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October 12, 2009

Kiss'Em Goodbye

St. Louis Cardinals

by Jay Jaffe

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Baseball Prospectus' Pre-season Projection: 83-79, third place
Actual record: 91-71, first place

In about half a week, this team went from "perceived to have a good shot to win the NL" to "searching for an identity." Baseball's funny like that.

Buster Olney of ESPN.com's Take

What went wrong: The Cardinals stunned the Cubs and the rest of the NL Central and ran away with the division, but late in the season and in October, opposing teams began taking a different approach in pitching to Matt Holliday-and Holliday's struggles impacted Albert Pujols, who did not hit a home run in the last 32 days of the Cardinals' season.

Biggest puzzler on the drawing board: The Cardinals already have significant contractual obligations with Pujols, Chris Carpenter, Kyle Lohse, Adam Wainwright, and others. While they could re-sign Holliday, the left fielder will have to be willing to take less than what he might get on the open market to stay in St. Louis. And any contract talks with Holliday could have a major impact, moving forward, on the forthcoming talks with Pujols-if the Cardinals pay Holliday as much as they pay Pujols, they'll set a very high market for their first baseman. The Cardinals will learn quickly whether Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan will come back to their staff.

The Baseball Prospectus Take

Absent from the postseason since Tony La Russa piloted a rickety 83-win team all the way to a World Series title in 2006, the Cardinals were ticketed for third place in the NL Central by PECOTA, with a 14.7 percent chance of winning the division and an 8.6 percent chance of taking the Wild Card. Neither their lineup nor their pitching looked particularly imposing, even in the context of playing in a pitcher's park. Projected for eighth in the league in scoring, the offense appeared to have plenty of power thanks to Pujols' presence, but it nonetheless looked to be yet another stars-and-scrubs collection. Forecast for ninth in run prevention, the pitching staff had question marks, particularly at the front end, where Wainwright was the only starter whose raw forecast called for more than 100 innings with an ERA below 4.40.

Instead, the Cards won the Central by the largest margin of any NL division champion (7 games), turning a crowded four-team race into a laugher thanks to Cy Young-caliber seasons from Wainwright and Carpenter, another monster season by Pujols, and some timely in-season upgrades for the offense, most notably the July 24 trade which brought Holliday from Oakland. Holliday hit a searing .353/.419/.604, and the Cardinals had the league's best record (39-25) after his arrival.-Jay Jaffe, Baseball Prospectus

Key stats: 62 starts, 425 2/3 innings, 2.45 ERA, .650 SNWP

That's what the Cardinals got from Carpenter and Wainwright, and after the pair combined for just 23 starts last year, it was their performances which were the main reason the Cardinals outdid their PECOTA projection by eight games. After pitching just 21 1/3 innings in 2007-2008 due to various elbow miseries, Carpenter rebounded to go 17-4 while posting the league's top ERA (2.24) and SNWP (.673), with microscopic walk and homer rates (1.8 per nine and 0.3 per nine, the latter tops in the league) further underscoring the fact that he was back in Cy Young form. Wainwright, who missed two and a half months with a finger tendon injury in 2008, emerged as an ace thanks to improved command his curveball, which enabled him to smother righties (.217/.255/.290). He led the league with 19 wins and 233 innings while ranking fourth with a 2.63 ERA and 212 strikeouts.

As strong as those seasons were, it's worth pointing out that both pitchers may have been helped by pitcher-friendly Busch Stadium III and a weaker than average slate of opposing hitters. Wainwright put up a 2.05 ERA at home, 3.39 on the road; Carpenter faced hitters who were an average of 18 points of OPS worse than the league average, the 15th easiest in the league among NL qualifiers.-Jay Jaffe, Baseball Prospectus

ESPN.com Rumor Central

Trades: One player is 33, coming off hip surgery, and made $32 million in 2009. The other is 29 (more or less), in great health and made $16 million in 2009. Yes, it's A-Rod and Albert. The "problem" for the Cardinals is that the club has an option on King Albert for 2011, but you better believe they won't go into that season clueless as to whether they can retain him. A club confident it can sign Pujols for close to A-Rod money (perhaps $24-30 million per season) might offer a monster package. The Cards may be favored to retain if odds were posted today, but at 25-30 percent of total team payroll? A-Rod's deal might seem utterly ludicrous to most, but in 2011, it'll make up less than 15 percent of the Yankees' payroll.

Buzz: Yeah, yeah. La Russa's future is unclear. But if Duncan leaves, what does that do to the St. Louis staff, a reclamation project All-Star team? For instance, if Duncan bolts, why would free agent Joel Piniero stay? In fact, you could guess that Duncan's landing place night become a favorite to land one of his pupils. Need some good news? Well, John Smoltz wants to come back!

