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Know Your Enemy 2005 - Part V, B - The Cardinals
by Derek Smart
Yesterday we saw that, while potentially fragile, the Cardinals' offense will still pack a punch. Will last year's surprise - the pitching staff - continue to keep pace?
A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside some bagel dog dough - that sums up the season had by one Mark Mulder last year. Is he the gentleman who went 10-2 over the season's first three months while sporting a 2.90 ERA, or is he the guy who floundered the rest of the way, going 7-6 with an ERA of 6.10? Or better yet, is he the delicious outer coating for a tasty nitrate bomb?
The talk has been of hidden injuries or an overawareness of his mechanics, but until someone steps forward and offers something concrete, talk of causality in this case is all so much speculation, and that doesn't do me much good. What I am interested in is finding out exactly how this newfound stank manifested itself. To the table, Batman!
And now I would like to abandon my call for discussion of facts to allow the introduction of a theatrically enhanced timeline of Mulder's second half breakdown, which I shall tentatively title, "Cascade of Frets." Here's the outline of the action:
We first meet our hero at the end of June. He's fresh from a triumph over the Angels where he gave up four runs in seven innings. Not the best outing, but no red flags, and he records his tenth win. All is well.
Next, it's the end of July. It's been a rough month where, suddenly, everything he throws seems hittable. His walk rate remains steady, and his strikeout rate does too, but this is one of those periods where the opposition is not just getting hits, but hitting the ball hard. He decides something must be done.
The Dog Days come to an end, and his adjustments aren't working. Seeing that he was getting hit in the zone, he vowed to stay out of it, resulting in a decline in his hit rate. Unfortunately, this also has the effect of reducing his strikeouts, while nearly doubling his walk rate. In addition, his home run rate goes up too, as a plethora of three-ball counts force him to challenge hitters with his fastball. Panic starts to set in.
It's September and everything's gone to hell. The good news is his, strikeout rate goes up. The bad new is, it's because hitters are getting deep into counts as word gets around the league that he can't find the plate anymore. This also results in a still poor walk rate and skyrocketing hit and home run rates. Nothing is working. All is lost. He rocks in the corner of the dugout like Leo Mazzone on greenies after giving up four runs to the Angels in two innings in his last game of the year. The season has come full circle, and he can be faintly heard repeating over and over in a barely audible whisper, "There's no place like home. There's no place like home..."
Alright, so my feel for the situation is...um...fanciful. Thank goodness Dayn Perry of Baseball Prospectus was kind enough to give me his far more rational two cents on what to expect from Mulder:
David Eckstein's poor glovework will exact a toll on Mark Mulder, who's posted GB/FB ratios of more than 2.0 in each of the last two seasons. Leveraging the team's payroll latitude to extract stars from other teams is Jocketty's forte. However, I think he blew this one. I'll go on record as saying I think Dan Haren, who was one of the players they traded away to Oakland in the Mulder deal, will come within 20 innings of Mulder and post a lower runs-per-game. Mulder's coming off his worst K/BB ratio since his rookie season. He also has health concerns and will be playing in front of a vastly inferior shortstop.
I don't think he'll be awful by any means, but I don't think he'll be as good as Haren. That's to say nothing of the fact that they also parted with Daric Barton, who in my mind is one of the ten best prospects in the game.
Anyone who thought Chris Carpenter had a better shot at being useful at a carwash than on a pitcher's mound in 2004 can be forgiven their pessimism. When someone hasn't pitched since August 13, 2002, while recovering from shoulder surgery, it tends to bring out folks' inner killjoy. However, it appears that Carpenter either didn't hear the naysaying or didn't care, as he posted the type of season people had been expecting of him since before his arm troubles. How much did he improve over his previous work? Let's take a look.
While the Cardinals certainly thought they could have a nice pitcher on their hands, I'm not sure even their most optimistic projections would have seen Carpenter come so far so fast. Career bests in his H/9, BB/9, and K/9 are indications that the vast improvement has a strong basis in factors unrelated to luck, so it's not untoward to expect a similar season in 2005. But don't take my word for it: listen one more time to what Mr. Perry has to say.
