Creeping Inexorably Toward A Worthwhile Sub-Heading.
Friday, March 19, 2004
Know Your Enemy - Part IV B - The Cardinals
Here's part two of the St. Louis preview, breaking down the starting rotation, bullpen and bench. Part one, covering the starting position players, can be found immediately below. Have a nice weekend, everyone!
This group is certainly more talented than the motley crew assembled to buttress the dynamic duo of Morris and Williams in 2003, but the spectre of fragility will be haunting this assemblage all year. There's only one pitcher out of the five who's a good bet to throw 200 innings, and based strictly on talent, he's probably fourth on the depth chart. Hiring a monastery to say Mass for the arms of the starting staff might be a prudent investment in 2004.
There is no pitcher more essential to this team's fortunes than Matt Morris. With that in mind, let's take a look at some numbers from the last three years.
I don't have to draw a picture to tell you that doesn't look good. Of course, Morris was battling multiple injuries last season, which explains some of the dropoff. However, he was also quoted as saying he's noticed some velocity loss during his time in St. Louis, and that can't make the Cardinals' faithful feel secure. Morris needs to be healthy and throw 200 innings if this club wants to challenge for the division title, but he may need some monkish support to get it done.
Throwing out of the rotation's second spot, Woody Williams was two different pitchers in 2003. Before the All-Star Break he was A+ material, posting a 12-3 record with a 3.01 ERA over 134.2 innings. Then, like a smart kid who won't tell his teacher he can't see the blackboard anymore, his A's turned to D's as he posted a 6-6 record and 5.23 ERA over 86 innings.
One of the strange things about the second half for Williams was the fact that his strikeout rate actually went up. Normally, that's a good sign, but his hit rate, walk rate, and home run rate all went through the roof. Here's what it looked like in handy table form.
This isn't a trend from the previous two seasons, so either this is a fluke of small sample size, or it's a sign that Williams has aged to the point where 200 innings a year isn't realistic. I tend to buy the latter idea. Williams looked exhausted at the end of last season, and he's 37, so it's not unreasonable to expect a decline in stamina. But if he is succumbing to the ravages of age, it couldn't come at a worse time for the Cardinals. Add in a lingering shoulder injury that has kept him from pitching in a spring training game until yesterday, and you've got a good reason for Redbird fans to sweat.
As if the stalwarts of the rotation didn't provide enough uncertainty, there's another wildcard on the squad in the form of Chris Carpenter. Having missed over a season and a half with shoulder injuries that required two operations, he's come into camp this year looking like he's back to his old self again. If he can throw well for the Cards, it would be a huge boon to their title hopes.
The problem is, the Cardinals greatest need from their starters is innings, innings, and, more innings, and a man coming off dual shoulder surgeries and pitching regularly for the first time in over 18 months isn't likely to fill that need. In fact, the only year in which Carpenter started more than thirty games and threw over 200 innings was the year before he got hurt.
The Cards have done well to take him on as a project, and he could be a solid part of their rotation in the future. But counting on him throwing league average ball every fifth day for an entire season is stretching the boundaries of reality.
Jeff Suppan, on the other hand, has exactly what the doctor ordered. He'll never make anyone forget Bob Gibson, but he's done nothing but throw 200 innings a year of league average ball since 1999, and with the Cardinals ability to score runs, that's all they need to have a chance to win. Give this team five Jeff Suppans, and their bid to win the NL Central gets a bit more interesting.
Coming over from Atlanta as part of this offseason's J.D. Drew trade, Jason Marquis will round out the back of the rotation. He's never had more than 22 Major League starts in a season, and has never passed the 130 inning mark. He's also not had an ERA under five since 2001. However, he's still very young (only 25 this year), so potential remains. He'll need to reduce his walk and home run rates to really be of use, but even if he does, expect fatigue to set in when August rolls around.
As large an issue as the rotation was last year, the bullpen was that much worse. According to Baseball Prospectus' Support Neutral team rankings, the Cardinal starters were 21st in the Majors, which is bad, but not as bad as the relief corps who were ranked next to last. Reality check? Detroit was better. Luckily for St. Louis fans, the club has made some moves to address those issues. They won't be among the best pens in the league, but they'll no longer be one of the worst.
There's no doubt that Jason Isringhausen was missed during the first two months of the 2003 season, and when he returned, it was almost like he was never gone. Striking out a man an inning and putting up a paltry 2.36 ERA, Izzy dominated almost immediately and gave the Cardinals the elite reliever they needed so badly. Unfortunately, the team still employed the likes of Esteban Yan and Jeff Fassero, so some leads never got to him.
Steve Kline will be one of the men looking to get those games to Isringhausen, and while his strikeout rate has declined every year since his first good season with Montreal in 1998, he continues to post above average ERA's. This appears to be due to improving control and an ability to keep the ball in the park, but I imagine playing in front of the St. Louis defense the last few years hasn't hurt either. He will probably post another ERA within a quarter run of four, as well as once again being the owner of the Single Nastiest Hat Worn By Man.
