Third base hex keeps Cardinals searching

ST. LOUIS — If the Cardinals aren't cursed this season, third base may at least be in need of an exorcism.

Barely 48 hours after the club traded right fielder Ryan Ludwick to the San Diego Padres for starting pitching depth, third baseman David Freese sustained a major injury to his already damaged right ankle during a rehab assignment at Double-A Springfield. When Freese pulled up between third base and home plate, the Cardinals' search for a consistent presence at the production position took a heavy hit.

They should be used to the search since it's in its sixth year.

"There's no whining in baseball," general manager John Mozeliak says. "I still think we're in better shape than we were a week ago (before acquiring Jake Westbrook as part of a three-team deal that included Ludwick). Pitching wins. It's said so often for a reason. It's a truism."

It's also true that this club has no firm idea when or if it can rely on Freese to return as its primary third baseman.

Freese required reconstructive surgery on the ankle Thursday in Vail, Colo. He is done for this season and, according to initial estimates, targeted for a protracted, uncertain recovery.

Tendon peeled away from bone, slipping from behind Freese's ankle to in front.

A Springfield trainer was able to feel the damage and manipulate the tendon immediately after the incident, making it immediately clear to the club that its wait for Freese had become open-ended.

The ankle, weakened by an auto accident prior to spring training 2009, had already placed Freese on the disabled list due to what the club described as a deep bone bruise.

Thursday's procedure, performed by Dr. Thomas Clanton at the renowned Steadman Clinic, will require at least six months of rehabilitation, according to a source familiar with the surgery. Clanton discovered evidence of additional soft tissue damage during the procedure, which necessitated deepening grooves in the ankle, replacing tendons and sewing over them to provide stability.

Mozeliak allows that he will search for an upgrade at the position, but he remains equally insistent no obvious help has come available since the non-waiver trade deadline lapsed July 31.

The timing of Freese's loss was especially cruel since the Cardinals cooled their interest in Baltimore Orioles third baseman Miguel Tejada when Freese passed a series of agility and stress tests before going on rehab.

The Padres, meanwhile, swooped on Tejada as an upgrade at shortstop.

Unfounded reports quickly surfaced of the Cardinals' alleged interest in Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman Andy LaRoche, who, going into Friday, had taken 10 at-bats since the All-Star break and hit less than .200 since April. He carried a season .290 on-base percentage and .299 slugging percentage, hardly numbers to assist a team seeking a power bump.

"We'll continue to look around between now and the rest of the month," Mozeliak said without citing specific players. "I don't consider us in a desperate mode. If this team starts to hit like we thought it would, we'll be fine."

Finding help is complicated somewhat by the stipulation that teams must now obtain fresh waivers before dealing any player. Even if LaRoche is not a viable option, the National League Central offers potential help as the Houston Astros carry veteran third baseman Pedro Feliz and utility man Geoff Blum.

Feliz is considered a defensive upgrade over the Cardinals' third baseman pro tem, Felipe Lopez, but has languished at the plate. Blum returned from the disabled list last week during the Astros' series at Busch Stadium.

Trading Ludwick makes it more difficult for Mozeliak to settle for less offense at the position, even if greater exposure has revealed Lopez's deficiencies at a reaction position. Entering this season, Lopez had played only 86 major-league innings at the position since 2005. A more comfortable middle infielder, he began this weekend's series against the Florida Marlins having played 369 innings at third this season.

In his first 44 games at third base, Lopez committed almost as many errors (seven) as he participated in double plays (eight). A rugged effort during Monday's 9-4 loss included an error and a late miss with the infield playing in. Manager Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan visibly reacted at the misplays.

"Overall I think we've had very good defense at third base," Mozeliak said. "Anytime you have an error that sticks out, it gets frustrating. If you think about how Lopez has played over there, it's been OK. I would say average."

Offensively, Cardinals third basemen entered the weekend eighth in the National League in on-base-plus-slugging percentage (.746) despite ranking last with only six home runs and 27 extra-base hits. The Cardinals ranked 15th in OPS (.661) last season, when Mark DeRosa led the team with 58 starts at the position. As part of the positional hex, DeRosa suffered a torn tendon sheath in his third game after his June acquisition from the Cleveland Indians.

Any curse likely began on Oct. 3, 2002, when Arizona Diamondbacks infielder Alex Cintron collided with Scott Rolen in the basepaths during the NL Division Series. Rolen suffered what was initially described as a left shoulder sprain and missed the remainder of the playoffs. The injury preceded another collision in May 2005, this time with Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman Hee-Seop Choi. Rolen eventually required two surgeries on the shoulder and threatened legal action against the club in order to obtain an outside opinion. The fallout widened a schism between Rolen and La Russa that grew for two more years before Rolen demanded a trade.

The Cardinals swapped Rolen for Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Troy Glaus, who gave the club 99 RBIs in 2008 before missing almost all of last season due to a slow-healing shoulder injury.

The organization hoped Freese, 27, would be a long-term answer at a frustration position. Instead, he has become another question mark within what now stands as a six-year riddle.