Young & Restless: Will 2009 finally be a breakthrough year for top Cardinals prospects?

When the 2008 baseball season began, the St. Louis Cardinals found themselves at a crossroads. There were changes in the front office, changes in the major-league club and changes in the farm system.

Gone was long-time general manager Walt Jocketty, the casualty of a dismal 2007 season and an internal power struggle between Jeff Luhnow, whom ownership brought in to revamp the farm system, and Jocketty, who had served as GM since 1995, enjoying nearly a decade of success in tandem with field manager Tony La Russa.

Kyle McClellan can be called upon to pitch more innings — but he probably won't be.
JC Ridley/Cal Sport Media
Kyle McClellan can be called upon to pitch more innings — but he probably won't be.
Colby Rasmus: Will this be his breakout year?
Ed Wolfstein/Icon SMI
Colby Rasmus: Will this be his breakout year?

Luhnow's power and influence had grown significantly since he came onboard in 2004. In September 2006 he was promoted to vice president of player development, a testament to the club's newfound emphasis on statistical evaluation and growing players in the farm system rather than trading for them in their prime, a modus operandi Jocketty had favored (and excelled at).

Since Jocketty was replaced by his former second-in-command, John Mozeliak, harmony has reigned in the Redbirds organization. That's no small accomplishment on Mozeliak's part — he has had to mend fences in the front office and simultaneously build a relationship with La Russa, whose partnership with Jocketty had been remarkably strong, enduring and extremely fruitful.

The 2008 season seemed to put most of those fears to rest, as the Cardinals put together a surprisingly strong campaign, finishing ten games over .500 and contending for a playoff berth for most of the season.

But in the midst of a September nosedive that saw the team plummet to fourth place in the NL Central, La Russa increasingly trotted utility infielders (and starting second sacker Adam Kennedy) to the outfield when injuries knocked his starting contingent out of commission. The move was widely viewed as a message from the skipper to the front office, a response to the club's failure to trade for an impact bat at the July deadline — and, by extension, a response to the front office's repudiation of Jocketty.

To be fair, if John Mozeliak's job is to put the team's long-term goals first, La Russa's job is to win now. And the manager's consistent ability to accomplish precisely that, over a long career, has surely punched his ticket to the Hall of Fame.

Still, this simmering conflict will again come to the fore in 2009. The talent pipeline Luhnow has established is humming along; the first wave of players from the Cards' improved farm system began arriving last year. Now the question is how that talent is going to be used.

The drama will likely play out in three key spots: the bullpen, third base and the outfield.

The Great Bullpen Debate
At the end of 2008, the bullpen may well have been Mozeliak's highest priority, as he sought to improve upon a team that finished four games out of the NL wild-card race. The '08 edition of the Cards bullpen blew 31 save opportunities, and while that number has been unfairly taken out of context — not all blown saves are blown by the closer, not all lead to losses, etc. — it is a fact that the Cardinals would have improved several games in the standings with even an average bullpen.

Going into 2009, the pen sports a new look. Gone is Jason Isringhausen (Tampa Bay). Ditto Russ Springer (Oakland), the steadiest member of the '08 squad. Gone too is the entire '08 lefty contingent of Randy Flores and Ron Villone.

The turnover sets up a fascinating competition among right-handed relievers in the Cardinals system. Coming into spring training, Chris Perez and Jason Motte were seen as the top candidates for closer, the Cards having failed — perhaps tellingly — to sign a closer via free agency. Both pitchers excelled in the minors, and both come with question marks: Perez has almost unreal raw stuff, with movement, velocity and a breaking pitch that can make him unhittable at times — but he fails to command his repertoire consistently. Motte throws, if anything, even harder than Perez, and can fill the strike zone with the best of them — but his fastball is much straighter and his breaking ball much less effective than Perez's.

Along with the youngsters, Josh Kinney, the 2006 postseason hero who missed the last two seasons after elbow surgery, and Ryan Franklin, the veteran starter convert, stand to get late-inning opportunities. Meanwhile, Kyle McClellan, with an eye-catching rookie campaign under his belt, and 27-year-old bullpen old-timer Brad Thompson, are in line for long-relief roles.

Thus the intrigue: Even in a seven-man Tony La Russa bullpen, there aren't enough spots for all of those pitchers. The Cards will certainly carry two lefties, leaving a total of five spots for right-handed pitchers. Six pitchers, five spots. See the problem?

Thompson is a mediocre pitcher at best, a fringe major leaguer who will not make or break a staff. McClellan is far more talented and was stretched out as a starter this spring, meaning he should be ready to pitch multiple innings, though his stamina — he faded badly down the stretch last season — remains in question.

La Russa, however, has publicly stated that K-Mac will pitch in late-inning situations. With Ryan Franklin, the only other Cards reliever who fits the profile of a long man (outside of Thompson), tapped for a setup role, the odd man out will almost certainly be one of the youngsters.

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