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Will talks with Dayn about the Cardinals’ chances on Baseball Prospectus Radio. Click to download the mp3.

It’s a good thing that hope and faith aren’t finite resources. If they were, then the teams in this year’s NL Central race might just exhaust our supplies. Rationing would be required, fights would break out in the hope and faith bread lines, PSAs would solemnly lecture us on our duty as good citizens not to use more than we required…

Yes, this is a division whose champion won only 83 games last season, but it’s also a division the champion of which won the World Series in a brisk five games. It’s also now a division that, under some scenario or other, every team has the ability to take the flag (work with me, Pirate fans). Hope and Faith, thy name is “NL Central.”

Which brings us to that symbol of possibility, the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals’ 2006 season will surely go on to inspire a generation of mediocrities. They taught us that you can win only 83 games en route to the playoffs, head into those playoffs having lost nine of 12, open NLCS play against a vastly superior opposition with the back end of its rotation leading the way, face America’s sweethearts (fully rested sweethearts, no less) in the World Series, and still win the whole damn thing. Yes, it’s a tattered, dubious flag, but by God if it isn’t flying forever.

The best part is that it can happen again. I mean, it’s not as though the credulity-straining scenarios I am about to lay out could be more improbable than what actually happened last year, right? After a season like 2006, the fictions come easily. So let’s take a look at what needs to happen if the Cardinals-bless you boys-are to repeat in 2007. In 10 easy steps…

1. More Dave Duncan alchemy, please.

The Cardinals enter the 2007 season with a non-Chris Carpenter rotation that comprises Kip Wells, Anthony Reyes, Adam Wainwright and…pick’em. Barring the unexpected, Mark Mulder should be back in action by mid-May, but that’s little consolation in the here and now. The upshot is that pitching coach Dave Duncan, at various points this season, will be riding herd on a terminal disappointment (Wells), an unproven youngster (Reyes), a reclamation project (Mulder), and a converted reliever or two (Wainwright and possibly Braden Looper). Duncan has made a career out of improving guys like Wells, but the likes of Mulder, Reyes, and Wainwright present distinct challenges, some of which are not in Duncan’s pedagogical wheelhouse. He’ll need to teach, tweak, coddle, and prod like never before if the Cards’ rotation is to pass muster.

2. Hurry up, Jim.

As of this writing, center fielder Jim Edmonds is sidelined with shoulder and foot injuries, and it’s not likely he’ll be ready for Opening Day. The Cardinals have the outfield depth to abide his absence for a while, but they’ll need Edmonds in the lineup if they’re to repeat. Last season, he provided solid glovework and hit .295/.404/.543 against right-handers. That level of production isn’t easily replaced.

3. Stay healthy, Scott.

Third baseman Scott Rolen is highly effective when healthy, but the problem is keeping him healthy. In particular, Rolen’s ailing left shoulder has especially taxed him the last two seasons. Coming into spring training, Rolen said he felt much better, and he’s performed semi-adequately thus far in Grapefruit League play. Scott Spiezio is a tolerable hedge at third, but the Cardinals badly need Rolen’s bat in the lineup as often as possible.

4. Play the transition game.

As mentioned, it’s possible that the Cardinals will open the season with two converted relievers in the rotation. Wainwright is almost certainly going to be starting, and Looper might join him. As Nate Silver has previously pointed out, going from the bullpen to rotation responsibilities raises a pitcher’s ERA by roughly 25%. Fortunately, the latest round of PECOTA weighted-mean projections spares us the extra math and takes these new roles into account. So here’s what PECOTA sooths for Wainwright and Looper after being deployed in this new fashion:

             G   GS    IP      RA    K    BB   HR
Wainwright  25   25   151.2   4.24  121   48   17
Looper      32   19   124.2   5.28   62   35   15

If PECOTA’s right, then Wainwright’s going to be an asset in the rotation, while Looper, in swing duty, figures to be something less than that. For the Cardinals’ sake, they’d better hope Wainwright’s innings projection turns out to be comfortably shy of reality.

5. Be as bad as advertised, NL Central.

Yes, St. Louis won the flag last season with a middling 83 wins, and the hope is that the NL Central in 2007 is similarly underwhelming. This winter, the Astros (no Andy Pettitte, no Roger Clemens) have taken a step back, and the Reds have done nothing of substance. The Pirates have added a lefty power bat in Adam LaRoche, but that’s not nearly enough to make them a team of consequence. The Cubs are the justifiably trendy pick to win the division, as they have made notable improvements since last season. However, let’s keep in mind they’re working from a third-order wins baseline of only 70.7 victories. If the mediocrity is as widespread as we expect, that helps the Cardinals.

6. Get healthy, Izzy.

Fancy this: if Jason Isringhausen‘s bum hip isn’t well enough by Opening Day (thereby forcing Wainwright back to the bullpen), then the Cardinals will trot out a rotation of Carpenter, Wells, Reyes, Looper, and-perish the thought-Ryan Franklin. Under any scenario, St. Louis’ fifth starter will get three outings in April, so Franklin’s presence in the rotation would be little more than a cosmetic blemish. Since there’s no chance Mulder will be ready for Opening Day, the onus to be healthy by then really falls to Izzy. He threw a successful batting practice session last week, which means he should soon see game action. How he fares and progresses will have implications far beyond who gets the early save opps.

7. Both of you, stop it.

Team chemistry…some say it’s a chimerical purveyor of tidy rationales, while others say it can be brought to bear on the standings. Wherever the truth lies, the Cards should err on the side of caution and do their best to make the Rolen-La Russa détente that began over the winter last. Generally speaking, as Rolen’s left shoulder goes, so goes the psychic calm at Busch.

8. You owe Juan Encarnacion nothing.

That aforementioned outfield depth? It’s time to use it. Encarnacion has his merits, but he’s not an adequate hitter against right-handed pitching, particularly by corner-defender standards. John Rodriguez, meanwhile, has a career batting line of .298/.366/.432 against righties. That’s not optimal, but it’s measurably better than what Encarnacion figures to offer them against same-side pitching. So platoon him.

9. Albert, meet PECOTA; PECOTA, meet Albert.

Win the batting title, lead the NL in slugging percentage and on-base percentage, finish fourth in the league in plate appearances. That’s what PECOTA envisions for Albert Pujols in 2007. None of those would be surprising in this, his age-27 season. Considering the somewhat conservative nature of PECOTA, Pujols’ forecasted batting line of .331/.428/.617 actually sounds a bit pessimistic.

10. Find some left-handed relief.

We all know how Tony La Russa loves his bullpen lefties. Well, last season, the Cardinals’ left-handed relievers combined for 90.2 innings and a RA of 5.86. This season, it’ll be the same group minus Randy Flores. Considering how thin the middle-relief corps will be behind Brad Thompson, the Cardinals could use better innings from their bullpen lefties. Otherwise, the trip from pen to mound becomes more perp walk than leisurely jaunt.

So there you have it: 10 easy steps to an accidental dynasty. This time around, there’ll be no apologies necessary.

Will talks with Dayn about the Cardinals’ chances on Baseball Prospectus Radio.

Click to download mp3
(5.7 MB)

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