It happens every year: some team sprints out of the gate like Ban Johnson
on a ‘roid rage, and the media hordes trample one another trying to grab
hold of the bandwagon before Tax Day. When it’s a team like the Cardinals,
who were already a trendy pick to make the playoffs before the season
began, it just makes the crush all the more suffocating.
That’s not to say that the Redbirds’ 7-2 start is an illusion, or a
testament to small sample size. They haven’t just played well; they’re
hotter than Elian Gonzalez’s cousin right now, enough to make me regret
pegging them for third place in the division. Twenty-five homers in nine
games? The Cardinals haven’t had this much power since they elected John
Don’t tell Whitey Herzog, but the Cardinals aren’t doing this with their
defense: they’ve scored 8.3 runs a game, while no one else in the league
has more than 6.1. Their runs allowed total of 5.2/game ranks just eighth
in the league. They aren’t just leading the league in offense; they’re
carting their opponents’ heads home. Home runs? The Cardinals have 25; the
Reds are second in the NL with 16. Batting average? The Cardinals are
hitting .320 as a team; the Pirates are their closest pursuer at .276. OBP?
.415, a comfy 58 points ahead of the runner-up Brewers. Slugging average?
We won’t even mention the runner-up team to save them the embarrassment of
lagging, by more than 150 points, the Cardinals’ unheard-of mark of .658.
They even lead the league with 10 steals in 11 attempts. Maybe Herzog does
There are chinks in the armor, though with a team OPS of 1073, it’s hard to
spot any of them on the battlefield. Ray Lankford (.143/.167/.314)
is not playing particularly well, and J.D. Drew (.455/.600/1.545) is
not playing particuarly often, with just 15 plate appearances so far. Drew
has decided to lead the team in homers (four) just to spite this. After
Tuesday’s incident involving Drew’s late arrival to the ballpark for
treatment on a tender hand, LaRussa has all the excuse he needs to show the
youngster his place and prove just how petty he can be. Unless and until
Drew stops getting the shaft in the Cardinals’ game of musical outfielders,
the offense is going to be running one cylinder short. Be afraid,
Cardinals’ fans: that really was Thomas Howard starting in right
field last night.
But the real concern for a dropoff in offense has to be the players who are
hitting out of their girdles so far. The Mickey Cochrane impersonation
isn’t very funny, Mike Matheny (.308/.400/.577), so knock it off.
Matheny’s 609 career OPS before this season was the lowest of any active
hitter with at least 1,000 plate appearances other than Rey Ordonez.
If this is a new level for him offensively, they should open up a new
hitters’ coach’s wing in the Hall of Fame for hitting coach Mike Easler.
The two hitters who are pivotal to the Cardinals’ chances of leading the
league in runs scored are their two imports, Fernando Vina and
Jim Edmonds. Vina, in addition to hitting .366, appears to be on a
mission to lock up the triples title by Mothers’ Day (four already). He’s
still far too aggressive to be a top-tier leadoff hitter, with just two
walks so far, but Vina has a hidden asset: he’s the most underrated
plate-crowder in baseball. Vina has already been plunked by three pitches
this season, and has averaged 19 HBPs per 162 games over his career. In
1994, his rookie season, Vina led the NL with 12 HBPs in just 124 at-bats,
which is probably the fewest at-bats of any player in history who led his
league in any significant category.
Edmonds was a far-from-certain gamble for the Cardinals just ten days ago;
remember, he played in just 55 games last year and struggled to hit
.250/.339/.426. But as impressive as his 15-for-28 start has been, it’s his
walk total–a league-leading 12–that should give Cardinal fans the warm
fuzzies. Edmonds has never drawn more than 60 walks in a season, but he
wouldn’t be the first established player that learned to dominate the
strike zone after teaming up with Mark McGwire. Just ask Fernando
For Red Sea Nation, though, the most significant player of all in this
power play is Edgar Renteria, who with three homers already is doing
everything he can to prove that last season’s power surge (11 homers, 36
doubles at age 23) was not a blip on the screen, but the lead plane in the
squadron. It was only a matter of time before Renteria surpassed Barry
Larkin as the best shortstop in the NL, and that time is looking more
and more like April 2000.
The backups haven’t been excluded from the party, either. Say what you will
about the Cardinals’ ability to produce bit players–we know we have–but
they have managed to stash a couple of decent hitters on their bench.
Eli Marrero is overqualified as a backup catcher, which will come in
handy when Matheny proves to be overmatched as a starter. If Marrero can
come back strong in his second full season following treatment for thyroid
cancer, it will soften the inevitable blow when Matheny turns back into a
pumpkin. Or a Jack-o-Lantern. And in Craig Paquette and Shawon
Dunston, the Cardinals have a matching set of hitters who can slug .450
while butchering six positions and taking more swings than Bobby Knight at
a mouthy freshman.
So is this our way of saying the Cardinals’ offense is for real? Not so
fast. Through nine games, the Cardinals have faced off against the Cubs
(15th in the NL in ERA last year) three times, the Brewers (14th last year)
three times and the Astros thrice in a ballpark that Walt Jocketty has
already called "worse than Coors Field," which ranks as one of
the most premature statements in the history of baseball.
But if you think that means the Cardinals are going to slow down once they
start playing some good teams, consider that they’re not going to
play any good teams for an awfully long time. From Houston, the
Cardinals head to Colorado for a four-game tilt, and they won’t play
another team that was .500 or better last season until May 5, when they
head to Cincinnati.
By then, having played 26 of 29 games against sub-.500 opponents, it won’t
particularly matter how great their lineup is. It will look great on paper,
and that should keep the "LaRussa for Manager of the Year"
campaign going long after their offense has returned to more terrestrial
Rany Jazayerli, M.D. can be reached at email@example.com.
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