The Cardinals Weak Spot?

Heading into the 2010 season, the St. Louis Cardinals are considered heavy favorites to win big in a rather weak NL Central. And there are good reasons for that. They have one of the better one-two punches both in their lineup with Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday, and also in their rotation with Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter. They have outstanding defense in the “up the middle” positions from Brendan Ryan, Yadier Molina and Colby Rasmus, and have solid players around the diamond all around. Most projections that I’ve seen call for the team to win 88-91 games.

But if the Cardinals do have one potential Achilles heal, it would be their bullpen. Their ‘pen actually posted a 3.67 ERA in 2009, the fourth best mark in the National League, but it was a lucky 3.67 ERA. The team is returning most of the bullpen from the prior season in 2010, let’s take a look at their ERA-xFIP differentials to get a glimpse of just how fortunate they were last year, and an idea of what may happen should their bullpen regress to the mean:

Ryan Franklin, closer – 1.92 ERA, 4.27 xFIP
Kyle McClellan, set-up – 3.38 ERA, 4.42 xFIP
Jason Motte – 4.76 ERA, 4.27 xFIP
Dennys Reyes – 3.29 ERA, 4.44 xFIP
Trever Miller – 2.06 ERA, 3.45 xFIP
Blake Hawksworth – 2.03 ERA, 4.59 xFIP

Their best reliever looks to be a 37-year-old LOOGY, Trever Miller. Yeesh. Ryan Franklin was greatly benefited by a .269 BABIP, a 3.2% HR/FB and an 85.7% strand rate. I don’t think Franklin fits anyone’s definition of a shut-down closer, and should his HR/FB rates go back to 2009 levels (10.4%), it will lead to a lot of teeth-gnashing in Cardinal Nation.

Like Franklin, McClellan is also a pitcher with a low strikeout rate for a reliever, and he’s actually competing with Rich Hill and youngster Jaime Garcia for a spot to be the Cardinals #5 starter.

That leaves converted catcher Jason Motte as the favorite for the set-up role. Motte had the highest strikeout rate of any pitcher in the minor leagues in 2008 (14.85 K/9), but learned the hard way last season that he cannot thrive on mere heat alone, and has yet to discover an effective secondary offering.

It’s surprising to me that the Cardinals have yet to kick the tires on Kiko Calero, who was part of their 2004 team that won the NL Championship, and it’s also surprising that they have steered clear of Octavio Dotel or even the likes of Chan Ho Park this offseason. Maybe their general manager has been lulled into a false sense of security by the ERA that the ’09 team posted, because by all accounts they have money left in the budget to have signed one more relief pitcher. The failure to do so will likely make it easier for the underdogs to sneak up in the standings, unless lady luck strikes again.




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Erik Manning is the founder of Future Redbirds and covers the Cardinals for Heater Magazine. You can get more of his analysis and rantings in bite-sized bits by following him on twitter.


20 Responses to “The Cardinals Weak Spot?”

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  1. Sean says:

    You must mean 2004 because Kiko was definitely not on the 06 team and how good do you think the idea of signing Smoltz and making him a reliever(if he was willing to cooperate) would be?

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    • Erik Manning says:

      Thanks, I definitely meant 2004. I think Smoltz would be a great fit for the Cardinals, either in the rotation or in the bullpen. I can’t believe he remains unsigned after his mini-revival once he moved back to the NL.

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      • Tim In Missouri says:

        He remains unsigned because he only wants to start. I guarantee the Cardinals would sign him to the bullpen in a heartbeat.

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  2. Great article, quick nit pick:

    “Ryan Franklin, closer – 1.92 ERA, xFIP 4.27″

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  3. Samuel Lingle says:

    They’re going to be heavily relying on some young guys to come through.

    Jason Motte, for one, needs to show a big improvement.

    Also, Mitchell Boggs is going to the bullpen most likely, and they like how his stuff plays there. Last season he had a great stretch at the end of the season in the pen so who knows how effective he can be from there this time around.

    Eduardo Sanchez looks like he could be a back-end bullpen option as early as this year, too, so hopefully that comes to fruition… and fast.

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    • WY says:

      I was going to mention Boggs. Who knows how he’ll do, but he’s certainly in the mix and deserved a mention in the main post.

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  4. gnomez says:

    I still can’t believe John Smoltz hasn’t returned to STL yet.

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  5. OremLK says:

    Another weakness St. Louis has is that they’re so “top-heavy” if you will. They have four really great players–Pujols, Holliday, Carpenter, and Wainright. Between the four them, those guys posted 25.5 WAR in 2009. It’s not that the rest of their players are bad, exactly, but they obviously can’t come close to that level of production. It’s an “all your eggs in four baskets” kind of situation.

    What would it take for the Cardinals to be knocked off their perch and sent down to battle with the rest of the teams in the NL Central? One or more of those top four players going down for most of the season would do the trick.

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  6. Andrew says:

    One thing to consider:

    Tony & Dunc had their fair share of problems with Kiko and he definitely wasn’t one of their favorites in his time here because he wasn’t one to take coaching advice very well. My guess is this is the reason that Kiko remains off the Cards list, despite it being a nice fit, as you pointed out, Erik.

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  7. Andrew says:

    As for projections.

    No team will win a division big with winning 88-91 games as they projections predict. I think the team will win 93-96 games, but the division race will also be closer than some expect.

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  8. Ryan says:

    I have a question. xFIP is independent of defense. If you look at a whole bullpen and conclude that they got lucky last year, one kind of luck that would explain why it is consistent across (almost) all of them is that the Cardinals played good defense and so made all of these guys look like better pitchers than they actually are.

    If that was a significant part of the explanation and the Cardinals expected to be as strong defensively this year as last (actually, with Skip improving and the addition of Holliday and Freese, they should be better defensively), then there wouldn’t be as much reason to worry about the Cards bullpen as suggested here. So, my question is how much if any of the bullpen’s better than expected performance can be chalked up to the Cardinals defense?

    [Although Carp and Wainwright had better than expected ERAs, the rest of the starters did not. So, this doesn't seem to support the view that it is the Cardinals defense behind the 'pens performance. I was wondering, though, if there is a more precise way of answering this question.]

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  9. bobo says:

    Hey Erik, is one of those two stats (ERA — xFIP) likely to be more biased than the other with respect to the small sample sizes? These are relief pitchers that don’t have a ton of data to evaluate in one given season.

    The Cards are a smart organization, it is likely they believe there is going to be some regression to more normalizeds ERAs compared to the prior year. But even if the pen is horrible I still think they have enough talent to win that division, I just don’t think the pen could cause them to lose that many games relative to the lack of improvements I perceived in the other NL central teams…

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  10. MDB says:

    Another thing not mentioned is the impact of having LaRussa controlling the bullpen. That is almost certainly the coach’s best skill, rarely overusing throwers, and playing match-ups… While Franklin is bound for a regression to the mean, you can bet LaRussa will get the most out of his relievers.

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  11. gfd says:

    I’m hoping McGwire messes the swing of all the players up!! May they lose 100 games!!

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  12. Circlechange11 says:

    The cards BP always seems to be jigsawed together. It is concerning b/c the BP was the downfall in 08 and a big plus in 09.

    As for the ‘top heavy’ comment … That could describe every team outside of the NYY. Health is often a deciding factor.

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  13. sorbil says:

    Won’t a RP’s ERA always tend to be lower than his FIP/xFIP because he pitches partial innings? He can come into a game with 1 or 2 outs and men on base that won’t be charged to him if they score – he can rack up extra outs on sacrifices, double plays, fielder’s choice, plus he can put runners on base that the other team may have only 1-2 outs to drive in.

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