Five questions: St. Louis Cardinals

Just a couple of weeks before spring training, the Cardinals lost both Adam Wainwright and Jim Edmonds to season- and career-ending injuries, respectively. I’m not usually one to bitch about that kind of stuff, but the combination of losing both of those franchise icons in such a short span was a real punch in the gut.

The Edmonds injury, or rather the announcement that his past injuries had left him unable to continue his career, was more of an emotional blow, given that the man was 40 and hadn’t played for the Cardinals since 2007*. He was going to be a pinch hitter, at best, and the primary purpose of signing him was likely to insure that he would retire a Cardinal.

*Interestingly, Edmonds has played for the Cubs, the Brewers and the Reds since leaving the Cardinals—each of those teams is in the Cardinals’ division and are their biggest rivals this year.

However, Edmonds has obviously been one of the franchise’s all-time greats and does still possess a sweet left-handed swing, so I was very excited about seeing him play next year. Objectively, however, his departure does not hurt the team much. Adam Wainwright’s injury, on the other hand, was a much bigger blow, and the effect it will have on the 2011 Cardinals is somewhat staggering.

Anyway, those losses capped off a rather tumultuous offseason that, unfortunately, left the Cards in a far worse position than when they started. The first sign of bad things to come was the extension of Tony La Russa, who in his prime may have been a great manager, but whose habits now resemble that of your grandpa at the old folks home—including the irrational dislike of many dang kids.

One such dang kid was Brendan Ryan, who was coming off a relatively poor season in which his Smithian glove didn’t quite make up for his pre-prime-Smithian bat. Still, he otherwise would have been a solid option at shortstop going forward. However, Ryan apparently did not get along well with many of his teammates and, perhaps more importantly, did not get get along with his manager.

Thus, it was deemed prudent to trade him away for some A-ball filler and trade for Ryan Theriot. Although the downgrade from Ryan to Theriot was not quite proportional to the negative reaction from the commentariat, the former—oft known as Boog—was a fan favorite and an exciting player to watch, while Theriot is just flat out boring. At the very least, the trade seemed reactionary and overly political.

Mixed in with that sordid affair were two very good moves, the first being a below-market extension of Jake Westbrook, and the second being a below-market signing of Lance Berkman. I was particularly exuberant about the Berkman signing and waged a fine war against internet detractors, and the Jake Westbrook signing was extremely necessary (even more so now) given the lack of depth in the Cardinals rotation.

The first couple months of the offseason, however, merely set the stage for what would be perhaps the biggest story of the offseason: Albert Pujols‘ extension deadline.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, or have been smart enough not to pay much attention to national sports coverage, you’ll note that Pujols—a Cardinal of ten years and currently the best player in baseball—will become a free agent after the 2011 season, and he gave the Cardinals up until spring training of this year to work out an extension. They did not work out a deal and, according to Jon Heyman and his league of anonymous sources, were never particularly close.

As Cubs fans rejoiced in the streets for some reason, we Cardinals fans soon realized and accepted that Pujols was not going to sign a 10-year, $180 million contract. The gods of baseball work in mysterious ways, however, and after a brief rejuvenation of spirits at the signing of Edmonds, Cards fans were hit with the aforementioned gut punches.

The silver lining in all of this is there are now a whole host of questions regarding the state of the 2011 Cardinals, which makes my job easier. Let’s start with the big one…

How much will Wainwright’s injury cost the Cardinals?

Most people know Wainwright as the guy who made Carlos Beltran look like a jackass in the ninth inning of Game Seve of the 2006 NLCS. Or perhaps they know him as the man who has pitched over 460 innings over the past two years with an ERA just over 2.50. Regardless, everyone knows Wainwright is one of the top-tier pitchers in baseball.

So, like I said earlier, the loss of that pitcher for an entire season will likely have a staggering effect on the Cardinal’s performance. Just how much is open for debate. The Hardball Times’ Oliver projection system gave Wainwright a projection of 210 innings pitched and a 3.12 ERA—good for 5.4 wins above replacement. That seems like a reasonable expectation given his recent performance. The wild card is how well his replacement will do.

