Five questions: St. Louis Cardinals

Aah, Spring Training is upon us and teams are sorting out their rosters for the 2010 season. Coming off a successful 2009 in which they won 91 games and made the playoffs, the Cardinals look to be in good shape going into this season. They project to win somewhere between 85 (THT) and 92 games (PECOTA), and win the division fairly easily over a hodge-podge of mediocre teams. This is a team that features the best player in baseball in Albert Pujols, one of the most sabermetric un-friendly but somehow still incredibly successful managers in Tony LaRussa, a strong supporting cast and a history of success. However, they are by no means a lock to have a good season and there are some obvious questions surrounding them.

Will the supporting cast around Pujols be strong enough?

I already mentioned this, but Pujols is really, really good. Over the past three seasons, he’s been tied for first in the majors in batting average, first in on base percentage and first in slugging average. To top that off, according to UZR, he’s been a +8 run defender per 150 games over that span. No surprise that FanGraphs estimates he’s been the most valuable position player in baseball, totaling 25.6 Wins Above Replacement. Despite that incredible production by Pujols, the Cardinals have not had much success over the past three seasons. They were below .500 in 2007, missed the playoffs in ’08 and were swept out of the first round of the playoffs last year. Much of that can be attributed to a less-than-stellar supporting cast around Pujols. So will that trend hold true next year?

I don’t think so. Yadier Molina has quietly become one of the better players in baseball. He projects to be an average hitter, according to THT’s Oliver projections, and is also likely the best defensive catcher in the game. When you combine those attributes you end up with an incredibly valuable player. Colby Rasmus had a very solid rookie season in 2009. Despite some troubles with his usually high walk rate, he showed very good power and played excellent defense. Furthermore, at just 23 years old, he has plenty of room for improvement. Matt Holliday was just signed to a huge deal and looks to be one of the best left fielders in baseball. Ryan Ludwick had a down, but still solid, year in 2009, but was one of the best players in baseball in 2008. Brendan Ryan was outstanding with the leather last year, and despite an pre-spring training injury, projects to be a capable hitter and an excellent defender at a premium position. The Cardinals’ new utiliy man, Felipe Lopez, had a .383 OBP last year and signed for just over $1 million. Skip Schumaker has had over a .360 OBP in each of the past three seasons, and showed a lot of improvement defensively last year.

In short, the Cardinals look to have a very strong ensemble of position players even once you get past Pujols, much better than it has been over the past few seasons. That brings us to pitching…

How does the rotation stack up for the Cardinals?

Last year, the Cardinals’ starting pitching was some of the best in baseball. Their best three starters, Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter and Joel Pineiro, combined for 639.2 innings last year and a 2.80 ERA. And despite some struggles from the back end of the rotation (ahem, Todd Wellemeyer), the Cardinals rotation put up the fourth best ERA in the majors last year.

This year is another story. Pineiro, who harnessed the power of the sinker last year to great improvement, has moved on to the American League, and as good as Wainwright and Carpenter are, both probably got a bit lucky last year and figure to regress, and the latter is a significant injury risk. Kyle Lohse was really bad last year and got injured for the first time in his career – he doesn’t figure to be much better than league average. The Cardinals paid more than $7 million for Brad Penny, who despite seeing a resurgence in his fastball velocity, has been one of the worst starters in baseball over the past two seasons. For the fifth starter spot, the Cardinals seem to be employing the “throw sh*t at a wall and see what sticks” technique, fostering a competition between rookie Jaime Garcia, who was injured most of last year and has had very little experience in the high minors, and Rich Hill, who has had historically bad control problems over the past couple of years and is somewhat of a medical miracle.

