|ST. LOUIS CARDINALS|
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In semi-recent years, the Cardinal farm system has produced a handful of top-shelf talents like Albert Pujols, J.D. Drew, Matt Morris and, well, that’s about it. As a result, the Redbird farm has gained the reputation of being a notoriously weak system. That’s a justified rendering, and it doesn’t figure to change anytime soon. Cards exec Jeff Luhnow runs the Cardinal drafts, and he’s of a quantitative mindset. However, it may be a couple of years before his approach bears any fruit.
In the here and now there’s not much in the system to get excited about, but, hey, there’s enough out there to at least give us a smattering of farm-related bullet points …
- Anthony Reyes failed to win the fifth starter’s job coming out of spring training, but his long-term prospects remain promising. This season at Triple-A Memphis, Reyes has a 4.26 RA in 44.1 innings. His command has been exceptional (40 strikeouts versus only five walks), but he’s coughed up six homers. Reyes’ future will be determined by his ability to stay healthy and his ability to pitch around the occasional long ball. Reyes doesn’t do a great job of keeping the ball on the ground, but he posts good K rates and doesn’t walk many batters. He can succeed with that formula.
- It’s almost decision time on outfielder Rick Ankiel. Last season, Ankiel, now working solely as a hitter, slugged .514 at Low-A Quad Cities in the first half of the season, and .515 at Double-A Springfield in the second half. He tallied 21 homers across both levels. This year, he’s yet to make his debut because of a knee injury suffered in February. He’s still at least two weeks from returning, and when he does come back the Cards will have a tough decision. Ankiel is out of options, and once he’s activated from the DL St. Louis must either add him to the 25-man roster or expose him to waivers. Speaking of the active roster, outfielder Chris Duncan would seem a prime candidate to be replaced by Ankiel, but Duncan is merely keeping Sidney Ponson‘s spot while he recovers from a sore elbow. You can bet no Tony La Russa team will carry only eleven pitchers for very long, but the St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently reported that Duncan will likely keep his spot even after Ponson returns. So there’s not going to be any room for Ankiel in St. Louis. Considering his power potential, there’s a strong chance some team will take a flyer on him.
- If there’s a non-Anthony Reyes prospect worth following closely in the system, it’s certainly Colby Rasmus. A first-round choice last season, Rasmus doesn’t turn 20 until August, and he’s hitting a solid .298/.358/.462 at Low-A Quad Cities–a modest pitcher’s park in recent seasons. Rasmus is a five-tool prospect with good athleticism, a smooth left-handed stroke, a good glove in center, and a desire to improve. Once his body fills out, those raw power indicators should improve. So far, so good for such a young talent.
- It’s not unreasonable to suggest that the Cardinals’ scouting department in recent years hasn’t been laden with any particular genius. So it’s surprising when they let one of their more accomplished scouts go. That’s what happened to Dave Karaff three years ago. Karaff is better known as the scout who signed Albert Pujols, who, last we checked, has acquitted himself fairly well. So it’s sad to learn what’s become of Karaff in the intervening years.
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The Nationals have regressed in a year’s time from the toast of baseball to a broken-down team left to struggle with the Marlins for fourth place in the NL East. Washington’s offensive woes have been prolific–even the inept Fish have scored seven more runs than Washington’s 190–yet the most immediate worries center on the starting rotation. Zach Day has gone on the 15-day DL with shoulder tendinitis, leaving the team with just 3.5 starting pitchers: Livan Hernandez, Tony Armas, Mike O’Connor, and the flammable Ramon Ortiz. The Nationals clearly need an immediate plug, as newfound ace John Patterson isn’t expected back from his bout with forearm tendinitis until early June, with Pedro Astacio on track to make his season debut shortly afterwards.