That replacement appears to be Kyle McClellan who has ostensibly been a candidate for the rotation for years now. However, this year the job finally seems to be his. McClellan, being a reliever with a full repertoire of under-powering stuff, has pitched exactly as well you’d expect. Low walk totals, low strikeout totals, and a slight propensity for inducing ground balls.

While his career ERA is in the low threes, his career FIP is right at 4.00, and given his short career, his FIP is likely more indicative of how well he has pitched so far. So you’ve got a slightly-above-average reliever in the middle of his prime. According to my calculations, he should be a below-average starter, perhaps putting up somewhere around a 4.60 ERA.

Of course, the transition from the pen to the rotation can have a different effect on each pitcher, and McClellen could very well do much better or worse than that projection. While I am loath to reference spring training statistics in any meaningful way, he has been fantastic so far. Regardless, a 4.60 ERA over 150 innings translates to around 0.5 wins above replacement, which would mean the Cardinals will be expected to lose around five games to Wainwright’s injury.

If McClellan should fail, next in his place would either be Miguel Batista or Lance Lynn. I often have nightmares about what would happen should Batista join the rotation, usually ending with the world collapsing into hell, and me waking up on the ground in the fetal position; however, Lynn is a very suitable option—a young-ish prospect who can throw hard and has some upside. He was just sent down to the minors but could very well be in the big leagues in short order.

How much will Berkman contribute?

When the Cardinals first signed Lance Berkman, I was ecstatic. This was the former Cardinal killer, the man with a career .409 OBP and one of the few players who has been able to consistently perform at an All-Star level over the past decade.

He is coming his worst season ever, but it still saw him put up a .368 OBP and perform at roughly a league-average level. Berkman seems like a pretty good bet to rebound from his poor season, however, and I would expect him to return to 2009 form, with an OPS around .900. Indeed, Oliver projects an .847 OPS.

The biggest issue is not his hitting, but rather his fielding. With first base not really a position of need for the Cardinals, Berkman had to move from his customary position to right field. Although he has played in the outfield before, and according to defensive statistics, played reasonably well, Berkman’s getting old and has been injured a lot recently. Still, the corner outfield recently has been littered with the statues of Adam Dunn, Raul Ibanez and Brad Hawpe, and Berkman probably could manage to be within 10 runs of an average defensive outfielder.

An ~.850 OPS paired with -10 run defense in the corner outfield would make Berkman roughly a 1.6 WAR player over 150 games. That number gels nicely with the one-year, $8 million contract he got from St. Louis.

However, that 1.6 WAR median projection ignores the obvious and massive upside that a former MVP-caliber player such as Berkman has. It was only in 2008 that he was a 7.0 WAR player. So I personally think the signing was a very nice move and am excited to see if he can return to form, and also to see what a Rasmus-Pujols-Holliday-Berkman middle of the order might do.

Just how bad will the middle infield be?

Cards fans have been blessed with many things: arguably the best player in the game, a playoff appearance nearly every year this decade and a World Series title in 2006. However, over the past few years the middle infield has been a source of anguish for the fans. Only in 2009, when Ryan and Skip Schumaker combined to provide roughly average production at SS and 2B, respectively, did the Cardinals middle infield approach competency.

Last year the same two were each terrible, providing overall production only slightly above replacement level. Ryan couldn’t hit worth a lick, and Schumaker’s hitting and fielding both fell precipitously. To compound that dire situation, the front office decided to trade away the better of the two players—Brendan Ryan being younger, cheaper, and better over his career—for reasons relating to his personal interactions with teammates and coaching.

You might be able to gauge my opinion of the trade. While Ryan may have been seen as “spacy” and “undisciplined,” anyone who has ever heard him speak could tell that he is in no way, shape or form a clubhouse cancer, and it would be very hard to argue that his personality would have a significant negative effect on teammates. Indeed, the Cardinals traded away a productive and cheap starter for asinine reasons.

