Sunday, April 29, 2012

Cardinals Breathing a Sigh of Relief?

With all due respect to Albert Pujols and his Hall of Fame credentials, the Cardinals must be breathing a sigh of relief that the King left St Louis in a huff, taking his act to Southern California - and quite an act it is.  After another 0 for 4 (.216 BA - 0 HR) performance on Sunday in Cleveland, the newest member of the LA Angels of Anaheim - the LAAoA - has played in all 22 of its games, of which the Halos have won a grand total of seven; that's only ten games or so behind the Texas Rangers.  No problem.

Somehow, I don't think that's what Arte Moreno had in mind when he schmoozed the former Cardinal icon over the phone last fall so convincingly, he got Albert to leave the only organization he's ever known, along with its adoring fans, to practice his craft in the AL West.  Thus began the newest chapter in the life of Albert Pujols:  The Declining Years.

Although Albert has had his struggles at the plate over the past couple of seasons; especially in 2011, when he came close, but failed to hit .300 or drive in 100 runs in a season for the first time in his career; he was still regarded as one of the most dangerous hitters in MLB.  That's the guy Arte was expecting to see dressed up like an Angel for the next ten years; not the guy who has done nothing for his new team except manage to get thrown out running the bases on four different occasions; which isn't easy, since he hasn't been on base much more than four times to begin with.

Of course, there's a great deal of baseball yet to be played this year; quite possibly, God will once again allow Albert to hit like he used to when he was a Cardinal.  There's also the possibility that won't happen; that at age-32, his skills have simply eroded to the point where he can no longer hit for power, with a high average; like he used to do in the good old days.  If thirty-two sounds too young to be washed-up, consider what happened to Dale Murphy.

From 1982 through 1987, Atlanta Braves slugging outfielder Dale Murphy was one of baseball's most outstanding players.  The model of consistency, the two-time National League Most Valuable Player ('83 and '84) averaged 36 home runs, 110 runs scored, and 105 runs batted in over that remarkable six-year span.  Murphy was truly the ideal player.  He played the game hard; he never complained; and he was always cordial to fans and media.

Dale Murphy was a perfect role model; that's for sure.

Just imagine what kind of contract Dale Murphy would have landed if he had played nowadays - become eligible for free agency - then decided to test the market (forsaking his Braves' legacy) with these numbers on his resume:

AGE    G                R        HR    RBI    BA    OBP    SLG
26       162             113       36      109    .281   .378    .507
27       162             131       36      121    .302   .393    .540
28       162              94        36      100    .290   .372    .547
29       162            118        37      111    .300   .388    .539
30       160              89        29       83     .265   .347    .477
31       159            115        44      105    .295   .417    .580

What we have here is the National League's Most Valuable Player at the age of 26, who actually improved his performance the following year in every measurable category (aside from the identical home run total). That was good enough for another well-deserved MVP Award.

Over the next couple of seasons, Murphy maintained this high level of production while never missing a single game.  By the time he had completed his stellar age-29 season, he had finally broken out of his three-season-36 home run rut with a new high-water mark:  37!  The Atlanta slugger was getting better with age, but then again, he had not yet even celebrated his 30th birthday.

Well, Murphy celebrated his 30th birthday by posting career lows in every statistical category across the board.  Was this an aberration or a reflection of a player who was now slightly past his prime?  I think we know the answer to that now; back then, we weren't sure.

When Murphy rebounded at the age of 31 to produce career highs in home runs, on base percentage, and slugging percentage, what happened the previous season did indeed seem like an aberration.  Dale Murphy really seemed invincible.  There was no apparent reason to think he couldn't perform at a similarly high level for another five to ten years; maybe longer.  Sure; why not?

While many organizations in the market for a free agent would never take a (long-term) chance on anyone over thirty - regardless of their past accomplishments - there are others with money to burn; they don't hesitate to invest in these prized commodities, especially ones that have hit 40 or more home runs recently.  The assumption is that will go on forever, or at least another five or ten years; depending on the length of the contract.  They never learn; but we do.

In Dale Murphy's case, fresh off that sensational forty-four dinger - .580 SLG campaign, came this rude awakening:

AGE     G           R        HR     RBI     BA   OBP   SLG
32        156         77        24       77     .226   .313    .421
33        154         60        20       84     .228   .306    .361
34        154         60        24       83     .245   .318    .417
35        153         66        18       81     .252   .309    .415
36         18           5          2         7     .161   .175    .274
37         26           1          0         7     .143   .224    .167

Is the thirty-two year-old Albert Pujols well on his way to a similar offensive catastrophe?  Probably not; but it's interesting to note, Dale Murphy's age-31 season was significantly better than the King's, who has been steadily declining for the past three years, to begin with.  For Albert to even come close to the production of 2011 - his worst season - would be no easy task, after this unprecedented slower than slowest of starts, featuring just 4 RBIs in 22 games; and of course, no home runs, either.

