June 1, 2010
Bad News Birds?
Placed RHP Kyle Lohse on the 15-day DL (strained forearm), retroactive to 5/23; purchased the contract of RHP Fernando Salas from Memphis (Triple-A). [5/27]
Optioned RHP Fernando Salas and OF-R Joe Mather to Memphis; recalled RHP Adam Ottavino from Memphis; purchased the contract of LHP Evan MacLane from Memphis. [5/29]
Optioned LHP Evan MacLane to Memphis; recalled 1B/LF-R Allen Craig from Memphis. [5/31]
Not to be overly cold-blooded, but the Lohse they lost was the Lohse they've been regretting for the last season-plus, so absenting a starter with a staff-worst .360 SNWP is hardly what we'd call a setback for the staff. That said, this comes after the Cardinals have received good breaks and bad, with the arrival of a fully armed and operational Jaime Garcia spelling bad news for the rest of the division for the first two months of the season, but the temporary loss of Brad Penny. Penny's eventual return certainly might give the staff the inning-eating fourth man behind the newly minted big three of Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, and Garcia, with the challenge in-season being whether or not they'll be able to find a fifth man who can avert disasterpieces more often than not, especially if Lohse ends up being out longer than six or eight or 12 weeks.
That doesn't sound like something out of P.J. Walters' grasp, but by the time the trade deadline rolls around, the Cardinals will be in a position to know more about Lohse's timetable, Walters' utility, perhaps whether or not Lance Lynn is ready for an early arrival, and/or who's available on the market at what prices. They certainly don't have to dial up Jarrod Washburn or Dontrelle Willis just yet, although seeing what Washburn might be capable of with the aid of Dave Duncan's dark arts can't help but tantalize a bit.
Meanwhile there's the matter of rotation logistics to sort out. It might seems slightly odd that the Cardinals have opted to keep Ottavino up with the notion of starting him next weekend against the Brewers. They wouldn't have to, however: a day off on Thursday means they could just as easily keep Walters in the traces and start him on Sunday on four days' rest, and skip using a fifth starter until next Tuesday in Los Angles, on the 8th. However, it doesn't sound as if Penny's going to be ready to return by then, although he'd be eligible, but with some solace to be found in Tony La Russa's recent comments to the effect that Penny will be back in the first half of the month.
Let's look at a pair of options for the next two weeks' worth of starting turns:
You might think there isn't a lot to choose between the two. The second assumes trying to keep everyone starting every fifth day, and would involve not needing a fifth starter until June 8, allowing the Cards to use that roster spot in some other way in the meantime. Unfortunately, even if they had immediately sent down Ottavino after Saturday's start, he couldn't be the starter on June 8 because of the 10-day rule (barring an injury). Maybe that would have been MacLane, but now that's besides the point.
By choosing the first option, by the time Ottavino makes his next turn they might have a better idea of when they'll be able to bring Penny back, either for the series beginning on June 11 (in Phoenix, against the Snakes) or 14 (at home, against the Mariners). At that point, they might be able to ship Ottavino out then, re-employing the roster spot to re-add a reliever or whatever, until replacing that guy with Penny upon his reactivation. Doing so then lets them keep the maximum number of roster spots in play day-to-day from that point on, as opposed to exploiting an opportunity to do so now while taking Ottavino out of the picture for the next week-plus. You can fidget over why they might not start Ottavino on Friday, after the pen's gotten a day off, but that would push Wainwright back a day and exacerbate the "who starts when?" issues from there on out. In either of the above scenarios, at least they get their best trio starting four games in each of the six-game sets nestled between days off.
Which looks pretty good to me. You can't begrudge them their choices down two rotation regulars, because even with a couple of days off in the next two weeks, they can't really wind up in a different place by trying to keep the core trio of Carpenter, Wainwright, and Garcia on four days' rest each time out. If Walters struggles, or Ottavino improves, they can go with either after Penny's return, and this way, nobody's moving around any more than necessary. Their current decision tree gives Ottavino more time around the big-league team, and the mild endorsement combined with a sense of what he'll have to work on to stick could help him be even better prepared the next time around.
So, for all that, and the NL Central looking like a see-saw where many expected a Cardinals cakewalk, what are the other action items? The rotation may not really qualify as a problem, either so far or in the weeks to come, ranking as it does among the top four in baseball. Similarly, the bullpen's among baseball's best. If anywhere, there are issues to resolve on offense, and perhaps to some extent on at least one problem area on defense as well. The Cardinals are a decidedly mediocre eighth in the league in TAv, and third in the division behind the Reds and the Brewers. Considering that you only have to show up to rate ahead of the Astros and Pirates, besting the Cubs is hardly boast-worthy. Similarly, the Cards' defense rates as mediocre, seventh in the league and 14th overall.
It's easy to identify reasons why the Cards' lineup is putzing around mid-pack, which go beyond Albert Pujols' “decline” to Best First Baseman in his league, as opposed to standard like 'on this planet' or 'within the solar system.' A big part of the problem has been the team's middle-infield regulars, as both Skip Schumaker and Brendan Ryan are struggling to contribute in any phase of the offense. Punting a quarter of the lineup's not exactly easy, even when you have a useful catcher in your offense like Yadier Molina. Ryan continues to get good marks for his defensive contributions, while Schumaker still mans the keystone with the willing incompetence of an outfield conversion project.
As I wrote in BP2K10, converting Schumaker certainly made sense at the time. Then as now, the Cardinals have outfielders a'plenty. But now unlike then, they have a fine alternative to Schumaker on the big-league roster: Felipe Lopez. Happily, La Russa's been aggressively working F-Lop into the lineup since his reactivation, starting Lopez in 11 of the 14 games since: nine at shortstop, two at second base. However, La Russa has been aggressive about getting Ryan in as a defensive replacement when the latter isn't in the starting lineup. The loose platoon between Ryan and Schumaker that seems to be taking shape certainly makes sense: despite his recent spatter of singles, Schumaker's generally been hopeless against lefties on his career (.219/.285/.244). So even this issue's being set aright, with the additional in-house option of Daniel Descalso—hitting .299/.361/.445 against right-handed pitching in Memphis—to consider if Schumaker doesn't at least do his bit against righties.