Despite all of that, the Cardinals appear to have a solid rotation. According to Oliver projections, here is how the rotation will likely perform next season:

Name Projected IP Projected ERA
Chris Carpenter 180 2.85
Adam Wainwright 200 3.64
Brad Penny 120 4.67
Kyle Lohse 200 4.51
Jaime Garcia 75 4.76
Rich Hill 97 4.90

Carpenter and Wainwright project to be studs once again, and some combination of the other four should give the Cardinals solidly average performance. Furthermore, there is definitely some upside with each of Penny, Lohse, Hill and Garcia, given that the first three have each had success in the majors before and Garcia is considered one of the Cardinals’ best prospects. To sum up, the Cardinals most likely won’t enjoy such as good a showing from their rotation as they did in 2009; however, with the two-headed ace of Carpenter and Wainwright and a solid back end, their starting pitcher should not be a liability for them next seasons.

How ’bout the pen?

While the bullpen for the Cardinals last year was very productive, putting up the fifth best ERA in the majors, a lot of that was smoke and mirrors. Their cumulative FIP was nearly .7 runs higher than their ERA and roughly in the middle of the pack among the rest of the teams. Ryan Franklin was the biggest impostor last year, somehow allowing just a 1.92 ERA despite a K:BB ratio under 2 and average batted-ball rates. Furthermore, Franklin struggled mightily in the last month of the season and the playoffs last year. Still, he has quietly been one of the most effective relievers in baseball since joining the Cardinals in 2007, and just signed a two-year extension. Like it or not, he’ll be the Cardinals’ closer next year, and past history suggest he should do a decent job.

Behind him is an assortment of “meh” pitchers: LOOGY’s Trevor Miller and Dennys Reyes, a guy with a 97 MPH fastball and not much else (Jason Motte), and then a few interesting youngsters in Kyle McClellan, Mitchell Boggs and Blake Hawksworth. As a whole, the pen projects to be decidedly boring, with only Motte possessing any real strikeout capabilities, and not too effective. Most importantly, they are lacking a clear bullpen ace who can shut down a rally and consistently preserve one-run leads. To be honest, talking about the Cardinals’ bullpen depresses me a little bit, and I just have to keep reminding myself that relievers simply aren’t as important as the other facets of a team.

All in all, the Cardinals project to have a well-above average collection of position players featuring two heavy hitters in the middle of the order in Pujols and Holliday and a lot of depth around them. Their rotation looks to be solidly above average, and even the pen is passable. They are projected to be the best team in the NL Central for a reason, and with the bleak situations of their divisional rivals, I expect that the Cardinals will have an easy path to the playoffs. With the preview out of the way, I’d now like to explore some of the more interesting questions regarding the 2010 Cardinals.

How will Mark McGwire do as the hitting coach?

The Cardinals created quite a buzz this off season by announcing that Big Mac would be their hitting coach for the 2010 season during the same time that he formally admitted to taking steroids. And while the media was particularly vicious at first, Tony La Russa and the rest of the Cardinals front office did a good job of mitigating the situation. And while there are still some questions about how McGwire’s situation will affect the team in the long run, the more interesting question in my opinion is how well he will do as a hitting coach.

Last year, the Cardinals were a frustrating team to watch offensively at times. Despite having a lineup full of talented players, the general approach to each at-bat featured by players such as Rasmus, Ankiel, Duncan and Ludwick was miserable. According to FanGraphs’ O-Swing, which measures the percentage of pitches swung at on pitches outside of the strike zone, the Cardinals were one of the hackiest teams in baseball last year. When you combine that with the fact that the hitting coach was preaching “aggressiveness” to the hitters last year, it’s no surprise that the Cardinals wanted to bring in someone else. McGwire, with his career 17.2 percent walk rate, looks like a good candidate to improve the Cardinals’ hitting philosophy. Although there is no way of knowing how good a teacher McGwire will be, I have a feeling he’ll do fine. Next question!

Just how bad is the Cardinals farm system?

Well according to Keith Law, they have the 29th best system in baseball. If you are a Sickels kind of guy, they have… the 29th system in baseball. When the Cardinals traded for Holliday and Mark DeRosa last year, they gave up a lot of their best prospects, including Jess Todd, Chris Perez and Brett Wallace. Considering they also graduated their best prospect, Colby Rasmus, to a full-time big league job, it’s no surprise that the system is in poor shape right now.

