Stakeholders - St. Louis Cardinals
From now through the beginning of the regular season, we will not be posting in-depth round-tables previewing each division like we have in years past. Instead we will feature brief back-and-forths with "stakeholders" from all 30 teams. A collection of bloggers, analysts, mainstream writers and senior front office personnel will join us to discuss a specific team's hopes for 2010. Some will be in-depth, some light, some analytical, some less so but they should all be fun to read and we are thrilled about the lineup of guests we have teed up. Today it's Bernie Miklasz on the St. Louis Cardinals.
Patrick Sullivan: Let's just get this out of the way right off the bat. I can't think of a less interesting sideshow of a non-story than the "Big Mac is a distraction" meme that seems to emanate from mainstream sports media circles. I think it's petty and self-fulfilling. Where do you come down on it? Is the team distracted? Do fans that you come across really care that much if Mark McGwire is the hitting instructor for the St. Louis Cardinals?
Bernie Miklasz:: I happen to agree with your opinion on McGwire. This is primarily a media-driven story generated to please, well, the media. Somewhere along the line mainstream baseball writers and columnists -- and I am a member of that particular tribe -- appointed themselves to sit on the high court and hand down moral judgments. That's above my pay grade. McGwire used steroids. He shouldn't have used steroids. He admitted using steroids. He apologized for using steroids. He'll never get into the Hall of Fame because of steroids. What else is there to add, really? Whatever McGwire says won't be good enough for some folks. We're now into dissecting apologies. We're going line by line and grading the confessor on his sincerity, candor, style, emotional appeal, etc. The judges at the Cannes film festival aren't this snooty.
As for McGwire being a distraction ... I'm in Jupiter, Fla. at the Cardinals' camp. McGwire is working hard. The players clearly enjoy working with him. He seems to be off to a good start. They're bonding. He's already fixed a loop in Ryan Ludwick's swing. They all seem to be happy. I don't see any distractions. I guess it's possible at some point. You never know when card-carrying members of the BBWAA will show up to deliver another sermon on the mount. Or mound.
PS: The Cardinals have a nice luxury in that they have three of the very best players in the game in Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday and Adam Wainwright. You could throw Chris Carpenter in there too if you'd like. From there, construct the road map to 90-95 wins for me. Which players have the potential to step forward this year? Is the back end of the rotation good enough?
BM: The back end of the rotation was pretty weak in 2009. The top three -- Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter and Joel Pineiro - combined for a 2.79 ERA in their 94 starts. The other six pitchers who started games had a 5.16 ERA. Despite that instability and ineffectiveness in the fourth spots, the team still won 91 games.
So what's changed? Pineiro left as a free agent. Brad Penny was recruited on a one-year deal and he seems like an ideal turnaround candidate for Dave Duncan, the horse whisperer of big-league pitching coaches. Duncan has coveted Penny for a long time, so I'm assuming Penny will benefit from the working relationship, as many other starters have before him. Kyle Lohse wasn't healthy last season - he had a sequence of weird, non-pitching injuries - and he should bounce back strong in 2010. There are a few decent options (Kyle McClellan, Jaime Garcia, the surgically-repaired Rich Hill) for the fifth-starter job, and all of them are better than Todd Wellemeyer, who was the No. 5 last season. I think there's a fair chance that the Cardinals will have a better rotation in 2010. Penny and Lohse are the keys. There's some anxiety over Ryan Franklin as a closer, but I'm thinking we'll address this in another question, no?
Offensively, the Cardinals should make gains in at least a couple of areas. They'll have a full season of Matt Holliday in left field. He likes the league. He likes the home ballpark. He likes the run-producing opportunities presented to a man who hits behind Albert Pujols. Ryan Ludwick's days of slugging .600 are probably over, but he's been working with batting coach Mark McGwire to reduce the loop in his swing; will that help Ludwick push his line-drive rate back to 2008 levels? Possibly. But I'm going to resist nitpicking Ludwick too much; over the last two seasons he ranks third among MLB outfielders in RBIs, fifth in homers and 13th in OPS.
Colby Rasmus had a subdued rookie season in 2009; his good start was negated by a hiatal hernia that sapped his strength. Rasmus is healthy now, and stronger. He did a reasonably solid job against lefties during his progression in the minors, so I'm going to suggest that he'll do a lot better than hit .160 against LHP's - which was what he did with them last season. David Freese certainly has a lot to prove at third base, but look at it this way: Cardinals' third basemen ranked 28th in the majors in OPS last season, and Freese should ratchet that up a bit. Right now the Cardinals have a sketchy, thin bench. It will be young. It could be a liability. But I also think GM John Mozeliak will address the area via trade at some point.
The Cardinals were mediocre at getting on base last season (.332 OBP) and that's a primary reason for hiring McGwire as the batting coach. He's emphasizing a more selective hitting approach.