The man they got to replace Ryan was Theriot, who is simply not a very good player. A couple of years ago he was able to provide solid defense and a good OBP, making him a relatively valuable player. But 2010 happened and Theriot saw his offense plummet, and much of his defensive value was lost when he was moved off shortstop (although that was probably in deference to Rafael Furcal).

I’m not sure how well Theriot will do this year, and he could very well return to 2009 form; however, he is now well past his prime and even at his best was reliant on a high BABIP. Schumaker profiles similarly to Theriot—a far worse fielder, but also likely a better hitter with a bit more power. Like Theriot, Schumaker was one of the worst players in baseball in 2010 and average-ish before then.

I don’t have much hope for either and would be pleased with anything above replacement-level performances.

How will Jaime Garcia do in his second season?

A bright spot for the Cardinals last year amidst the piles of Miles’ and Feliz’s and Lohse’s ineptitude was the amazing performance of rookie starting pitcher Jaime Garcia. A lefty with a full arsenal of moving stuff, Garcia impressed with an above-average strikeout rate and worm killing tendencies. His 3.41 FIP was fantastic, and though he was blessed with a favorable home run rate, his xFIP (which adjusts for aberrant home run rates) was only a few points higher. And this was his first full year back from Tommy John surgery.

Suffice to say, Garcia has a bunch of potential going into 2011, and I personally am very excited to see what he can do. The biggest area of improvement he can make is with his command. His walk rate was slightly worse than league average, and his strikeout rate was note quite as good as you’d expect given the quality of his stuff. I suspect a lot of this has to do with the ridiculous amounts of movement he gets on his pitches, acting as a blessing and a curse. Should he be able to control that movement better, I think he could be one of the best pitchers in baseball this season.

Something something Pujols something

And finally we arrive at perhaps the biggest question going into 2011 for the Cardinals—how long will Ryan Franklin grow his beard out? Will he finally achieve the elusive foot-beard? I’m sure this is a question eating a hole inside the minds of many Cards fans and facial hair aficionados around the world, and the consequences of whatever the answer is will have an unmeasurable effect on the future of manki…

Ok, my editors are telling me that perhaps Pujols’ impending free agency is a bigger issue. As I mentioned earlier, Pujols was not signed to an extension this offseason and, thus, will become a free agent at the end of the 2011 season. This brings up two interesting questions. One is the obvious—will Pujols resign with the Cards, or go the the Angels or something?—and the second is perhaps more exciting—how well will Pujols hit in a contract year?

As to the first question, I have no idea. The Cardinals are a upper-tier team in terms of revenue and, as such, will be in a position to offer a sizable contract to Pujols. Furthermore, Pujols has strong ties to the St. Louis community, and it would be good for his legacy to remain with one team for his entire career. On the other hand, some other team will likely be able to offer more years and/or dollars than the Cardinals can afford.

Obviously, numerous factors will contribute to Pujols’ eventual choice. If the Cardinals make the playoffs this year, he may be more inclined to forgo a little extra dough to stay on a competitive team. If the Yankees decide they want to expand their payroll to $250 million and have a middle order of Pujols-Teixeira-ARod, Pujols might be tempted to leave the Cards. I have no idea. My manly intuition tells me Pujols will sign with the Cards for slightly less than what another team offers, but, that’s, uh, not really based on anything.

As to the second question, the answer gleaned from my cursory Google searchings appears to be “amazing” or, in other words, “about as well as he’s always hit.” The Cards front office themselves admitted that there was no evidence that a contract year boosts performance. And even if it does, it doesn’t really seem possible for Pujols to improve his performance much more.

So the questions surrounding Pujols, while interesting, are met with somewhat unsatisfying answers. The only thing I know for sure is that Pujols will be a Cardinal for at least one more year, and regardless of what happens after this season, I am going to enjoy watching him hit in that fantastic middle of the order, and also some great pitching performances every couple of days.

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  1. Brad Johnson said...

    A couple quibbles from the Berkman question.

