In Tony La Russa's 16th and final season as manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, he somehow found a brand new way to irritate the fantasy community.
You might have assumed he'd already shown us the entire arsenal of annoying managerial flourishes — every lineup shuffle, every late-inning scheme — but he'd kept something special in reserve, just for fantasy owners. Last season, La Russa started Albert Pujols at third base exactly four times. Not five times, which would have qualified Albert at third in Yahoo! fantasy leagues, but four times ... which qualified him for nothin'.
Pujols made his last start at the hot corner on June 15, then made two additional late-game appearances at the position. But that was that. Albert spent the second-half of the season exclusively at first base, where he's brilliant. So ended the dream of 3B-eligibility.
Touché, Tony. Jerk.
La Russa isn't at the controls in St. Louis this year, having retired after guiding his team — sloppily — to a World Series win. And as you might have heard, Pujols is taking his talents to Anaheim. (The Angels are spending $250-plus million on Albert over the next decade, including $30 million for his age-41 season. Cards fans shouldn't want that deal on the team's books, no matter how much they appreciate the player). Legendary pitching coach Dave Duncan has stepped aside, too, so three familiar faces won't be around in 2012. Nonetheless, this team is still well-positioned to contend for titles over multiple seasons. The farm system is loaded, the major league lineup is solid, and there's pitching talent stacked at every level of the organization. The Cardinals won't give up their crown quietly.
[Related: Champion Cardinals undergo extreme makeover]
With Albert gone, who's on first?
Lance Berkman figures to be the opening day first baseman, and he's coming off a ridiculously productive 2011 campaign. The Puma hit .301/.412/.547 with 31 homers in his age-35 season. It hardly seems reasonable to expect a repeat of those power numbers in the year ahead, not in a pitcher-friendly environment like Busch. Berkman's power faded after the break last year, as he cleared the fence just seven times in the second-half. But he remains an excellent hitter with terrific on-base skills (career .409 OBP) and he'll hit in the heart of a still-scary batting order. Matt Holliday hasn't gone anywhere, plus the Cards signed Carlos Beltran to replace Berkman in right. Beltran isn't quite the fantasy asset he used to be — knee issues have limited his base-stealing — but the guy delivered a .300/.385/.525 line last year, with 22 homers. He's no slouch.
Wait, what happened to Allen Craig? Where's he gonna play?
Craig had a fine partial season for the Cards (.315/.362/.555), then made some noise in October versus Texas (3 HR). However, he had surgery on his right knee in November, so he's no lock for opening day. Details here, via Derrick Goold:
Craig, who caught the final out of the World Series, had a couple screws placed in his right kneecap to repair the damage done in the middle of last season when he crashed into a rigid fence at Houston's Minute Maid Park.
He is not expected to be able to participate at full strength in spring training, and the predicted rehab time could put his return off until May.
When he returns, Beltran could perhaps be nudged to center field. Craig offers multi-category fantasy potential — check the minor league numbers — and he's eligible at second base, so this is a useful player.
While we're talking injuries, what's up with Adam Wainwright?
Wainwright underwent Tommy John surgery last February, but he was throwing bullpen sessions in September. He actually agitated for a spot on the postseason roster, so that's a good sign. The 30-year-old right-hander reported to the team's facility in Florida in mid-January, weeks ahead of schedule. We've been given no reason to think that he won't be fully operational by opening day. When healthy, Wainwright is a true ace, an elite fantasy commodity. He posted sub-3.00 earned run averages in both 2009 and 2010, striking out 8.26 batters per nine innings during those seasons. His career WHIP is 1.19. Again: ace.
There's an injury-related discount on Wainwright in early drafts (ADP 104.1, SP30), so he offers plenty of profit potential.
And what's the deal with Roy Oswalt and the Cards?
Well, as of this writing, there is no deal with Oswalt and the Cards. There's mutual interest, but that's it. Oswalt is reportedly looking to earn something like $10 million in 2012, and that price is too rich for St. Louis. Clearly GM John Mozeliak isn't opposed to adding ex-Astros (see question No. 1), but he has a budget, plus he's tied to Jake Westbrook and Kyle Lohse (no-trade clause. Oops). I'm still rooting for Oswalt to join this roster, though. If he's going to have serious fantasy value in the year ahead, he'll likely need a landing spot like St. Louis. It's the right park in the right league.
Earlier, you mentioned something about a loaded farm system. Let's have some names, please...
Shelby Miller is the first name you need to know. He's a 21-year-old hard-throwing righty coming off a dominant season. He made 25 starts across two levels last year, delivering a 1.18 WHIP, 2.77 ERA and 11.0 K/9. He allowed just four homers in 139.2 innings. Miller's numbers didn't really take much of a hit when he made the jump to Double-A, either. He's expected to open his season at Triple-A, but we'll see him in St. Louis at some point this summer. Miller's call-up will be an actionable fantasy event. In the lower minors, the Cards have a pair of exceptional right-handers, Carlos Martinez (age 20) and Tyrell Jenkins (19). We aren't likely to see either player this year, but if you're in a deep, long-term dynasty league, both pitchers should be on your radar. (Fun fact about Jenkins: If he didn't sign with the Cards, he was headed to Baylor to replace RG3. So yeah, he's a pretty fair athlete).
If you're looking for hitting prospects, don't fret. The Cards have a few of those, too. Oscar Tavares, a 19-year-old outfielder, hit .386 in the Midwest League, claiming the batting crown. Second baseman Kolten Wong hit .335/.401/.510 at the same level. Third baseman Zack Cox reached Double-A in 2011, where he hit .293/.355/.432 with 10 homers over 93 games. Cox was a first-round pick in 2010, and at the time was considered to rank among the best hitters in his draft class. It's a testament to the strength of this farm system that first baseman Matt Adams, the 2011 Texas League Player of the Year, usually ranks in the 8-12 range among Cards prospects. The 23-year-old Adams hit 32 homers at Double-A last season, with a .300 batting average and .923 OPS. His name is yet another for the dynasty files.
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