Five Questions: St. Louis Cardinalsby Brian Gunn
March 30, 2006
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 SpiveyWhat 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 MLB.com, 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.)
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.
For two years, Brian Gunn ran Redbird Nation, "A St. Louis Cardinals obsession site." If you didn't like this article, e-mail him and let him know.
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