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Know Your Enemy 2005 - Part V, A - The Cardinals
by Derek Smart
Time after time, Cardinals fans reading season previews and predictions leading up to Opening Day 2004 saw one of two configurations atop the NL Central:
Two different predictions with one common thread: in the eyes of the experts, the Cardinals were a third place team.
The Cardinals would score runs, they would say, but the pitching staff won't hold up. Houston and Chicago have All-World rotations, and St. Louis only has an ace who's a shadow of his former self in Matt Morris, an aging soft-tosser in Woody Williams, and three castoffs who were lucky to be on a Major League roster.
As it turns out, the pundits were at least a little bit right on the first two points, but when it came to the supposed castoffs, it was the Cardinals who were lucky to have them. With all the hype surrounding the staffs of their division rivals, it must have been a special pleasure for the Redbird pitchers to allow the fewest runs per game - 4.07 - in all of the Major Leagues.
The only thing everyone got right about this team was the degree to which their offense would dominate, as they led the NL with 855 runs during the season, a whopping 5.28 per contest. That's an average margin of 1.21 runs per game, and as is natural with many teams that lead the Majors in this category, they won over 100 games. 105, to be exact.
The Cardinals flat-out dominated the National League in 2004, eventually making it to the World Series. But while their success was a surprise, it was very real. Luck is a part of any great season, but more than anything else, the 2004 Cardinals simply outplayed their competition.
Will St. Louis repeat their thrilling ride to the top, or is there another, less savory surprise in store for their fans?
First baseman Albert Pujols didn't produce at the same rate in 2004 as he did in 2003, posting a minuscule .342 EQA which served to merely tie him for third in the Major Leagues - a figure fully 19 points lower than what he'd accomplished the previous year when his EQA was a much more impressive second in the Bigs. He has also ceased to be a multi-position player defensively, sticking exclusively to first instead of playing first, third, and the outfield.
Pujols has obviously lost value, and as he enters his 25th year, is aging fast. The Cardinals would do well to dump him on some poor, unsuspecting team - preferably the rival Cubs. They would be lucky to get a versatile player like Jose Macias in return, and if they're smart, they'll try to get this deal done now.
Psst! Did it work? No?!? Sigh. Well, you can't blame a fella for trying.
Back on planet Earth, there is no one currently playing in the Major Leagues who has a better shot at a run of Bondsian dominance than Pujols. He has the patience, power, and amazing contact skills to destroy opposing pitchers of all stripes for at least the next decade. If there's an injury free year in the next ten when he doesn't rank in at least the top five in NL MVP voting, I'll eat my nearly 20 year-old Cubs cap.*
Tossing Prince Albert recently retrieved keystone grounders will be former Cub, Mark Grudzielanek. Ah, Grudz. How I will miss mangling your name on the first pass of the keyboard. Now you will terrorize the copy editors and uniform manufacturers of St. Louis as you try to live up to the standard set by Tony Womack V2004 (words I never thought I'd type). Really, this is a great, cheap signing by the Cardinals, especially considering what the Yankees spent on the aforementioned Womack on the strength of one fluky season.
What the Cards will get for their pocket change is a moderate defensive upgrade, and something approaching status quo offensively. In fact, even forgetting the one-shot nature of the beast, Womack's .307/.349/.385 line from 2004 is only superior to Grudzielanek's .307/.347/.432 if you factor in the former's speed advantage, which to my mind, is negated by his inferiority with the leather.
Grudz' doesn't have much pop, but what is there is less like a lightning strike (Unexpected? Yes. Electric? No.), and more like a 200 sided die inside a Magic 8-Ball that has one face devoted to the phrase "HR", and two more that say "2B". That shouldn't concern the Cardinals, but what should worry them are the 50 sides that have some iteration of "Oh, no! You've hurt your ______ ! Sit out a month."
In-house replacement options, the primary being Abraham Nunez, are poor at best, and even though he's not the most potent on-base threat, losing Marky G for significant time could put a real crimp in the production of the lower part of the order.
Joining him in the middle of the infield is The Little Sparkplug That Could, David Eckstein. Don't be fooled: when folks pontificate about the loss of offense and defense the Cardinals endured in this offseason's middle infield merry-go-round, that's merely code for "Ugh! David Eckstein?!?"
It's true, his offensive style can best be described as being of the Make Contact And Pray school, and his defense was learned at The Maximum Effort Academy For Overachievers, but it must be remembered that the Cardinals are getting three years of Eckstein for the price of one year of Edgar Renteria. That's not small potatoes, particularly considering the monies owed to the linchpin superstars on the club, as well as the fact that once Renteria's superlative 2003 is tossed out, the offensive difference between them becomes more crack than chasm.
