Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Criminal Mismanagement

[Disclaimer: I'm not in as bad of a mood as I might otherwise be, considering that both the Cardinals and the Rockies won tonight even if the A's did not. Still, this is an issue that has been nagging at me for a while and which should be addressed. Quick kudos to Ryan Spilborghs for having a productive pinch-hitting appearance. Ryan, darling, I can tell you that Mabry never would have done that.]

The Cardinals are looking to land fairly squarely in the cellar this year barring a miraculous turnaround. There is no better time for that to happen than now, as 21 of their next 27 games are against sub-.500 clubs including the Pirates, the Nationals, the Reds, and yes, my beloved Rockies. The Brewers are starting to show their flaws -- overcompensating at both plate and mound led them to their third straight series loss. Chris Capuano is 0-2 with a 9.64 ERA in his past few starts, and the home run power provided by J.J. Hardy and Prince Fielder has temporarily vacated the building. So they are the team that's dragged through fourteen previous losing seasons, but they're still a country mile better than the Cards, who haven't shown any sort of sustained spark or resilience despite a 9-4 win tonight. It was against the Pirates, one of the teams they're supposed to beat, but even the Buccos have a better mark than the Cards and are two games closer to the break-even point. Whether it's the front office, aging players, or just evenly distributed incompetence, I'm starting to wonder a little bit about the managing going on within the organization.

Tony La Russa is one of those love-him-or-hate-him managers, obsessed with platoons, lefty-righty matchups, and trying to outmaneuver the opposition in every possible situations, and he has a distinct style that earns him both high praise and sharp criticism. His contract situation is uncertain after this year -- the club can opt to bring him back or let him move on -- and the fate of La Russa after a disappointing season has been widely questioned. He finally skippered an arguably less talented team than his monster '04/'05 squads to a World Series championship, but he (and the rest of the personnel) haven't exactly been doing the most inspiring job at following it up. To some degree, however, I get the sense that La Russa is deliberately holding the unsettled contract over the front office's head. He's been uncommunicative at times and impassive at others -- after all, he's under no obligation to return to this team if he doesn't want to, and who would blame him after the painful season that his '07 Birds are putting together? Still, the coverage of the contract situation, and La Russa's refusal to address it, can sometimes take the focus away from what's going on in the clubhouse and on the field. I get the sense that he's a little exasperated with the whole crew, and God knows I am as well, but I'm a fan and not the manager. It appears to me, with the limited and partial resources I do have, that La Russa may be losing the trust and confidence of the players as well.

Last season, his feud with Scott Rolen was widely publicized, and while both of them insisted that the bridges had been mended, it's amazing what someone will say in the rush of a championship. It's led to speculation that despite a blanket no-trade clause, Rolen will ask to get out of St. Louis before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. (The Dodgers have been mentioned as a possible destination, but they'd be sadly mistaken if they think he'd bring power to their lineup. Rolen is struggling to stay north of the Mendoza line and playing in the cavernous confines of Chavez Ravine wouldn't do him any favors. Still, his glovework is impeccable, and the Dodgers, who have been looking for an established cornerstone at third since losing Adrian Beltre to free agency, might take a flyer if they can convince Rolen to relocate to Southern Cal). But a less-publicized, and slightly more alarming, schism that seems to be developing concerns La Russa and Adam Wainwright.

Regular readers of this blog know that I adore Wainwright, and I'm not taking La Russa to task for doing what a manager is supposed to do in trying to get the best out of his players. I just happen to think that he's going about the situation in the wrong way. A few days ago, it came out that Wainwright has been experiencing pain in his pitching elbow all season and that's why he's putting up some highly uncharacteristic numbers (despite the win tonight and allowing 2 runs in 5.1 innings, his ERA remains an untidy 6.02). According to a team official, it was "never serious enough to consider shutting him down." Now, the Cardinals' rotation is picked to the bone and stitched painfully together with converted relievers and AAA hopefuls as it is, but what is the point of running Wainwright out there if he can't follow through correctly and is going to get shelled? (His start before this one was particularly unsightly -- 8 runs in 2.2 innings vs. the Dodgers). Especially with this somnolent offense, if a pitcher digs a hole every time he's out and has trouble working efficiently, that's not going to give the club much of a chance to win.

The reason that it came out that Wainwright was experiencing pain was because Wainwright himself told the media, not because he went on the DL or because a doctor let something spill. And at once, there came rumors of, if not a Rolen-like feud, at least a bit of coolness between Wainwright and La Russa. La Russa is a gamer, a tough guy, with an absolute drive to get to the top no matter what it takes, and that's why he's currently enjoying the position that he does. Don't get me wrong, I think his will to win is absolutely unmatched, but at the same time, I think he takes the bulldog mentality a little too far. It seemed to Cards fans that La Russa was upset with Wainwright confiding there was something wrong; he was making excuses instead of battling through it. Well, seeing as Wainwright was a prized rookie phenomenon last year who was widely expected to be very successful upon conversion to a starter, I'd expect the fans would want to hear at least some reason as to why instead of continuing to be frustrated every time he took the mound and didn't do well. You can only hear, "There's nothing wrong, it's just a lull, it'll sort itself out," so many times before you stop believing it, and again, I fail to see how going out there anyway and giving up runs that a tepid offense can't make up would help the Cards win. If La Russa wanted Wainwright to shut up and go through it, what good would that do?