This is not the first time that this has happened though. During the 100-win years of 2004 and 2005, the Cardinals consistently had one of the worst farm systems in baseball. They traded away countless top prospects for win-now pieces, and after their 2006 World Series victory, they were in dire shape as an organization. However, Jeff Luhnow, the Cardinals current Vice President of Player Procurement and the big guy in charge of draft operations, did a fantastic job of fixing up the system. He was able to act quickly and with solid drafts was able to build up the Cardinals’ system to be solidly in the middle of the pack by last year.

So while the system is in bad shape right now, I have confidence in Luhnow and the Cardinals to build it back up. They have already taken a good first step in that direction with a solid 2009 draft that netted them Shelby Miller, a top 50 prospect according to Baseball America, and a very talented Robert Stock. Furthermore, they had attempted to sign Wagner Mateo, a prime talent in the Latin market, before the physical fell through. I know that close is only good in horseshoes and hand grenades; however, the Cardinals’ willingness to spend money on top talent to improve their system is auspicious for the system’s health.

To sum up today’s preview of the 2010 Cardinals I’ll mention a few more points of interest that I wasn’t able to get to fully in this article:

Colby Rasmus’ expected improvement
As a guy who spends so much of his time dealing with numbers and data, Rasmus is in a weird place for me. None of the projection systems think very highly of him next year (Oliver thinks he’ll be downright terrible); however, just by watching him play, there is a ton of potential there, both offensively and defensively. He’s under team control for the next five years, and I have a hunch he’ll be one of the best assets in baseball.

Pujols’ contract situation
With the signing of Holliday, the Cardinals have sent a message that they are ready to be a contending team year in and year out. That has always been Pujols’ first priority, and I really don’t think he’ll leave the Cardinals even if they can’t scratch up the dough that the Sox or Mets can. I have been critical of the Holliday signing due to the shear amount of money involved; however, if it helps the Cardinals to resign Pujols, I’d be greatly satisfied with it.

How will the Cardinals advance on the analytical front
All signs point to the Cardinals having a very analytical front office. With all of the potential new advances in technology this year (Hit f/x, Trackman, as well as more comprehensive statistical database), I wonder how the Cardinals will continue to gain a competitive advantage through analysis and technology.

References & Resources
If you want to read more about the Cardinals, visit Viva El Birdos.

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Comments

  1. Nick C said...

    Great job Nick. My only quibble is with your characterization that Motte is the only strikeout arm out of the pen. I think that Boggs and Garcia both have above average strikeout ability.

  2. D Leaberry said...

    Barring pitching injuries, the Cards should be in the thick of any pennant race with their current line-up.

  3. prophetjohn said...

    i don’t see how you’re gonna call miller a ‘meh arm.’  he’s about the only arm in the ‘pen that isn’t ‘meh’

    i also still think lohse can be above average and approach his ‘08 numbers.  maybe an FIP/ERA around the 4.00 mark?  we’ll see

  4. hazel said...

    Excellent breakdowns. I think it might also bear mentioning that the Cardinals bullpen is mediocre, but it’s so consistently mediocre that only acquisitions of actual good pitchers figure to improve it.

  5. Nick Steiner said...

    I doubt that Lohse will be able to post a 4 ERA – I mean it’s certainly in the range of his projection, but I just don’t think you can expect that from him.  I think the Oliver projection for him is fair, about league average performance and good health.  He obviously has some upside though. 

    Hazel, yeah, if only there was a certain pitcher with a 8+ K/9 in the *rotation* last year who recently retired and would be willing to pitch for beans. 

    Also, I totally blanked on McClellan, sorry.  I would also hate to see Garica in the pen.  Boggs, on the other hand, does look like a guy who could have a really good season out of the pen.  He really did look much better in that role last season.

