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Saturday 16th Dec 2017

As is the case periodically, I was asked to join co-hosts Jeff Erickson and Chris Liss on RotoWire’s Fantasy Sports Today show on Sirius/XM satellite radio on Thursday.

The subject that initially interested the guys was the rash of injuries that have beset the St. Louis Cardinals, headlined by the top two hitters in the National League, Matt Holliday (left quadriceps tightness) and Lance Berkman (right wrist injury).

Fortunately for both the Cardinals and the two stars’ fantasy owners, neither is expected to be out long. Each was injured in the field Wednesday. Holliday appeared to have been hurt making a retreating catch in the first inning. Berkman, who on most any other NL team would be planted firmly at first base, is instead a range-challenged right fielder in St. Louis. The 35-year-old was injured making a diving catch while chugging toward the infield at full speed.

A quick return may not be the prognosis for utilityman Nick Punto, who could miss a month to six weeks with a strained right forearm flexor. The former Minnesota Twins infielder is hardly a glitzy performer and isn’t the kind of player thought of to win leagues, but in a deep National League fantasy format like NL Tout Wars, a player like Punto has two important assets. Playing for Tony La Russa means he ends up seeing a lot of at-bats, and Punot plays all over the infield.

After having rolled the dice on draft day by spending $14 on oft-injured third baseman David Freese, I took Punto in the reserve rounds specifically for that versatility - despite the knowledge he would miss the first month of the season.

Unfortunately, with Punto now returning to the DL, joining Freese and the Mets’ Ike Davis on my Tout roster, I have to hit the waiver wire for corner infield help. I kick myself for not having snared Cardinals rookie Daniel Descalso for a buck a few weeks back. In a year or two, he could become a better version of Punto or even take over second base for the Cardinals when Skip Schumaker leaves. Alternatively, if outfielder Allen Craig would get just a few more games at third, I could move him to my open spot. (Tout has a five-game positional minimum for qualification.)

During the show, we discussed the opportunities created for outfielder Jon Jay and new jack-of-all-trades Craig. The latter has seen time at third base and a brand-new position, second base, along with his more familiar corner outfield spots.

I received my first query about the Cardinals outfield situation while Wednesday’s game was still underway. The questioner wanted to know whether he should select Jay or Craig as a free agent.

My reply was the on-the-surface cop-out answer of “it depends.” Here is why.

Craig has more power and as already noted, has a position eligibility advantage, especially in single-game qualification leagues. In a platoon situation, which is how right field was shaping up before the Cardinals signed Berkman over the winter, Craig would have the right-handed side, seeing fewer at-bats. All things equal, Jay will likely hit for higher average and if Colby Rasmus misses much time, he is the primary centerfield reserve.

Each has his place.

Speaking of Rasmus, he has quietly been very successful this season, his third as a major leaguer. Over the winter, I shared with readers the Cardinals plans for Rasmus to become more selective and strike out less, with an expected by-product of higher average, more runs scored, but fewer home runs. The eventual decision to bat Rasmus second was also forecasted. 

That is exactly what is happening as Rasmus is among the league leaders in walks. He is batting over .300 and his on-base percentage is pushing .400. With Pujols, Holliday and Berkman behind him, Rasmus is tied for the NL lead in runs scored.

This is despite the fact that Rasmus missed four games this past week due to an abdominal strain. I suggested that makes him an excellent trade target, but Liss remains worried about Rasmus’ health.

I pointed out that Colby averaged 145 games played and over 525 plate appearances over his first two seasons despite nagging injuries. In addition, Rasmus was not being considered a true everyday player until late last year, after his celebrated public blowout with La Russa.

Further, though Rasmus has just three home runs, he is has cemented his hold on the centerfield job by fixing one big past concern. The 23-year-old is now batting .341 and OPSing .941 against left-handed pitching. No need for a platoon. (It helps that Jay is also a left-handed hitter.)

Liss, who had led NL Tout for much of the early going here in 2011, owns another Cardinals player, infielder Tyler Greene. Chris doesn’t understand why La Russa won’t let Greene, a former first-rounder with good speed on the basepaths, play every day.

The root cause as I see it is Skip Schumaker. The converted outfielder is on the DL, but there is no doubt he will reclaim his second base job in a week or two when activated.

La Russa has refused to play Ryan Theriot anywhere other than short, despite the fact he is a better second baseman and that Punto, Greene and perhaps even rookie Pete Kozma are superior shortstops. If Theriot would become entrenched at second, Skip would be squeezed out.

Offensively, Theriot has been a pleasant surprise as the Cardinals leadoff hitter, batting over .300 with an on-base percentage above .360. His history suggests those numbers may not be sustainable, however, and his defense is not likely to improve.

Regarding Greene, my take is that he will not be the answer. For whatever reason, he seems to lose concentration at the worst moments. For example, brought into Tuesday’s game as a defensive replacement, Greene dropped a very simple popup that cost Jamie Garcia a win over the Phillies. That was two games after Greene muffed two plays behind Chris Carpenter in the final game of Cincinnati’s home sweep over St. Louis on Sunday.

As if to prove my point, Greene walked up to the plate against Houston’s J.A. Happ on Thursday. A runner was at second base with no out in a scoreless game. Greene never put bat on ball, taking strike three looking: something that should never happen in that situation. Greene fanned the next time up, too, helping Happ compile a new career single-game best in strikeouts.

Sorry, Chris, but thanks to you and Jeff for having me on the show!

Brian Walton was the 2009 National League Tout Wars champion, scoring the most points in the league’s 13-year history. He is a 2009 NFBC league winner and finished in the top 25 nationally in both the NFBC and NFFC that season. His work can also be found daily at TheCardinalNation.com and thecardinalnationblog.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.

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