Five questions: St. Louis Cardinalsby Nick Steiner
March 24, 2011
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.
Nick is a Cardinals fan living in LA. He also writes for Viva El Birdos. He welcomes questions and comments via email
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