  6. Steve Braucksieker said...

    I am a Kyle Lohse believer too.  If you saw him pitch in ‘08 optimism should surface.  Last year was an anomaly.  His injuries weren’t the kind you worry about for a pitcher.  Twice plunked in the right elbow, once run over covering first base, and once slipping on wet grass fielding a slow roller. Prior to last season his history has always been answering the bell.  I look for 15 wins and an ERA around 3.50.

  7. Hugh Jorgan said...

    Call me unconvinced regarding McGwire and his ability as a teacher of patient hitting.  The issue is that big Mac could swat homers nearly at will, so hurlers were reluctant to throw him many strikes.  The ones he will be instructing instill no such fear in opposing pitchers(we are obviously not talking about the good Cardinal hitters like Pujols and Holliday).
    If you really want a guy to teach your staff how to be patient, utilise excellent pitch selection, and learn to treat each pitch on it’s merits, aren’t you better off employing a guy like Wade Boggs?  200 hits and 100 walks per season is hard to ignore.

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Five Questions: St. Louis Cardinals

Traditionalists typically love the St. Louis Cardinals. They love their scrappy, head’s-up play and their sturdy, heartland values. And they love how the ballclub always seems to be full of guys who play the game “the way it’s meant to be played” – Scott Rolen, Albert Pujols, Larry Walker, and, if you want to go back even further, Mark McGwire (woops), Ozzie Smith, and Stan Musial.

(Here’s a fun little thought experiment: remember that moment in Game 3 of the 2004 World Series, when Jeff Suppan failed to go home on a ground ball to the right side and instead got thrown out at third base? Imagine if that happened to the Oakland A’s. Wouldn’t every Joe Morgan and Richard Griffin out there use Suppan’s blunder to point up the folly of Moneyball? But baseball folks hardly mentioned Suppan’s gaffe this winter – why? Because it wasn’t part of the narrative. And according to the narrative, the Cardinals are a “good” organization that doesn’t make mistakes.)

Sabermetricians, on the other hand, have been more wary of the Cardinals during Walt Jocketty’s tenure. They look at the team’s aging patterns, their willingness to ravage their farm system, and their ongoing love affair with flyweight middle infielders, and more often than not they come to one conclusion: this franchise is screwed.

Until last year, that is. That’s when the Cards torched the National League for 105 wins and cinched the division sometime around the Fourth of July. The prevailing wisdom among baseball wonks began to shift in relation to the Cards, just as it has for the Schuerholz Braves – i.e., that there’s more than one way to skin a cat. And even if the Cards still have a manager who resembles Neil Diamond c. 1983, they suddenly seem like a team that is, if not saber-friendly, then at least saber-accommodating.

This year both old schoolers and new schoolers have penciled in the Cardinals for another NL Central title. Can they pull it off? That’s a mighty big question, so for now let’s break it down into a few smaller questions – five, to be exact:

1. How much should the Cardinals expect from Mark Mulder?

Mark Mulder certainly looks like an ace pitcher. He’s 6’6”, has the fourth best winning percentage among active hurlers and an astonishing 65-4 lifetime record when his team gives him four or more runs. Even Anna Benson says the guy knows how to fill out a pair of baseball pants.

But will he pitch like an ace pitcher? Or, to put it another way: did the Cardinals land the Mark Mulder who anchored one of the best staffs in baseball for the last four years, or did they land the pod person who replaced him in the A’s rotation at the end of the 2004 season? In his last seven starts, Mulder went 0-4 with a lardy 8.31 ERA. No one knows if he was tired, injured, mechanically unsound, or what. The point is he was off.

Will he back on in time to help the 2005 Cards? If you’re an optimist, your argument would go something like this:

Yes, Mulder looked shaky at the end of last year, but every pitcher goes through rough patches. Look at Randy Johnson. The guy had a 5.83 ERA in eight starts at the end of 2003. He’s had a 2.56 ERA in 39 starts since. Or how about Curt Schilling – a 6.04 ERA in nine starts from the end of ’02 to the beginning of ’03. In 54 starts since his ERA is 3.01. Name any big-time pitcher and you’ll find a guy who goes through periods where they’re unfocused, fatigued, mechanically hinky, or just unlucky. It’s the nature of the business.

