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April 27, 2008

Every Given Sunday

To New Challenges and Old Friends

by John Perrotto

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The general consensus was that John Mozeliak was stepping into the job as Cardinals' general manager just as the franchise was ready to take a downturn; the Birds went from being surprise World Series winners in 2006 to 78-84 last year. GM Walt Jocketty was fired at the end of that disappointing season because owner Bill DeWitt Jr. felt the exec had isolated himself from the rest of the front office. Mozeliak was promoted from assistant GM to Jocketty's position, and a funny thing has happened to those expectations of an ongoing decline: the Cardinals haven't become a doormat.

Instead, the Cardinals are 15-10 and in second place in the division behind the Cubs. "We're pleased with the way we've played so far, but there is certainly a long way to go," Mozeliak said. "Still, it's been a good start and hopefully we can build on it. It's been so far, so good." What has pleased Mozeliak the most about the Cardinals during the first month of the season is the performance of the starting rotation and outfield. "I don't think too many people expected those areas to be the strengths of our team," Mozeliak said.

The Cardinals entered the season with a patchwork rotation, as their three top pitchers stayed behind in extended spring training while recuperating from arm surgeries: left-hander Mark Mulder, and right-handers Chris Carpenter and Matt Clement. Even without them, the Cardinals have allowed 3.8 runs a game, which ranks third in the NL. Kyle Lohse leads the rotation with 1.1 SNLVAR, and is followed by Adam Wainwright (0.7), Todd Wellemeyer (0.6), Braden Looper (0.6), and Joel Pineiro (0.1).

"A lot of people wrote and said that the starting pitcher was the weak point of our club and I didn't exactly understand why," Mozeliak said. "I thought all along we had good pitching depth and spring training proved it and then we had been able to set aside resource to make acquisitions at various points of the season and Lohse was available. All of our starting pitchers went out and competed well throughout the spring and that set a tone for the entire rotation. They've carried the good performances of spring training into the regular season, which doesn't always happen."

As usual, first baseman Albert Pujols is the linchpin of the offense, leading the NL with a .394 EqA. However, he has been helped by an outfield that includes left fielder Chris Duncan (.303), center fielder Rick Ankiel (.266), right fielder Skip Schumaker (.308), and reserves Ryan Ludwick (.358) and Brian Barton (.295).

There were doubts surrounding all five outfielders coming into the season, but perhaps none more than Ankiel, who almost washed out of baseball because of control problems as a starting pitcher before being converted to the outfield. Ankiel worked his way back to the major leagues from rookie ball and then had a .296 EqA for the Cardinals during the final two months of last season. Still, there were those who felt pitchers would catch up to him during his second time through the league. "The thing about Rick is he is a great athlete and has a great work ethic," Mozeliak said. "It takes a rare person and rare athlete to make the conversion and it's truly a wonderful story."

Beyond Ankiel's Lazarus-like resurrection, Duncan came up through the Cardinals' farm system as a first baseman and was considered a one-dimensional slugger. While power is still his primary tool, he has become passable as a left fielder. Ludwick was once a top prospect in the Oakland organization but drifted to the Texas, Cleveland, and Detroit organizations before finally finding traction with the Cardinals last season. "He's finally healthy for the first time in a long time, and we've seen what he can do the last two years," Mozeliak said. Schumaker was never considered a great prospect coming up through the Cardinals' farm system, but he has provided a spark from the leadoff spot in the batting order. Barton was a Rule 5 draft pick who was buried in Cleveland's farm system. "Skip got off to a slow start but he makes things happen, which is what you look for in a leadoff hitter, and Brian is showing he can compete at the major league level," Mozeliak said.

The rotation and outfield has made Mozeliak's transition into the GM's chair a much more comfortable one. "It really helped that I was in the organization for 12 years," Mozeliak said. "I already knew the personnel and the people. Really, it's been a pretty smooth transition and it helped that I had a great mentor in Walt to help me reach this point." However, making matters interesting, Jocketty is now a rival GM in the NL Central, as he took over in Cincinnati for Wayne Krivsky this past week. "I sent Walt a very short congratulatory message," Mozeliak said with a smile.

