2010 St. Louis Cardinals: Team of the Last Decade; Team of the Next Decade?

BaseballEvolution.com Spring Preview
by Asher B. Chancey, BaseballEvolution.com
Key Transactions
Acquired Pos.
Brad Penny SP
Felipe Lopez 2B
Rich Hill SP
Departed Pos.
Joel Piniero SP
Todd Wellemeyer SP
John Smoltz P
Chris Duncan OF
Joe Thurston Util
Mark DeRosa Util
Rick Ankiel OF
Brad Thompson RP

March 30, 2010

In the past decade, the St. Louis Cardinals have seen Mark McGwire’s Last Stand and the Emergence of Albert Pujols. The Cards have been to the post-season seven times in ten years and made it to the World Series twice, winning it all in 2006. It would be hard to argue that the Cardinals weren’t the team of the decade in the National League.

Going into the next decade, the recipe for success seems pretty straight-forward: as long as this team has Albert Pujols, this is the team to beat.

1. All You Need to Know: Albert Pujols

That Albert Pujols has been the Player of the Decade in the National League (and maybe all of baseball) should be reasonably acceptable. Baseball-Reference.com’s list of Similar Batters to Pujols Through Age 29 goes Jimmie Foxx, Hank Aaron, Lou Gehrig, Ken Griffey, Jr., Frank Robinson, Mickey Mantle, Juan Gonzalez (!!!), Mel Ott, Hank Greenberg, and Orlando Cepeda.

Pujols is almost as good as
Yankees fans think Derek Jeter is,
and he is only 29 years old!

Pujols has already compiled a Hall of Fame caliber career but he is not yet eligible for the Hall of Fame. He is one of the game's elite offensive players, while at the same time being one of the game's elite defensive first basemen. And he has done all of this despite nursing an elbow injury which, at one point, was thought to be on the verge of costing him an entire season.

Albert Pujols is one of those players who makes everyone in the lineup better. Good players make the guy behind them better by getting on base, or the guy ahead of them better by providing protection. Batting third, the threat of Pujols makes the leadoff and second batter better by making pitchers pitch to them, and then makes the fourth, fifth, and even sixth batters better because he is on base so often. This team will live and die with Pujols; fortunately, the living will be far more common than the dying.

2. You Can Tell Just by Looking: The Depth Chart

One of the essential tools of pre-season baseball is the spring depth chart. Sometimes, you can tell that a team is in trouble just by the sheer number of players on a depth chart.

For example, the Toronto Blue Jays have seven starting pitchers and 17 relief pitchers listed on their chart. This is what we call a “bad sign.” The Kansas City Royals have five players listed at third base; in case you’re wondering, this is not what we call “a good thing.” The Oakland Athletics currently have eight players listed among their three outfield slots; don't look for lots of what we call "production" out of that outfield.

The Cardinals, on the other hand, have the tidiest depth chart of the pre-season: it lists only five starting pitchers, which tells me there is no controversy regarding the rotation, there is no battle for the fifth spot – they’ve got their five. The Cardinals list one starter and one backup at every other position except second base and third base, but Felipe Lopez is the third player on both lists. The bullpen list contains only 10 pitchers, the fewest I’ve seen.

It must be awfully nice to know your lineup is set one through nine each and every day with guys you know and can count one. I am sure they’ll be the envy of Lou Piniella as he tries to get both offense and defense from his eight man outfield rotation in 2010.

3. David Freese Has Three E's in His Last Name, but Four A's in His Pedigree

Why would you throw a
knuckleball to first base?
At some point in the coming months, I’ll stop looking at the Cardinals roster and thinking that Ryan Drese has converted to third base. Freese made his major league debut with the Cards last season at the age of 26 and hit .323 in 17 games. He has actually put up excellent numbers in the minors in the whole way through; he has a lifetime .308/.384/.532/.916 in four years, and drove in over 90 runs twice.

Given his minor league pedigree, one might ask: why no buzz? There are probably three answers for that question: 1) this guy is 27 years old; 2) even in the minors, he struck out almost twice as much as he walked; and 3) he is not a defensive whiz at third, which means it will be hard to find reasons to keep him there if his bat goes quiet.

