August 17, 2005
St. Louis, Tampa Bay, TorontoSt. Louis Cardinals: Entering this season the bench seemed a Who's Who of Guys Who Belong In Double-A…coaching. Roger Cedeno? Einar Diaz? Hector Luna? Abraham Nunez? Instead, the bench has been better than medical tape to head trainer Barry Weinberg, buying time to let key players like Larry Walker, Scott Rolen and Reggie Sanders heal. (Part of that windfall traces to the Cards' decision to finally cut bait on Cedeno.) Maybe the Cardinals are having one of those "lucky" seasons where a half dozen players blow PECOTA out of the water, but when the Braves do that we tend to chalk it up to John Schuerholz and Leo Mazzone. Let's look at the big contributors who have stepped out of the shadows:
John Rodriguez is 27 and has had a very odd season. After an eight-year minor-league career playing in the system for his boyhood hero Yankees, the Bronx native hit the glass ceiling and signed with Cleveland as a minor-league free agent last November. His big spring (.320/.370/.760) opened some eyes, but the Tribe thought better of the limited sample size (25 at-bats) and he was reassigned to Buffalo. He struggled (.247/.323/.447, just five HR in 170 AB) there, but St. Louis must have liked something about him because player development director Bruce Manno crafted a small trade to get him. Rodriguez joined the Memphis Redbirds on June 9 and went Ruth on the Pacific Coast League: 17 HR in 120 AB; .342/.419/.808. A small window, to be sure, but for a team that's short a couple outfielders like St. Louis was and still is, you've got to catch the lightning in the bottle. Cards GM Walt Jocketty told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch he had seen Rodriguez play four games before promoting him, and that the Memphis staff recommended him highly.
Now performing capably as a big league left fielder (.286/.347/.451 and 5.1 VORP in 27 games with above average defense), J-Rod is making a small name for himself. That recognition alone should interest more parties, and sadly, that's the metric used by some major-league front offices. After a stellar 2004 with Columbus, Rodriguez wasn't too hard to spot; the Indians took a wise gamble on him, but credit the Cardinals for capitalizing on this one. Maybe with Sanders and Walker eligible free agents after this year (see below), he'll actually have a future with the team.
Nunez is also a fish swimming in new water for the first time, having escaped to St. Louis after eight years in Pittsburgh. He's a middle infielder by trade but is serving as Rolen's primary sub at third base, and he's shocked everyone by outperforming Rolen himself. Clearly, Rolen's battled injury, but Nunez no longer looks like the man we had pegged for a scrap-heap shortstop. Why isn't Nunez (.306/.373/.413 this year) playing like Abraham Nunez (career .238/.306/.316 in eight erstwhile seasons)? Without a significant power spike, we have to dig a little.
Year BABIP BB/PA SO/PA 1997-2004 .305 .085 .166 2005 .334 .095 .108Batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is often the culprit in these cases, but it's not enough to explain Nunez's success. He's walking a little bit more, but it's only a 1 percent shift from career levels. Bingo. Nunez has cut his strikeouts by 35 percent, and that combined with the slight uptick in patience and more bloopers falling than normal does a fair job of explaining the source of Nunez' modest achievements.
Through Monday, the Redbirds had a 99.85 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to Clay Davenport's Playoffs Odds Report. With October ball virtually in the bag, Tony LaRussa can rest easy. Most managers fret when half their lineup is disabled--especially if two of the ailing four are Rolen and Walker--but the Cardinals can afford to nurse them back to full health.
On a separate note, the Cardinals have a huge crop of impending free agents. Walker, Sanders, Jeff Suppan, Julian Tavarez, Matt Morris, John Mabry, Mark Grudzielanek, Nunez, Cal Eldred, Diaz, Al Reyes and So Taguchi are not signed for 2006. Couple that with getting Cedeno off the books, and Jocketty should have a massive chunk of cash at his disposal this winter as they head into a new ballpark.