By the way, with Albert's latest 0 for 4 effort on Sunday, he broke a thirty-eight year-old record for home run futility to start a new season with a new team, previously held by former-Giants-turned-Padres slugger, Willie McCovey.  Both Willie and Albert were among players who had amassed at least 400 career home runs with only one team, then changed teams.  In McCovey's case, his 1974 move from San Francisco to San Diego came at the age of 36; which partly explains why it took him 87 ABs to hit his first home run as a member of the Padres.  On Sunday, April 29, 2012, the 32-year old Pujols now stands at 88 ABs without a dinger, and counting.  Also, counting a few homer-less games towards the end of last season, Pujols has safely avoided hitting a home run in a new personal record for futility:  28 consecutive games.  For those trying to find something that might indicate Pujols is coming out of his terrible hitting funk, this is of little consolation.  Sorry.

If Pujols is indeed mired in an inescapable career downward spiral, it should really come as no surprise; after all, it gradually began right around the time he turned thirty, and he's not getting any younger.

Meanwhile, Cardinal Nation is grateful for the eleven years of peak performance Albert delivered; they're also breathing a sigh of relief for sidestepping those next ten years.


Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Harsh Reality Facing Pujols and Angels

Albert Pujols can't seem to buy a home run this year; nor many hits of any kind for that matter.  Indeed, his unusually slow start to the 2012 season - featuring zero home runs in 21 games spanning 84 ABs - has reached epic proportions.  Not only is it the longest home run drought to begin a season in his entire career; including the end of last season, Pujols has now gone 27 regular season games without a home run; that's a brand-new record for the longest drought of his career, edging out a 26-game dry-spell he endured just last season.  Could this be some sort of trend?

Needless to say, every new personal milestone involving the 32-year-old King is creating quite a stir with Halo-Nation's fervent fans; many of whom still marvel at owner Arte Moreno's generosity, which will keep the handsomely-paid Albert taking his hacks at the dish - dressed up like an Angel - for a full decade.

Maybe it's just a coincidence that these significant power outages have occurred so recently for the 32-year old former Cardinal icon, who has been stuck on 445 career home runs since late last September - when the unlikely championship run of the unlikely wild card Cardinals was in full swing.  By that time, the team had managed to put aside the pending soap opera that had been brewing all season long, when the ill-fated contract negotiations between the Cardinals' front office and its pending free agent superstar stalled, well before the 2011 regular season even began.

When Pujols got off to the worst start of his career (at the time), it seemed reasonable to conclude that King Albert was so distracted by all the fuss he was unable to concentrate on his game; at least during the early part of the campaign.  By late August, his early-season frustrations had long since faded; by season's end, Pujols was once again among the league leaders in most offensive categories, and his hot hitting continued throughout the historic postseason the Cardinals would enjoy.

With his World Championship mission accomplished, and new chapter in his life about to unfold, a relaxed and confident Pujols seemed to effortlessly breeze through his first Spring Training as a member of the LA Angels of Anaheim; it seemed a foregone conclusion he was going to have a monster year for his new team.  Personally, I thought he was the odds-on favorite to win his first AL MVP Award, and I thought the Halos would finally sneak past the Texas Rangers in the AL West.  Yes, I bought into the Pujols mystique, but after eleven years of greatness, it seemed reasonable for that to continue for another year.  Hmm.

Reality check, please:  After just the first 21 games of the season, both scenarios seem unlikely, as the Angels - off to their worst start in franchise history - have won but six of those games and now trail the Rangers by 9 or 10 games (I've lost track) - off to their best start in franchise history.  What a coincidence.

It's interesting to note, among all players with 400 or more home runs with one team who changed teams, only a 36-year old Willie McCovey (87 ABs) in 1974 (Padres) went longer (just 3 ABs) than where Albert currently stands before finally hitting a home run.  McCovey finished that season with 22 home runs; Pujols has never hit less than 32 in a season; believe it or not.

Even the aging-beyond-belief Willie Mays only waited 50 ABs in 1972 before connecting for his new team - the New York Mets, but at age 41, the Say Hey Kid  was simply a public relations relic; reuniting with his old fan base from days of yore.

Of course, the season is still quite young, but the numbers Pujols has posted so far have gone from bad to worse (.226 BA/.278 OBP/.310 SLG), featuring a previously unheard-of 0 for 20 streak; perhaps  21 was his lucky number - a seeing-eye single to center broke the spell - but he was quickly erased, inexplicably trying to stretch that knock into a double - already the fourth time Pujols had run his team out of an inning so far this year.  Naturally, the next hitter, Torii Hunter got a base hit, but the pending rally fizzled, while an obviously frustrated Pujols stewed.