Freese intuitively feels like what some people call Quadruple-A talent. He’ll get every chance to prove he isn’t. If he sucks while hitting in this lineup, no one may even notice.

4. Ryan Ludwick and Matt Holliday: the Scottie Pippens of the Cardinals

Matt Holliday and Ryan Ludwick will be holding down the corner outfield slots for the Cardinals in 2010. In Holliday and Ludwick, the Cardinals feel that they have final found the offensive replacements for Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds. Make no mistake - like Rolen and Edmonds, these guys are the Scottie Pippen to Albert Pujols' Michael Jordan. These guys look like All-Stars next to Pujols, and their numbers would not be so good without him.

Matt Holliday has played exactly 93 games away in which he wasn't a Colorado Rockie or a teammate of Albert Pujols. In those 93 games (with the Oakland A's), his OPS+ was 120 and he hit 11 homeruns. He got traded to the Cardinals for the last 63 games of the season and voila, he exploded for a .353/.419/.604/1.023 the rest of the way. Personally, I think Holliday is a lucky son-of-a-gun, but who knows?

Ludwick is clearly a Chris Davis-type player (okay, that's a little harsh) who will benefit from being the third fiddle in this group and, batting fifth, should have lots of RBI to go with what will likely be 30 homeruns and an .850 OPS.

5. Don't Worry About Jason Heyward - The Cards have Colby Rasmus!

Colby Rasmus
St. Louis Cardinals fans/supporters/apologists like to refer to Rasmus’ 2009 season as “promising” and “a good start” and “a sign of things to come.” I think Rasmus has work to do. Rasmus went into the 2009 as Baseball America’s #3 overall prospect in the majors, behind Matt Wieters and David Price, but ahead of Tommy Hanson and Jason Heyward. Someone will have to explain that to me.

Rasmus spent the 2008 minor league system mainly in Triple-A (90 out of 96 games), where he put up a .252/.351/.401/.752 line. He hit 12 homeruns and stole 15 bases, but what scouts loved was probably his 53 walks. Nevertheless, this is not #3 material here. Does Rasmus have what it takes to succeed at the major league level? Of course. Will it be good for him that he isn’t one of the guys the Cardinals are looking for to carry the offense? Sure. Is he a super prospect? I don’t see that.

6. The Double Play Combo – Brendan Ryan and Skip Schumaker

Schumaker and Ryan are the Cardinals’ answer to the Cubs’ Ryan Theriot and Mike Fontenot, only they probably have a bit more talent. Schumaker is coming off his second straight .300+ season, and Ryan hit .292 in his first full season last year. Like Theriot and Fontenot, no one is going to confuse these guys with Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley on the offensive side of the ball, nor Omar Vizquel and Roberto Alomar on the defensive side of the ball. They are low-ceiling overachievers, and as we come out of the “Steroid Era,” guys like these won’t kill you, particularly in the National League. Ryan is already a pretty good defender; if Schumaker – a converted outfielder – can improve his defense in 2010, the Cardinals will be getting what they need from this duo.

7. The Starting Rotation’s Two Aces: Duncan and Molina

Spot the Interchangeable Piece.
No pitching staff in modern memory has gotten less respect than the St. Louis Cardinals staff of the last five years. Whenever a Cardinals pitcher does well, the credit invariable goes to pitching guru Dave Duncan and, more recently, catcher extraordinaire Yadier Molina. Of course, these guys have repeatedly turned guys like Joel Pineiro, Kyle Lohse, Ryan Franklin, Todd Wellemeyer, Braden Looper, Jason Marquis, and Jeff Suppan into quality major league pitchers. At the same time, though, the Cardinals also have some legitimate stars who would actually be successful without Duncan and Molina.

