Thursday, February 18, 2010

2010 Year in Preview: St. Louis Cardinals

So I've been doing a pretty terrible job of posting here as of late, but I'm back. Here goes...

The Cardinals of the past decade are no strangers to winning; they’ve captured the NL Central crown 7 out of the past 10 years (with the Cubs taking the other three), although not always by the most impressive of margins (see: their World Series season of 2006, where they snuck into the playoffs at 83-77 in a pretty weak division, although as a Twins fan, can I really criticize that?). The 2009 squad kept that tradition alive, taking another division crown. Featuring a lineup highlighted by the best hitter in baseball and a solid rotation led by two of last year's top Cy Young contenders, are there enough other pieces in place to continue the run of dominance? My guess is yes in the short term, but more as a result of the rest of the division either getting worse or staying put (any Cubs fans out there?) rather than significant improvement on the part of St. Louis. But hey, if it ain’t broke, why fix it?

2009 Season: 91-71; NL Central division champions, swept in NLDS by Los Angeles

Key Departures:
Joel Pineiro (RHP) – I won’t spend a whole lot of time looking at Pineiro here as we already looked at him as an addition to the Angels’ rotation, but he definitely posted career numbers last season in what was a career season for Cards’ pitchers in general. If Carpenter and Wainwright stay healthy and Pineiro regresses even slightly toward his career averages (which he almost certainly will), they shouldn’t miss him all that much, although he is a solid back-of-the-rotation starter.

Todd Wellemeyer (RHP) – Wellemeyer got the most starts from the fifth rotation spot last season, posting a 5.31 FIP. Not a huge loss.

Mark DeRosa, Troy Glaus, Rick Ankiel (anywhere on the field/3B/OF) – As I’m trying to keep this from rambling on forever, I’ll look at this trio of veterans as a bloc. DeRosa still has some value left with the bat and can play anywhere, but wasn’t a priority for the Cardinals. Along with the loss of Glaus and Ankiel, this is going to leave open spots at 3B and in the outfield.

Key Additions:

Matt Holliday (LF) – So yeah, this isn’t a true addition as Holliday played nearly half a season with the Cards last year, but signing a 7 year, $120 million extension should warrant some discussion here. Having Holliday batting cleanup behind Pujols gives St. Louis perhaps the most fearsome 3-4 combination in the NL, and oddly enough, despite his gaffe in Game 3 of the 2009 NLDS that essentially ended the Cards’ season, he’s not as terrible in the field as you might think, having posted a 6.0 UZR/150 last year. All in all, you can’t fault them for locking up Holliday, and in terms of projected contract value, even if they didn’t get a steal it shouldn’t come back to bite them either.

Brad Penny (RHP) – Signed as a free agent from the Giants for $7 million plus incentives. Although not a horrendous over-payment, this one was a bit of a head-scratcher as Penny was far from stellar with both the Red Sox and the Giants last year. He suffered a bit from a high BABIP and his FIP was decent, in the mid 4’s. He also pitched 173 innings, and with some injury risk in both Chris Carpenter and Kyle Lohse, the Cardinals are certainly hoping Penny eats some innings in the fourth rotation slot.

Rich Hill (LHP) – Hill signed a minor-league deal and will likely compete for the fifth starter position in an otherwise all right-handed rotation. He looked pretty brutal in 13 starts with the Orioles last year as evidenced by his 7.80 ERA (FIP wasn’t quite that bad, but still not good). Can pitching coach Dave Duncan work his magic with Hill? He might be a player to watch in spring training.

Talent En Route:
The Cardinals jettisoned many of their top prospects to get Holliday and DeRosa last year, and there likely aren’t a lot of impact players lurking in the farm system that could be called up in the next few years. However, there are a few players that could see playing time in 2010.

David Freese (3B) – Although only ranked the Cardinals fifth-best prospect by Baseball America, I’ll start with Freese as he has potentially the best chance of starting this season, given the departures of DeRosa and Glaus. Freese had a pretty nice year with the bat last year between Rookie, AA, and AAA, with a .313/.380/.551 line and 12 HR in 64 games, and should provide adequate defense, but I wouldn’t expect him to be a game-changer at the major league level.

Jamie Garcia (LHP) – Garcia should compete with Hill for the fifth starter job. He posted only 38 innings last year after coming back from Tommy John surgery, and features a sinking fastball that has induced grounders at around a 60% rate during his MiL career (interestingly, the only player in MLB last season with that high of a GB rate was Pineiro).

2011 Free Agency and Salary Outlook:
As St. Louis essentially has its core players locked up through 2011 and has no one eligible for free agency (save for Denys Reyes) after this season, the real free-agent question looming is whether or not they'll be able to retain Pujols beyond the 2011 season (assuming they exercise Pujols' no-brainer 2011 option of $16MM). Although not a perfect analogy, I would liken this to the situation the Twins find themselves in with Joe Mauer - neither Minnesota or St. Louis are large market teams, but they're potentially looking at inking one of, if not the biggest, contracts in baseball history with one of the game's premier hitters. Both deals would come at the expense of retaining other expensive players, and for the Cardinals that could be a real concern given that they would, excluding Pujols, already have options of $15MM for Carpenter, $10MM for Wainwright, and $7MM for catcher Yadier Molina, plus Holliday's and Kyle Lohse's contracts at $17MM and $12MM, respectively. ($62MM for only 5 players). Chances are good that they would feel the need to buy out Carpenter's option if they re-sign Pujols, who could command up to $30MM annually. Bottom line is that they will likely find a way to get a Pujols deal done, which means they're going to have to find some cheap, homegrown talent to fill in those other roster spots. Given the current state of their farm system, it's not looking like there's a lot of help there at the moment. Signing Holliday is perhaps a sign that they want to stay competitive long-term, but they are likely going to have to 1) find a way to replenish their stock of prospects and 2) hope that vaunted former prospects such as Colby Rasmus step up to fill the space around the sluggers in the middle of the order.

The Future of the Cardinals:
Like I stated before, while a solid team, the Cardinals' run of division dominance has been partly due to the lack of a consistent challenger. Through the next few years, they will feature one of the stronger top-to-bottom rotations in the NL, but it will be difficult to keep that rotation intact if they sign Pujols to a long-term deal. The tandem of Pujols and Holliday is indeed fearsome, but others have raised the issue that, contrary to conventional wisdom, it has almost become more important to protect your big hitter by constantly having runners on base in front of him, rather than having another slugger behind him. Particularly evident in the playoffs last year, Skip Schumaker and Rasmus weren't really ideal at doing this (Rasmus sported an OBP around .320 in the 2 hole, and as a Twins fan, I am well acquainted with this level of production at that particular lineup spot). They should have a few more years left to contend with a team similar to the one they have now, but their success beyond that will depend on how the front office deals with a pending salary crunch.

Sticking in St. Louis?

1 comment:

  1. Very nice piece, esp. the stuff in re: "protection" v. OBP. .320 OBP isn't ever gonna get it done, not when Albert is on deck.