadline, although that probably had more to do with the asking price of other teams for marginal talent. The good news is that with over $40million coming off the books in 2009, this problem should not repeat itself, even though Carp heads into the offseason as an unknown.
2) The Bullpen: Much has been made of this one, but the 33 blown saves were simply too much for this team to overcome. Isringhausen, because of injury, lack of confidence or both....simply imploded and was much more a liability than anything else until he shut it down in August. Tony probably waited too long to go to the kids Perez and Motte, instead relying over and over again on the likes of Ryan Franklin and Ron Villone. Blowing multiple late inning leads against the Brewers in particular was one of the deciding factors that kept the Cards from late September contention
3) Intra-division woes: The team simply could not win in the division, particularly against Chicago and Milwaukee. A 36-41 record in the division was by far the worst of the top four in the division. Going 5-10 against the Brewers in particular was a death knoll. Take away a 10-5 mark against Cincinnati, the record becomes an even worse 26-36. With playoff teams in Chicago and Milwaukee within the division, the Cards simply needed to win more within the division.
All in all, a very enjoyable year.......although it is always disappointing to be home for the playoffs, the upcoming off-season looks to be an exciting one and 2009 holds much promise for Cardinal Nation.