One of Dave Duncan's core competencies is working well with retreads of Carpenter's stripe. Based on Carp's excellent command last season (4/1 K/BB ratio), I think he'll have strong peripherals again this season in 180-200 innings. So, yes, I think he'll be a quality hurler in 2005.
On the downside, he posted a career high GB/FB ratio last season, and, if he repeats that tendency, his numbers will decline. I say that because no matter what the team's proprietary defensive metrics say, David Eckstein is a sub-par defender. He makes routine plays well, but his arm sucks and his range pales in comparison to Renteria's. That they paid $10.5 million over three seasons to a wildly overrated player who was released is a joke. And not a particularly funny
one from my vantage point.
If Dayn's concerns about the infield defense are justified (and they probably are), another one of the Cardinals' starters who could be hurt by its decline is Jason Marquis, who also posted a career high GB/FB ratio last season of 2.17, making him even more reliant on his infield defense than Carpenter was with his 1.93 ratio.
This is particularly troubling since his strikeout rate actually declined when compared to his previous seasons when he was primarily a starter. He's pretty obviously pitching to contact a bit more with the Cardinals, and that's a sound enough strategy when you aren't much of a strikeout pitcher to begin with and your pitching coach gets you throwing a good sinker.
Still, the game plan starts to unravel when the teammates you rely on to make plays aren't necessarily up to the task, and that may be the situation here. If Marquis' HR/9, BB/9, and K/9 all remain about the same, but his ERA goes up by half a run, look for a certain diminutive shortstop to fall victim to a paroxysm of swirlies.
Confidence good; hubris bad. When you're a pitcher at the top of your game who's team is offering less money than the market will bear, your refusal to sign is an indication of confidence. When you throw an injured shoulder which you continue to pitch with into that scenario, the refusal turns to hubris.
Such was the cheek displayed by Matt Morris before last season when he turned down the Cardinals' offer of a two-year extension for $15M. True, the offer represented a pay cut, and I can understand why it might have been upsetting. But it also represented security, and in hindsight this has become another instance of what I now call "getting Pokeyed".
Morris ended up signing a one-year deal, paying a guaranteed $2.5M with an opportunity to make an additional $4.5M through incentive clauses. This became possible because, while he was once the ace of the Cardinals' staff, his 2004 pretty clearly showed there was damage to his right shoulder, and as a result of said damage, Morris was the worst of the teams five starters, despite logging fifteen victories.
Morris had never posted an ERA higher than 3.76, that being in 2003, but he nearly did that a full run worse at 4.72 in 2004. His strikeout rates have been dropping for years - 2001 saw it at 7.70 per nine innings, but the next few seasons brought rates of 7.32, 6.27, and 5.84 respectively - and while he'd been able to pitch around it by keeping the ball in the park, that all stopped last year as he gave up a near-Miltonian 35 round-trips.
Obviously, something has been wrong, and Morris underwent shoulder surgery this offseason to clean up his frayed labrum. Whether the procedure will cure what ails him remains to be seen, but despite the fact that he won't join the club immediately out of spring training, reports of his rehab have been encouraging. He'll still need to continue adjusting his game to be less of a thrower and more of a pitcher - something he did with varying degrees of success last season - and if he can do that, he should be back to contributing at an above average level.
When they signed Jeff Suppan last year, all the Cardinals wanted or expected was around 200 innings of league average ball to protect their bullpen from the possible overuse that some of the staff's relative fragility might impose, and while they didn't quite get the 200, they certainly got the league average, and overall, it was exactly what they needed.
Suppan doesn't do anything particularly well, but neither does he do anything with egregious incompetence. He's simply a durable pitcher with decent control who relies on his defense to help him make outs. He should be able to give St. Louis those 200 innings this year, and if those grounders don't get too sneaky on him, be right around league average again.
When discussions of "elite" closers are had, the usual suspects - Rivera, Gagne, Wagner - get mentioned along with some of the new-fangled boys - Lidge, Rodriguez - but for some reason, Jason Isringhausen's name rarely comes up. Maybe it's because when the word "elite" is bandied about in reference to the Capital C types, it is meant to be equivalent to "extraordinarily intimidating" rather than "extraordinarily effective." Or maybe it's just that Isringhausen's name has too many syllables. Whatever the reason, Izzy's omission is in error, as evidenced below.