Wainwright has said that the pain is correctable, but that when things aren't feeling right, he can't follow through his delivery properly. This doesn't surprise me; if you watch a pitcher throwing in slow motion, the contortions that their arm goes through will make you wince, and this is even when they're perfectly healthy. It seems as if the repeated, vehement motion required to throw a small horsehide sphere at a velocity above every highway speed limit would unstring even the most valiant tendons in short order, and all that delicate machinery, when off, is really off. Pitchers are very particular about which ways their pitches come out of their hand, and if Wainwright can't follow through or use his elbow the way he's accustomed to, it's certainly one of the reasons his curveball lacks its customary bite and break this year. His fastball is only low-nineties, so he's not going to blow guys away with the heat if his offspeed stuff isn't working. A hanging curve is just as desirable as a straight fastball for hitters, and it seems as if too many of Wainwright's curves are doing just that. Of course, it's a different mentality for a starter, with different preparation, and hitters can familiarize themselves with his stuff as the game goes on instead of being forced to acclimate quickly over the course of one inning. However, the discrepancy in his performance is too large to simply be explained away as new-starter jitters.

The most encouraging pitch Wainwright made tonight against the Pirates was to get his fellow Adam, LaRoche, chasing on a very sharp-breaking curveball to escape a jam, and he insists that he is regaining his form with the pitch. One hopes so, as otherwise, he's going to get hit hard again. He wasn't exactly effective in his start tonight, laboring through 96 pitches for 16 outs, and escaped from bases-loaded jams in three of his five innings. But at least he didn't let them score, as he's done in the past. The efficiency will have to come after he figures out how not to be shelled on a consistent basis. His next start will be very telling, and you can bet that he will make it, funky elbow or otherwise.

The Cards don't have many options as it is. Mark Mulder is out until at least the break and his ability to come back and be effective, let alone good, is under serious debate. (Side note: When I was watching the Rockies game a few days ago, somebody emailed the announcers to ask why the Cards were so bad. When the first words out of their mouth, I shit you not, were "Mark Mulder," I screamed at them for being idiots and failed to hear the rest of their reply, some nonsense about how Mulder, for the love of God, somehow precluded them from being competitive). As I've mentioned, the only way Carpenter comes back this year is if the Cards are miraculously in striking distance in the Central in late August. The Randy Keisler experiment was a disaster. Anthony Reyes isn't pitching that badly any more, but just can't win. Kip Wells is proving to be an ex-Pirate (part of the rotation worst-case scenario in my Cards projection.... YIPES, most of that is true! Dear God!) and has a 1-7 record and some bloated mid-6 ERA. Brad Thompson has already been used to make an emergency start. I can understand La Russa being reluctant to let another pitcher slip to the nefarious clutches of the disabled list, but the "pitch Mulder when he's hurt" idea last year backfired splendidly, and the Cards are going to go down the same road with Wainwright if they're not careful. I thought it was Dusty Baker who was known for blowing out pitchers' arms (Kerry Wood and Mark Prior may never throw a big-league pitch again; partly because of him, partly because they're made of Waterford crystal) but I would have thought the Cards should have learned their lesson about trying to pass off injured starters as serviceable.

Now, if Wainwright insists he's good enough to go, then I'll trust that he knows his own body well enough to make that assessment, and he'll have to face the consequences that follow, possibly including an extended trip to the DL a la Mulder. That's not La Russa's fault, but I do get the sense that the manager is losing his players, and if you thought the chemistry in a losing clubhouse wasn't that great to begin with, then this isn't going to help at all.

There are a few other things I'd like to mention. La Russa, as everyone will recall, was arrested for drunk driving during Spring Training, an incident which sprang to renewed prominence after Josh Hancock's alcohol-related fatal crash. While La Russa, a standup guy, took the blame for his bad choices at the time of his arrest, he hasn't spoken about it again even after Hancock's death. Now, I don't want the players to be joining MADD or posing with highway cleanup crews or something like that, but a word or two would be nice. Perhaps La Russa has spoken about it behind closed doors -- sadly not being a Cardinal, I have no way of knowing what goes on in the clubhouse with any certainty. La Russa, publically at least, was silent on the issue even during the first few days afterwards, and while he may have privately amended things, it has left fans wondering what message he wants to send to them. They supported him even during his own imbroglio, and an acknowledgement wouldn't go amiss.

Also, one more thing. This is utterly unproven, and probably means absolutely nothing, but tonight, with two runners on, La Russa gave Wainwright the signal to bunt. Wainwright, one of the team's best hitters period and not just for a pitcher -- he's hitting .357 and that is no accident -- pulled one bunt foul and then decided to swing away, ending up with a two-run double. There's no way to say that La Russa himself didn't call for the false bunt and then change the signs, knowing that Wainwright can swing it, and either way the outcome was favorable for the Cardinals, but it makes one wonder who chose to go that route. Again, baseless speculation, but interesting nonetheless.

Go Cardinals. Do try to win some games, but when you play the Rockies for four, let them have at least two.

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