Besides, if performance analysis teaches us anything, it’s that we should distrust stray blips in a player’s overall record. What would you rather bank on – the 6.26 ERA Mulder put up over his last 100 innings, or the 3.29 ERA he put up in the 748 innings before that? Obviously you’d go with the weight of his established track record. Think of it this way: if someone told you they were excited about Neifi Perez because of the .371/.400/.548 line he put up at the end of the season, wouldn’t you sit him down and give him a little tutorial in the Belief of the Law of Small Numbers? So shouldn’t we extend the same farsighted view toward the career of Mark Mulder?

And make no mistake: the career of Mark Mulder has been, overall, pretty damn good. He has 79 RSAA over the last four years, which is better than Roger Clemens. He’s also a workhorse, logging an average of 212 innings over that same span (with an organization not known for abusing pitchers). For a guy entering his age 27 season, he seems to be in fine shape.

Mulder certainly figures to be better than the guy he’s replacing in the Cards’ rotation, Woody Williams. And if there really was something wrong with Mulder’s delivery, don’t you think the Cardinals (remember, they’re one of those “good” organizations) would have checked it out before taking a gamble on him? Believe me, when you invest $13.25 million in a guy’s arm, you do a background check to make sure it’s okay. And Mark Mulder’s arm looks pretty okay.

The pessimist might respond like this:

Yeah, yeah, all pitchers go through rough patches. But rarely are they as bad as Mulder’s was over such a long period of time. The guy was fairly awful for three whole months, much more than a random dry spell. Some guys bounce back from this (Jamie Moyer in the latter part of 2000 is the desired comp), but rarely do elite pitchers have an ERA over 6.00 for half a season, as Mulder did last year.

Besides, it’s not like Mulder has ever had lights-out stuff. Over his career he’s struck out only 6 guys per nine innings, and he’s trending downward:

Year K/9
2001 6.90
2002 6.17
2003 5.58

Put him in front of range-challenged middle infielders like David Eckstein and Mark Grudzielanek and his defense-reliant approach looks even worse.

The appropriate comparison with Mulder is not Woody Williams, who he replaces in the rotation. It’s Danny Haren and Kiko Calero, who would have pitched for the Cardinals had they not been shipped off to Oakland in the Mulder deal. Their raw stuff is better than Mulder’s and combined they may well out-pitch him starting this year:

Projected VORP
Mulder 30.8
Haren + Calero 33.6

That’s before factoring in superstud Daric Barton, whom Jocketty tossed into the package deal, plus the money saved, which would have allowed the Cards to shore up other weaknesses.

And this business about the Cards being a “good” organization that surely did a thorough background check on Mulder’s arm? Just remember, we heard the exact same reassurances about Matt Morris the last couple years. Time and again the front office guaranteed us that there was nothing structurally wrong with Morris, despite a noticeable dropoff in his velocity and his numbers. After two years of this monkey business, we finally found out in the offseason that, in fact, Morris had been pitching with a bum shoulder all along. Do the Cardinals have two years to wake up to Mulder’s diminishing command? The answer is no.

So what do we make of these conflicting viewpoints? It’s true that, despite the headlines, Mark Mulder has never been a truly domineering pitcher. Most of his value can be found in his sturdiness and his control. My gut tells me that he’ll continue in this vein – a solid but unspectacular innings-eater who takes advantage of his supporting cast and wins 15-20 games.

2. How healthy are the Cardinals superstars?

Last year the Cardinals were true medical marvels. They had a major-league low number of “DL days” and got 154 starts from their top five starting pitchers. But they still enter the season with an old team (only five players will be on the good side of 30 by season’s end) bedeviled by injury concerns.

