Sunday, February 18, 2007

Preseason Preview: Cardinals

So close, and yet so far... The good news? Pitchers, catchers, and most of the position players have now reported to Spring Training, dispersing out through Arizona and Florida to divide into Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues and to get the ballgame on the road. Or at least... that's the idea. It's still several weeks until ST games start, so I have a while to get back into the habit of worrying about outcomes, as I'm one of those wonky fans who pays attention to every result, including preseason games. I can't help it... I'm so starved for baseball and I so badly want my teams to do well. Since the Cards reached the pinnacle of glory last year, now I want to see the A's do it. If I'm being realistic, I'll admit that there are more qualified (and more likely) teams to take the flag, but hope never dies, eh? I'm not nearly delusioned enough to think that the Rockies will get there, since Clint Hurdle's maxim is to get rid of anyone who is "developed" and by extension good, but hey. If there was a World Series game in Denver, I'd be pissed since I'd be in New York and ergo unable to attend.


This post will preview the Cards. A's next, and then the Rockies. So, in St. Louis, home of your defending WORLD CHAMPIONS, let's take a look at the lay of the land.

The St. Louis Cardinals


PITCHING

Starters

Who's Gone?
Jeff Suppan (4 years for the Brewers) Jeff Weaver (1 year for the Mariners) Jason Marquis (3 years for the Cubs). Not that happy about losing Suppan - he was a strong #2 to slot behind Carpenter. Not sure about Weaver, who could have been either the pitcher he was in the '06 postseason or the pitcher he's been for a large part of his career. Thrilled to see Marquis go, especially to the Cubs, where the Cards will have a chance to beat him frequently.

Who's Here? Chris Carpenter, naturally. After that, nothing is certain. Kip Wells, Anthony Reyes, Adam Wainwright, and Braden Looper are the leading candidates to fill the other four spots. Yes, you read that right. Braden Looper. See my thoughts on this below.

Things stack up thusly:

- Chris Carpenter (obviously, #1, legit ace, should be in the running for another Cy. Carpenter's signature pitch is his cutter, which breaks low in the zone and is extremely hard to get a fix on, but if he relies on it too much, hitters will start sitting on it, with ugly results. See late September games versus Houston... although in fairness, Fat Elvis Berkman has always hit Carp well. Chris also sports a fastball that can touch 94 mph and he used to have a plus changeup, which he lost after arm surgery and is working to get back this season. He also has a killer big-hook 12-to-6 curve that, when working, is untouchable. As a matter of fact, that's the case with most of his pitches.)
- Kip Wells (most likely, mediocre-to-average Pirates stopgap filler. I don't know much about him, but he's a high-80s velocity type guy who relies more on offspeed stuff and deception rather than overwhelming power).
- Anthony Reyes (likely, has flashes of brilliance and of extreme incompetence, but still could amount to something special. He features a plus two-seam fastball, but hitters tend to feast on it since management is, for some reason, leery about letting him mix it up with his four-seamer).
- Adam Wainwright (my darling baby, etc., etc., is ticketed to make the move from closer to starter. Hurrah. More Adam never goes amiss. Adam's signature pitch is his curve, which he can bury in the zone and locate effectively against both lefties and righties. Carlos Beltran, who he struck out to end the NLCS, is still having nightmares about that dreamy bender that floated right by. Beltran says that even on a good day, with him fully healthy, hitting the ball well, there's no way he'd be able to do anything with that curve... that's how good it is. Adam also uses a splitter and low-nineties fastball to complement the Yellow Hammer).
- Braden Looper (fuck me sideways with a lunchbox, to borrow a colorful saying from one of my friends... Looper is absolutely terrible, hasn't started since 1997 when he was in Single-A, and has maybe three pitches, none of which are good. If a pitcher absolutely has to get an out, there's usually one killer pitch he can turn to - Carp has his cutter, Adam has his curve, and even young bullpen brat Ty Johnson has a wicked slider. Looper, on the other hand, is not good, so it follows that neither are his pitches. I have no idea what Dave Duncan professes to see in Looper, and no idea how a cringe-inducing reliever will make even a suitable fifth starter. I see a decent start, ala Sidney Ponson of last year, followed by such jarring and terrible incompetence that they're forced to remove him with a hook before they sink all the way to the bottom of the NL Central, which admittedly would be hard when you consider that they have the Pirates in their division).