For example, Chris Carpenter has developed into one of the – ah, who are we kidding? In his five years with the Toronto Blue Jays, Carpenter went 49-50 with a 4.83 ERA (99 ERA+). His K/BB ratio was 1.85, and he gave up 10 hits per nine innings. In six years since joining the Cardinals, he has gone 68-24 with a 2.91 ERA (147 ERA+). His K/BB ratio has been 4.02, and he gives up under eight hits per nine innings? You gonna tell me he just “figured it out?” Duncan’s a genius. Just ask Dave Stewart, Bob Welch, and Dennis Eckersley.

Now, Adam Wainwright is a different story. Wainwright, a six-foot-seven behemoth, was born pitching, and sprung into the majors fully – ah, who are we kidding again. Wainwright came up through the Braves system and, though he struck tons of guys out, he also walked plenty. After serving as a full-time reliever in 2006, Wainwright became a full-time starter in 2007. In three seasons, his K/BB ratio has gone from 1.94 to 2.68 to 3.21, while his ERA has gone from 3.70 to 3.20 to 2.63.

"I don't who you are, but just
listen to us and you'll be fine."
8. Find a Penny, Pick it Up

In addition to The Kyle Lohse Project, Year Three, in 2010 Duncan and Molina will challenge themselves with the Reclamation of Brad Penny.

Here's the thing with Brad Penny: last season proved that players and their agents simply do not pay attention to statistics. In the fall of 2008, coming off an injury-plagued season with the Dodgers, Brad Penny was a 31-year-old free agent. Penny was at a point in his career where he should have been looking to sign a one-year deal in order to prove he can still pitch well and maybe look to make some money the following season.

If he'd been paying attention, here is what Penny's numbers would have told him: in nine seasons pitching in two of the most pitcher-friendly parks in baseball, he'd enjoyed flashes of success – 3.69 ERA in 2001, 4.13 ERA for the World Series winner in 2003, led the league in wins in 2006, led the league in winning percentage and had a 3.03 ERA in 2007. He'd also spent his career giving up plenty of hits (more than one per inning for your career), and walking plenty of hitters (2.17 K/BB career).

Given this calculus, there were several places Penny should have looked to sign, but one team with whom he absolutely, positively should not have been looking to sign: the Boston Red Sox. Not only should he not have been looking to sign with Boston, but he shouldn't even have been looking to sign with a team that would even have to play against Boston in Fenway Park.

Of course, this is exactly what Penny did, and the rest is history: he went 7-8 with a 5.61 ERA and 160 hits in 131.2 innings pitched, and got waived. Lest we suspect that it was just Penny sucking, upon being released by the Sox, he signed with the Giants and went 4-1 with a 2.59 ERA the rest of the way. He was a completely different pitcher.

Now, Penny finds himself where all pitchers go to find out if they are dead or not. The good news, though, is that Penny is probably not dead. Penny will probably enjoy a resurgence, win 15 games, maybe go to the All-Star Game, pitch in the post-season some, and then in the off-season completely forget or overlook the reason for his new found effectiveness and sign with the Milwaukee Brewers where he'll make ten million dollars to to give up a hit per inning and have an ERA in the fives.

But in 2010, he'll be pretty good.

Cardinals Team Capsule

9. The Closer

Remember when it used to be weird when a starting pitcher converted to closer full time? Now it seems like it happens all the time. Last year, Ryan Franklin (the same Ryan Franklin who once lost 44 games and gave up 95 homeruns in three years) took over the closer’s role full time and posted a ridiculous 1.92 ERA-But. The "But" part is – his K/BB ratio was 1.83, he only struck out 44 batters in 61 innings, and his WHIP was 1.197. Franklin will be 37 this year and has never pitched like he did in 2009. I think Jason Motte has better Awesome than Franklin, and I hope he comes around soon after a disappointing 2009.

Outlook on the Season

The Philadelphia Phillies are the best team in the National League, and any team that plans to get through the Phils must be able to stop left-handed hitters. The Cardinals have absolutely no left-handed pitchers, so this would seem to be a tall task.

Nevertheless, the fact that my “Outlook for the Season” is essentially a preview of playoff matchups tells us one thing – this Cardinals team walks to the NL Central title, and will probably have it clinched by Labor Day.

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