Sunday, October 29, 2006

Looking Ahead: St. Louis Cardinals

I felt that this would be the appropriate place to discuss the Cardinals' World Series victory. Everything that needs to be said about the Cardinals has been said: they're the worst World Champions ever, but it's not such a big deal. Not only is their winning percentage the worst ever for a World Champion, but two more sophisticated measures of team quality agree. Baseball Prospectus uses third-order wins and ELO (which I thought was the name of a boy band) to demonstrate that the Cardinals were indeed worse than the '87 Twins, '03 Marlins or '00 Yankees.
But it's not such a big deal. Right now, everyone's totally positive about the Cardinals (and anyone who isn't gets an earful from a not-always-sensible fanbase). But in the months and years to come, I think a lot of people are going to use the example of the Cardinals as a way to debunk the Wild Card or to change the current playoff system.
Anytime you expand the playoffs, you're increasing the possibility that a lesser team will win the World Series. It happened with two divisions per league, and it's happening with three divisions. And even then, no switching around of divisions will change what happens in the Series itself. Were the '69 Mets a better team than the '69 Orioles? Highly unlikely. But they won the World Series. Any time you reduce a 162-game season to a 5- or 7-game affair, this is the risk you take.
Is it a risk we can live with? Yeah. I think too many people have spent all of their lives believing in the magic of October destiny and are quickly becoming disillusioned. I never had such illusions. The idea that the magic of October and the World Series somehow show the real best team in baseball is farcical. I've always known and felt that luck and talent have far more to do with it than magic. But for those romantics (usually writers), it's a difficult disillusionment.
This isn't to say that I'm thrilled that the Cardinals won, but I guess I just look at it philosophically. The '87 Cardinals were definitely a better team than the Twins, the '85 Cards were probably better than the Royals, and the '04 Cardinals were better than their Series sweep would indicate. I look at 2006 as the Cardinals' "lifetime achievement award." This is for all those times you deserved to win but never did; we'll make it up to you now. It's never too late. The Cardinals have achieved semi-dynastic status since 1996, but had no World Championship to show for it; even the Braves got at least one. And the world is a better place when the best player in baseball, Albert Pujols, has a World Series ring. Too many great baseball players -- such as Mel Ott, Ernie Banks, Phil Niekro or even Craig Biggio -- never did.
As for the baseball itself, it could best be described as "ugly." The games were usually close, but there was rarely any thought that you were watching top-notch baseball. The errors by the Tiger pitchers received a lot of press; I don't think they prove much at all, but the freaky nature of it is astounding. No pitching staff ever made as many errors in a World Series and remember, this one only lasted five games. What would we have seen in a Game 6 or Game 7? Kenny Rogers colliding with the right field umpire? Nate Robertson getting a ball stuck inside his shirt? I shudder to think.
A lot of it was attributed to youth, and I guess this was somewhat true. Anyone with any idea of body language could certainly tell that Justin Verlander was nervous as hell and pitching like it. It was jaw-dropping to see him make the exact same error as Joel Zumaya -- throwing the ball to third when he should have thrown it to first, and sending it about a foot or two out of the reach of Brandon Inge. But at least those were explainable by the quick thinking required in tense circumstances. Fernando Rodney's error was more puzzling; it was a slow comebacker that he had plenty of time on. But he bare-handed the ball and then let it fly about two or three feet over Placido Polanco's head. They should check Rodney's vision for depth perception; Placido Polanco is not going to be mistaken for Andre the Giant.
But that's really something about nothing, at least in the big picture. Obviously, those errors cost the Tigers big; all of them came in high-leverage situations and all of them led to at least one run. But it's hard for me to believe that these were the result of much more than chance; it's evident that the Tigers have some defensive issues, but to pass sweeping judgment on them all based on 5 games is silly. Curtis Granderson is not a bad center fielder, but anyone who slips and falls while tracking a fly ball is going to look like one. Craig Monroe isn't a bad left fielder, either; but he played a line drive oddly and then had it skip off the end of his glove. Bad decisions, absolutely -- but not bad players, not necessarily.
One of the problems with baseball (and a lot of things in life) is that people pass sweeping judgments based on very little evidence. This is especially true of baseball commentators; it is, after all, their job. They can take one play and make it turn into a statement about the entire team and sometimes even about baseball in general. This makes what they're doing sound more interesting, and it makes them sound smarter. But it's still just one play; one of a million in a baseball season. But as I said, it's their job; people want to hear things about Kenny Rogers' "personal transformation in the heated crucible of October;" they don't want to hear someone say, "Yeah, he's a good pitcher who was unlucky a few years back . . . yup . . . that's it."
