Five Questions: St. Louis Cardinals

The 2003 Cardinals were a great basketball team. In basketball, of course, depth counts, but you can win a championship with a couple superstars and a decent starting five. Last year’s Redbirds had four of the best players in the business: big man Albert Pujols in the middle, power forwards Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen, and sharpshooter Edgar Renteria running the point.

Unfortunately, as the ’97 Mariners and ’03 Giants will tell you, you need more than great players to go far in baseball. You need glue, reinforcements, spare parts, and that’s exactly what the 2003 Cardinals lacked. Their bullpen, which finished the year with a 4.74 ERA, was a haven for arsonists. Their bench was so thin that the Cards had to give over 200 ABs to scrubs like Miguel Cairo and Kerry Robinson. And the team had a couple of out-friendly holes in the lineup in the form of Tino Martinez and Mike Matheny.

The task for Cards GM Walt Jocketty this winter: caulk those holes. And he did a fair amount of remodeling, losing 16 players from last year’s roster and importing a number of new faces, including four starters and a host of bullpen arms. Did his maneuvers help? Read on for some speculative answers…

1) Is the Cards’ rotation a ticking time bomb?

Even the worst clubs need to get five innings per game from their starting pitchers. The Texas Rangers, for example, met that threshold last season, but still got the fewest innings from their starters of anyteam in baseball, with just 832. Compare that to the Cardinals rotation as presently constructed…

Woody Williams      220.2
Jeff Suppan         204.0
Matt Morris         172.1
Jason Marquis        40.2
Chris Carpenter       0.0
TOTAL               637.2

That’s 200 innings short of minimal. And it’s 500 innings short of the rotation the Cardinals will be facing all summer, the Chicago Cubs‘.

So where are those extra innings going to come from? Obviously, the Cards expect more than zero innings from rehab project Chris Carpenter, which should help. They also plan to give a bigger role to Jason Marquis, who flunked out of the School of Leo Mazzone and hopes to find traction as a pupil of Cards pitching coach Dave Duncan.

But their staff is still loaded with question marks. Woody Williams threw a busload of innings last year – perhaps too many. He labored down the stretch, with a sky-high ERA (5.23) and 161 pitches per nine innings after the All-Star break. He has also been slowed by a case of shoulder tendonitis, which makes him a bit of a gamble to log serious innings.

Matt Morris is also a risky proposition – he had more pings than a ’77 Mercury Marquis last season (tender shoulder, broken finger, bad ankle) and he admits he’s lost some velocity on his fastball. In fact, newly-acquired Jeff Suppan, who’s clocked over 200 innings for five straight years, is the only member of the staff who doesn’t have significant durability issues.

How does this situation compare with other teams in the division? Well, one of the key components of Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projection system is Attrition Rate, or the percent chance that a pitcher’s opposing batters faced will decrease by at least 50% relative to his established performance. In layman’s terms, it is the probability that a pitcher will go belly-up, either from injury or poor performance.

The Cardinals starters have the following Attrition Rates:

Marquis        23.9%
Carpenter      21.7%
Morris         16.4%
Suppan         13.3%
Williams        6.7%

We can use these totals to figure out the odds that the staff stays reasonably durable. If Marquis is 23.9% likely to collapse, he’s 76.1% likely to stick; Carpenter is at 78.3%, and so on. Multiply these numbers for each member of the rotation, subtract from 100%, and you get your odds that someone will collapse. Call it a “Shakiness Quotient” if you like.

For the Cardinals, then, there is a 59.7% chance that at least one of their pitchers will experience a significant drop-off in performance or stamina. That’s how shaky they are.

Here’s how they stack up against other teams in the NL Central in terms of shakiness:

Brewers        83.2%
Pirates        75.9%
Reds           73.5%
Cardinals      59.7%
Astros         54.7%
Cubs           27.4%

You can look at this data one of two ways. An optimist would say that the Cards’ hurlers are much more reliable than the UPNs and WBs at the bottom of the division. And they’re not much worse than the vaunted Astros rotation (which includes medically challenged Roy Oswalt and 41-year-old Roger Clemens). On the other hand, a pessimist would point out that the Cardinals aren’t nearly as deep as the Cubs, whose front five is as steady as any team in baseball.