---

That Jocketty is the new GM in Cincinnati is hardly a surprise. He was expected to eventually move into the role since being hired in the offseason as a special advisor to Reds owner Bob Castellini. However, the timing seemed odd, as GMs are rarely fired so early in the season. Nevertheless, Castellini said he had seen enough after the Reds got off to a 9-12 start; the Reds went 80-82 in Krivsky's first season in 2006 but fell to 72-90 last year. "I don't think anybody in the organization is happy with the results on a win-loss basis," Castellini said. "We've had two losing seasons under our new ownership, and we started out this season poorly on a win-loss basis. That's the primary reason why we made the change."

Krivsky spent an hour lobbying Castellini to keep him but to no avail. "I'm very disappointed," Krivsky said. "You work real hard, you bring in good people, and you try to do things the way you think is the right way to do it. I would have liked a lot longer run than this."

Krivsky made his mark as the assistant GM in Minnesota when the Twins became a perennial contender in the early part of the decade despite being a low-revenue franchise. Those associated with the Twins were surprised to see Krivsky let go after barely more than two years on the job. "I feel bad for him," Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. "He's a hard worker. He gets after the game and he has a lot of respect for the game. I don't think you have seen the last of him."

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Hank Steinbrenner has been very vocal since assuming greater power within the Yankees organization in the past year. So it was almost expected that the Yankees' co-chairperson would eventual give very public advice to general manager Brian Cashman and manager Joe Girardi on how to best utilize their players. It happened this past week when Steinbrenner had this to say about rookie right-hander Joba Chamberlain to the New York Times' Michael Schmidt (not to be confused with Michael Jack Schmidt), "I want him as a starter and so does everyone else, including him, and that is what we are working toward and we need him there now. There is no question about it, you don't have a guy with a 100 mph fastball and keep him as a set-up guy. You just don't do that. You have to be an idiot to do that."

Steinbrenner softened his stance a day later, though, and said he is on board with the plan of Cashman and Girardi to keep Chamberlain in a relief role before moving to the rotation around midseason in an effort to keep his innings pitched down. Chamberlain threw a combined 112 1/3 innings between the major and minor leagues last year in his first professional season. "My point is not to overrule anybody," Steinbrenner told the Newark Star-Ledger. "The fact of the matter is, Joe, Brian and everybody in the organization has always thought Chamberlain was a starter. And the goal has always been to get him back to that point."

Then, Hank made like Yogi Berra with his next comment. "The bottom line is, pitching is 70 percent of the game and starting pitching is 70 percent of pitching. So where would you rather have him?" Thus, the Yankees will stay with the original plan of transitioning Chamberlain to a starter in a few months. "I do believe we're all on the same page" Cashman said. "At this stage of Joba's career in 2008, he's part of the bullpen. The desire to see him in the rotation, certainly I understand that. Right now, it's necessary for him to be in the bullpen for two reasons. That's where we need him the most, but the overriding factor is he's not able to give us a full season as a starter because of his innings.

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The Angels posted a rare series victory at Fenway Park this past week by taking two of three from the Red Sox as Boston was forced to scratch its top two starting pitchers, Josh Beckett (stiff neck) and Daisuke Matsuzaka (flu). The Angels have lost 21 of their last 31 games at Fenway, including being swept in the 2004 and 2007 American League Division Series. They are also 17-25 during Mike Scioscia's nine-year tenure as manager and 118-173 all-time, for a .405 winning percentage.