In the spirit of the 2006 baseball preview edition of Sports Illustrated–which now features a weekly statistical contribution from Baseball Prospectus–Notebook offers a modest solution: move reliever Jon Rauch to the rotation, and reap the benefits as fans pack cavernous RFK Stadium to see one of the tallest pitcher in major-league history work every fifth day. Rauch is no Randy Johnson–he’s actually an inch taller, at 6’11”, and he lacks the fearsome scowl and frightening mullet that identified the RJ of yore. What he is, however, is a solid major league pitcher, one who is in the midst of his best season following a series of false starts with the White Sox, Expos, and Nationals. Rauch has thrived in the bullpen, with a 1.67 ERA and 25/9 K/BB in 27 innings, leading to the question of why Frank Robinson hasn’t used him in more important situations–despite lapping the rest of the Washington relief corps with 9.3 ARP (Gary Majewski is next with 6.2), Rauch has a leverage of 0.81, meaning that he has pitched, on average, in situations where a run scored would have had a lesser impact on the game’s outcome than a run at the start of the game. Rauch has essentially been given the same opportunity to affect the Nationals’ chances thus far as Felix Rodriguez, who sports an identical 0.81 leverage to go with an ugly 6.85 ERA. Rauch has been the first man to come out of the pen to relieve Nationals starters in 12 of his 24 appearances this season, including the last five, a role likely stemming from the fact that as a former starter, he is capable of working for longer stretches than more specialized relievers. While having the best pitchers on the staff throw more is always a good idea, giving Rauch such a low-leverage role means the Nationals are not getting the most they can from him, a fact evidenced by Rauch’s .483 WXRL, which ranks second to closer Chad Cordero‘s .536 mark despite Rauch’s superior pitching. Win expectation accounts how performance actually affects the outcome of a game based upon its context, and Cordero’s team-leading 1.80 leverage means he has had much better opportunities to contribute to Washington wins than Rauch.
Letting Rauch work as Cordero’s chief setup man in later, more critical game situations would be an improvement, but the Nationals should also consider giving him a crack at commandeering the empty rotation slot. During spring training Rauch felt that he lacked the stamina to go five or more innings following last May’s surgery to repair his torn labrum and extremely aggressive recovery (he was back in the big leagues by September), so the decision to start minor leaguers like Shawn Hill–who is in line to take Day’s spot on Saturday–instead of Rauch is likely due to health concerns. Rauch never had the blazing high-90’s heat of Johnson, and the multiple shoulder injuries reduced him to speeds much lower than that, although he has reportedly gained enough strength to get his fastball back up into the low 90s this season. Additionally, Rauch has thrown two innings on five different occasions, and ranks fourth in the NL for relief innings pitched, so it seems plausible that he has built up his arm strength sufficiently to make the move back into a starting role.
If Rauch has indeed acquired the stamina necessary to start, Washington would have the luxury of deciding whether it wants to free itself from the onus of pitching Ortiz, who has departed from most of his starts this year in the same manner that a fighter pilot departs the cockpit of his doomed plane. Notebook surmised that RFK’s 385 foot alleys would cut down on Ortiz’s gopheritis, and while he has only yielded four homers thus far, the faint residue of his once-respectable strikeout rate has completely evaporated, leaving behind an ability to surrender hits in bunches. Ortiz’s solid 2002 season is well in the past, and recent returns–a 5.53 ERA and 112/68 K/BB in 216.2 innings between 2005-06–suggest that he might not even be a viable fifth starter.
While a lower BABIP could help Ortiz save his rotation spot, the jury is still deliberating on the major league fate of O’Connor, who was so unknown heading into the season that he was not among the 1,600+ professional players processed by the PECOTA forecasting system. O’Connor hadn’t seen a day above A-ball before he jumped to Triple-A New Orleans to begin the year and was just as quickly promoted to fill Patterson’s slot. The 25-year-old’s 20/15 K/BB suggests a forthcoming drop for his surprising 2.89 ERA, making it all the more important that Rauch be readied to step into the dangerous breach in Washington’s rotation.