Here’s a game. Try to find a Cardinals big man without a question mark next to their health. Actually, try to find a part of the body that doesn’t have a Cardinal worried about it. We’ll work from the ground up, Operation-style:

Feet: Pujols
Achilles heel: Grudzielanek
Knee: Rolen
Hamstring: Eckstein
Hip: Isringhausen
Appendix: Sanders
Back: Walker
Biceps: Carpenter
Shoulder: Morris
Head: Ankiel

That’s a lot of body parts to worry about. But undoubtedly the Cards worry most of all about injuries to their Big Three: Pujols, Rolen, and Edmonds, who accounted for fully 36% of the team’s total Win Shares last season.

Each of the three comes with health burdens. Pujols suffers from plantar fasciitis in both feet (the same thing that did in Mark McGwire). He had two ultrasound treatments this winter and still doesn’t feel 100%. But keep in mind: Albert has endured injuries before (his elbow in 2003, his foot and hamstring in 2004), and both seasons he was the best player in baseball not named Barry Bonds. What’s more, the Phat One had another monster spring (6 jacks, didn’t strike out once) and hasn’t seemed one bit slower, bad foot or no.

Jim Edmonds has a rep as an injury magnet, but he’s really been rather healthy since moving to St. Louis. He’s now played over 135 games for five years in a row (only four other centerfielders in baseball can say that). And after curbing some of the Ronnie Lott tendencies he had as a younger man, he missed only 9 games last season. The biggest concern for Edmonds is his age. He turns 35 in June, and as Dan McLaughlin points out, his list of comparables (guys like Freddy Lynn and David Justice) declined rapidly after hitting the big 3-5.

And then there’s Scott Rolen. He continues to shrug off concerns about his health, but the fact is he hasn’t looked the same since suffering a damaged knee in the second half of 2004. Here are his stat lines since missing time last September:

                        AVG.  OBP.  SLG.
End of Regular Season  .167  .318  .333
Postseason             .161  .277  .357
Spring Training        .232   n/a  .357

Granted, these are taken from very small sample sizes, against varying levels of competition. But it would surprise no one if Rolen were unable to reach his lofty totals from last season.

3. How much will it hurt the Cards to go from Renteria to Eckstein at short?

Renteria had an off-year in 2004 – he wasn’t even one of the top 5 shortstops in the league – and yet the Cardinals still won 105 games. So losing him is no big deal, right?

Not exactly. First of all, Renteria’s established offensive levels are considerably better than Eckstein’s. Here are their numbers over the last three years (with each year weighted twice as heavily as the one before):

           AB    H  2B  HR  BB   AVG   OBP   SLG
Renteria  579  176  40  11  49  .304  .356  .434
Eckstein  535  146  23   3  41  .272  .340  .341

That’s 15-20 fewer runs per year just for starters. What’s more, Renteria’s skill set is much more attractive. Again, looking at the last three years, Renteria’s got a better walk rate (7.8% to 7.0%), more durability (152 games to 136 games), and his isolated power is much higher (.129 to .069).

And then there’s defense. Renteria is an overrated but serviceable gloveman, whereas Eckstein is… well, that’s where things get tricky. A few weeks ago a byzantine argument broke out on Dave Pinto’s Baseball Musings (here and here ) about how many runs Eckstein’s defense would cost the Cardinals. The consensus was that Eckstein would give away somewhere between 18 to 30 runs from his inferior range alone. (You can see this in visual terms, again from Baseball Musings. As I suspected for years, Renteria seems to do well going to his left, but isn’t so hot to his right. Eckstein, on the other hand, isn’t very good left or right. He’s a classic sure-handed shortstop who lacks either the first step toward second or the arm to make plays deep in the hole.)

Eckstein’s range is immensely important for a team like the Cardinals. Their pitching staff is short on strikeouts and allows the most grounders of any team in the NL. In fact, three of their starting pitchers (Marquis, Mulder, and Carpenter) are up there among the highest ground-to-fly ratios in baseball. As a result, sound defense up the middle is critical to this team. If Eckstein is costing the Cards all those runs with his glove, plus an additional 15 to 20 runs with his bat, then his presence alone could account for a good three, four wins fewer than in years past.

