Roster Roulette: The 2010 Cardinals team includes some serious question marks

Roster Roulette: The 2010 Cardinals team includes some serious question marks

You know how any time we have a presidential election in this country, you see maps everywhere? No matter what channel you turn to on the television, there's a map up. It shows red states. It shows blue states. And then it shows this tiny little group of states, much smaller than either of the other groups, states that just haven't quite made up their minds yet.

Swing states.

The really odd thing: Those swing states are somehow the only ones that really matter in the political process. All the other states are either red or blue, Republican or Democrat; they've made their minds up already. To toss out perhaps the world's worst cliché, they are what they are. They are quantifiable elements. The really important states are the ones that could go either way. Those are the states that ultimately decide who we'll all be complaining about for the next four years.

Colby Rasmus: The young player had a decent 2009, but what can we expect  this season?
Ed Wolfstein/Icon SMI
Colby Rasmus: The young player had a decent 2009, but what can we expect this season?
If he stays healthy, David Freese could give the Cardinals a lot of bang for their buck.
Ed Wolfstein/Icon SMI
If he stays healthy, David Freese could give the Cardinals a lot of bang for their buck.

The Cardinals' roster this year is shaping up a bit like that big election map on television. Most of the elements of this team are pretty much set. We know Albert Pujols is going to hit .330, put about 40 balls over the wall and walk on water a time or two if he gets bored. We can be reasonably sure Matt Holliday is going to hit like an MVP candidate, win every game of "Who Has the Squarest Head?" played in the clubhouse and possibly burst out of his uniform while swinging at a curve in the dirt, Incredible Hulk-style. (He may also try to catch a humpback liner with his balls at some point, though it's probably best to leave that in pencil for now.) If Chris Carpenter is healthy, he'll be dominant. Ditto for Adam Wainwright.

The bottom line is this: The Cardinals come into the 2010 season with far more certainty at more positions than the past few seasons.

And yet much of this team's future will ride on the occupants of the few spots that are still up in the air. The players who could go either way. The swing-state players.

Colby Rasmus Let's start with the big one, shall we? Rasmus had a pretty nice 2009 season. He wasn't quite an all-star, but for a 22-year-old juggling huge expectations, big-league life, family strife and nagging health issues, Colby held his own. He played outstanding defense at one of the toughest positions on the field, showed plenty of raw power and hit respectably.

The question that remains is: How much more offense can we expect from this prodigiously talented young player? Most troubling last year was the downturn in Rasmus' walk rate. Walk rates have been shown to be fairly stable even as a player moves up the farm-team ladder; a player who's patient in the minors will likely remain patient. Rasmus, on the other hand, didn't take a walk for the entire month of June.

Still, there's much to be optimistic about.

Rasmus is likely to continue to play outstanding defense. If he stays right where he was in 2009 with the bat, he's Aaron Rowand. If he can raise his on-base percentage by 40 points or so, he's suddenly Steve Finley. And if he can somehow channel his 2007 self, when he hit .275/.381/.551 at Double A Springfield, he begins to look like Jim Edmonds — the man he was drafted to replace.

David Freese Freese did not have a particularly good off-season. An ankle injury suffered in an automobile accident before the 2009 campaign eventually led to surgery, which cost him a large chunk of the season. This past winter he went one better, getting arrested for drunk driving. Makes you wonder why he doesn't just stay away from cars entirely, doesn't it?

In 2010 the Cardinals are paying Albert Pujols $16 million, Matt Holliday $17 million and Chris Carpenter $14.5 million. That's $47.5 million to three players. With a projected Opening Day payroll of $95 million to $100 million, that's about half the money for about an eighth of the roster. Given that top-heavy payroll, in the coming years the Cards must find some production on the cheap.

Enter Freese, who is almost universally projected to be a perfectly acceptable, league-averagish third baseman at a bargain price. That will be a huge boon to a team that received wretched performances at the hot corner in 2009. Collectively, Cardinals third basemen hit .224 in '09. It's hard to imagine Freese could possibly be anything but an upgrade. After all, his lowest OPS at any stop in the minors is .884. Minor-league numbers are no guarantee of major-league success, but Freese's numbers aren't merely acceptable; they're elite.

The lack of buzz around Freese is mostly due to the fact that he was drafted later than most players. He was 23 when San Diego picked him in 2006 and was stuck on the Padres' depth chart behind more highly touted third-base prospects. In the St. Louis organization, he once again found himself low man on the totem pole, behind first-round pick Brett Wallace and the already-established Allen Craig. Now that he has outlasted Wallace and leapfrogged Craig, the Cardinals need Freese to step up and succeed.

Kyle Lohse After an '08 campaign that saw Lohse sign a long-term deal and then go out and have a career year, the 2009 season saw Lohse struggle with ineffectiveness and, for the first time in his career, injury. Lohse's ERA rose nearly a full run from 2008 to '09, from 3.78 to 4.74. His strikeout-to-walk ratio fell from 2.43 to 2.14. He was much more homer prone, giving up 1.22 home runs per nine innings in 2009 versus just 0.89 in '08.

Next Page »