Other possibilities - Mark Mulder, Ryan Franklin, Chris Narveson, Brad Thompson. They really need Marky Mark to come back at full throttle and be the caliber of pitcher that he was for the A's, but who knows if or when that will happen? If Jason Isringhausen isn't ready to go by Opening Day, Adam could also continue in the closer's role until he is. Chris Narveson made one start last year and was serviceable. Ryan Franklin was with the Mariners, is pretty bad, and is best known because not even taking steroids could make him good, which he subsequently got busted for. One Mariners fan friend of mine opines that he probably gets neck strain from turning to watch all the homers he gives up flying out of the park... not a good sign. Brad Thompson is a decent to average reliever and even he is a better choice than Looper. Jeezus Key-rist, I foresee antacid-popping and mass hemorraghes whenever he's on the mound. Maybe the Cards need to bite the bullet and admit that the state of their starting rotation is suspect.

Best-Case Scenario: Carp dominates, wins 20 games and the Cy while posting a sub-3 ERA. Kip Wells is serviceable to decent and wins 12-15 games with a mid-4 ERA. Reyes harnesses his oftentimes-wild stuff and posts 10-15 wins with a high 3-middle-4 ERA. Wainwright makes a smooth transition from closer to starter, wins 15+ games with a high 3 ERA. Looper, after one or two debacles in April, is demoted to mopup guy when a healthy Mulder comes back and wins 15 games for the eventual NL Central Champs.

Worst-Case Scenario: Carp starts off strong, gets injured around the break, and isn't the same pitcher afterwards, registering only 13-16 wins with a mid-4 ERA. Wells proves to be, well, an ex-Pirate and barely manages to win 10, often helped out by a lot of run support, posting an inflated ERA of close to 5. Reyes can't turn off the mercurial switch and vacillates between suck and serviceable, spending too much time at the former and stumbling to 5-7 wins and a mid-season demotion to iron out his mechanics. My sweet Adam can't replicate his postseason heroics and only wins 10 or 12 with a high-4 ERA. The only pitcher who stays in the rotation all season long is Looper, bluffing his way to 10 wins and 16 losses with a 5+ ERA. The Cards are sunk in the NL Central by September and the Cubs win the division, culminating in Jason Marquis beating his old mates in the clinching game. This causes groans, agony, and spontaneous suicide in Redbird nation. This Cards fan hits the Prozac to dull the pain.

Bullpen:

- Jason Isringhausen (aging, with his effectiveness in decline, Izzy enters the spring tagged with a hundred question marks. Can he regain the job that Adam took from him last September? Can he become healthy again, and most importantly, regain the trust of the Busch III fans that booed him while he was in the process of blowing one of his 11 total flubbed saves? Whether or not Adam opens the season in the rotation rests squarely on the shoulders of the good ol' Izzster).
- Tyler Johnson (a talented 25-year-old with a lively fastball and killer slider, he proved to be dominant against lefties last year, but righties beat him like a pinata. Can he find some consistent rhythm so he can be used for multiple batters, instead of only lefties?)
- Brad Thompson (a serviceable reliever who was used once as a starter when Carp was unavailable, all he needs to do is provide a reliable fallback plan in case one of the main bullpen guys goes down).
- Josh Hancock (known as the "fat pitcher" who was cut from Reds camp last year for being 17 pounds overweight, he was picked up by the Cards and subsequently won a ring. Also serviceable, if unproven).
- Josh Kinney (nabbed from the independent leagues, he was quite good in limited action last year, and engendered, surprisingly, a decent amount of trust from me. I would like to see him perform further, but only if good... obviously. ;))
- Russ Springer (returning from the Astros for his second tour of duty with the Cardinals, best known for failing to hit Barry Bonds three times in retaliation for an earlier beaning. Another dime-a-dozen stopgap bullpen guy, lumped in with his fellows as needed only to get the ball to the closer with the lead intact, whoever the closer may be).
- Ricardo Rincon (was excellent at producing ulcers, head-banging, and deep moans when he was on the A's. Unfortunately, I see no change here, especially as he's returning after missing an entire year with injuries).

