September 9, 2009
On the Beat
It is hard not to think of the Cardinals without the vision of Albert Pujols hitting another home run dancing in your head. The first baseman is the most dominant offensive player in the game today, as he leads the major leagues in nearly every offensive category imaginable, including EqA (.370) and VORP (89.8). Put left fielder Matt Holliday, who has accumulated a .367 EqA since being acquired from the Athletics in a July 24 trade, in the middle of the lineup with Pujols and it is little wonder that the Cardinals have an 11½-game lead over the Cubs, and a magic number of 13 for clinching the National League Central title.
While baseball people love to say that they never count on playing in October until they have a 10-game lead with nine to go, the Cardinals can begin to look forward to their first playoff appearance since 2006, and feel good that their 4.5 R/G average and their .266 team EqA both rank sixth in the NL. However, everyone knows that good pitching wins in October, which is why the Cardinals have a good shot to play through the year's 10th month and into November since Game Seven of the World Series that isn't scheduled until November 5.
"I think it's going to be a great postseason in the National League, when you look at the Cardinals and the Phillies and the Dodgers and whoever ends up winning the Wild Card," Pirates manager John Russell observed. "On paper, it looks really even with the chance for there to be some really great series. What you really have to like about the Cardinals, though, is their pitching. As great as Albert is and as much as Holliday has helped them, their pitching is the best in the National League, and that's why they are going to be tough to beat."
The Cardinals are third in the NL in runs allowed with an average of 3.9 a game. Yet the Cardinals pitchers tend to an afterthought because of Pujols and Holliday. "We wouldn't have the kind of lead we do without our pitching," Pujols said. "They keep us in the game every day. Those guys have been great."
The Cardinals have a pair of starters at the top of their rotation that rival any east of San Francisco and should make them a tough team to beat in the postseason in Adam Wainwright (7.1 SNLVAR) and Chris Carpenter (6.9). Wainwright is fourth in the majors and Carpenter ranks sixth. The only duo that ranks higher is Giants Tim Lincecum (7.3) and Matt Cain (7.1), who are second and third behind the Royals' Zack Greinke (8.0). The Cardinals also have a third above-average option for the postseason in right-hander Joel Pineiro, who is 38th in the majors with a 4.9 SNLVAR. "We have no reason why we shouldn't go out and win any series as long as we executive pitches," Wainwright said. "It's really that simple. We have three talented guys at the top of the rotation and more talented starters and relievers, too."
While Wainwright has the best SNLVAR, Carpenter is the unquestioned leader of the rotation and will certainly get the ball in Game One of the National League Division Series and, depending on how rested he is, the opener of any other post-season series. Carpenter pitched in just five big-league games in total during the 2007 and 2008 seasons while battling shoulder and elbow problems; it would have been easy to write him off at age 34, and then in his second start this season he tore the oblique muscle in his right ribcage. But Carpenter came back from that injury in just a little over a month and has flashed the form that enabled him to win the NL Cy Young Award in 2005.
"The first thing about 'Carp' is that he's a good pitcher," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "He doesn't just throw all his pitches for strikes, but he locates everything exactly where he wants, either in or out of the strike zone. More than that, he is a worker. When you get the kind of serious injuries he has had, there is a lot of rehabilitation that goes into coming back and there makes for a lot of long and long and lonely hours. I don't think it bother him as much as it would some guys. He just has a special makeup, a different kind of work ethic and drive."
While Carpenter has long been a top-flight pitcher when healthy, Wainwright has taken a step forward in his third season as a starter after serving as the closer on the 2006 World Series-winning team. "He's gone to another level and he's a premier guy now," La Russa said. "He was always good but now he locates like 'Carp' does. If he needs to throw his curveball low and away, he'll hit his spot low and away. It's been fun to watch him."
Pineiro is a formidable third starter, and Kyle Lohse, who has 1.3 SNLVAR during an injury-plagued season, would almost certainly be the Cardinals' fourth starter in the postseason. "Pineiro is the forgotten man because of the way 'Carp' and Wainwright are pitching but ask any of the hitters who have faced him this year and they'll tell you they want no part of him, especially as good as his sinker has been," La Russa said. "When Lohse has been healthy, he's thrown the ball as well as any of our pitchers. That's why I like our rotation so much. We can run all of them out there and give ourselves an excellent chance to win the ballgame."
The Pirates finally met their date with infamy Monday when they lost 4-2 to the visiting Cubs for their 82nd loss of the season. That clinched a 17th consecutive losing season to set a major North American professional sports record they had shared with the 1933-48 Phillies. "It is what it is," Russell said. "I wish we could do something about these last 17 years, but we can't. All we can do is move forward and I believe we're making great progress as an organization."