Despite the disturbing qualities of The Hat, the St. Louis front office must have sensed they were in danger of assembling a pen low on nutbars. So to compensate, the Cardinals signed Julian Tavarez as their psycho du jour. He was actually pretty solid in relief for Pittsburgh last year, so while he might not win any congeniality awards, he should be a reasonably effective set up man.
One of the few effective relievers for the Cardinals in 2003 was Cal Eldred, who in his first year in St. Louis, seemed to find his niche. A starter all of his career, the Cardinals used him exclusively out of the bullpen, and he responded by striking out a batter an inning and posting a 3.74 ERA in 67.3 IP. He's been plagued by various injury problems throughout his career, but the move to a relief role may have helped. Anyone with his history is always a risk, but if last year is any indication, he should be able to keep it together and have another fine year.
As far as LOOGY's go, you could do a lot worse than Ray King. After a short, bad trial with the Cubs in 1999, King has managed to keep his ERA in the mid-3's or better, and over the last three years has murdered lefties, allowing only a .209/.269/.284 line. LaRussa loves his LOOGY's, so King should thrive in St Louis.
Continuing their recent trend of acting as the farm club for the rest of the division, the Pittsburgh Pirates nontendered Mike Lincoln in December, allowing St. Louis to sign him as a free agent two weeks later. Lincoln is a cheap, serviceable relief option with a bit of upside, and while he's got some other folks ahead of him on the depth chart, he provides good insurance in case someone like Eldred remembers that his shoulder is made of paper and staples.
That makes eleven pitchers, but it wouldn't be strange to see the Cardinals carry twelve this year, if only because the options available for bats are so sad. Likely candidates are Jason Simontacchi, Kiki Calero, Alan Benes, Jay Ryan, and Josh Pearce. The two best bets are Simontacchi and Calero, and which one comes along will probably be decided by one part spring performance and one part perceived need. If the club feels like they need a long option, Simontacchi's their man, and since that makes the most sense given the possibilities for injury among the starters, I'd slap the favorite label on him.
Ideally, I'd just leave it at that, but I'd feel like I hadn't done my job. Then guilt would set in, I'd have to call my therapist, and there'd be this whole thing with a teddy bear....trust me, it'd be ugly. Luckily, we've already covered some of this territory with the left field and second base situations, so I'll stick to the previously unmentioned "candidates."
There are few roster options who should be trusted to back up shortstop consistently, so Rule 5 pick Hector Luna is a decent bet to make the team. He's only 22 and looks like he has some potential, so he's not a bad guy to spend a roster spot on if you've got a rock solid regular at his position and a good rest of the bench. Well, at least they got the first part right. The other option is Wilson Delgado, and while I wouldn't say he's a good idea, he does have that salty veteran flavor Tony LaRussa loves.
There's a battle for the backup first base/corner outfield job between the two John's, Mabry and Gall. Mabry was never very good, and he seems to have outlived what little usefulness he had, fluky stint in Oakland be damned. Even without his competition's failings, Gall looks like he has the potential to be the only worthwhile option in an otherwise moribund reserve corps, showing an ability to make contact and hit for a bit of power in the minors. Plus, he's only 26, so rather than waste time with a player you know will be lousy, might as well give Gall his chance.
I'm beginning to form a theory. It's not completely fleshed out yet, but it goes something like this: All backup catchers are the same guy. Literally. Somewhere along the way, without the rest of the world finding out, a scientist on a remote island off the coast of Chile has discovered the secret to cloning humans. Turns out he lived in Milwaukee in 1957, but rather than becoming caught up in the exploits of future Hall Of Famers Eddie Mathews, Warren Spahn, or Hank Aaron as they went on to win the World Series, he was fascinated by their backup catcher, Carl Sawatski.
No one knows why our scientist friend was so enamored of this spare backstop, but he took it upon himself to clone Sawatski hundreds of times and send the spawn to America, where they could use their inherited talents to ride the pine for baseball teams across the land. And that, boys and girls, is where Chris Widger came from.
This team has the core of talent to win the NL Central, even with the sucking chest wounds they'll carry at multiple positions. There isn't a team in the division without significant flaws, the Cardinals included, but in the areas where St. Louis is strong, they have huge advantages over their divisional rivals.
But the Cardinals' strength is also their weakness. So much of the team's production is concentrated in so few bodies, if one of them falters, the entire season falls with them. If those great players were all good injury risks that would be one thing, but there are several members of the group who have a decent chance to break.
The pockets of talent on this team are good enough that anyone who declares St. Louis to be a non-contender in the NL Central race is a fool. But those pockets have enough holes that anyone willing to wager cash on the Cardinals' chances is the fool's moron brother.