Five questions: St. Louis Cardinalsby Nick Steiner
March 17, 2010
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|
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 and Resources
If you want to read more about the Cardinals, visit Viva El Birdos.
Nick is a Cardinals fan living in LA. He also writes for Viva El Birdos. He welcomes questions and comments via email