All in all, the Cardinals can expect at least one of their pitchers to cave as the season wears on. That wouldn’t be a disaster necessarily – Jocketty has been a good in-season trader, and the Cards did win 97 games in ’02 despite some unimaginable traumas to their rotation (most notably the death of Darryl Kile). What’s more, the Cardinals aren’t entirely shorthanded – they could press Danny Haren, Adam Wainwright or Jason Simontacchi into the rotation if need be, although each of those options is far from ideal.

The Incompleat Starting Pitcher
The end of the nine-inning start and how we got here.

It looks like the Cards will be praying that their starters make like the ’02 Angels and hit their upsides all at once. Otherwise it’ll be another summer where their arms (or lack thereof) rely on the big bats in their lineup.

2) Should we be worried about the Cards’ defense?

Conventional wisdom says that defense is the last of the Cardinals’ concerns. After all, they won four Gold Gloves last season, and their fielders have won 15 GGs over the past few years.

But there are signs of slippage. Just go around the diamond…

C: Mike Matheny does some things extremely well (he scares runners from trying to steal, and he’s the best catcher I’ve ever seen at blocking balls in the dirt). But last year’s 23% caught-stealing rate was his lowest in years.

1B: Pujols should make a fine first baseman, but he’s still learning the position and he’s a downgrade from Tino Martinez.

2B: Bo Hart has sub par fielding numbers, Marlon Anderson has an iron glove, and newly-acquired Tony Womack doesn’t do much of anything well, defense included.

3B: Rolen is a joy to watch, but his zone rating, range factor, and DP rate were all down last year. His fielding Win Shares also declined from ’02 (from 6.52 to 4.19).

SS: Renteria is average with the leather, and should stay that way.

LF: Kerry Robinson and So Taguchi are both fine glovemen, but the current frontrunner for the job, Ray Lankford, will turn 37 this summer and has a history of hamstring problems.

CF: Edmonds is still a quality fielder, but he seems to have lost a step over the last couple years.

RF: Reggie Sanders is a definite drop-off from J.D. Drew.

The Cardinals, then, can expect some deterioration in the field. This is especially crucial because they don’t have a strikeout staff. Last year the Redbirds allowed the second-most balls in play of any team in the NL, and many of their imports (Suppan, Tavarez, Marquis) are finesse types.

3) How much will the Cardinals’ bullpen be helped by subtracting Esteban Yan and Jeff Fassero?

Last year, the Cardinals’ bullpen allowed -55.3 Adjusted Runs Prevented. That’s about five wins below average, meaning if the Cards had a merely average pen they’d have won 90 games and the division.

Almost all the damage was done by four guys: Esteban Yan (-18.9 ARP), Jeff Fassero (-13.7), Pedro Borbon Jr. (-11.0), and Russ Springer (-10.9). That’s -54.5 runs right there, meaning the rest of the pen did just fine. All four of those culprits have moved on, which leads to the inevitable question: Will the Cardinals pick up five games in the standings?

Depends what you think of the guys who will replace them. Walt Jocketty went out of his way to beef up the bullpen in the off-season. He overspent for Julian Tavarez ($4.2 million for two years), he ate Tino Martinez’s fat contract in exchange for a so-so reliever (Evan Rust), and he stockpiled a number of new arms: Ray King, Mike Lincoln, Luis Martinez, Doug Creek, Alan Benes and Allen Levrault. What’s more, they’ll have Jason Isringhausen healthy at the start of the season, which means Tony LaRussa won’t have to rely as much on his 5th or 6th options out of the pen.

By the looks of things, the Cardinals figure to have a league-average bullpen this year, which is quite an accomplishment. King is a workhorse who has posted an ERA that was far better than average for four years running. Lincoln is not as reliable, but he’s only a year removed from a fine ’01-’02, and he was the victim of some bad luck last year in Pittsburgh.

Tavarez, who should pick up most of the slack from Yan, Fassero, and the other Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, is a trickier case. He’s only had two good years out of the past five, and he’s a bit of a headcase. No, make that a major headcase, with a baseball rap sheet as long as his spindly arms.