    Raul Ibanez doesn’t quite qualify as a statue. Using Fangraph’s new Aggregate Defense Rating, Ibanez has rated out at -8, 0, -7 for 2008-2010 respectively. Over that same period, Hawpe had a chilling -33, -14, -3 (only 500-some innings) and Dunn -19, -16, and no innings. Dunn played in considerably fewer OF innings than Ibanez too.

    The other quibble is about Berkman’s ability to play the OF. Unlike Jason above, I think a -10 to -15 rating per 150 games seems reasonable. What does not seem reasonable given his recent knee struggles is to expect him to play 150 games…or even 100. Personally, I have the over/under for games started at 60 (that’s my unfounded opinion) and if we were to do a Will Carroll style injury report with a stop light rating, Berkman’s write up would just be a massive red splotch.

  2. the Flint Bomber said...

    You are an enjoyable read, Nick.

    I wouldn’t really agree with the Berkman signing biting the Cards in the ass.  If he’s a functional player for them, Berkman basically earns his salary.  If he’s bounces back some, the Cards benefit profusely.

    And if he gets hurt…hey, it’s only a a one-year deal, and Jon Jay seemed like a pretty nifty player last year anyway.

    As a Cubs fan, I don’t think the Cards are going away.

  3. Jim G. said...

    I like to block out quality Cub performances as much as the next guy, but if Theroit can return to the hitting stroke he had for the Cubs a few years ago, he could be on base a lot and scoring a lot of runs in this lineup.

    Also, you allude to Berkman’s injury tendencies, but I think you’re glossing over them. Those injuries have been occurring as a 1st baseman. The punishment of playing the outfield will magnify those injury risks. Poor fielding aside, I don’t think Berkman will stay healthy enough to justify his contract.

  4. Steve Millburg said...

    Fun read; thanks.

    I’ve come around to the notion that the Cardinals’ front office has handled the Pujols situation intelligently.  It tried to sign him at a discount.  That didn’t work (not surprisingly), but the Cardinals resisted the temptation to panic and possibly end up bidding against themselves, as they apparently did in the Matt Holliday negotiations.

    As a result, instead of guessing what the market for Pujols might be several months hence, they can wait and see exactly what kind of offers he gets.  Then they can decide whether it makes financial sense to make him a commensurate counteroffer.

    Sometimes, standing still is the best move.

  5. Jason Linden said...

    I think you’re overestimating Berkman. I would not be surprised if he were closer to -20 in the field than -10. Also, he is 35. I really think that signing is going to bite the Cardinals in the ass.

  6. Anthony said...

    The cards not signing Pujols was smart.  His agent was never gonna let him sign before he reached FA.  So, Cards say “anything they off, we add 1M”.  They sign pujols.

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Five Questions: St. Louis Cardinals

1. What roster changes have the Cardinals made?

Let’s do this in chart form:

Hello                Goodbye
Gary Bennett         Einar Diaz
Larry Bigbie         Cal Eldred
Deivi Cruz           Mark Grudzielanek
Brian Daubach        Ray King
Juan Encarnacion     John Mabry
Josh Hancock         Matt Morris
Braden Looper        Abraham Nunez
Aaron Miles          Al Reyes
Sidney Ponson        Reggie Sanders
Ricardo Rincon       Julian Tavarez
Scott Spiezio        Larry Walker
Junior Spivey

What can we say about these newcomers as a group? The first thing that jumps out is that they’re not nearly as established as the men they’re replacing. The arrivals had 51 collective Win Shares last season; the departures accounted for 87. That’s 12 wins in the standings right off the top. Of course, the above players won’t perform in 2006 exactly as they did in 2005, but it does give you a rough idea of talent depletion.

The other thing about the newcomers is that they’re decidedly younger than their counterparts from last season. Juan Encarnacion, nine years younger than Larry Walker, will start in right field. Larry Bigbie and John Rodriguez—both in their age-28 season—will take over for the 38-year-old Reggie Sanders. The Cards replace 35-year-old Mark Grudzielanek with some combo of Junior Spivey, 31, Aaron Miles, 29, and Hector Luna, 26. In the bullpen, Braden Looper is younger than any of the set-up men he’s replacing, and both Sidney Ponson and rookie Anthony Reyes shave years off of last year’s fifth starter, Matt Morris.

