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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.