Creeping Inexorably Toward A Worthwhile Sub-Heading.
Thursday, March 18, 2004
Know Your Enemy - Part IV A - The Cardinals
These have been getting awfully long, so in the interest of eye strain prevention, I've broken this week's installment into two parts. Today, we have the Cardinal position players, and tomorrow, the pitching staff and bench. Enjoy!
The St. Louis Cardinals haven't made the same splashy offseason moves that their main competitors in Houston and Chicago have, and many are using that fact as an excuse to write the team off in the NL Central race. This would be a mistake.
In 2003, the Cardinals allowed 796 runs, more than what 12 NL teams scored last year. They were the only team in the National League to allow more than 750 runs and still end up with a record of .500 or better.
It was the powerful offense that allowed this team to stay in contention as long as it did, and while some components were switched out for others this offseason, the core remains. The Cardinals will have four players who are almost certain to be the best in their league at their positions, a claim that not even the Yankees can make, and that alone makes them contenders.
However, despite their offensive capabilities, improving the club's capacity to prevent opposition run scoring was a priority, and while no big names came to town, moves were made to address issues in both the rotation and the bullpen. They've done enough to compete, but will it be enough to win?
Reggie Sanders is a funny bird (no pun intended). He's a solid hitter, fine defensive corner outfielder with a good arm, and from all reports, a nice guy. Yet he has this incredible trouble finding work every year. Up until this offseason, he had signed 3 consecutive one year deals for $1.5M, $1.75M, and $1M respectively, and at each of these stops his production has been right in the middle of his fellow right fielders in the league.
This makes him an excellent fit for a team like the Cardinals looking to fill multiple spots with minimal funds, and they took advantage of the situation, signing Sanders to a two year deal. However, there's still the question of why he has been unable to stick, and the answer is a troubling one for the Redbirds.
Never in his twelve full seasons in the Major Leagues has Reggie Sanders played more than 140 games. Over the last six years, he's averaged playing a little less than 128 games. For a team trying to work in some younger players, or with solid depth at the outfield corners, this wouldn't be an issue. St. Louis is not that team. Sanders' production will be welcome when he's in the lineup, but how often he'll be out there is an open question.
As for center field, I don't know what happened when Jim Edmonds came over to St. Louis, but if they bottle it, I'm buying. He was a fine player for Anaheim, but over the last four years, he has unquestionably been one of the biggest bargains in baseball, and something tells me the Angels would be willing to ship Adam Kennedy and Kent Bottenfield back across the Mississippi if Walt Jocketty was interested. [UPDATE: It's been pointed out that my geography here is sooooper bad! Let's just all adopt the stance that I originally wrote "across the Rockies (the mountains, not the team)" and agree never to speak of it again.] Here are his batting lines and salary from 2000-2003:
If you're a Cardinal fan looking for something disturbing, or a Cub or Astro fan looking for a ray of hope, note the gradual but steady drop in PA's from year to year. On an annual basis it's not alarming, but as a long term trend it's disquieting. Edmonds is well known for playing center field more like Dick Butkus than Willie Mays, and the myriad injuries big and small that come with that style appear to be taking their toll as time marches on.
His 2004 PECOTA card doesn't do anything to shake off that impression, either, predicting he'll come in with about 100 fewer PA's than last season. That's not good news for a team with little depth, who rely on their offense, and possess a payroll already at its upper limits. If any of the Cards' great stars go down for a substantial period of time, they don't have the personnel to adequately patch, and won't have the cash to bring in an appropriate replacement. In short, Edmonds et. al. need to stay healthy, or the Cardinals are screwed.
One area where St. Louis won't have to worry about a catastrophic injury is left field. While they have multiple A-list superstars in their lineup, the Cardinals will have several gaping holes as well, and no hole gapes larger than Albert Pujols' former stomping grounds. With Pujols' elbow-induced move to first base, the candidates for left are essentially competing for the opportunity to replace the .275 EQA of last year's first baseman, Tino Martinez. Here are the PECOTA projected EQA's of the current crop of candidates.