As for the Tigers, their weaknesses finally caught up with them. I said sometime back in July that i'd finally stopped waiting for the Tigers' poor plate discipline to severely affect them; well, I guess I waited long enough. The Tigers finally ran up against a pitching staff that was able to exploit their hack-happy ways. As Keith Law said, the Tigers were hitting like there was a bomb in the dugout. The Cardinals' finesse pitchers were indeed finessing, and the Tigers were able to go up against the likes of Jeff Weaver and make themselves look bad. This isn't to say that Weaver pitched poorly, but if anything the Tigers were helping him out.
After Game 4 of the Series, Tiger leadoff hitter (and at the time, hitless wonder) Curtis Granderson said the Tigers needed to be "more aggressive" at the plate. Coach Andy Van Slyke echoed these sentiments. This is roughly akin to a drowning man saying, "Yes, I know I'm drowning, so I'm going to dive down to the bottom of the ocean and look for oxygen down there." It's like an army general claiming that there weren't enough Japanese bombers at Pearl Harbor. It's like a doctor treating brain cancer with an appendectomy.
More aggressive? Were the Tigers really getting tired of all of those two-and-three pitch at-bats? Did they think that standing at the plate for longer than 3 seconds would freeze their brain? My goodness but some people don't have the best problem-solving skills.
Unfortunately, the American viewing public was well aware of the dim nature of this year's Series combatants and showed it by decisively not watching it. I haven't seen the data on the Series as a whole, but early reports showed that Game 3 was the worst-rated Game 3 in history, and that the 3-game average was also the worst ever. I doubt things got better for Games 4 and 5.
This just isn't good news; it never is, when you're consistently setting new lows with every consecutive postseason, interrupted only by the once-in-a-lifetime Boston Red Sox spectacular in 2004. Attendance at baseball games is flourishing, and the money is flowing into the game at an unprecedented level. But there's just no good way to spin news that's this bad; baseball may be the national "pastime," but it hasn't been the national sport since the 1960's. Baseball has fallen far behind football and basketball and is getting dangerously close to hockey, NASCAR, and soccer. Actually, the sport baseball bears the closest resemblance to is golf. It's something that many Americans do, and they very much enjoy getting outdoors and being a part of it. But they don't want to watch it on TV.
A lot of this has to do with the growing regionalism of baseball; I'd say that more than ever, fans in baseball are tied solely to their hometown teams and show little interest in games played by other teams, with the possible exception of the Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs, Dodgers and Braves.
Example: I came across a picture in a book I read recently. It showed a throng of a couple thousand people in Times Square. They were all gathered around a board set up in the middle of the square, but were spilling out into the street and bringing everything to a standstill. Why were they there? To watch the returns from the World Series. Now, keep in mind, they weren't watching the Series itself; they were watching the games reenacted on a large board with a baseball diamond displaying the score and the action. The news was sent in by telegraph and posted on these boards in cities across America. They drew crowds everywhere to follow the games, even though they were second-hand from thousands of miles away. This World Series drew a few thousand into Times Square just to watch this re-enactment. The kicker is that this was the 1919 World Series -- between Cincinnati and Chicago, both of them very far away from New York. Neither of the two teams had a significant national following; indeed, the Reds were a perennial doormat that had just won their first pennant of the century. While allowing that there may have been an inordinate number of gamblers in this particular crowd, the picture struck me a stark contrast to where baseball is today. We can't even get people excited enough to sit on their own couches and watch the game. These people were standing out in the cold on a city street to watch a chalkboard re-enactment of a baseball game. There were thousands like them in every major city in America, major league or not.
The only modern parallel is the Super Bowl; everyone watches the Super Bowl, even if they're not football fans. What a brilliant achievement in marketing this is! To get people who don't like your product to watch it anyway, but only once a year so you can charge historically exorbitant amounts for advertising. Football has taken baseball's place as the national pastime, and I don't think that's going to change in my lifetime.

