Monday, May 14, 2007

Bleeding (Cardinal) Red

Quite literally, in this case. I think it's time to admit that the Cardinals dynasty that we fans so enjoyed for the past few years has bit the dust. Yes, it's only May, but the Cards are nine games back in a division currently headed by the team with the unlikeliest best record in the NL -- those perennial powerhouse Milwaukee Brewers, clocking in at 25-12 and only one loss behind the Red Sox for the best mark in baseball. I must admit that I didn't pay much attention to all the Brewer hype this winter, since they've been a doormat for so long, but I suppose that every doormat has its day and it looks as if the Brew Crew is cashing in right now. Who's to say if it'll be extrapolated over a season, but this Central division is absolutely not winnable by the Cards with the current product they're putting on the field right now.

The players themselves know it. Reminded that the 1oo-plus win teams of the early oughts made relentlessness their trademark, center fielder Jim Edmonds answered, "This is a different team." (From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch). If you read the article, he sounds more than a little peeved with the team's lifeless play and it sounds as if the post-game press conferences are becoming a balancing act for each night's starting pitcher: he cites his own responsibility to keep the team in the game while trying to avoid pointing fingers at an offense that has scored an average of 2.4 runs since Josh Hancock's April 29 death. Clubhouse chemistry may be a myth (I personally don't think so) but this absolutely brutal onslaught to start the season can't be doing good things for the Cardinals' camaraderie, and since major league players spend more time with their teammates than with their families, this is an important factor that may eventually seep onto the field, if it hasn't already. This is a team desperately scrabbling for answers and can't find any. If a salary dump becomes necessary, Jason Isringhausen and David Eckstein will most likely be the probable candidates to be traded, as they're taking up their fair share of the team's revenue and are difficult, but not impossible, to move for the right price. (The most money is tied up in Pujols, Carpenter, Rolen, and Edmonds. The former two are franchise cornerstones and clearly aren't going anywhere, while Rolen has a full no-trade clause and come July, will have 10-5 status anyway (ten years of major league service, and the past five with the same team, give a player the right to waive any proposed trade). Edmonds signed a two-year contract extension this last offseason, and has expressed a desire to retire in St. Louis, but his skills are on a vast downturn and it's doubtful the Cardinals could get much of value for him -- maybe a few B-level prospects if Walt Jocketty can find anyone willing to take on an aging and offensively decrepit center fielder.

Isringhausen is rebounding after injury and has proved quite serviceable while regaining his closer's role, posting a sparkling 1.88 ERA, a 1-0 won/loss and 9 saves, but since the team can never hand him a lead in the ninth inning, he's only seen 14.1 innings pitched. If he continues to do well, he could bring back a nice return. He will be 35 in September and still prone to the occasional meltdown, so the Cardinals could try dangling him on the open market and see what kind of interest they could attract. Closers are always a hot commodity and hopefully Jocketty can cozen a decent payback for Izzy. He also has mentioned loving St. Louis, but the boo birds were rough on him during his injury-marred catastrophes last year and his affection may have waned a bit. Izzy is very close to his young proteges in the pen, so it's also possible that his departure may affect them, but with close to $8 million tied up in one reliever, he becomes a possible target for a midseason fire sale. Young Tyler Johnson has looked untouchable thus far, allowing only one earned run in 13 innings for a 0.69 ERA and a .152 BAA. Interestingly, he's primarily used to get lefties out, but they're hitting "higher" against him -- .160 vs. .143 for righties -- so it seems he's mastered his wicked slider, which, when it's working, is unhittable. Johnson has never closed before, but if Izzy does go, he could find himself promoted to the spot previously held by Isringhausen/Wainwright.

Eckstein is the other candidate that should go, but it remains to be seen if he will. The Cards don't have an heir apparent at the shortstop position and it's doubtful they'd pull off a splashy deal to fill the vacancy. Jocketty doesn't dish out big money until his players have proven themselves (i.e. Pujols and Carpenter) and while some Cards fans, myself definitely not included, have expressed interest in landing Alex Rodriguez to man the hole in Busch, it's not likely that that will happen. Eckstein is a fan favorite and won the World Series MVP last year for his so-called "scrappy" play, but the reason he gets so much attention is because he's short -- 5'7" and 165 lb, if by some miracle you hadn't heard. If he put up his pedestrian numbers at 6'1" and 180, you'd never hear much about him. He's a "gritty" little guy, which is why he is the subject of so many "inspiring" articles, but a .207 average, 0 HR, 4 RBI, and 11 runs scored isn't acceptable production by my yardstick and no amount of runtlike albino grit will save Eckstein if he doesn't get it going. It may seem unfair to pick and choose players when the Cardinals have almost universally succumbed to a team-wide offensive malaise, but Eckstein's hype doesn't match his contributions by a long shot and he's due to be paid $4.5 million this year for it. (His double-play partner, Adam Kennedy, hasn't been terrific either, but the Cards obviously aren't going to cut out the center of their infield, no matter how anemic they are).

Of course, the issue of finding a successor remains problematic. Brendan Ryan is batting .238 in AAA Memphis with no HR and 6 RBI, while Rico Washington has slightly better numbers at .306/4/8 but has never (to the best of my recollection) been taken out for a test drive in the Majors, so you'd have no way of judging what you'd get from him if he was given everyday playing time. Tagg Bozied was an early-season darling of Cards Nation, and he's continued to do well at Memphis, posting .298/7/30, but he fell off a cliff at the end of spring training and plays first base, not shortstop. Travis Hanson is another mentioned prospect, but he plays third -- a position the Cards have under control -- and it's a bit late to ask him to switch positions this high in the minor leagues. Besides, he's batting .197. If the Cards did trade Eckstein, they'd have to find his replacement from somewhere outside the organization, and the only shortstops that would be available wouldn't provide a significantly higher level of production.

It's also possible that they could ditch Juan Encarnacion, who sat out the first month and a half of the season with a wrist injury and hasn't exactly been an offensive sparkplug upon his return -- not that he really ever was, but the state of things in the Birdhouse are so bad that Encarnacion, yes, Encarnacion, was looked to as a savior. The consensus among fans seems to be that the organization should cut him and promote Rick Ankiel, the pitcher-turned-outfielder who's humming along at Memphis to the tune of .281/9/31. At this point, it may honestly be time to see what the replacements can do, as the major leaguers have been entirely underwhelming and it's my personal belief that loyalty to scrappy underdogs who netted them a trophy prevented the front office from seriously revamping a team that did, after all, only win 83 games last year and had three losing streaks of seven games or more. I don't expect to see Carpenter back this year -- they say three months, but why bring him back in August/September to pitch meaningless games when the team is already out of the race? Their best bet is to let him rehab in peace and bring him back in '08 when the team might have a realistic shot.

The Cards should also ship out the miscellaneous spare parts, such as So Taguchi, Aaron Miles, Preston Wilson, etc., that can't play and don't contribute, and just rebuild. Clearly, this isn't going to be a repeat year for them, so it's time to cut their losses and start grooming successors for what is (hopefully) a better season. Isn't that the endless refrain among baseball fans? "Wait for next year." In the Cardinals' case, it may be all they can do.

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