Nevertheless, if the new relievers come within shouting distance of their established performance levels, they should offer a sizable upgrade over the 2003 pen. Count on the Cards to pick up three to four extra wins in relief (which they may give back with lousy hitting in left, but that’s a whole ‘nother story…).

4) Is Albert Pujols a sure thing?

We all know that Pujols has made one of the splashiest entrances of any newcomer in baseball history. Any chance he’s going to tail off? On one hand, you’ve got to expect him to regress to the mean somewhat. It’s unlikely that he’ll reach his outrageous totals from last season (.359/.439/.667) even though he is still maturing as a hitter. But what about long-term? Is Pujols’ new $100-million contract a sound investment? Are there any danger signs ahead?

If you’re a young hitter like Albert Pujols, and you’ve already established a fine track-record in the bigs, there are only three realistic possibilities for your future:

1) You never realize your potential because of injuries;
2) You never realize your potential because you’re a headcase; or
3) You realize your potential and become one of the game’s all-time great players.

That’s it. Notice, players as good as Pujols simply do not tail off and become mediocre over time. They all fall into one of those three categories. If you think that’s too cut-and-dried, then name a counter-example. Make a list of all the great young hitters you can and see if any got worse over time for no good reason.

Cesar Cedeno? Great player, until he fractured his ankle. Pete Reiser? Too many broken bones and concussions. Injuries also did in Hal Trosky (chronic migraines), Kal Daniels (torn-up knee), Fred Lynn (ribs, knees, etc.), Jim Ray Hart (shoulder), and Tommy Davis (ankle).

Bob Horner? Got fat and lazy. John Mayberry? Ditto. Greg Luzinski? Fat and injured (although not lazy). And then there are other players who put together fine careers but still ended up disappointments to some degree – guys like Dick Allen, Darryl Strawberry, and Jose Canseco. They were all headcases.

About the only player I can think of who just sorta dropped off for no great reason was Vada Pinson. But remember, Pinson was frequently moody and unmotivated, so you can call him a headcase if it suits you. What’s more, he ended up with 2,757 hits in an extreme pitcher’s era, so it’s debatable whether he was a disappointment at all.

I think it’s safe to say that Albert Pujols is no headcase. He’s an immensely disciplined, driven athlete; in fact, Cards broadcaster Mike Shannon called him, emphatically, “the most intense player I’ve ever seen” (which means he considers him more intense than Bob Gibson, Pete Rose, or Roger Clemens). Shannon compared him to players like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, guys with an unquenchable need to prove their own greatness. That indicates to me that if Pujols can stay healthy, he’s a sure bet to put together one of the finest careers of his generation.

5) Is it now or never for the Cardinals?

Walt Jocketty made a couple moves this winter that indicate he’s in a win-now mode. As mentioned, he signed Julian Tavarez for $4.2 million, which is the type of thing you do if you feel you’ve landed the final piece of the puzzle. And he signed 36-year-old Reggie Sanders to play right field, a solution which should pay dividends for only one or two years.

In other respects, however, Jocketty seems to be looking down the road. He pinched pennies in left field, and seems content to enter the season with no viable option out there. He also dealt J.D. Drew in his walk-year, mostly for youngsters and prospects. He didn’t trade any real farmhands before last year’s trading deadline. And he dedicated a huge chunk of team resources to a long-term contract for Pujols, surely with an eye to opening the team’s new ballpark in 2006.

All of this indicates to me that Jocketty is walking the tightrope that so many GMs must these days – he’s trying to win as many games as he can without disenfranchising his fan base. That puts him in the awkward position of making moves to help the team, but avoiding the kinds of splashy do-or-die moves that would help him keep pace with the Astros or Cubs.

But if I were Jocketty, I’d dip into my savings and try to win now. Matt Morris and Edgar Renteria will be free agents at the end of the year, and Morris has already been making noises about moving on. Woody Williams might be reaching the end of his rope after a nice career resurgence in St. Louis. And Jim Edmonds’ long history of injuries seems to be catching up with him on the eve of his 34th birthday.

The Cardinals still have a good young nucleus in Pujols and Rolen, but they also have one of the worst farm systems in baseball, and the actuarial trends are not in their favor. If the Cards are still in the hunt come July, they might want to pull a trade or two, because my suspicion is that this will be the last year the team competes for quite awhile.

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