The foundation remains--Albert Pujols, Chris Carpenter, Rolen, Jim Edmonds and Jason Isringhausen are all under contract until at least 2007; Mark Mulder through 2006--and make no mistake, this team is driven by Pujols and Carpenter, who just may be the best hitter and pitcher in the game today. But those supporting players, the J-Rods and Nunezes and Mabrys and Taguchis, are the reason the Cardinals can rest up and coast into October.
Toronto Blue Jays: While we agree with Jim Baker that the Jays are one of the best-kept secrets in baseball, they are also stuck in limbo. Five games out of the wild card, they can't quite start planning vacations for early October; at the same time, they stand behind the Division Leaders in Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles of Anaheim, the second-place coastal powers (currently Oakland and New York) and the other winning teams of the AL Central (Minnesota and Cleveland) on a long line for a playoff spot. The Playoff Odds Report doesn't like Toronto's standing in the crowd: they rank roughly even with the Twins, with about a 6% chance at postseason play.
Even so, the team can take some consolation in having used this season to develop a few rookies who could star on the next championship Blue Jays squad. Let's look at the AL's top rookies, ranked by VORP:
Rookie Pitchers VORP W-L ERA IP K Gustavo Chacin 32.9 11-6 3.44 146.7 88 Huston Street 26.1 4-1 1.42 57.0 55 Joe Blanton 22.7 7-9 4.05 135.7 71 Scott Kazmir 21.8 6-8 4.04 140.3 124 Andrew Sisco 18.6 1-2 2.72 56.3 61 Rookie Players VORP EqA PA BA/OBP/SLG Dan Johnson 25.1 .320 255 .323/.404/.530 Tadahito Iguchi 21.5 .278 417 .279/.341/.444 Russ Adams 20.9 .273 362 .273/.345/.435 Jonny Gomes 18.8 .324 228 .279/.360/.553In terms of VORP, at least, Gustavo Chacin is the easy leader in the AL Rookie of the Year race. Looking at traditional numbers, Chacin leads all rookies in wins and innings pitched, and all rookies who qualify in ERA. He has done all this while pitching for a contender, in a tough division. So this is all sewn up, right?
Not quite. White Sox second baseman Tadahito Iguchi has been worth about a win less than Chacin, but he has the benefit of playing on this year's surprise division leader. Most of the credit for turning the White Sox from a general disappointment into a Scrappy Crew of Proven Winners has gone to teammate Scott Podsednik, but with S-Pod learning this week that his groin is also called an adductor Iguchi may gain in prominence during Podsednik's absence.
Iguchi shouldn't even be in the conversation, since there are better rookie position players. Dan Johnson has been tearing the cover off the ball, and has been one of the offensive keys to the A's second half run. Jonny Gomes may be an even better hitter than Johnson--the Devil Rays simply waited too long to bring him up (cue the sound of Joe Sheehan's teeth grinding).
A number of voters might also be lured by the closer chic of Oakland rookie Huston Street. Street's done a great job out of the A's bullpen, but once you open this argument to a pitcher projected to throw fewer than 100 innings this season, you have to wonder where King Felix fits in. And that's a whole other can of worms.
So, I guess you could say that the AL rookie field is pretty deep. Chacin's teammate, shortstop Russ Adams is among the top ten rookies in the league, with offensive numbers that are comparable to Iguchi's. The Jays' third baseman, Aaron Hill (13.6 VORP) would also be in this discussion, if not for a catastrophic slump in the month of July (.209/.255/.319 for the month), from which he appears to be rebounding nicely. And if all that isn't enough of a consolation, just remember that Will Carroll reports that the best pitcher in the AL could be back on the mound as soon as this weekend. Maybe those playoff odds aren't looking so bad after all…
Tampa Bay Devil Rays: The Devil Rays aren't going to make the playoffs. That fate was officially sealed on July 1st according to Clay Davenport's Playoff Odds Day by Day report. It's been a rough eight years for the D-Rays and it seemed only fair to examine a few bright spots in the team's performance this year.