Baseball analysts have offered a myriad of explanations for this previously unheard-of lack of production:

*"Marine air effect" - The heavy, moist air at Angels' Stadium - especially during night games - turns home runs into routine fly balls to the warning track.  Teammate Torii Hunter reportedly warned Albert about this adverse condition prior to Pujols launching a couple of "bombs" which he thought would be long gone; but not quite.  This clearly frustrated the Machine, and it may have attributed to his recent 0 for 20 nightmare - the longest hit-less streak of his career.

*"The Shift" - Knowing that Pujols has been pulling just about everything - on the ground - opposing teams have been stacking the left side of the infield with extra defenders, turning base hits into easy outs.

*"Too much pressure" - The theory goes that Pujols is simply trying too hard to justify the huge contract, so he's not relaxed and swinging free and easy at the plate.

*"No protection in the lineup" - Albert's not getting any fat pitches to hit since opposing pitchers don't mind pitching around him to get to someone like Torii Hunter, who is also struggling at the plate.  The big problem is, Pujols is chasing a lot of pitches outside the strike zone, so he's getting himself out by being over-anxious.

*"Unfamiliarity with AL pitchers" - Since he hasn't faced many of the AL teams on a regular basis, he doesn't know what to expect the pitchers to throw him.  Funny, but Pujols actually had a higher career batting average against AL pitching than NL pitching, before even shifting venues.  Of course, as the 2001 NL Rookie of the Year, challenged by the same set of circumstances, young Albert somehow managed to feast on NL pitching all season long (.329 BA - 37 HR - 130 RBI).  Go figure.

*"The hitting coach is not 'coaching' very well" - Sure; throw '88 World Series hero Mickey Hatcher under the bus because he hasn't corrected the problem with Pujols.  Somehow, I don't think the King relies on helpful tips from the Angels' lower echelon management team to improve his swing; although it probably wouldn't hurt!

Another theory that no Angels fan wants to believe is true, is a bit harsher, but perhaps more realistic:

Quite simply, the greatest player of our time is past his prime; maybe even well past his prime.

It's so hard to fathom; especially, how well he performed down the stretch for the Cardinals, as they stormed into the postseason; and the three-home run Game Three performance Albert delivered in last year's World Series is still etched deeply into our national consciousness; like it happened only yesterday.  Surely, he's got much more left in the tank; more Pujols-like offensive numbers that we've grown so accustomed to seeing, year in and year out.

Quite possibly, this remarkable athlete, known to so many of his admirers as "The Machine", is really human after all.  He's on the down-side of age thirty, when most ballplayers show noticeable signs of declining performance.  More than likely, Albert Pujols is no longer the player he was just a few short years ago, because age catches up with everybody; even some of the players who seemed like they would go on forever.

Let's take a look at the production Albert Pujols provided for the Cardinals, the last time they won the World Series, prior to 2011 - way back in 2006.  His career stats are directly below 2006.  2011 - His worst year ever, is the third set of numbers.

49 HR - 137 RBI - .331 BA/.431 OBP/.671 SLG (2006)
42 HR - 125 RBI - .327 BA/.419 OBP/.614 SLG (CAREER)
37 HR -   99 RBI - .299 BA/.366 OBP/.541 SLG (2011)

After 2006, the steady decline in Pujols' offensive production also happened to coincide with a steady increase in the number of times he grounded into double plays (GIDP).  In 2007, Albert led the NL; doing it a then-career high 27 times.  Proving that was no fluke, Pujols established yet another career high in 2011 - his final season with the Cardinals - going out on top with another NL-Leading GIDP total:  29 (Barely missing his goal of 30, but maybe he can do it this year).

While most players reach their peaks in their late-20s - early-30s (Hall of Fame examples include George Brett (32), Joe Morgan (33), Eddie Mathews (32), Johnny Bench (30), Duke Snider (30), Ernie Banks (29), Wade Boggs (31), and Carl Yastrzemski (31), some manage to remain highly productive even into their mid-to-late 30s - Paul Molitor is a classic example of a highly productive "war horse".

Others, like Don Mattingly and Dale Murphy were superstar-caliber performers for just a handful of seasons, then almost fell off into oblivion by the time they reached 30.  Mattingly was out of baseball by the age of 34; sadly, Murphy hung on well into his late 30s, but should have taken Donny Baseball's cue and hung 'em up by age 34, at the latest.

