With all the gloom and doom surrounding serious injuries to key St. Louis Cardinals players this season, it seems like an inordinate amount of recent fan dialogue is forward-looking.
Cardinals faithful hope several frontline players now out for the year recover sufficiently to be in a position to compete for Comeback Player of the Year in 2007. They include Mark Mulder, Jason Isringhausen and Jim Edmonds, each of whom have experienced sub-par 2006 campaigns due in a major part to injuries.
Most major league clubs do not have three future comeback candidates like the Cardinals, and don’t forget that list doesn’t even include the perennial longest-shot comebacker of them all, pitcher-turned-outfielder-turned-DL inhabitant Rick Ankiel.
But, there is an important reason not to get ahead of ourselves, because this subject is also very relevant to the here and now. The 2006 Cardinals have a legitimate candidate for this year’s National League Comeback Player of the Year award in third baseman Scott Rolen.
It is easy to forget sometimes that last season’s 100-win Cardinals club had a major hole at the hot corner. Following a collision with then-Dodgers first baseman Hee Seop Choi last May 10, Rolen endured two shoulder surgeries during the season, limiting him to 56 ineffective games.
The damage had been significant. The posterior labrum was torn from the bone in Rolen’s left, non-throwing shoulder. It had to be tacked back onto the bone, plus a tear in the front of his shoulder also needed repair.
The fact that a second surgery was required became a point of concern for many, but not Rolen. Instead, he credits Cincinnati Reds physician Dr. Timothy Kremchek, who performed the second procedure, and trainer and physical therapist Hap Hudson with whom he worked all winter for enabling him to get back on the field.
The case for Rolen
Here in 2006, with Albert Pujols receiving so much attention, appropriately so, as one of the top two candidates for the Most Valuable Player award for the National League along with native St. Louisan and Philadelphia Phillie Ryan Howard, Rolen’s value to the 2006 Cards has been a bit overlooked.
As I have listened to commentators support Pujols by noting that the Cardinals would not be where they are this season without him, it also inadvertently seems to diminish Rolen’s considerable contributions. I assert that the team would also not be comfortably in first place if Rolen hadn’t returned this season with a vengeance, delivering solid results as well as being in the lineup almost every day.
...at the plate
Some believed that it would take up to half a season of play in 2006 for Rolen to return to full effectiveness as his shoulder recovered its strength. Yet, he started out of the gates fast, hitting .313 with three home runs and 13 RBI in April and improved those numbers in May and again in June.
Rolen ended the first half with a .331 batting average, with 14 home runs and 57 RBI. Before a recent hot streak, Rolen had struggled a bit, but his season totals of a .302 average with 21 home runs and 91 RBI certainly have to be considered to exceed expectations.
In fact, if maintained, that .302 mark would represent Rolen’s second-highest full-season average over his career. His 46 doubles are just three short of his best year ever as a major leaguer and also just three short of this season’s highest mark by a third baseman. Florida’s Miguel Cabrera currently has 49 doubles.
...with the glove
The six-time Gold Glover is also back to being himself in the field, helping to cover for the loss of shortstop David Eckstein by seemingly taking every ball to his left that he can reach.
Defensively, the numbers confirm Rolen’s return to prominence. His fielding percentage of .966 is second in the League among regulars at the position, just .001 behind the Cubs’ Aramis Ramirez. His range factor of 3.16 is number one and zone rating of .805 is third.
Rolen himself believes there is more to come, recently telling SportingNews.com that he expects to hit more home runs next season after a full winter of rest for his shoulder. He missed a few games recently due to fatigue in the shoulder, reportedly unrelated to the surgeries.
There are other deserving candidates expected to draw consideration for the Award, including former Cardinals shortstop Edgar Renteria in Atlanta, Dodgers first baseman Nomar Garciaparra and Florida closer Joe Borowski. But, looking at all factors, including the type of comeback and contribution to his team, Rolen would come out on top of my list.
However, the vote is not mine, though there are strong St. Louis ties to it. Each year since 1965, local institution The Sporting News has named one Comeback Player of the Year per league.
The Cardinals have been well-represented in past years in Comeback recognition. With five winners, they are tied for the second-most awards in history with five other organizations - Atlanta, Cincinnati, the Angels, Boston and Oakland. The Los Angeles Dodgers rank number one with seven former winners.
As an interesting aside, five men have earned the recognition twice, but only one of them managed to do it with the same team, Detroit’s Norm Cash, both in 1965 and 1971.
The Cardinals did not experience their first winner until the 15th year of the Award, but have come on strong recently, with two in the last five seasons. They are Chris Carpenter (2004), Matt Morris (2001), John Tudor (1990), Joaquin Andujar (1984) and Lou Brock (1979).
(Note: Come back here soon for Part Two of this article, where we will look back at these past standout Cardinals comeback performances.)
For a complete view of the comeback landscape, it is also relevant to identify those winners got away from the Cardinals, only to have excelled elsewhere.
Of the five former Redbirds recognized with the Award, I would really only count the two who won within three years of leaving St. Louis. Both Atlanta’s Terry Pendleton (1991) and Colorado’s Andres Galarraga (1993) won the season after departing the Cardinals.
For completeness, the other three ex-Cards are Jerry Reuss (Dodgers, 1980 winner, nine years after parting ways with the Cards), John Denny (1983, Philadelphia, four years later), Lonnie Smith (1989, Atlanta, four years later).
As noted above, the selection of Scott Rolen as the National League’s 2006 Comeback Player of the Year would be a most worthy choice, and if awarded would give the Cardinals three winners in the last six years and six winners overall.
Will the next season bring yet another Comeback award to St. Louis? Only time will tell, but if any of the group of Edmonds, Mulder and Isringhausen perform like Scott Rolen in 2006, the Cardinals will be represented in the 2007 race, too.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at email@example.com.
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