But enough of that gloom and doom. We can all celebrate for the Cardinals, who hadn't won the Series in 22 years. They'll always have the flags and the rings, even if nobody was watching when they won them.
Is there any chance the Cardinals could return to the Series in 2007? Let's find out (sorry, I take the segues when I can get them):

2006 W-L Record: 83-78
2006 pW-pL Record: 82-79
Runs Scored: 781 (6th in NL)
Runs Allowed: 762 (5th in NL)

Free Agents: Ronnie Belliard, Gary Bennett, Jason Marquis, Mark Mulder, Scott Spiezio, Jeff Suppan, Jeff Weaver
Pending Options: Jim Edmonds, Preston Wilson

2007 Proj. Lineup:
1B -- Albert Pujols
2B -- Aaron Miles
SS -- David Eckstein
3B -- Scott Rolen
LF -- Chris Duncan
CF -- Jim Edmonds*
RF -- Juan Encarnacion
C -- Yadier Molina

2007 Proj. Rotation:
Chris Carpenter
Anthony Reyes
Adam Wainwright
Brad Thompson?

2007 Proj. Closer: Jason Isringhausen

The Good News:
Well, if it worked this year, it might work next year. But that rotation is about as stable as Danny Bonaduce. GM Walt Jocketty will certainly take steps to address this in the offseason, but it will be difficult; pitching will be going at historic prices this year, and the Cardinals don't have anyone ready to step up from the minors.
Yeah, I know this is supposed to be the good news, but I can't just start off with optimism without setting it in a very tough reality. The optimism surrounds the lineup, which returns pretty much intact. To my knowledge, the option on Jim Edmonds in center field is still pending for 2007, but I imagine the Cards will pick it up. He's still a star player so long as he isn't concussed, and the Cards certainly don't need guys like So Taguchi getting 300+ ABs again next year.
If the is option picked up, the Cardinals will be returning their star troika of Pujols-Edmonds-Rolen. The good news is that Pujols is still a perennial MVP, and Rolen and Edmonds are still perennial All-Stars. The latter two are starting to get pretty brittle, especially for their age (Rolen will be 32 next year, Edmonds turns 37 next June). You can't exactly bank on those guys for 600 PAs a year, especially not at the level of their historic 2004 performances. But if they're in the lineup and are still mostly productive, they're still dangerous, as they proved in the Series.
Beyond these three, the lineup lacks depth. Chris Duncan emerged as an unlikely power hitter in 2006; his 293/363/589 performance in 90 games helped replace Reggie Sanders and give the Cardinals something besides out machines Preston Wilson and Juan Encarnacion in the outfield corners. But notice that I said "unlikely." The odds that Duncan slugs anything near .589 in the future are beyond remote. In the minors, his best mark was .473, at Double-A in 2004. It's true that hitters can develop power, but it's wishful thinking to imagine that Duncan has developed from a decent slugger into a monster. That makes his role in 2006 especially touchy, especially since his outfield defense is obviously sub-par. Some people are bad outfielders, but get by with it, because their weakness is range, which is mostly invisible. Sadly, Duncan's weaknesses are all too apparent, and he got to show them to the world in October. It's not fair for him to catch too much heat; he's a natural first baseman who obviously isn't playing there in St. Louis. Even if he's just a sometime slugger, you have to get his bat in the lineup. And it doesn't hurt when your Dad's the pitching coach.
