April 13, 2000
The Daily Prospectus
The Cards Are Stacked
It happens every year: some team sprints out of the gate like Ban Johnson on a 'roid rage, and the media hordes trample one another trying to grab hold of the bandwagon before Tax Day. When it's a team like the Cardinals, who were already a trendy pick to make the playoffs before the season began, it just makes the crush all the more suffocating.
That's not to say that the Redbirds' 7-2 start is an illusion, or a testament to small sample size. They haven't just played well; they're hotter than Elian Gonzalez's cousin right now, enough to make me regret pegging them for third place in the division. Twenty-five homers in nine games? The Cardinals haven't had this much power since they elected John Paul II.
Don't tell Whitey Herzog, but the Cardinals aren't doing this with their defense: they've scored 8.3 runs a game, while no one else in the league has more than 6.1. Their runs allowed total of 5.2/game ranks just eighth in the league. They aren't just leading the league in offense; they're carting their opponents' heads home. Home runs? The Cardinals have 25; the Reds are second in the NL with 16. Batting average? The Cardinals are hitting .320 as a team; the Pirates are their closest pursuer at .276. OBP? .415, a comfy 58 points ahead of the runner-up Brewers. Slugging average? We won't even mention the runner-up team to save them the embarrassment of lagging, by more than 150 points, the Cardinals' unheard-of mark of .658. They even lead the league with 10 steals in 11 attempts. Maybe Herzog does approve.
There are chinks in the armor, though with a team OPS of 1073, it's hard to spot any of them on the battlefield. Ray Lankford (.143/.167/.314) is not playing particularly well, and J.D. Drew (.455/.600/1.545) is not playing particuarly often, with just 15 plate appearances so far. Drew has decided to lead the team in homers (four) just to spite this. After Tuesday's incident involving Drew's late arrival to the ballpark for treatment on a tender hand, LaRussa has all the excuse he needs to show the youngster his place and prove just how petty he can be. Unless and until Drew stops getting the shaft in the Cardinals' game of musical outfielders, the offense is going to be running one cylinder short. Be afraid, Cardinals' fans: that really was Thomas Howard starting in right field last night.
But the real concern for a dropoff in offense has to be the players who are hitting out of their girdles so far. The Mickey Cochrane impersonation isn't very funny, Mike Matheny (.308/.400/.577), so knock it off. Matheny's 609 career OPS before this season was the lowest of any active hitter with at least 1,000 plate appearances other than Rey Ordonez. If this is a new level for him offensively, they should open up a new hitters' coach's wing in the Hall of Fame for hitting coach Mike Easler. It's not.
The two hitters who are pivotal to the Cardinals' chances of leading the league in runs scored are their two imports, Fernando Vina and Jim Edmonds. Vina, in addition to hitting .366, appears to be on a mission to lock up the triples title by Mothers' Day (four already). He's still far too aggressive to be a top-tier leadoff hitter, with just two walks so far, but Vina has a hidden asset: he's the most underrated plate-crowder in baseball. Vina has already been plunked by three pitches this season, and has averaged 19 HBPs per 162 games over his career. In 1994, his rookie season, Vina led the NL with 12 HBPs in just 124 at-bats, which is probably the fewest at-bats of any player in history who led his league in any significant category.
Edmonds was a far-from-certain gamble for the Cardinals just ten days ago; remember, he played in just 55 games last year and struggled to hit .250/.339/.426. But as impressive as his 15-for-28 start has been, it's his walk total--a league-leading 12--that should give Cardinal fans the warm fuzzies. Edmonds has never drawn more than 60 walks in a season, but he wouldn't be the first established player that learned to dominate the strike zone after teaming up with Mark McGwire. Just ask Fernando Tatis.
For Red Sea Nation, though, the most significant player of all in this power play is Edgar Renteria, who with three homers already is doing everything he can to prove that last season's power surge (11 homers, 36 doubles at age 23) was not a blip on the screen, but the lead plane in the squadron. It was only a matter of time before Renteria surpassed Barry Larkin as the best shortstop in the NL, and that time is looking more and more like April 2000.
The backups haven't been excluded from the party, either. Say what you will about the Cardinals' ability to produce bit players--we know we have--but they have managed to stash a couple of decent hitters on their bench. Eli Marrero is overqualified as a backup catcher, which will come in handy when Matheny proves to be overmatched as a starter. If Marrero can come back strong in his second full season following treatment for thyroid cancer, it will soften the inevitable blow when Matheny turns back into a pumpkin. Or a Jack-o-Lantern. And in Craig Paquette and Shawon Dunston, the Cardinals have a matching set of hitters who can slug .450 while butchering six positions and taking more swings than Bobby Knight at a mouthy freshman.
So is this our way of saying the Cardinals' offense is for real? Not so fast. Through nine games, the Cardinals have faced off against the Cubs (15th in the NL in ERA last year) three times, the Brewers (14th last year) three times and the Astros thrice in a ballpark that Walt Jocketty has already called "worse than Coors Field," which ranks as one of the most premature statements in the history of baseball.
But if you think that means the Cardinals are going to slow down once they start playing some good teams, consider that they're not going to play any good teams for an awfully long time. From Houston, the Cardinals head to Colorado for a four-game tilt, and they won't play another team that was .500 or better last season until May 5, when they head to Cincinnati.
By then, having played 26 of 29 games against sub-.500 opponents, it won't particularly matter how great their lineup is. It will look great on paper, and that should keep the "LaRussa for Manager of the Year" campaign going long after their offense has returned to more terrestrial surroundings.
Rany Jazayerli, M.D. can be reached at email@example.com.