That the Cardinals have a very good pitching staff certainly isn't a surprise. After all, Chris Carpenter finished second in the National League Cy Young Award voting last year and Adam Wainwright was third, helping the Cardinals finish third in the National League in runs allowed with an average of 3.95 per game.
However, the Cardinals' pitching is even better this season. The Cardinals are second in the NL in runs allowed with a 3.16 average, just behind the Padres (3.13). Backed by the solid pitching, the Cardinals' 20-12 record is the best in the NL, and they hold a 3 ½-game lead over the Reds in the Central.
Not surprisingly, Wainwright has contributed 1.8 SNLVAR, Carpenter has a 1.4 mark, and closer Ryan Franklin's WXRL is 1.405. Wainwright ranks eighth in the NL, Carpenter 11th, and Franklin third, trailing the Nationals' Matt Capps (1.604) and Padres' Luke Gregerson (1.415).
However, there have been some surprises on the Cardinals' staff in the early part of the season. Rookie left-hander Jaime Garcia is sixth in the NL with 1.8 SNLVAR and Brad Penny is eighth with 1.6. Garcia missed most of last season while recovering from Tommy John surgery and Penny struggled so much with the Red Sox in 2009 that he was released in August after contributing just 0.4 WARP3. Finishing the season strong with the Giants, Penny contributed 1.2 WARP3 in September.
The plan for Garcia coming into spring training was that he would begin the season at Triple-A Memphis with an eye on a mid-season call-up. He pitched well enough that the Cardinals reconsidered and first thought about taking him north with the major-league club as a long reliever. However, Garcia continued to pitch so well that he won a spot in the starting rotation.
"I hesitate to ever call anyone a surprise because we always err on the side of optimism about all of our players," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "We knew Garcia had a good arm and had recovered from the surgery. I wouldn't say we expected him to be in our rotation at the start of the season, but I also didn't think it was impossible. He's a very talented guy and he's done a good job. What you look for now, though, is consistency. Can he do it over the course of a six-month season in the major leagues rather than one month is the question. We'll find out."
The Cardinals seem to have a reclamation project for pitching coach Dave Duncan every year. In fact, if the Hall of Fame ever begins allowing coaches to be considered for induction, then Duncan should be right at the top of the list. The number of careers he has revived is amazing.
Penny, who dreamed of playing for the Cardinals while growing up in Oklahoma, is the latest pitcher to get back on track after coming under Duncan's tutelage. Penny had always been a power pitcher who has given up a high number of fly balls. While he still throws hard, Duncan has sold Penny on the idea of throwing more sinkers to induce a larger number of ground balls.
"We had seen Brad so many times over the years in spring training when he pitched for the Marlins (2000-04), so we were very familiar with him," said La Russa, referring to the Cardinals and Marlins sharing a complex in Jupiter, Florida. "He was always a guy we liked a lot. We always put a circle around his name as a player we had hoped to acquire. We've wanted him for a long time and it finally worked out this past winter that we were able to sign him. He'd been a dominant pitcher in the past and we felt he could still pitch like this. He's really clicked with Dunc, fit right into our rotation and done a heckuva job."
The Astros have not gone into a rebuilding phase since 1991 when they had a pretty fair rookie by the name of Jeff Bagwell and a youngster named Craig Biggio to build around. There are no Bagwells or Biggios in the Astros' organization now, though, and the only way general manager Ed Wade is going to acquire a young player remotely close to that level is by trading one of his three aging stars.
It has generally been accepted that right-hander Roy Oswalt would be the guy the Astros would deal if they ever decided to rebuild, which might be a good idea considering their 10-21 record is the worst in the NL and puts them 9 ½ games behind the Cardinals in the Central. Oswalt is said to becoming increasingly frustrated by the lack of support from the Astros' offense and bullpen, and would gladly waive his no-trade clause.
It has also been accepted as fact that first baseman Lance Berkman and left fielder Carlos Lee would not exercise their no-trade clauses. Berkman is from Houston and has often said he ideally would never leave the borders of Texas for any reason, even a vacation. Lee also has strong ties to Houston, as he owns a large cattle range in the area.
