July 8, 2004
Holding the Right Cards
I'd mentioned that when I returned from my week in Massachusetts, some things took me by surprise. At the top of that list was the emergence of the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central. In the eight days I was gone, the Cardinals went 5-2 and took a 4 1/2-game lead in the division. Since then, they've gone 6-3, sweeping their last two series. As of this morning, the Redbirds have a six-game lead that is the largest of any division leader.
The first thing you notice when digging into the Cards' performance: their 52-32 record is real. They're not getting lucky in run elements, in their schedule, or by outplaying their runs scored and allowed. They are benefiting from the Cubs and Astros underplaying their run elements and their actual runs, but the Cardinals are just as good a team as their .619 winning percentage indicates.
The Cards have the third-best offense in the National League, led by their corner infielders Scott Rolen (.346/.420/.616) and Albert Pujols (.309/.404/.607). Last year, the Cards had four of the top 10 players in the league; injuries have kept Jim Edmonds out of that rarefied air this year, while Edgar Renteria suffered through a brutal May, and hasn't really hit right-handers at all in '04 (.235/.276/.300).
Making up for that deficit is the better performance the Cards have gotten from some other positions. The surprising Tony Womack has already created more value than Bo Hart and Fernando Vina did at second base all last year. Reggie Sanders has been less effective than J.D. Drew was on a rate basis, but he's stayed in the lineup more and provided steadier defense than the oft-injured Drew/Palmeiro/Robinson/Musial combo did. Ray Lankford's .363 OBP in the #2 slot has been an important cog in the offense.
Sanders' defense, long an underrated part of his game, has contributed to the most critical part of the Cardinals' run prevention. The Cards' staff is just 12th in the NL in strikeout rate (though it leads the NL in groundout-to-flyout ratio). They're seventh in the NL in home runs allowed, but just 13th in doubles and triples allowed. The Cards have allowed just eight triples all year, an indication that their outfielders cut the ball off and save bases. All told, the Cards lead the majors in Defensive Efficiency.
Overall, the Cardinals' rotation hasn't been anything special, but it has provided a ton of innings and thrown strikes. The Cards lead the league in innings and pitches per start, while not raising any abuse flags, and are third in strikeout-to-walk ratio, thanks to being dead last in walks allowed with 227. The Cards have used just six starters all season, with one outing by Dan Haren messing up perfection. Given that Chris Carpenter has already surpassed his highest workload since 2001, and Woody Williams fell apart in the second half of last year while carrying a similar load, caution is warranted. In addition, Matt Morris' collapsing strikeout rate and run at the home runs-allowed record mean that the Cardinals may be leaning most heavily on the weakest part of the team.
Tony La Russa may actually be able to shift some of the burden to what is his best bullpen in years. Ranked fourth in the NL by ARP, the Cards have five effective pitchers providing a mix of strikeouts and ground balls, two from each side. Steve Kline and Ray King have been incredible, two of the top guys in the NL. I think Kiko Calero's emergence as a strikeout right-hander in front of Jason Isringhausen--something the Cards haven't had in a while--has made the pen's parts fit together in a way that makes La Russa's usage patterns work. Losing Calero started the collapse of last year's bullpen, but if he stays healthy, this is a complete pen that will be a real asset in the second half.
Heck, La Russa has gotten such good work from this staff that he's gone with 11 pitchers for much of the season. Since May 14, the Cards have had a 14/11 split for all but one week, and in that time, they've gone 33-15. We can debate cause and effect, but if nothing else, perhaps this is positive reinforcement for the man who brought us the seven- (and eight!)-man bullpen?
Despite all the positive things that have happened, the Cards have some concerns. When Edmonds is off the field--and he's had a nagging groin injury--the whole thing tends to fall apart. Putting Lankford or So Taguchi in center field, and Marlon Anderson in left, creates a problem defense that this pitching staff can't cover. Adding a fourth outfielder who can play center would help alleviate this concern. They really need Edmonds to be healthy, though.
Beyond that, there's a nagging sense that the starting rotation is put together with Velcro and prayer. Speculation persists that Morris' problems are tied to a shoulder problem, while every time Carpenter takes the mound he tests a rebuilt elbow. None of the Cards' starters has much upside, and as effective as the strikes-and-flyballs plan has been, it's much easier to see this rotation dropping to replacement level than improving by any amount. The Cards could use a real #1 starter as much as any team in baseball; for all the talk about Morris being one, he's just not, and hasn't been for a couple years now.
The Tony Womack Resurgence (band name!) notwithstanding, the Cardinals would also do well to find a leadoff man who can play second base or left field (with Anderson shifting to second as needed). Womack has far exceeded any reasonable expectation, and should he revert to his .300 OBP level, the Cardinals may have trouble sustaining an offense. Remember, this team already starts Mike Matheny and low-OBP slugger Sanders.
The problem, if you're Walt Jocketty, is that the cupboard is bare. Many of the prospects in the Cardinals' thin system have either been injured or ineffective. Adam Wainwright and Blake Hawksworth are out for the year with injuries. Brad Thompson got attention earlier this season for his 58 2/3 shutout innings at Double-A, but he's been hammered in a brief stint at Triple-A. John Gall, a hitter without a position, and Josh Pearce, an older relief prospect, might be used as chits to bring in some help, or the team could trade the highly-touted Daric Barton. Only Barton seems likely to bring in top-tier talent.
A six-game lead is nice, but it's not bulletproof. As good as this Cardinals team has been for three months, there's a lot of recent team history to suggest that it can be caught. With little internal help--the Cardinals have done a terrible job of stocking their Triple-A squad with free talent--it will be up to Jocketty, who has a history of great work in July, to keep this team from going the way of the last two.