Who 2 Watch 4: Allen Craig, LF

One of the more disturbing aspects of the Cardinals' egg-laying performance in the NLDS is the implications for the team's future, as St. Louis mortgaged quite a bit of it for this year, trading away five good-to-very-good prospects at the upper levels for Holliday and Mark DeRosa. All five have a chance to contribute at the big league level as early as this coming year, but none of them will be doing it for St. Louis. If Holliday chooses to ply his trade elsewhere, the Cardinals might end up giving Allen Craig the first shot at filling the job in left field. An eighth-round pick in 2006, Craig has received little fanfare, but he's performed at every level, including a .322/.374/.547 line for Triple-A Memphis in 2009 that included a remarkable second-half, during which he hit .405 with 18 home runs in 195 at-bats.-Kevin Goldstein, Baseball Prospectus

Draft recap
Signed: 44 of 50
Spent: Just over $4 million
Hits: Shelby Miller, RHP (19th overall): Miller could have just as easily been the third or fourth overall pick. and ranked as Keith Law's fifth-best draft prospect. He possesses a mid-90s fastball and potentially plus curve ball with a ceiling as the next great pitching ace to come out of the state of Texas.
Miss: Robert Stock, C (67th overall): If the Cardinals are betting on Stock as a pitcher, they probably could have done better with lefties Jake Eliopoulos or Steven Matz; right-hander Alex Wilson was still available, too.-Jason A. Churchill, ESPN.com

The Bottom Line

With Holliday, DeRosa, Troy Glaus, and Rick Ankiel all free agents, the team will need to find a heavy hitter or two this winter to keep the lineup from feeling like "Albert and the Seven Dwarves" again. As the Cardinals fill their holes, they'll especially need to emphasize plate discipline, given that Pujols and mid-season acquisition Julio Lugo were the only regulars to walk at least once for every 10 plate appearances. Furthermore, La Russa and Dave Duncan's possible departure might present real problems for this franchise, given the skill both have shown at squeezing the most out of veteran rosters-and particularly rotations-assembled amid the limitations of a mid-market payroll.-Jay Jaffe, Baseball Prospectus

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

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

17 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

Hank Brockett

When trying to forget that Lohse is owed way too much money, I was puzzled by Stock already being designated a "miss." A 19-year-old catcher with a .936 OPS in Low-A? I was under the impression they were going to have him be a position player.

Oct 12, 2009 10:47 AM
rating: 2

That part suggests to me that it was written immediately following the draft, when people did not know whether the Cards saw him as a catcher (his college position and what he's played so far, and so far successfully in the pros) or as a pitcher, which drew him rave reviews in high school.
That fact, as well as saying that they would have been better off drafting Jake Eliopoulos, who did not sign after being picked by the Jays not long afterwards, tells me the Churchill section was written quite some time ago.

Oct 12, 2009 12:18 PM
rating: 1

Is there a clever, "stathead" way to measure the effect a manager has on a team? Can we quantify how good LaRussa is?

Oct 12, 2009 11:04 AM
rating: 0

Attempts have been made. I got the hardball times annual a few years ago and they had a study that tried to do it.

The author's conclusion was something like a manager can really be worth a game or two a season at best. But most are around zero. Some are under. I forget what La Russa's career number was but I believe it was above zero.

Oct 12, 2009 11:12 AM
rating: 0

Just noticed the draft signings -- 44 out of 50?? All but 6? That's not a typo, is it?

Assuming that's right, wow! Assuming they picked reasonably promising players, I'd think that would really bolster the organization.

I just saw the similar Boston article -- they only signed 26 out of 50.

How does this work? How can both St. Louis and Boston field the same number of teams and (I assume) basically have the same number of minor leaguers when discrepancies like this happen?

Oct 12, 2009 11:27 AM
rating: 1

No, that's not a typo, they really did sign a boatload of draftees. The Cardinals' farm system is relatively young; they were notably aggressive about promoting guys to AA and AAA this year, and that not only makes those teams young, it creates vacancies in the lower levels for these newcomers to fill -- particularly since what remained down there at A, high-A, etc., wasn't all that impressive. (Both of their top farm teams played in the post season, while the lower ones got whomped.)

Did they pick "reasonably promising players"? I'd love to hear Kevin's view, but I think the consensus is that few of the lower draftees have much upside. Hank, Stock is a very odd case, in that he's a 19-year-old already with significant college experience under his belt. A 19-year-old with a .936 OPS at low-A is an interesting guy. A veteran of two years in a major college program with a .936 OPS at low-A may not be. Stock is both, so what exactly is he capable of? He's one that I'll be watching with particular interest next year.

Never to be forgotten, when looking at that long list of draft signees, is that Albert Pujols was a 13th-round draft pick...

Oct 12, 2009 11:39 AM
rating: 0

"With Holliday, DeRosa, Troy Glaus, and Rick Ankiel all free agents, the team will need to find a heavy hitter or two this winter to keep the lineup from feeling like 'Albert and the Seven Dwarves' again."

While this statement is true, it's not because the Cards are losing Rick Ankiel (231/285/387) or Troy Glaus (172/250/241 in 32 PA). Seriously, this article is just mailing it in, an all-too-common occurrence in the BP world these days.

Oct 12, 2009 13:55 PM
rating: -1

Or we could look at a larger sample...