In other words, Eckstein's no prize, but the Cards did well on this considering what their options were. But there's another issue here, and that's the fact that Eckstein will be expected to lead off, a job for which he is not well suited. He has the hustling style one likes to see at the top - after all, we always hear how the lead off man "jump starts" the offense - but when aesthetics are cast aside, the best way to achieve this jump is to get on base, and that's not something Eckstein does nearly enough of. However, there aren't really other options available, and once a fella gets anointed, it's hard to...what?...de-anoint?.
To Davey's right stands the man who is unquestionably the best defensive third baseman of our generation, Scott Rolen. Look, I'm as much of a partisan hack as the next guy, but when I heard Cub broadcasters last season mentioning the admittedly improved defense of Aramis Ramirez in the same breath as the glovework of Rolen, I cringed like 'Enry 'Iggins when confronted with Eliza's "Ah-ow-ooh!" They are simply not in the same class of defenders, and I think it's safe to say that Rolen stands alone among active players, and in elite company historically.
His bat work ain't bad either. He's been among the best at his position for a while, but last year saw him fully deliver on the promise that was so obvious in his early years in Philadelphia, sporting a .314/.409/.598 line to go with his .330 EQA. It's particularly impressive to see him emerge in this way as we've seen the quantity of high level third basemen rise dramatically over the last few years.
Case in point: in 2002 there were nine first basemen in the Majors with a VORP of 50 or more, while only three third sackers broke the same barrier. However, last year only six first basemen had a 50+ VORP, while seven hot corner men turned the trick.
The development of Adrian Beltre and Aramis Ramirez, along with the position switch of Alex Rodriguez had a lot to do with the trend, but even so, the numbers could go higher this year if the usual suspects hold service, and men like Troy Glaus, Eric Chavez, and Hank Blalock stay healthy/return to previous form. We are fortunate to bear witness to a golden age of third baseman, and fans in St. Louis can count themselves lucky that their man heads the list.
If there's a point of concern, it's Rolen's balky left knee, which slowed him down at the end of last season and pretty obviously affected him in the playoffs. Everything appears fine at the moment, but it's an issue that will be in the back of Cardinals fans minds throughout the year. St. Louis needs his bat in the lineup, and at full speed, too. If he misses significant time, or is ineffective for an extended period, it will be a difficult blow for the club to absorb.
What shouldn't be difficult for them to absorb is the loss of Mike Matheny to free agency, paving the way for someone besides him to be the starting squatter for the Cardinals for the first time since 1999. By lowballing Matheny with their contract offer, St. Louis did what Houston should have done, and that's relieve themselves of the burden of carrying a backup catcher's bat every day, particularly when the defensive contributions that kept him in the lineup in the first place had ceased to be superlative.
When he was in his defensive prime during his first couple of years in Cardinal red, Matheny was good enough with the glove to make an argument for punting his offensive contribution, but while he's still a fine defender, particularly on balls in the dirt, he's no longer so good that carrying his stick can be justified. Unless, apparently, you're in San Francisco.
The decision to let Matheny go was made easier by the emergence of Yadier Molina, who makes up for his lesser ability at pitch blocking with a cannon arm, and a bat that isn't cringe-worthy. He's unlikely to ever be what one could call a good hitter, but he's already better than the man he's replacing, and since he'll only be 23 this July, there's at least some room for improvement.
PECOTA's Weighted Mean Projection sees Molina hitting .242/.300/.336, which seems a little rough for a man who's pretty consistently hit for better averages throughout his career. His 75th percentile projection of .261/.321/.365 is closer to what I'd expect, and if that's what St. Louis gets from him, they should be thrilled.
While providing its share of thrills, for me, the career of Cardinal right fielder, Larry Walker, will always be a series of "What ifs?" - the main thrust of most being, "What if he could stay healthy?" If he could average - simply average - 500 at bats per season at his career levels, he would have 446 home runs. If one were to extend the fantasy just a bit farther, assuming that the increase in playing time also meant better health while playing, then it's conceivable that he could be within striking distance of 500 homers and a marginal Hall of Fame candidacy.
This isn't the case, however, and in my world there's a hint of sadness surrounding his career. He's always been a player I enjoy watching. He plays hard, plays well, and most of all, just looks like he's having fun. Seeing the joy he gets from the game, seeing him pass that joy to the folks in the stands, yet knowing that he could have played so much more - been so much more - than his body allowed him, makes the experience bittersweet.