Best-Case Scenario: Izzy comes back healthy and begins closing games with his old machine-like regularity. Ty Johnson and Josh Kinney flourish as the bullpen brats and become legit set-up guys. Looper is nowhere to be seen.

Worst-Case Scenario: Izzy sucks. A number of experiments to replace him commence, none of which work. The Cards' starters learn that to have any hope of winning a game, they need to take it all the way, and in doing so, blow out their arms, one by one. Looper is the only one exempt from this malady and keeps on pitching.

The Nonexpert Nostradumus Predicts:
(note - pitchers who could both start and relieve are listed for total numbers, not separately)

Starters
Chris Carpenter, RHP, 18-7, 2.95 ERA, 230 IP, 200 K, 33 starts
Kip Wells, RHP, 13-10, 4.30 ERA, 190 IP, 132 K, 31 starts
Anthony Reyes, RHP, 14-9, 3.97 ERA, 190 IP, 170 K, 29 starts
Adam Wainwright, RHP, 16-9, 3.85 ERA, 175 IP, 160 K, 32 starts
Braden Looper, P? (AHAHHAHA) 6-9, 5.56 ERA, 90 IP, 75 K, 13 starts
Mark Mulder, LHP, 7-5, 4.20 ERA, 50 K, 12 starts
Ryan Franklin, RHP, 2-4, 5.75 ERA, 30 K, 7 starts
Chris Narveson, LHP, 1-3, 4.15 ERA, 55 K, 3 starts
Brad Thompson, RHP, 2-2, 4.00 ERA, 20 K, 2 starts

Relievers
Jason Isringhausen, RHP, 3-2, 4.00 ERA, 25 SV/32 SVO
Randy Flores, RHP, 1-2, 5.00 ERA, 1 SV/2 SVO
Tyler Johnson, LHP, 1-3, 4.25 ERA, 2 SV/2 SVO
Russ Springer, RHP, 1-1, 4.35 ERA, 2 SV/2 SVO
Josh Kinney, RHP, 1-1, 3.55 ERA, 1 SV/1 SVO
Josh Hancock, RHP, 1-3, 4.10 ERA, 1 SV/ 3 SVO
Ricardo Rincon, RHP, 0-3, 4.95 ERA, 1 SV/4 SVO


HITTING

Projected Lineup (in positional, not batting, order)

1B Albert Pujols (no worries. Man is a machine)
2B Adam Kennedy (hopefully will benefit from transition to NL and reunition with former/current DP partner Eckstein)
SS David Eckstein (totally overrated, but should provide decent average with a scattering of extra-base hits)
3B Scott Rolen (needs to come back strong from injury and off-year)
RF So Taguchi/John Rodriguez/Juan Encarnacion (none of which are great, but combined can provide a little power to a lower-order spot)
CF Jim Edmonds/Preston Wilson (Edmonds is aging and had a lot of injury problems last year... can he rebound or is he on the way down?)
LF Chris Duncan/So Taguchi/Scott Spiezio (Duncan is atrocious with the glove, but has legit power and could conceivably crack 20+ homers if his defense doesn't undercut his playing time).
C Yadier Molina/Gary Bennett (Molina is a very light hitter, but is kept on the team for his knack for working with pitchers and his cannon of an arm - he threw out a ridiculous percentage of base-stealers last year).

Best-Case Scenario: Pujols resumes his usual monster-mashing ways and hits an insane number of clutch homers to bail out the Cards' bullpen in moments of weakness. Rolen comes on like a machine in his blossoming year, providing almost an equal amount of power from across the diamond. Jimmy Ballgame shows that the injuries were a fluke while providing 20 HR, 80 RBI, and Gold Glove/highlight reel defense. Juan Encarnacion remains where he does most good, on the bench. Chris Duncan learns how to field, gets more playing time, and blasts in excess of 20 HR. Even Molina discovers his bat and contributes 10 HR. Adam Kennedy and David Eckstein provide decent production from traditionally light-hitting positions, with a .275/.285 average, respectively. The Cards' offensive firepower combines with some standout pitching and they win the NL Central handily.