4. Who is the Cardinals’ fifth starter?

Why, it’s Matt Morris – he of the new shoulder and the new Dan Fouts beard. Although Morris will start the season on the DL, the Cards’ schedule doesn’t necessitate a fifth starter until April 20th, at which point Morris will presumably be ready to go.

Why does this matter? Because despite the fact that the Cards have five starters who won 15 games last year (the first team since the 1932 Chicago Cubs to do that), they have surprisingly little depth at pitcher. And if Morris isn’t ready to go come the end of April, the Cards are in serious trouble. None of their bullpen arms can be pressed into spot duty, and none of their minor leaguers look ready to take the mound at Busch. The most likely candidate is probably Anthony Reyes, a live arm who will begin the season in Triple-A.

Even if Morris is ready for his first start, the rest of the staff is fairly unreliable. First of all there’s Chris Carpenter (recovering from nerve damage in his right biceps), then Mulder (see Question #1), then Jason Marquis (who last season exceeded his previous professional high for innings by sixty). In the past the Cards have patched up holes in their rotation with some junkballer or other (Jason Simontacchi, anyone?), but don’t count on a rosy scenario should one of their starters go down this year. And I assure you: one of them will.

5. Were the Cardinals lucky last year?

The easy answer to that question is yes. Rarely do teams win 105 games without at least a little bit of luck. But how lucky were they?

There are several ways to get at this question of luck. For example, were the Cards unduly efficient with their runs scored and runs allowed? Not really. They were five wins over their Pythagorean total, but still — 100 projected wins is a hefty number, and several games ahead of every team in the National League. Did they have a particularly easy schedule? Again, no. The NL Central was one of the most competitive divisions in baseball last year. What about their constituent run elements – the number of homers and hits and hits allowed and stuff like that? Did the Cardinals win more games than you’d expect given this data? Again, no. According to the 2005 edition of the Bill James Handbook , last year’s Cards were good for 103 “efficient wins,” only two below their actual wins and better than every team in the NL by a longshot. Not much luck there.

What about the players? Did an unusual number of Cardinals experience career years last season? Ah-ha: now we’re getting somewhere. The team was chock-full of veterans who probably had their best year ever while wearing the Birds on the Bat: Rolen, Edmonds, Womack, Marquis, Isringhausen, Carpenter, Mabry, Ray King. And there are a handful of others – Steve Kline, Julian Tavarez, Cal Eldred – who had close to their best years in 2004.

If everything that rises must converge, what does this say about the Cardinals going forward? Well, here’s how their players are likely to perform in 2005. It’s based on a magic formula I developed that’s one part PECOTA projection, one part Established Win Shares Level, one part Sabernomics Simple Projection System, one part Gladwellian rapid cognition, and one part bullhonkey:

Likely to Improve a Lot: Larry Walker (as a full-time RF)

Likely to Improve a Little: Morris, Mulder, and Yady Molina (taking over for Matheny)

Likely to Do About the Same: Pujols, Suppan, Reggie Sanders, Roger Cedeno, Hector Luna, and Mark Grudzielanek (replacing Womack)

Likely to Decline a Little: Rolen, Edmonds, Carpenter, Mabry, Eldred, Isringhausen, King, So Taguchi, Al Reyes (replacing Calero), and Einar Diaz (replacing Molina)

Likely to Decline a Lot: Marquis, Tavarez, Eckstein (replacing Renteria), and Randy Flores (replacing Steve Kline).

As you can see, the Cards can expect upgrades in a few places – having Larry Walker for a full season should help – but downgrades around most parts of the diamond.

The silver lining is that the Cardinals have some wiggle room. That is, they can suffer a fairly sizable loss of wins and still walk away with the division. Neither the Astros nor the Cubs improved themselves this winter, and the Cardinals still have the strongest core talent in the league. So if they can make it into the game of postseason roulette, and if this year Jeff Suppan heads home rather than back to third, who knows what might happen…

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