Why the youth movement? Well, many of the youngsters are simply cheaper than their counterparts (more on that in a moment). But it’s also possible that GM Walt Jocketty wants fresher legs come October. It’s no secret that the Cardinals are turning into the Peyton Mannings of baseball—brilliant in the regular season, always hitting a wall in the postseason. Part of the reason may be age. Larry Walker, hobbled by a bad neck, was a complete zero in last year’s playoffs. Sanders romped through the NLDS, then tanked in the championship series. Grudzielanek seemed like he was on fumes. Even the great Jim Edmonds, who turns 36 this year, tends to disappear at the end of the season, hitting only .147 during the Cards’ last two exits from the postseason.

Given the anecdotal evidence, Jocketty is smart to bring in younger faces. But the statistical evidence isn’t as encouraging. In an interesting study for Baseball Between the Numbers, Nate Silver and Dayn Perry tried to zero in on factors that determine success in the postseason. They found only three that have any merit: a dominant closer, a power pitching staff, and a reliable defense. Age was a non-factor.

Of course, there’s a fourth factor that Silver and Perry didn’t mention because it’s so glaringly obvious. Teams that do well in the postseason are teams that make the postseason to begin with. The Cardinals may be younger than they were a year ago, but whether they have the horses to play deep into October remains to be seen.

2. How will the new stadium affect the teams?

The Cardinals, as you know, have a new home. They got rid of their cookie-cutter, Great Society-era concrete donut Busch Stadium and are moving into a cookie-cutter, red-brick, HOK mallpark Busch Stadium. How will the new digs affect the games?

I think we can make three educated guesses:

a) Offense should increase slightly. The key word is slightly. The new Busch was designed to be environmentally neutral, much like PNC Park, with dimensions similar to last year’s Busch. However, like most recent parks, the seats are closer to the field. Closer seats = less foul territory = more balls in play = more scoring. What’s more, new Busch has some neato state-of-the-art lighting, which should hike up offense as well (increased visibility almost always helps batters, although it should be noted that it helps fielders track fly balls better too).

b) The Cards may lose some small home-field advantages. The new Busch is refreshingly free of ballpark quirks—no Tal’s Hill or Bermuda Trapezoid. In contrast, the old Busch had awkward “pinball bumpers” down the foul lines, which turned singles into doubles if you weren’t familiar with the caroms. It also had a number of strange shadows, lighting glares, and odd wind patterns that seemed to favor the home team. The new park should allow visitors to compete on a more level playing field.

c) Whatever guesses we make about the ballpark now can probably be thrown out once it opens on April 10. I remember reading an article about the acoustics of the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Apparently the design team was a little freaked out about opening night, because no matter how good their models were, no matter how sophisticated their software and their sonic consultants and their vibration control experts, they had no idea how the hall would sound until a bunch of musicians started playing in it.

Ballparks are the same way—you can’t judge them until guys play in them, and they usually don’t turn out as they’re intended on paper. Petco, Minute Maid, and Citizen’s Bank all tweaked their fences to meet unanticipated scoring trends, and it wouldn’t be at all surprising if the new Busch offered some surprises of its own.

3. Scott Rolen: Feeble old man or 2006 All-Star?

The Cardinals are the only team in baseball that can plausibly claim the best player at each of three different positions around the diamond—Pujols at first, Edmonds in center, and Rolen at third. (In all fairness A-Rod/Sheffield/Posada and Manny/Ortiz/Varitek have good cases too.) But to be part of the discussion of the best third basemen, Rolen needs to be healthy—something he was not in 2005.

What’s his prognosis for 2006? So far so good. He had successful surgery to repair his damaged labrum last August; he hasn’t had any setbacks in Spring Training; and, though still not 100%, he hasn’t had to alter his mechanics to favor his good shoulder. As Will Carroll has pointed out, it would be unreasonable to expect Rolen to return to his 2004 peak, even if he’d never gotten injured—he was 29 years old back then and playing the best ball of his life. But something like a .350 OBP/.450 SLG is perfectly reasonable. As Carroll mentioned in a recent interview, Rolen’s is “an all-or-nothing recovery”—that is, a shredded labrum is not something you can play through. Either you’re in the lineup healthy or on the DL.