The Angels get a little testy, though, when the subject of their lack of success in Boston is broached. "You guys (the media) have got to let go of that bull (poop)," pitching coach Mike Butcher told the Orange County Record. "Seriously. It's not this place. We're a baseball team, they're a baseball team, we've got to go out and play. Whether it's here or Anaheim or Detroit or Kansas City--wherever--you have to win ballgames." Angels reliever Scot Shields, who has a career 14.25 ERA at Fenway, has also heard enough: "To be honest with you, I'm tired of this (stuff) about our luck here. Move on to the next day."\

---

AL Rumors and Rumblings: Seattle right fielder Brad Wilkerson has struggled so badly that the Mariners are considering releasing him. He is also sitting against left-handed pitchers in favor of utility player Willie Bloomquist. Texas manager Ron Washington--who could be on the way out if the Rangers don't turn things around very soon--has been giving Jason Botts more playing time and Ben Broussard less at first base. Oakland's signing of designated hitter Frank Thomas will mean reduced playing time for Mike Sweeney, who could be traded. Boston has backed off on trading outfielder Coco Crisp now that reserve outfielder Bobby Kielty has had hand surgery. Right-hander Bartolo Colon, on the disabled list at Triple-A Pawtucket with a strained oblique, can opt out of his contract with the Red Sox on Thursday if he is not in the major leagues; he is expected to work out a deal to stay in the organization a while longer. Detroit seems close to calling up reliever Francisco Cruceta, who missed all of spring training because of visa problems.

NL Rumors and Rumblings: Persistent reports out of New York indicate the Mets could release first baseman Carlos Delgado--who can no longer catch up to even mediocre inside fastballs--if he does not improve offensively very soon. Look for Don Mattingly, who opted out of the batting coach job this season because of family problems, to return to the Los Angeles Dodgers' coaching staff in some capacity next season. The Dodgers have interest in infielder Juan Castro, who was designated for assignment by Cincinnati. Cubs manager Lou Piniella has just about lost all patience with outfielder Felix Pie, and the former prospect could become trade bait. Look for Doug Mientkiewicz to keep getting more playing time at third base with Pittsburgh, as the Pirates are losing patience with Jose Bautista. Gregor Blanco is getting more playing time in Atlanta, and could supplant Matt Diaz as the left fielder. Replacing closer Manny Corpas with Brian Fuentes and second baseman Jayson Nix with Clint Barmes is a sure sign Colorado is worried that Arizona is going to run away in the NL West.

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Interesting facts, as Week Four of the regular season comes to a close:

  • When Pittsburgh lost 10-4 to Florida on Monday, it marked the third straight game that the Pirates allowed double digits in runs. The last time the Pirates did that was June 13-15, 1994 at Montreal as Denny Neagle, Zane Smith, and Paul Wagner were the losing pitchers.
  • Andruw Jones batted eighth in the Dodgers' batting order on Tuesday night and went 0-for-4 in a 9-3 loss to Cincinnati, marking his first time in the eighth slot since August 22, 1998, when he was playing for Atlanta against the Dodgers. Jones went 2-for-3 in that game as the Braves won 7-5, with Neagle beating Darren Dreifort.
  • When San Francisco's Matt Cain faced San Diego's Greg Maddux on Wednesday night, it marked the seventh time in major league history--and only the second time in the last 70 years--that both starting pitchers were coming off games in which they gave up at least nine runs. Both pitched much better Wednesday, as Maddux worked seven shutout innings and Cain allowed one run in seven innings in a game the Giants won 3-2 in 13 innings. The last time two starters came into the game off such bad outings was June 4, 2001, when St. Louis' Andy Benes faced Cincinnati's Osvaldo Fernandez. The Cardinals won 5-2 as Benes got the victory by allowing two runs in 6 1/3 innings; Fernandez was tagged with the loss as he surrendered three runs in six innings.
  • Atlanta's Jair Jurrjens walked three consecutive batters with the bases loaded Friday night--David Wright, Carlos Beltran, and Ryan Church--but still got credit for the win in a 6-3 victory over the Mets. The last major league pitcher to do that was the Chicago Cubs' Juan Cruz on July 3, 2003, as he walked Philadelphia's Placido Polanco, Jimmy Rollins, and Mike Lieberthal to force in runs in succession in a 12-2 loss.

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Three series to watch this week, with rankings according to Jay Jaffe's Prospectus Hit List:

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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