Worst-Case Scenario: Pujols does his thing and a) gets seriously injured (please God no) or b) runs a one-man show since no one can help him out. Rolen continues to underwhelm offensively despite generally solid defense. Poor old Jim just can't recover from being knocked silly last year and provides only a .250 average with 10-15 HR and waning play in the field. Juan Encarnacion gets too much playing time. Yadier Molina hits exactly 1 HR all year, and that in a game where Looper has already allowed 10 runs. All the sneering prognosticators are right about the miserable state of the Cardinals' offense, and they're sunk in the Central by August. The Cubs win the division, culminating with a complete-game shutout by Jason Marquis. Cardinals Nation commits hara-kiri.

The Nonexpert Nostradamus Predicts:

Albert Pujols, R/R, 1B: .335 AVG, 45 HR, 144 RBI, .440 OBP, .680 SLG, 1.120 OPS
Adam Kennedy, L/R, 2B: .270 AVG, 4 HR, 40 RBI, .320 OBP, .380 SLG, .700 OPS
David Eckstein, R/R, SS: .285 AVG, 2 HR, 20 RBI, .340 OBP, .330 SLG, .670 OPS
Scott Rolen, R/R, 3B: .277 AVG, 30 HR, 96 RBI, .370 OBP, .525 SLG, .895 OPS
So Taguchi, R/R, RF/LF: .255 AVG, 4 HR, 30 RBI, .330 OBP, .340 SLG, .670 OPS
John Rodriguez, L/L, RF/LF: .299 AVG, 5 HR, 40 RBI, .380 OBP, .390 SLG, .770 OPS
Juan Encarnacion, R/R, RF: .260 AVG, 17 HR, 67 RBI, .315 OBP, .420 SLG, .735 OPS
Jim Edmonds, L/L, CF: .266 AVG, 21 HR, 85 RBI, .360 OBP, .485 SLG, .845 OPS
Chris Duncan, L/R, RF/LF: .288 AVG, 25 HR, 65 RBI, .375 OBP, .580 SLG, .955 OPS
Yadier Molina, R/R, C: .240 AVG, 7 HR, 41 RBI, .290 OBP, .325 SLG, .615 OPS
Gary Bennett, R/R, C: .220 AVG, 3 HR, 19 RBI, .270 OBP, .320 SLG, .590 OPS
Preston Wilson, R/R, CF/RF: .260 AVG, 17 HR, 60 RBI, .305 OBP, .477 SLG, .782 OPS
Scott Spiezio, S/R, LF/RF: .270 AVG, 12 HR, 50 RBI, .350 OBP, .470 SLG, .820 OPS

OVERALL PREDICTION
The NL Central will be close all season long, with the Cubs and Astros each overtaking the Cards at one point, but never staying in the catbird seat for long. Even the Brewers will briefly compete, and the Reds will look legit before being proven to be smoke and mirrors with late-season injury woes. The Pirates? The Pirates are run by Dave Littlefield. Pity them. The Cards will win another division title, without an epic late-season collapse this time. This may be a highly biased prediction, but I've done my best to assess the Cards fairly, and I think that they have more than enough talent to do it. It's the question of making it click. I don't get the hoopla about the Cubs. They added a talented but K-prone "outfielder" with extremely suspect defense (Alfonso Soriano) and if they plan on playing him on the outfield in Wrigley, good luck to them. They have Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, who will stay healthy when hell freezes over. And they have Jason Marquis. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAH! For the Cubs to improve 10 games in '07 (in other words, by quite a lot) they would still only win 76 games, and I do think the Cards are capable of outstripping that. I suppose the question remains as to who is more of a sparkplug: Tony La Russa or Lou Piniella? I also think that the Cards will have a better year than most people give them credit for, and will take the Central crown.

Notice that I'm being nice to the Cubs. I gave them a whole 12 games' worth of improvement. Where they're gonna get that from, I haven't a clue. If it's from Marquis, I'll eat several items of clothing, including but not limited to my hat.

NL CENTRAL
1. Cardinals, 89-73
2. Astros, 86-76
3. Reds, 85-77
4. Cubs, 78-84
5. Brewers, 77-85
6. Pirates, 63-99

The next post will preview the A's, and by extension the AL West. God, I need baseball....


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