I'd say that's not good, but I don't want any trouble from the understatement police. This is going to be an issue all year long, as none of these gentlemen is a viable candidate to start on a regular basis, and some of them (I'm looking at you, Taguchi) don't even belong on a Major League roster. They are also all completely incapable of hitting a pitcher of like-handedness, so the Cardinals have to fill two roster spots with the likes of these guys just to fill an outfield corner every day.
The choice got a little easier recently, as Mark Quinn suffered another of the leg injuries that have haunted his career, but this "competition" still reminds me of the round of Fear Factor where everyone has to eat something appalling. Just because one of the nasty bits is gone from the plate doesn't mean you won't have to down something just as horrid when your turn comes.
Normally, I would say Robinson and Taguchi were shoo-ins simply because of their history with the club, but Brown has had a fine camp and may be playing himself into a platoon with Robinson. As Joe Sheehan said earlier this week, there's no good solution, and as far as I'm concerned, standing everyone in a circle and drawing straws will get you just as fine a fix as anything else.
Of course, there's no such issue over at first base. Once Barry Bonds retires or, God forbid, starts to show himself to be human, I can think of no wager more likely to net coin than a bet on the MVP future of Albert Pujols. This may sound hyperbolic, but I would be shocked to see him win any fewer than three of the awards over the life of his new seven year contract with the Cardinals, and wouldn't be surprised if he picked up a couple more. He is, quite simply, the most dangerous hitter in the National League not playing left field for the Giants, and is quickly approaching the time when there will be no need for even that small hedge. Franchises are built around players like Pujols, and the Cardinals have done well to make him their foundation for the future.
On the other infield corner we have yet another player who promises to be the best in the National League at his position, Scott Rolen. While there have been many reasons to advocate the canning of Larry Bowa in Philadelphia, the one I would use to justify the move would be Bowa's alienation of his - now former - third baseman.
What should you do if you have a 27 year-old at the hot corner who has done nothing but hit and play spectacular defense for the last six years? If you're Bowa, you piss him off to the point where he rejects a huge contract offer from his current team because he can't wait to escape your evil clutches. Sure, the Phillies have done fine for themselves in the meantime, and perhaps Rolen's departure meant having the cash to give to Jim Thome, but which would you rather have: the early decline years of an excellent first baseman, or the league's best third baseman through his peak? Me, I'll take Rolen every time.!
Discussions of the best shortstops in the Majors have in recent years been confined to the American League and their vaunted Trinity or Quadrinity or whatever you want to call it. If 2003 didn't change that, it should have. Edgar Renteria was already the best shortstop in the National League, but last year he became the best shortstop in the Major Leagues not making $25M. Need some convincing? Here are some numbers from 2003. Roll your mouse over the stat title for a quickie definition, and click on the link for a more extensive version.
I threw Furcal in because he's reaching a point where, if he keeps up what he did last season, he deserves a seat at the table too. It's interesting to note that of the six most productive shortstops last year, only one appears to field his position at a rate above the league average, and he'll be at third base in 2004.
There's nothing in that table that doesn't scream out for Renteria to get some respect, and with A-Rod's position change, he is poised to take over the mantle of Best Shortstop in Baseball. Looking over the other contestants, that's no small feat.
The job of Renteria's double play partner is up for grabs, but it's more a battle for playing time than a roster spot, as both parties will wind up making the team. Bo Hart and Marlon Anderson are the competitors, and in case you haven't guessed, this qualifies as another of those gaping holes I spoke of earlier.
Neither player brings any special skill to the table, as both are incapable of getting on base, hitting for power, or playing above average defense. Their only defining characteristics are handedness (Hart = right, Anderson = left), and levels of grit and scrappiness. Hart is the clear winner on the second count, with the first being a tie as neither player seems to sport an appreciable platoon split. If TLR makes the smart play, most of the time will go to Anderson. However, don't underestimate the hypnotic power of a grimace and a dirty uniform in Tony LaRussa's decision making process.
Finally, we have Mike Matheny, he of the "good game calling" and "veteran leadership." I know it's not terribly fair to beat up on a team's catcher, after all, baseball isn't filthy with good offensive options behind the dish. But when your starting backstop is outhit over the course of the season, any season, by the likes of Bengie Molina, it's time to start considering other options. The Cardinals won't, though, and that's good news for the rest of the NL Central.