The Cardinals should be better defensively. Brendan Ryan played exceptionally well at shortstop, but logged only 830 innings (26th among MLB shortstops). He'll play more (and prevent more runs) in 2010. I don't know what to say about Skip Schumaker at 2B; his defensive metrics in 2009 were rather unsightly, and he was almost hopeless in going to his left for ground balls. But he improved as the year went on. (Will you take my word on that? Probably not.) Dare we propose that Schumaker can approach average ratings in 2010? And Freese is a better fielder than the assortment of loose parts used at 3B by the Cardinals last season.
There's also this Pujols fellow. I'm told he's pretty good in all phases of the game.
PS: A quick reaction to your last answer: I find your commentary on the supporting cast to be altogether persuasive. I think there are some really interesting parts flying under the radar. But I find your remarks about Holliday and the "top three" (you acknowledge Pineiro's departure will hurt) a tad problematic because I think their performances are unlikely to hold constant. Matt Holliday had a .380 in-play average (Pujols' average was .299 by comparison). Without taking anything away from Adam Wainwright or Chris Carpenter, both out-pitched their fielding independent numbers and I still have to think Carpenter's health is something of a question. Thoughts?
BM: Granted, Holliday won't be able to sustain the burst of offense (.353 / .419 / .604) he provided after coming over from Oakland in late July. His numbers were sick. But even if Holliday fulfills his CHONE projection for 2010, we're talking about 25 homers, 100 runs, nearly 100 RBIs and an OPS of around .900. Plus above-average defense. Last season the Cardinals had all sorts of problems in the outfield. Ludwick's slugging fell off, Rasmus was diminished by the hernia, Rick Ankiel lost his plate discipline, and the other corner outfield spot was a wasteland. It explains why the Cardinals' outfield had a .743 OPS, which ranked 24th in the majors. If everyone holds up physically, and Holliday-Rasmus-Ludwick start 150 or more games, that OPS should spike in 2010. If there's any injury, watch out. But isn't that true of every contender?
As for the rotation, obviously there's a big problem if Carpenter goes down. When he's been healthy, the Cardinals are a playoff team. When he's been unable to pitch, the Cardinals don't make the playoffs. But you may have more of a reason to worry about Wainwright. He pitched 233 innings last season. He averaged 106 pitches per start. On the pitcher-abuse points chart, he was No. 6. Will this impact him in 2010? Interesting question. But Wainwright is a strong guy, and he gets smarter about pitching every year. So we'll see if all of those innings (and 3,614 pitches) took anything out of him.
PS: It doesn't hurt that the NL Central is awful, right?
BM: No question, that's been a factor in the Cardinals' success over the years. Interestingly, since becoming the Cardinals manager Tony La Russa has a higher winning percentage (.562) against NL West teams than he does against NL Central teams (.558).
But back to the Central question. How much is this a matter of the Cardinals being good as opposed to the others being so lousy? I suppose it depends on your perspective. But the Cardinals have had impressive stability and continuity, and that's a strength. This is La Russa's 15th season in St. Louis, and during that time the other five NL Central teams have employed 34 managers. And over these 15 years the Cardinals have had one owner and two GMs. And the second GM, John Mozeliak, was trained by the first, Walt Jocketty. But look around the rest of the division. Four of the other five NL Central franchises have been sold at least once, and the fifth, Houston, is for sale now. And I can't count all of the GMs and various rebuilding projects. The Cardinals get major points for having a consistent plan, philosophy, and steady leadership.
PS: There's an Ed Wade joke in here somewhere, but I'll abstain. Thanks so much for participating, Bernie. Want to offer up a quick 1-6 prediction for the NL Central and we'll wrap this up?
BM: 1. St. Louis: A lot of terrific pieces are in place, including Albert Pujols and the strong 1-2 rotation punch of Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright. But the Cardinals will need Carpenter to make 30 starts. And watch out for the closer, Ryan Franklin. He got swings and misses only 18 percent of the time last season, and the random nature of luck caught up to him late in the 2009 season. There isn't a clear alternative closer in the bullpen.
2. Chicago: I actually think the Cubs will be better than many think. No, the Cubs aren’t getting good value for their $140 million payroll. I like the projected Fukudome-Nady platoon in right. But if Zambrano and Lilly stay healthy, and if Soriano doesn't have another season in which he plays like an 83-year-old – well, there’s a chance if the Cardinals slip.
3. Cincinnati: The Reds have become something of a trendy pick. Not to win anything, but to move up. A rising team. I’ll buy some of that stock. I like the rotation and figure that the offense will wake up a bit in 2010.
4. Milwaukee: Not enough starting pitching.
5. Houston: Bad farm system, strange spending habits, declining stars. The arrow is definitely pointing down.
6. Pittsburgh: In the words of David Byrne: Same as it ever was.
Bernie Miklasz, 51, has been the lead sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch since 1989. He's also written for the Dallas Morning News and the late Baltimore News-American. He grew up in Baltimore and learned baseball by watching Earl Weaver manage.