That's impressive consistency - and no, that 0.00 in his 2002 HR/9 is not a typo. There's a mildly troubling loss of K/9 over the last couple of years, but if losing ground in that regard means that you're still hanging around a strikeout per inning, it means you had some wiggle room to begin with. Besides, there's a difference between losing steam and collapsing, and it's reasonable to lay some of the blame for the slow leak on the long-term effect of shoulder surgery before the 2003 season.
He underwent more labrum surgery this winter, but his time on his hip. Word is that he's still feeling things out, and having trouble repeating his mechanics, but even if he starts the season a little rusty, he should eventually get back to the form that's made him one of the more reliable closers in the game.
With the departure of "The Hat" (not to be confused with his arch-nemesis, "Dad Hat"), Ray King takes over as the primary lefty in the Cardinals' pen. Considering their current issues finding useful lefty relievers, the Cubs have to be kicking themselves for not sticking with King after his mediocre 10.2 innings in 1999. Since then, his worst ERA+ was the 118 he posted for Atlanta in 2003, and last year saw him throw up a 2.61 ERA while only giving up a single home run in his 62 IP. The Cardinals locked him up for the next two years for a total of $4.6M - a fair price for a fine pitcher.
I've used my Almond Joy line on Julian Tavarez more than once ("Sometimes you feel like a nut..."), but despite his status as one of the most certifiably insane players in the league, he also turned into one of the league's more effective relievers last year. He had one of the lowest GB/FB ratios of his career at 1.75 - something of an issue for an avowed sinkerballer - but made up for it by posting a 6.71 K/9, his highest since 1995.
He also give up his fewest walks per nine since 1996 at 2.66, and allowed the fewest hits per nine of his career at 7.97 while still giving up only one home run in his 64.1 IP. If he can turn this happening into a trend it will serve him very well.
It says something about the quality of your bullpen when your worst reliever with more than 21 innings of work sported an ERA+ of 111. Such is the case with Cal Eldred, who has managed very respectable 3.74 and 3.76 ERAs over the last two seasons. His success last year can be traced to a dramatic decrease in his walk rate (Career BB/9: 3.77, 2004 BB/9: 2.28), an improvement he'll need to build on to make up for his inability to consistently miss bats or keep balls in the park.
Just as huffing leads to brain damage and rolling naked in poison ivy brings a terrible rash, so trading away Kiko Calero can have only one, sad consequence: Al Reyes. Okay, even I will admit that's cheap, especially considering that Reyes has a nice career K/9 of 8.47, and a career ERA+ of 116.
Of course, he also walks a bunch of men (4.58 per 9), which might go a long way toward explaining why he hasn't seen more than 25.2 innings of Major League work since he threw a combined 65.2 IP between Milwaukee and Baltimore in 1999. Since then, he's been the guy that sits in AAA every year, waiting for someone to be hurt or ineffective. He won't have to wait this year, and the Cardinals have to hope he can stand up to the extended exposure.
The last two spots in the bullpen will go to some combination of right-handed NRI Kevin Jarvis, lefty Randy Flores, and lefty NRI/Potential-Feel-Good-Story-Of-The-Year, Bill Pulsipher. Pulsipher's easily had the best spring of the three, tossing 9 scoreless innings at this writing while only giving up 6 hits and 3 walks to go along with 7 strikeouts.
Jarvis has been mediocre, while Flores has been hit hard, so if the Cards do, indeed, give Pulsipher a job, the decision between Flores and Jarvis could come down to their performance over the next few days, as neither has distinguished themselves in any positive way over their respective careers. However, I'd have to wager that Flores' decent work with the Cardinals last year, coupled with LaRussa's matchup fetish, will give him the nod over his right-handed competitor.
It seems like only yesterday that Einar Diaz was looking like a man that for all the world would be able to pawn himself off as a starting Major League catcher. But whatever happened to him after 2001 happened pretty hard, because he's very firmly fallen into the company of reserve backstops (his #2 BBREF comp is the hilariously named former backup, Clyde Kluttz).
The bummer part is, that while he was once a very good defensive catcher, he looks to have fallen off the competency wagon in recent years, calling into question why he would be on the roster in the first place. Catchers who can't hit, but can field their position, seem to be peeking out from behind every foul pole. Why hire someone for the job who doesn't do either very well?