A few of my St. Louis friends think that Rolen is destined to become the next Jeff Bagwell—a guy with a tweaked labrum whose best years are behind him. But Bagwell’s case is entirely different, primarily because of the arthritis that crept into his shoulder following his first surgery. A much better comp for Rolen is Mark Ellis, who lost all of 2004 to a torn labrum but came back last year to post the best numbers of his career.

If Rolen is going to follow that path, though, he may have to curb some of the behaviors that got him injured in the first place. Like Darin Erstad or Marcus Giles, Rolen plays a hard-nosed brand of baseball, one of the many reasons he’s said to play the game “the right way.” But the right way sometimes goes wrong when it lands a player on the shelf. Rolen, for example, came off the DL too early last year, when he tried to play through pain and put up a .207/.289/.264 line. Reportedly he didn’t want to “let the team down,” which is the type of comment that plays better in the press box than on the field. And then there was this incident from spring training, when Rolen, in his first game back, dove and landed hard on his repaired shoulder. Turned out he was fine, but it shows that Rolen may have a hard time reining himself in. Just as an elite player needs discipline at the plate and on the base paths, a guy like Rolen may need discipline while recovering from injury, and in some ways that may be his hardest test.

4. How much money do the Cardinals have?

This was a hot topic in St. Louis this past winter, as nearly every decision the Cards’ front office made seemed to be driven by finances. First they called off talks with Brian Giles—who seemed a natural heir to Larry Walker in right—because his price tag (three yrs, $30 million) was too high. Then they backed out of the bidding for A.J. Burnett when he asked for a fifth year and an extra million per. Both of these moves were defensible, but things got truly nutty when the Cards had to fill holes at second base but couldn’t swing deals for either Mark Loretta or Luis Castillo, both eminently (some would say ridiculously) affordable. Even nuttier, the Cards let Mark Grudzielanek walk because he was asking for a $3 million contract, and the Cards only had $2 million budgeted for a second baseman.

Only $2 million for a second baseman? Maybe that’s just spin control from a front office that let a popular player go (especially when you consider that this same front office turned around and gave a $13.5 million charitable donation to Braden Looper, a middle reliever who’d become a standing joke in New York). But taken in toto, Jocketty’s moves this winter have keyed off fears in St. Louis that the team isn’t really committed to pouring money back into the ballclub. Deadspin’s Will Leitch—a lifelong Cardinals fan—fretted about this possibility back in February: “It could be dark days for St. Louis baseball,” he wrote.

So what in the name of Stan Musial is going on? In recent years the Cardinals have thrived as a small-market team with big-market spending habits. Is that era coming to an end?

I see three possibilities:

a) The Cards’ owners really did take the money and run. Consider how much cash has been pouring into the team coffers lately:

  • Record ticket sales last year from 3.5 million fans
  • An expectation of an additional 3.5 million fans this year at higher rates due to luxury boxes and pricier seats overall
  • A seat license program in the new stadium which netted an additional $40 million
  • Anheuser-Busch’s 20-year extension of their naming rights deal (terms are undisclosed, but $40-$50 million is a fair guess)
  • Tax breaks from the state totaling $42 million
  • An auction of old Busch Stadium memorabilia, selling everything from seats to the clubhouse urinal, for a reported $6.5 million
  • A new deal which gives the Cards controlling interest in their broadcasting radio station, which is much sweeter financially to the team
  • Playoff money from the last few years
  • A share of the overall MLB windfall (the revenue from, the XM satellite deal, the new contract with ESPN, and the sale of the Washington Nationals garnered approximately $23 million per team)
  • A decreased revenue-sharing burden due to a new MLB rule that allows teams to deduct stadium building expenses from the common pool (the so-called “Yankee Stadium loophole”)
  • The increased value of the franchise (which is $220 million more than what the Cards’ owners paid for it ten years ago, according to a 2005 Forbes magazine article. The franchise will be worth more now with a new stadium.)