While the Cardinals do have several quality defenders, as far as offense goes it's hard to get excited about any of the remaining slots in the lineup. Juan Encarnacion is one of the most overrated guys out there; he has the reputation of being decent, when he's not even that. He has occasional power on mistake pitches when he's not maintaining that .316 career OBP. But at least he has a .269 career average. And he did hit 20 home runs . . . once. But other than that, he's aces (sarcasm fully intended).
I've talked about David Eckstein before. He doesn't really hurt you much -- solid defense, above-average on-base skills -- but he's not going to help you either. He was the World Series MVP, yes, in the proud tradition of Bucky Dent (1978), Pat Borders (1992), and Ron Cey, Pedro Guerrero and Steve Yeager (all 1981, talk about your indecisive voters). But really, he only won the award because 1) he's short and therefore scrappy -- tall, strong guys are genetically incapable of being "scrappy" -- and 2) the Tiger outfield turned a couple outs into doubles. Eckstein played his part, but let's calm down and call a halt to the coronation.
At second base, the Cardinals have no one. There will be no one 0n the field playing the position at all, leaving Eckstein and Pujols to shift closer together to compensate. Runners stealing second will make it easily when the catcher's throw sails into center field, and a shortstop throwing to second for the double play will only send the ball hurtling into the right field corner. Unless they can find a center fielder with really good range, they will be in trouble.
All kidding aside, though, this is a big hole. The Baseball Prospectus annual said before the season, "Realistically, a team looking at [Junior] Spivey, [Deivi] Cruz, [Aaron] Miles annd [Hector] Luna as their second base alternatives has no second baseman. On the plus side, the loss of Ronnie Belliard (237/295/371 with the team) doesn't really hurt them at all.
At catcher, the Cardinals find themselves in a familiar dilemma; they have a player whose great defensive talent is equalled only by his great lack of offensive talent. Yadier Molina is a fine defensive catcher, and I'm not just saying that. But when you're a weak hitting catcher and you go into a slump (216/274/321 in 47 ABs), you should just not bother. On the plus side, Molina is only 24 and should get better. He has good power potential, too. But here's hoping he doesn't go on the official Molina Brothers diet and turn out like his brother Bengie, who runs as if his legs were sewn together.
I shouldn't take such pleasure in making semi-witty comments about the Cardinals. They ranked 6th in the NL in scoring this past season, and that was with a concussed Jim Edmonds and a touchy Scott Rolen. The bar is set low in the NL Central, and maybe they can pitch their way to a repeat as division champions.

The Bad News:
I know I made that last paragraph sound like the bad news, but it really, really wasn't. The Cardinal rotation is the bad news, in its most violent form.