The rest of the Pirates' brain trust also preferred to look to the future instead of the past, especially after spending over $18 million on their selections in the last two amateur drafts and opening a $5 million academy in the Dominican Republic in April. "Obviously I am disappointed," team chairman Bob Nutting said. "Since I assumed control of the club two years ago and I brought (president Frank Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntingon) and our leadership team together, we have had a singular focus on building the organization the right way. While everyone within the Pirates organization is tied to the streak, the fact is that the last two years have been nothing like those of the recent past. We have built a strong foundation by investing in our core operations while aggressively acquiring and developing impact talent. This has put us in a position to not only break this cycle of finishing below .500 soon, but to begin a new cycle in which we can consistently compete. I have a tremendous amount of faith in our people and the process. I remain absolutely committed to seeing the evolution of the Pirates through. Our fans deserve it, everyone associated with the organization deserves it, and I expect it."
Cubs third baseman Aramis Ramirez certainly has had his role in the 17 losing seasons. He played for the Pirates from 1998-2003, and was then traded to the Cubs in a salary dump on July 23 of his last season there because then-owner Kevin McClatchy had mismanaged the franchise so badly that he needed to unload a contract quickly to stay within Major League Baseball's debt/equity ratio. The trade of Ramirez, then a 25-year-old emerging slugger, and Kenny Lofton for Bobby Hill, Jose Hernandez, and Matt Bruback will go down as one of the worst in Pirates' history. Thus, Ramirez wasn't as rosy about the Pirates' situation as Russell and Nutting. "Obviously they haven't done a good job of anything here for a long time," Ramirez said. "They haven't signed good free agents. They haven't made good trades. They haven't developed many good players and the ones they have developed they've traded away for nothing. The record speaks for itself."
The Athletics entertained hopes of unseating the Angels in the American League Central when the season began, particularly after acquiring Holiday in an off-season trade from the Rockies while also signing free agents Jason Giambi, Nomar Garciaparra, and Orlando Cabrera to bolster their lineup. Instead, the Athletics are last in the division, 20½ games off of the Angels' pace.
However, rival GMs believe that Billy Beane is close to putting a contending team together following a two-year trading spree in which he acquired 24 players, including 12 pitchers. "Billy is all in," Yankees GM Brian Cashman told the San Francisco Chronicle's Susan Slusser. "He's never going to be caught in no-man's land. Either he's going to completely rebuild or he's finishing something off for the final push. He's not sitting on his hands saying, 'We need to have a respectable season.' If they stay status quo, you're looking at regression and the future would not be as bright. But if these guys stay healthy and continue to develop, you'll see the fruits of the labor. Fast forward a year and the picture will look so much better."
Padres GM Kevin Towers also believes the talented young pitching will spur success for the Athletics. "Young, affordable pitching is hard to get but Billy is doing it," Towers said. "There's a premium on good, young starting pitching and he's getting it with trades, and finding it internationally."
The White Sox have all but faded from view in the AL Central, as they now trail the first-place Tigers by 7½ games with 22 games to play. At 69-71, the White Sox can be considered one of the major leagues' bigger disappointments, and some fans have been clamoring for manager Ozzie Guillen to be fired. No big-league manager tells it like it is the way that Guillen does, and that candor has been known to rub people the wrong way.
However, Guillen believes honesty works in his favor and is why he is still managing the White Sox after six seasons. "'When you read the paper and say, 'Wow, Ozzie said this about me,' look at yourself in the mirror and say, 'Why? Why did Ozzie talk about the ballclub?'" Guillen said. ''When we struggle, am I supposed to say, 'Everything's going to be OK?' Oh, really. That gets you fired, when you lie to the media, your fans, your owner, your general manager. When you're honest, everything's out there. That's why a lot of managers get fired. They worry about what to say, what to do, who to please. They're scared of a couple of players because they make $20 million. The 23 others, they don't care. The only things I care about are my kids are healthy. I care about winning. I care about putting this organization at the top. I care to be the best manager in the game. Getting fired? That's the last thing I worry about. Believe me, that day will come. Sooner or later, that day will come. Because I'm not going to retire, they will have to fire me. I will find the way to get fired because I want to go home. I'm not going to resign. But that's what every guy does. Name me one guy. (The Braves') Bobby Cox, he might drop dead on the field and not have the chance to get fired. But everybody in this game, sooner or later, they're gone. That's part of the game."
Scouts' views on various major league players:
Three series to watch this weekend, with probable pitching matchups (all times Eastern):