Oct 12, 2009 14:40 PM
rating: -1
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Yeesh. Perhaps it wasn't worded quite as elegantly as I'd have liked in retrospect, but the point is that regardless of the fact that some of those players were disappointments this year, the Cardinals have several holes to fill, and they'd be best served by finding some real hitters to upgrade the all-too-craptastic supporting cast surrounding Pujols.


Oct 12, 2009 15:35 PM

Happy? Not particularly, because this analysis is still facile to the point of being misleading. There are exactly two positions where the incumbents in the St. Louis lineup are really "craptastic" in the sense of being distinctly below league average: center, where Colby Rasmus has not yet grown into the star that most observers think he will eventually be, and third, which was an out-and-out disaster. At three positions (catcher, LF, and somewhat surprisingly, shortstop) the (non-Pujols) guys who finished the year did so with an EqA in the upper tier of National League players at their position; at the other two (2B and RF) they were in the vast swarm of middling performers from an EqA perspective.

You're absolutely right that there are "holes" to fill, notably the gaping void at third and a dreadful bench. To get from this to an "all-too-craptastic supporting cast," I'm sorry to say, really does give the impression of mailing it in.

Oct 12, 2009 18:02 PM
rating: -3
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

You want to quibble with me using a snarky phrase as a shorthand in a feature that had a word count instead of trying to write the team's BP2010 chapter the day after they were eliminated, well, you paid your nickel, but consider the numbers.

Below are the EqAs of the eight playoff teams not including pitchers (col 1), and also not including their top two hitters (col 2):

NYY .286/.279 (Rodriguez, Teixeira)
LAN .279/.272 (Ramirez, Kemp)
PHI .279/.268 (Utley, Howard)
COL .271/.262 (Helton, Tulowitzki)
LAA .267/.261 (Morales, Abreu)
BOS .268/.260 (Youkilis, Drew)
STL .272/.254 (Pujols, Holliday)
MIN .265/.252 (Mauer, Morneau)

The point is that the rest of the Cardinals lineup, taken collectively, was subpar this year even given the minor pluses produced by Molina and Ryan. Outside of the expected growth of Rasmus, and maybe a bit from those two (who after all are in the 25-29 range), there isn't much hope for major improvements from the remaining unit. The help is going to have to come from outside, particularly if Holliday departs.

Oct 12, 2009 20:33 PM

Raise yourself above their level, Jay; it's pointless to argue with homers wearing scarlet-colored glasses. They just don't like the implications that the truth has on 2010.

Oct 13, 2009 06:49 AM
rating: 0

No scarlet covered glasses here. The Cards have some major decisions to make, for sure. I, for one, hope that they don't overpay Matt Holliday on the basis of the best six weeks of his career. IMHO, he's a slightly above average corner OF who is below average defensively (and I would have said that before his NLDS Game 2 Buckner moment, FWIW). That's worth something, but it ain't worth $20M per.

As Jay's comment indicates, the Cardinals' biggest problem is that their offense is not up to par with the rest of the playoff teams, although part of those poor non-Pujols/non-Holliday numbers will have already been solved by subtraction. Chris Duncan and Rick Ankiel were horrible offensively for far too many ABs, and neither of them will be back. Basically, but for a 6-week period after acquiring Holliday, the Cardinals' offense was just not very good. With their pitching and the implosion of the Cubs, that six weeks was good enough to win the Central in a walk. Counting on the pitching being that good in 2010 would be a dangerous bet to make. Of course, the Cubs will still be the Cubs. . .

Oct 13, 2009 09:25 AM
rating: 0

Ironically, this gets considerably closer to the "analysis" I'd been hoping for in the article. The addition by subtraction (of Duncan and Ankiel, but also of Khalil Greene and Joe Thurston) had as much to do with their second-half run as the addition itself (of Holliday, DiRosa, Lugo) did. Given that, the two questions that further analysis might address are: (1) given the possibly temporary nature of the improvements on Duncan, Thurston, etc., what can they do to avoid being put in the position of playing such less-than-mediocrities again? (2) Specifically, is there any chance that the seeming emergence of Brendan Ryan out of nowhere, to paper over the Greene disaster, and the minor-league possibilities at third, to similarly treat the Thurston fiasco (and let's face it, DiRosa wasn't exactly scintillating there either), will work in 2010? Analysis aimed at these questions would have been very interesting.

Oct 13, 2009 20:10 PM
rating: -2

Agreed. But as Jay said, there's a word count limit to this article. I suspect we will see those questions addressed in detail by BP during the off-season. The most interesting part of the year.

Oct 14, 2009 07:34 AM
rating: 0
Cory Schwartz

Could one of the BP writers please expand on this?

"(L)ate in the season and in October, opposing teams began taking a different approach in pitching to Matt Holliday..."

Different, how so?

Oct 13, 2009 09:59 AM
rating: 1

I think this team has a chance to be very good in 2010. I'm surprised David Freese was not mentioned at all in this article. He may be the third baseman next year and that leaves left field as the only other question mark in the lineup.

Oct 13, 2009 11:29 AM
rating: 0
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