St. Louis Cardinals: Entering this season the bench seemed a Who’s Who of Guys Who Belong In Double-A…coaching. Roger Cedeno? Einar Diaz? Hector Luna? Abraham Nunez? Instead, the bench has been better than medical tape to head trainer Barry Weinberg, buying time to let key players like Larry Walker, Scott Rolen and Reggie Sanders heal. (Part of that windfall traces to the Cards’ decision to finally cut bait on Cedeno.) Maybe the Cardinals are having one of those “lucky” seasons where a half dozen players blow PECOTA out of the water, but when the Braves do that we tend to chalk it up to John Schuerholz and Leo Mazzone. Let’s look at the big contributors who have stepped out of the shadows:

John Rodriguez is 27 and has had a very odd season. After an eight-year minor-league career playing in the system for his boyhood hero Yankees, the Bronx native hit the glass ceiling and signed with Cleveland as a minor-league free agent last November. His big spring (.320/.370/.760) opened some eyes, but the Tribe thought better of the limited sample size (25 at-bats) and he was reassigned to Buffalo. He struggled (.247/.323/.447, just five HR in 170 AB) there, but St. Louis must have liked something about him because player development director Bruce Manno crafted a small trade to get him. Rodriguez joined the Memphis Redbirds on June 9 and went Ruth on the Pacific Coast League: 17 HR in 120 AB; .342/.419/.808. A small window, to be sure, but for a team that’s short a couple outfielders like St. Louis was and still is, you’ve got to catch the lightning in the bottle. Cards GM Walt Jocketty told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch he had seen Rodriguez play four games before promoting him, and that the Memphis staff recommended him highly.

Now performing capably as a big league left fielder (.286/.347/.451 and 5.1 VORP in 27 games with above average defense), J-Rod is making a small name for himself. That recognition alone should interest more parties, and sadly, that’s the metric used by some major-league front offices. After a stellar 2004 with Columbus, Rodriguez wasn’t too hard to spot; the Indians took a wise gamble on him, but credit the Cardinals for capitalizing on this one. Maybe with Sanders and Walker eligible free agents after this year (see below), he’ll actually have a future with the team.

Nunez is also a fish swimming in new water for the first time, having escaped to St. Louis after eight years in Pittsburgh. He’s a middle infielder by trade but is serving as Rolen’s primary sub at third base, and he’s shocked everyone by outperforming Rolen himself. Clearly, Rolen’s battled injury, but Nunez no longer looks like the man we had pegged for a scrap-heap shortstop. Why isn’t Nunez (.306/.373/.413 this year) playing like Abraham Nunez (career .238/.306/.316 in eight erstwhile seasons)? Without a significant power spike, we have to dig a little.

Year       BABIP  BB/PA SO/PA
1997-2004  .305   .085  .166
2005       .334   .095  .108

Batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is often the culprit in these cases, but it’s not enough to explain Nunez’s success. He’s walking a little bit more, but it’s only a 1 percent shift from career levels. Bingo. Nunez has cut his strikeouts by 35 percent, and that combined with the slight uptick in patience and more bloopers falling than normal does a fair job of explaining the source of Nunez’ modest achievements.

Through Monday, the Redbirds had a 99.85 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to Clay Davenport’s Playoffs Odds Report. With October ball virtually in the bag, Tony LaRussa can rest easy. Most managers fret when half their lineup is disabled–especially if two of the ailing four are Rolen and Walker–but the Cardinals can afford to nurse them back to full health.

On a separate note, the Cardinals have a huge crop of impending free agents. Walker, Sanders, Jeff Suppan, Julian Tavarez, Matt Morris, John Mabry, Mark Grudzielanek, Nunez, Cal Eldred, Diaz, Al Reyes and So Taguchi are not signed for 2006. Couple that with getting Cedeno off the books, and Jocketty should have a massive chunk of cash at his disposal this winter as they head into a new ballpark.

The foundation remains–Albert Pujols, Chris Carpenter, Rolen, Jim Edmonds and Jason Isringhausen are all under contract until at least 2007; Mark Mulder through 2006–and make no mistake, this team is driven by Pujols and Carpenter, who just may be the best hitter and pitcher in the game today. But those supporting players, the J-Rods and Nunezes and Mabrys and Taguchis, are the reason the Cardinals can rest up and coast into October.

Dave Haller

Toronto Blue Jays: While we agree with Jim Baker that the Jays are one of the best-kept secrets in baseball, they are also stuck in limbo. Five games out of the wild card, they can’t quite start planning vacations for early October; at the same time, they stand behind the Division Leaders in Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles of Anaheim, the second-place coastal powers (currently Oakland and New York) and the other winning teams of the AL Central (Minnesota and Cleveland) on a long line for a playoff spot. The Playoff Odds Report doesn’t like Toronto’s standing in the crowd: they rank roughly even with the Twins, with about a 6% chance at postseason play.

Even so, the team can take some consolation in having used this season to develop a few rookies who could star on the next championship Blue Jays squad. Let’s look at the AL’s top rookies, ranked by VORP:

Rookie Pitchers   VORP   W-L    ERA    IP      K
Gustavo Chacin    32.9   11-6   3.44   146.7   88
Huston Street     26.1    4-1   1.42    57.0   55
Joe Blanton       22.7    7-9   4.05   135.7   71
Scott Kazmir      21.8    6-8   4.04   140.3  124
Andrew Sisco      18.6    1-2   2.72    56.3   61

Rookie Players    VORP   EqA    PA    BA/OBP/SLG
Dan Johnson       25.1   .320   255   .323/.404/.530
Tadahito Iguchi   21.5   .278   417   .279/.341/.444
Russ Adams        20.9   .273   362   .273/.345/.435
Jonny Gomes       18.8   .324   228   .279/.360/.553

In terms of VORP, at least, Gustavo Chacin is the easy leader in the AL Rookie of the Year race. Looking at traditional numbers, Chacin leads all rookies in wins and innings pitched, and all rookies who qualify in ERA. He has done all this while pitching for a contender, in a tough division. So this is all sewn up, right?