But while he's at the tail end of his time on the field, this ain't a funeral, and Larry can still play - his .280/.393/.560 line in his 44 games with the Cards proved that - so the question, as usual, is not how well he can play but how much. This seems like a good time to pull in an expert, so I turned to Baseball Prospectus writer and Cardinal fan, Dayn Perry, who was gracious enough to provide his views on Walker.
Walker's averaged just fewer than 120 games per season over the last five years, so it's unwise to expect him to drastically exceed that figure. It may well happen, but in the planning stages, you shouldn't bank on 145 games from him. When he's playing, I think he'll be effective. I'd figure something like 450 plate appearances of .275/.380/.490 from him, which, of course, will be beneficial.
Still, this is a potentially gimpy outfield on the whole. I think So Taguchi is generally underrated, but I still wanted the Cards to sign a more capable fourth outfielder--preferably one who bats left-handed and could platoon with Reggie Sanders on occasion. Ricky Ledee would've been ideal. Taguchi's useful, but if he's logging more than 250 plate appearances, it's a problem.
It looked for a while like Taguchi might hit that "problem number," as left fielder, Reggie Sanders, had to undergo an emergency appendectomy in mid-March. However, doctors were able to perform the surgery using an arthroscopic procedure, drastically reducing his recovery time. As it stands, the Cardinals expect Sanders to be able to open the season with the team.
Having to undergo sudden surgery must have been surreal for Sanders, but it's likely that wasn't the only thing that felt strange. For the first time since the spring of 1998 he strolled into the same facility he strolled into the year before, the odd-feeling result of another odd occurrence: the Cardinals signing him to a two-year contract in 2004 after five straight seasons of shorter-leash deals.
The two year agreement was a calculated risk by the Redbirds, since Sanders had yet to play more than 140 games in a season, and was also being inked for his 36 and 37 year-old campaigns at $2M and $4M, respectively.
The part that's kinda fun is that while it may seem counter-intuitive to give a 37 year-old corner outfielder more than you give a 36 year-old corner outfielder, in Sanders' case, if his career trends hold true, he's due for a better year in 2005. Here's a look at his OPS+ numbers since 1995:
Reggie Sanders: the Steve Trachsel of outfielders. Or rather, Sanders is the Yin to Trachsel's Yang, having his better seasons in odd numbered years, while Trachsel's come on the evens. Shoot, even if Sanders merely holds steady, he's got nice power for the position to go with surprising speed for a man of his years. The Cardinals will still get their value for him, and if they get more, so much the better.
Speaking of value, last year in this space, I noted that Jim Edmonds, has been one of the best values of recent years, but that great as he had been, he had also been losing between 32 and 45 plate appearances every year since 2001. The decline in playing time wasn't terribly shocking - center fielders in their early thirties who play more like linebackers than baseballers tend to get their share of nicks and cuts. However, one expects a small loss here, a little gain there; a big drop at that point, followed by a tiny increase, not the gradual, almost inevitable march toward fewer and fewer times at bat that was becoming "The Jim Edmonds Experience."
Maybe he read what I wrote (um....yeah), spotted the trend himself, or merely realized he wasn't a kid anymore, but no matter what the cause, it seemed as if he adapted his style to find that point where the effort exerted on every play was in balance with the risk to his well being, rather than simply being the maximum possible, consequences be damned.
For the price of a couple fewer outfield dives, Edmonds swapped a 500 PA season where 20% or so of the turns would see him hobbled in some way, for a 600+ PA year where nearly every trip to the dish found him in the pink. There's no way that's not a fantastic trade-off for both him and the team, and the only reasonable question about it is why he didn't make the adjustment sooner.
That's especially true when one considers his numbers in 2004 and sees that, not only did he play more, but substantially better, having arguably the best season of his career at the ripe old age of 34 - a .301/.418/.643 line, 88.9 VORP, and .342 EQA can be exchanged for a truckload of diamonds in some circles. While it would be excessive to expect a season at the same incredible level as last year, wagering on less than excellence from this man would be a sure way to lose your money.
This is an aging collection of starters - even with Pujols (25) and Molina (22) their average age is 31.5 years old - with injury concerns in several spots. Still, when healthy, this will continue to be the most frightening lineup in the two through five spots in the National League, and the other four contributors should do enough damage to make the offense as a whole a force to fear again in 2005.
*offer not applicable to caps in the state of Illinois