Well, first off, I'll just put it right out there that Chris Carpenter is an ace pitcher. I'm not going to qualify that statement in any way, except perhaps to say that he's turning 32 and has thrown a lot of pitches recently. But that's splitting hairs; he's an excellent pitcher and should be top-notch in 2006.
And the rest of the St. Louis rotation will be crafted in Gepetto's shop. To be fair, Anthony Reyes has a great deal of promise as a starter, even though he was inconsistent this past year. Adam Wainwright had a great showing as closer when Jason Isringhausen got injured, but the Cards need him in the starting rotation, especially when Izzy comes back. He's got a lot of promise, which is more than I can say for everybody else.
In trying to come up with another two pitchers for the St. Louis rotation, I was pretty much stumped. Look back at that list of free agents: that is the Cardinal rotation from 2006, minus Carpenter's full season and Reyes' half-season. I give Walt Jocketty credit for being able to wangle something out of a tough free agent market, but he's got his work cut out for him. And there isn't really a Plan B. The only real option I could find was Brad Thompson; he was a starter in the low minors before being shifted into the bullpen last year. Realistically, though, Thompson's shift was with good reason; he was struggling as a starter. The Cards do still have Jorge Sosa, I think, but it shouldn't have to come to that.
But since I put so much bad news in the good news heading, I'll compensate with this: if Jocketty can find someone to fill in the middle of the rotation, the Cardinals wouldn't be in bad shape. Perferably, this would be someone with the quality of a #2, because as good as Reyes could be, you don't want to count on him to be the second best pitcher on your team. But if you've got someone ahead of him, then you've got a lot more depth and much more quality in your starters. Finding a fifth starter isn't easy, but it's not nearly as difficult as getting a #2; Walt Jocketty should be up to it.
I would criticize the Cardinals for their slim farm system, but this is hardly appropriate for a team that just won the World Series. Jocketty has never been a gung-ho, homegrown sort of fellow, but unlike other GMs, he usually makes the right decisions and keeps the right people. The Cardinals did have a few possibilities among both pitchers and players in the minors, but it seems (from what I saw) that the Cardinals' prospects took a collective step back this year. This hurts them both in the outfield, the middle infield, and in the pitching department. But that kind of thing is hard to predict; you just have to roll with the punches. And Jocketty rolls about as well as anyone.

Offseason Game Plan:
Pitching help is obviously top priority. There are issues with the lineup, but first attention should be paid to getting a strong pitcher. It would preferably be someone who's clearly above-average and can fill in with 30+ good starts in the #2 role. Realistically, there are about 15 teams looking for that kind of guy, and the market prices will be crazy. If you can find a #3-level guy who's durable, then settle for that. Look into re-signing Suppan, who knows (if he's smart) that he's dead meat if he goes to the AL.
If you can get a good starting pitcher, turn your attention to the lineup. The bullpen isn't a real issue; you've got several good arms knocking around out there, and this year's postseason shows that Tony LaRussa has the personnel to prosper even without Isringhausen. As for the #5 starter's spot, this shouldn't be a problem for a clever man like Jocketty. Look for a low-end guy who can provide you some returns (I would say Jeff Weaver, but his postseason performance has jacked up his asking price). Sign some emergency guys to minor league contracts, etc. etc. Don't go for anything as volatile (and as awful) as Sidney Ponson; if Russ Ortiz calls, hang up.
In the lineup, second base is your top priority. It's not a thick market for second baseman, and in fact, the talent at this position is pretty poor around baseball. There will be rich teams going after Julio Lugo, but give him your best sales pitch. He can play all over the infield, steal bases, and bunt; LaRussa will love him. He's got a good enough bat and glove that he'll actually be a true asset more than just a placeholder. Don't make the Deivi Cruz mistake; you can sign three guys that are just as good/bad as Miles, and while that does increase your depth, it doesn't help your ballclub, because your second baseman is still going to suck.
There's really nothing you can do at catcher, nor should you; Molina is so good defensively that you should just stick with him and hope that this year was as bad as it gets. In left field, you really have to stick with Chris Duncan until he proves otherwise. As much as I think he's a sizable fluke in left field, he's the best thing you've got. Unless Moises Alou just drops in your lap for a 1-year/$5 million deal, you'll have to stick with Duncan.
Juan Encarnacion, however, should be traded, but won't. He's got a free agent deal of his own, and you know how GMs are at admitting their mistakes. That plus I don't know if the Cardinals are really aware of how much of a liability he is; he's one of the worst starting right fielders in baseball. And it's not like this is some sudden development; he's been one of the worst for years.
A #2 or #3 pitcher and a second baseman should be at the top of the Cards' shopping list this off-season. Keep your ears open for a good deal on a corner outfielder, but don't get desperate and sign another Encarnacion. You've got as much chance as anybody at winning the division next year. Just try to maintain what you've got.

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