Not quite. White Sox second baseman Tadahito Iguchi has been worth about a win less than Chacin, but he has the benefit of playing on this year’s surprise division leader. Most of the credit for turning the White Sox from a general disappointment into a Scrappy Crew of Proven Winners has gone to teammate Scott Podsednik, but with S-Pod learning this week that his groin is also called an adductor Iguchi may gain in prominence during Podsednik’s absence.

Iguchi shouldn’t even be in the conversation, since there are better rookie position players. Dan Johnson has been tearing the cover off the ball, and has been one of the offensive keys to the A’s second half run. Jonny Gomes may be an even better hitter than Johnson–the Devil Rays simply waited too long to bring him up (cue the sound of Joe Sheehan’s teeth grinding).

A number of voters might also be lured by the closer chic of Oakland rookie Huston Street. Street’s done a great job out of the A’s bullpen, but once you open this argument to a pitcher projected to throw fewer than 100 innings this season, you have to wonder where King Felix fits in. And that’s a whole other can of worms.

So, I guess you could say that the AL rookie field is pretty deep. Chacin’s teammate, shortstop Russ Adams is among the top ten rookies in the league, with offensive numbers that are comparable to Iguchi’s. The Jays’ third baseman, Aaron Hill (13.6 VORP) would also be in this discussion, if not for a catastrophic slump in the month of July (.209/.255/.319 for the month), from which he appears to be rebounding nicely. And if all that isn’t enough of a consolation, just remember that Will Carroll reports that the best pitcher in the AL could be back on the mound as soon as this weekend. Maybe those playoff odds aren’t looking so bad after all…

Derek Jacques

Tampa Bay Devil Rays: The Devil Rays aren’t going to make the playoffs. That fate was
officially sealed on July 1st according to Clay
Davenport’s Playoff Odds Day by Day report
. It’s been a rough eight
for the D-Rays and it seemed only fair to examine a few
bright spots in the team’s performance this year.

  • Jonny Gomes: Nate Silver’s PECOTA system gave
    Gomes a markedly optimistic projection based on a strong 2004
    campaign in Durham but he has been even better than expected. His .
    283/.377/.571 line in 228 plate appearances gives him 18.8 runs of
    VORP in just 58 games. Among all right fielders with at least 100
    plate appearances, Gomes has the 8th best VORP/game rate in all of MLB (behind some
    pretty outstanding players). His defensive numbers raise some questions about his ability to stick in RF, and
    Carl Crawford is blocking him at his more natural
    position in LF, but it’s clear enough that he has the bat to stick in
    the majors.

  • Julio Lugo is quietly turning into a shortstop
    whom we can comfortably rank just below the elite players at that
    position. At press time Lugo’s .298/.354/.396 line and 30 stolen
    bases in 35 attempts were good enough to rank him fifth in all of
    baseball in VORP (with 38.4 runs), behind players like Miguel
    , Mike Young, Derek Jeter, and Jhonny Peralta. The only one of those
    five who can compete with Lugo’s glove is Peralta, and their
    defensive numbers are close enough according to Clay Davenport’s
    statistics to practically be a wash.

    After years of toiling as an unloved part-time player in Houston, it’s
    a bit of a surprise to see Lugo performing so well at short;
    remember, though, that during the whole Giants/Cardinals/Red Sox/Angels shortstop free agent dance there was more than one team that
    seriously pursued a Lugo trade. The Devil Rays have a $4,950,000 team
    option on Lugo for 2006, or they could elect to take him to
    arbitration. B.J. Upton is tearing up the
    minor leagues
    but his defense at short is still rather hit or
    miss. He has 46 errors in 114 games (good for a .918 fielding
    percentage), but then some games he goes and makes one of
    the most ridiculously impressive defensive plays of the year
    nod to Sam at Cal Leaguers
    for the video link).

    The Devil Rays will have to make some hard decisions at the end of
    the season: when will Upton be ready defensively? Should Lugo move to
    second base at that point? Is Lugo’s value so wrapped up in his defense that
    he won’t be worth the option at second? Could it make sense to pick up
    the option and flip him to a team in need of help at short?

  • As much as his mechanics make Will Carroll cringe, Scott
    is having a year that needs to be recognized. He has
    stayed healthy, been the most valuable pitcher on the Tampa Bay
    staff, and significantly outplayed his PECOTA prediction. His walk rate of 4.94 BB/9 IP is too high, but the strikeout rate
    of 7.95 K/9 IP is very nice. He’s kept runs off the board at
    a reasonable rate (4.04 ERA / 4.49 RA) and his HRs allowed rate is
    fantastic (only 10 dingers in 140 1/3 innings pitched for a rate of
    0.64 HR/9 IP).

    Kazmir has always had a bit of a walk
    , so it’s not like his control this year is due to a case
    of rookie-year jitters. On the other hand, Kazmir is only 21 years
    old this season. He has a long time to finish his development, and his
    performance this year already shows that he can handle himself in the

Tom Gorman

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