Given all that, it’s hard to believe that the team is freezing its payroll from last year. In 2004, Cards’ chairman and managing partner Bill DeWitt said, “The new stadium will provide us with increased revenues and the ability to have a higher payroll.” A year later he seems to have reneged on that promise. It’s quite possible that DeWitt—an oil man from way back—merely followed the logic of extractive industry: get in, get your stadium, get out.

b) The Cardinals really don’t have as much cash as it appears. Yes, the team has a lot of new money coming in, but they also have a tremendous amount of money flowing out. They’re on the hook for $90 million in cash for the new stadium, as well as $12.5 million a year in bond payments. Overall the stadium is 70% privately funded, second only to the Giants in terms of non-public stadium investment.

Add in the cost overruns associated with construction of the new site, as well as the fact that the Cards play in one of the smallest markets in baseball, and you can see where the Cards’ ownership might be strapped for funds. If the history of the Giants is any kind of parallel—where owner Peter Magowan has been so cash-poor that he routinely bypasses first-round draft picks to save the bonus money—then Cardinals fans should not be optimistic.

c) All this talk is nonsense. The Cards are in the same boat as always—not the Yankees or Red Sox, by any means, but still in baseball’s upper middle-class. The only reason they walked away from Giles and Burnett and Grudzielanek is because they were either too old or too unreliable.

You can see what Jocketty must have been thinking this winter:

The Cardinals still have the same nucleus that took the last two division crowns in a cakewalk. They don’t need to be rebuilt, especially if it means caving into an inflated market thin with talent. Sit back and see where the team is at the All-Star break. The division is pretty weak – chances are the Cards will still be in the race even if they’re having an off-year. If so, go out and get someone to spell Bigbie or Rodriguez in left—get a guy in a contract year, a David Dellucci or a Luis Gonzalez, even Barry Bonds. That’s been the Cards’ bread and butter for years—improvising on the fly. In the meantime don’t spend like crazy for win #95 when win #90 might get you a ticket to the dance.

I gotta say, that scenario sounds pretty plausible to me.

5. Will the Cardinals win the NL Central?

I don’t like making predictions, for the same reason I don’t like playing fantasy baseball—they tangle up my allegiances. I find myself rooting for my predictions rather than whatever player or team I’d root for naturally. Besides, my predictions are always wrong, and only reconfirm how slippery the game of baseball is.

So rather than commit to any big forecast, I’ll give you a range of scenarios that could be in store for the Cardinals in ’06, from worst to best:

Disaster Strikes: The Cards are plagued by injuries and experience a big drop-off from someone like Edmonds or Carpenter. Their lack of depth leaves them chronically shorthanded, they’re forced to play Deivi Cruz at third, or So Taguchi in center, or (heaven forbid) Brian Daubach at first, and by July they’re huffing for wins. Historical precedent: 2000 Houston Astros.

Disappointment Strikes: The big names do just fine, but the role players don’t hold their own. Mark Mulder’s and Jason Marquis’ weak peripherals catch up with them, Eckstein reverts back to a .335 OBP, and guys like Looper and Rincon prove useless out of the pen. The team wins 85 games, but an upstart takes the Central. Historical precedent: La Russa’s 1991 A’s.

The Good Times Continue: Carpenter regresses from his Cy Young season and Rolen hits only 20 or so home runs, but the Cards jump on Big Albert’s back and tamp down a weak division. Historical precedent: 2001 Atlanta Braves.

The Good Times Get Better: Whether it’s coaching or luck or pixie dust from the remains of old Busch Stadium, the Cardinals somehow coax superior performances from guys like Sidney Ponson and Larry Bigbie (just as they got them from Woody Williams and Tony Womack in years past). Albert adds to his HOF résumé and the division is over by the All-Star break. Historical precedent: 2004 Cardinals.

I said I didn’t like making predictions, but if you must know, the third scenario makes the most sense to me.

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