Lee recently reiterated that he doesn't want to leave and said he is leaning toward retirement when his contract expires after the 2012 season. Berkman, though, pulled a bit of surprise by telling the Houston Chronicle that not only would he agree to a trade in the right circumstance but that the Astros should consider blowing their roster up and starting over if they don't pull out of their tailspin.
"If it was me and I was running the show here, if we didn't make a great comeback like we did in '05 and be sort of around .500 by the All-Star break, I'd try to trade every veteran I could to reload," Berkman said. "That's the quickest way you're going to be able to reload and get it going in the right direction. As a player, if they came to me and said, 'Hey, we've got a deal to go to a contender,' I'd take it."
Berkman is in the last year of a six-year, $85-million contract, though the Astros hold a $15-million club option for 2011. Wade was noncommittal about the idea of trading Berkman but said he was not bothered by being offered free advice from his first baseman.
"Players have the right to make comments and express their opinions," Wade said. "Our goal, and I'm sure his goal is the same as everybody else's goal, is to be in a position that we don't have to make those types of decisions or consider making those decisions in June or July."
Sunday marked the one-year anniversary of the Diamondbacks firing Bob Melvin as manager and replacing him in a surprise move with farm director A.J. Hinch. The Diamondbacks took plenty of heat for turning to a 34-year-old who had no managerial experience, and the move also wasn't easily accepted in the clubhouse as Melvin was a favorite of the players. Hinch has gone just 72-91 in his first calendar year on the job. However, he feels a whole lot more comfortable in his situation than he did a year ago.
"I've got a few more gray hairs, if that makes everybody feel better," Hinch said. "All joking aside, all the calmness around me has fueled how I feel today. All of the firestorm that was there last season at this time has settled to the point that now it's about the baseball instead of about my age or my timing or my experience. It's rewarding in the sense that I feel I've stood up to the challenge, and now I need to get this team better."
The Diamondbacks are 14-18 and last in the NL West, 5 ½ games behind the division-leading Padres. Hinch, though, believes the Diamondbacks are making more progress than their record might indicate.
"Having a year pass, having a lot of learning experiences, the realization of what a great opportunity this is for me to be one of 30 managers, is nice," Hinch said. "I'm proud of that. I'm ready for the challenges ahead and ready to do whatever it takes to do to help our club. More than anything, I feel a calm in terms of my position and that our club is moving in the right direction."
Scouts' views on various major-league players:
Royals shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt: "Kansas City is finding out what Seattle knew—this guy is a dog. He doesn't play hard and he's really sloppy in the field. He has some tools, but he doesn't seem to have interest in maximizing them."
Blue Jays right fielder Travis Snider: "It's all starting to come together for him. He doesn't look overmatched or unsure of himself anymore. He is stepping into the batter's box with a lot of confidence and hitting the heck out of the ball."
Brewers second baseman Rickie Weeks: "I thought he was ready to become the breakout player of the year last year, but he got hurt. I think this is the year, though. Nobody ever seems to mentions this but he has one of the five quickest bats in the major leagues. He really whips the head of that bat through the zone."
Giants right fielder Nate Schierholtz: "He's always showed flashes of being a pretty good hitter, but he is really blossoming now that he is playing every day. He is working counts, getting better pitches to hit then hitting those pitches hard."
MLB Rumors and Rumblings: If manager Fredi Gonzalez is fired by the Marlins, look for him to jump to the top of the list of potential replacements for retiring Braves skipper Bobby Cox. … The Cubs are looking to trade infielder Mike Fontenot for a reliever now that he has been knocked out of the starting lineup by the promotion of shortstop Starlin Castro from the minor leagues and the subsequent move of Ryan Theriot from shortstop to second base. The Cubs are also close to promoting right-hander Andrew Cashner from Triple-A Iowa, perhaps to help in the bullpen, though he has been starting in the Pacific Coast League. … The Mariners are looking high and low for offensive help but are finding that no one is willing to concede the 2010 season yet and begin trading for prospects. One of the Mariners' targets is Royals designated hitter Jose Guillen. … The Giants want infielder Juan Uribe to continue to play on a regular basis after second baseman Freddy Sanchez is activated from the disabled list later this month, which likely means he will take playing time away from Edgar Renteria at shortstop. … The Padres are considering sending left fielder Kyle Blanks to Triple-A Portland because they are fearful he is losing confidence because of his early-season struggles.