As an Extra Innings subscriber, I get this promotional magazine every few months from DirecTV. The content isn't anything to write home about, but I do leaf through the thing when it arrives.
The latest edition arrived at my house last week, and inside it was a baseball season preview. Six national writers, all of whom you'd recognize, provided their top five teams and answered an assortment of other questions about the upcoming season. What surprised me was that four of them picked the Cardinals as the best NL team, and five of them picked the Redbirds to go to the World Series.
Now, I've been thinking of the Cards as a good team that spent an awful lot of money to no end (Tino Martinez, Jason Isringhausen) this winter, one with a good core up the middle and a couple of real lineup holes in left field and at catcher. I had them neck-and-neck with the Astros in the NL Central, and not that much ahead of the Braves in the NL East. I certainly didn't see them as the clear favorite in the NL.
Seeing a number of people consider them the best team in the league made me stop and think maybe I missed something. Here's the probable Cardinals' lineup for 2002, along with their Wilton projections from Baseball Prospectus 2002:
AVG OBP SLG EqA EqR Fernando Vina .280 .332 .393 .246 57 Placido Polanco .309 .350 .399 .256 55 J.D. Drew .302 .402 .549 .314 78 Albert Pujols .331 .398 .589 .318 103 Jim Edmonds .296 .403 .568 .315 93 Tino Martinez .278 .349 .491 .277 78 Edgar Renteria .284 .353 .434 .268 68 Mike Matheny .233 296 .326 .209 26
The middle of that lineup is excellent, perhaps the best in the National League. Wilton even has hopes that Tino Martinez will be a decent player this year. (Although at that, his .277 EqA would be just eight points higher than the .269 that Mark McGwire felt was so embarrassing that he had to retire.) The Cards have a sinkhole in Mike Matheny, and a middle infielder playing left field in Placido Polanco.
If the Cardinals just meet these projections, they'll have one of the best offenses in the league, up there with the Padres and Astros. There's upside here, as J.D. Drew could get more than the 397 at-bats Wilton projects, and Edgar Renteria could have the power spike we've been waiting on for years. A trade for a good-hitting left fielder, particularly one with OBP skills, would strengthen the lineup and the bench at the same time. I'm not convinced that Albert Pujols will meet that projection; a falloff to .295/.365/.510–a performance that would still make him a contributor–seems reasonable.
The Cardinals should have a strong rotation, led by Matt Morris and Darryl Kile. With Morris's return to form last year, the Cardinals have two top-of-the-rotation workhorses, each of whom should be good for 200 innings and ERAs in the low 3.00s. Last year's second-half saviors, Woody Williams and Bud Smith, return to be the #3 and #4 starters. While neither is as good as he looked last September, both are going to be above-average, and Williams, at least, should provide a lot of innings. The Cards' rotation is a strength, second perhaps only to the Braves in the NL.
As excited as the Cardinals are about expensive new closer Jason Isringhausen, it's not clear that he improves the team that much. Remember that even with nominal closer Dave Veres fighting a finger injury all year, the Cards had the fourth-best pen in the NL, according to Adjusted Runs Prevented. The Cards have depth from the right side in Veres, Mike Timlin, and Gene Stechschulte, plus one of the game's most durable left-handers in Steve Kline. With Morris and Kile providing innings, LaRussa will be free to run these guys in and out of games a batter at a time, for better or for worse.
This is a good defensive team, especially up the middle. A staff that doesn't strike out a ton of guys gets good support from Renteria, Fernando Vina and Jim Edmonds. J.D. Drew is a much better right fielder than center fielder, and while Mike Matheny can't hit, Michael Wolverton's work shows that he's one of the best catchers in baseball at controlling the running game.
For my money, if you're going to start Placido Polanco, you might as well play him at third base and put Albert Pujols in left field. It's the same two hitters, and you get a significant defensive upgrade at third. I understand the Cardinals wanting Pujols to have one position, and of course, you want to play a player where he'll have the most value, but the current alignment is simply nonsensical.
Frankly, I'm convinced. This is a really good baseball team, one that would be the clear favorite in three divisions and a contender in all the others. The Cardinals have tough competition in the Astros, but fewer question marks than Houston, especially on the pitching staff, and a much better defense, and a bit more upside. They'll be my pick to win the NL Central.