Someday, it might be one year or 12 years from now, St. Louis Cardinals fans will look back at this season and try to pinpoint where it all went wrong.
They had the rare trifecta of an MVP contender (Albert Pujols), a Cy Young contender (Adam Wainwright) and a Rookie of the Year contender (Jaime Garcia). The payroll was competitive, there was young and cheap talent blossoming and the headlining offseason move (Matt Holliday) had one of the best seasons of his career.
But David Freese -- or more appropriately, David Freese’s injury -- is one big reason why the Cardinals won't be in the postseason.
Freese didn’t play after June 27 because of various foot injuries (mostly ankle-related), and was hobbled for a few weeks before then. All told, Freese will miss 92 games.
The Cardinals were 10 games above .500 in games Freese started (37-27) and four games under .500 when he didn’t (entering Thursday, as are all the below numbers).
How much can losing a rookie third baseman really hurt? Take a look at the ramifications:
Freese was having a high-end offensive season at his position.
His OPS of .765 wasn't elite (think Evan Longoria) but solid (think Casey McGehee). And before the injury started hobbling him, Freese’s OPS was .832. That’s between a Chipper Jones and Alex Rodriguez level of production.
Freese’s absence forced Yadier Molina to bat one spot higher.
The No. 3 and No. 4 spots in the order, of course, go to Pujols and Holliday. The No. 5 spot went mostly to Colby Rasmus, though Freese batted there as well. But it’s the No. 6 spot that’s crucial. That’s where Yadier Molina took the majority of his plate appearances -- especially after Freese went out. With Freese in the lineup, Molina’s bat was free to be moved lower in the lineup. While Molina had a typical year by his standards at the plate, downgrading from Freese to Molina is a drop in OPS from .765 to .671. When you have Pujols, Holliday and Rasmus hitting in front of you, that difference can mean a lot of runners left on base.
Cardinals Batting as 3B This Season
The other third basemen fielded below Freese’s level.
From Fangraphs, Freese provided a 0.1 UZR at third base. Lopez was a -0.4 and Pedro Feliz was a -0.2. Freese was 0.2 runs above replacement, Lopez was -6.6 and Feliz -0.2.
Freese’s absence forced lesser offensive players into more plate appearances.
Lopez covering for Freese meant he couldn’t take the spot of Brendan Ryan at shortstop. Ryan, while a fine defender, was no match for Lopez’s production at the plate, even in a down year for Lopez. Ryan was one of the worst batters in MLB (.567 OPS), while Feliz, a midseason acquisition who received plenty of playing time, was even worse (.492 OPS with the Cardinals). Neither of those players figured to see nearly as much playing time with a healthy Freese in the lineup.
Freese’s injury raises questions about the future at the position for the Cardinals.
Freese hasn’t been injured just once. He now has an injury history that brings his durability into question. And, as a young and cost-controlled player this season, Freese was one of the team’s most valuable assets. After the injury, he’s now one year older and one year closer to not being cost-controlled. The Cardinals will head into next spring with Freese as the incumbent starter, while trying to develop third base replacements behind him. But if another injury strikes and the replacements aren’t ready, they could find themselves in the same predicament.