Slotting in as the fourth outfielder, So Taguchi could be in for some extra playing time this year if Larry Walker misses his typical slate of games. That's not horrific news defensively, as Taguchi can certainly cover ground and catch the ball, but the offensive loss would be substantial. His career line of .290/.339/.440 isn't bad for a bench player, but it's not something you want in your outfield every day. Still, if you can keep him around 200 plate appearances he might actually be an asset. But with both Walker and Reggie Sanders being near certain bets to miss 20+ games apiece, the chances that he'll go beyond that threshold by a sizeable margin should be enough to make the team's fans at least a little bit nervous.
Of course, they should be considerably more nervous if Roger Cedeno gets that kind of time. For the last four seasons, Cedeno's only asset has been his speed, and even that has mostly deserted him. You really don't want him coming to the plate in a critical situation, if at all, and you certainly don't want his legendarily bad "defense" in any part of the pasture. He's not quite Rey Ordonez bad (geez, who is?), but you generally want your reserves to have at least one core competency, and near as I can tell, he's devoid of any.
Hordes of baseball analysts practically got in line to mock, deride, and ridicule the 2002 trade that sent John Mabry to the Athletics in exchange for stathead favorite, Jeremy Giambi, and truth be told, they had a point. Yet, there was Mabry, scorching the ball for the A's, and while Giambi had a nice year for the Phillies, if he's not out of the game following a dismal 2003 with the Red Sox and this offseason's implication in the BALCO scandal, he's certainly on his way. Meanwhile, Mabry just keeps playing, and 2004 saw him post a career best .296/.363/.504 line. He might not be likely to repeat that, but I'd say he's earned the chance to try.
However, if you're not good enough to earn a spot on the Pirates bench, I say it should affect your future employment opportunities. Why it hasn't in the case of Abraham Nunez should be a question on every Cardinals fans' lips. Granted, it's more complicated than that - the Cardinals need someone of Nunez' defensive competence to back up Eckstein and Grudzielanek - yet I can't help thinking that being released by Pittsburgh should require you to bring extra goodies to your next job - a bag of chips, perhaps, or some Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Cardinals fans may not be in store for the same type of dominance their team displayed last year, but they still root for the best team in the NL Central.
The core of the lineup is as fearsome as any in the game, and the players surrounding them are generally solid. They're practically locks to break the 800 run barrier again, and could even approach the 855 they put on the board last season. Any pitcher who looks forward to facing this team has some serious issues with masochism, and really aught to seek help.
Meanwhile, a rotation that was very good last season is returning nearly intact, with the only significant change being the insertion of Mark Mulder into Woody Williams' former roster spot. It may be impossible to gauge what Mulder will bring to the table, but there's a reasonable chance that it will be an improvement over Woody's contribution, and may even be ace-worthy. Former ace Matt Morris is a wildcard as he recovers from surgery, but he's a decent bet to improve, and while the three ex-scrubeenies may fall back a bit, they should still be effective.
However, things start to look less rosy when examining the defense and bullpen. The big issue defensively is the degree to which David Eckstein's lack of range will hurt a very groundball oriented staff. Even in his better years, Mulder never missed a huge quantity of bats, so there still remains no real strikeout pitcher among the starters. This is a group that needs to rely on the men behind them for outs, and it's reasonable to assume that the reliability level has dropped.
In the bullpen, what was once an excellent group from top to bottom has become a corps that will rely much more heavily on the top few guys. King and Tavarez are the best non-closers of the bunch, but after the solidity of Eldred, the quality drops substantially. What was a super-power last year has become an ordinary strength, and is just a little twinge or an off year away from being an outright weakness.
The biggest obstacle to a division title repeat for the Cardinals is - say it with me people - health. Will Albert Pujols be able to continue to deal with his chronic foot pain? Can Scott Rolen's knee hold up to everyday use? How many plate appearances will Larry Walker make? Is Mark Mulder really healthy? Is Matt Morris?
If the answers to those questions are yes, yes, 450, yes, and yes, then the Cardinals and their fans can look forward to another NL Central title - when everyone's in playing shape they're simply too strong. But if just a couple of those answers change, then it's open season for the rest of the division.