Beginning in his age 32 season, Murphy experienced career lows* in most offensive categories, which strangely enough, came on the heels of career highs+ (since 1982) in most offensive categories, just one year prior; I really found it hard to believe, but here's what happened:

AGE     G     R     HR     RBI      BA      OBP       SLG
31       159*  115    44+    105     .295     .417+     .580+
32       156*   77*   24*     77*    .226*    .313*     .421*

That's a stunning drop-off in production from one season to the next; going from what was essentially, a career year in his age-31 season, to a career dud in his age-32 season.  Ironically, Pujols is now into his age-32 season, but unlike Murphy, had an off year in his age-31 season, hitting under .300 with less than 100 RBI for the first time in his storied career.  Strangely enough, Pujols is currently hitting .226 in the early stages of this season; matching the low average of Murphy at the same age.  However, the chances of Pujols going an entire season at this current pace is unfathomable.  Perhaps in Year Ten of the Contract, .226 is doable; we'll see.

As far as Mattingly is concerned; his career skyrocketed like few have ever done - between ages 23 through 25 - then began noticeably tapering off between ages 26 through 28.  By the time he was 29 until he retired after his age 34 season, Mattingly was only slightly better than an average ballplayer.

Both players were extremely durable during their brief career peaks, playing just about every game of every season before hitting that mysterious "wall".  It's difficult to understand how their skills declined so rapidly; sometimes, the bodies just can't respond to the physical demands the game of baseball requires.

Arguably, even a substantially less productive Albert Pujols may still be better than 90% of the rest of MLB's players.  However, in light of his steady decline in recent years, it appears 2012 will be no better than 2011.  In fact, it will probably be a bit worse in most measurable categories.  When Arte Moreno signed this aging icon to that 10-year - nearly quarter of a billion dollar contract - I wonder what his expectations were for King Albert?  Was he star-struck by the dazzling World Series display in Game Three, when Pujols tied the Bambino and Mr October by going deep three times in such dramatic fashion?

The answer is, probably so.  I suppose it's hard to blame the man who desperately wants to bring another World Series championship to his Orange County patrons.  Certainly, most of the loyal subjects originally bought into the Pujols hype; which, unfortunately for the Halos, is becoming a thing of the past.

If you want to believe in miracles; go for it.  Maybe the King can deliver one more really good season.  I wouldn't expect much more than a handful of "pretty good" to "halfway decent" seasons, however.

I hate to see what ten years down the road holds in store for this once great, former-St Louis Cardinal icon.  Sadly, the end of this Hall of Fame career may well turn into a nightmare for the King and all his Southern California minions; much sooner than anyone expects.

Time will tell, but reality seems to be  growing harsher with each passing day, as a bewildered Albert Pujols tries to cope with rapidly diminishing skills in just the first year of what seems likely to be the biggest free agent disaster in MLB history.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Pujols Should Play Third Base

 "I don't think our goal is to keep everyone happy.  Our goal is to keep guys productive and find roles,         and that's what we need to search for." - Angels Manager, Mike Scoscia

Good news, Mike; if you're looking to keep guys productive and find roles; search no more.  I have the answer; but it's a bold move.  However, bold moves are what it's going to take to compete with the vastly superior Texas Rangers.  Some observations:

The LA Angels of Anaheim need to get last year's rookie sensation, Mark Trumbo into the lineup every single game, not just 10 out of 16 games (his current pace).  The reason Trumbo needs to play every day is simple:  Trumbo is the only Angel currently slugging over .500; actually, he's closer to .600 (.567), so that's all the more reason to get him in there every day; that's clearly obvious.

Where to play Mark Trumbo?  The experiment at third base hasn't worked; sticking him in the outfield isn't the answer.  The answer:  First base; his natural position.  "But Albert Pujols plays first base", they cried.

Not anymore.  He needs to move across the diamond; to third base.  Albert played quite a bit of third base during his 2001 rookie year with the Cardinals, and played it reasonably well, with above-average  range.  He also played some left field, but at this stage of his career, putting him in the outfield might not be a good idea; that's probably an understatement.  However, he's a very good fielding first baseman, with great reflexes and instincts; playing the hot corner should be no problem for The Machine.  He's got a great throwing arm to go along with those soft hands, so why not give it a try?  It's all the rage; if Miguel Cabrera and Hanley Ramirez can do it, why not the King?

If nothing else, it would shake things up on a team that appears to be pressing; the biggest "presser" on the team is Phat Albert.  By taking on a new position, it would help him get his mind off trying to hit home runs every single at-bat, and would help restore some enthusiasm on what is currently a moribund team, and a disheartened fan base.  In other words, Pujols would once again be a hero, just for making the effort to be a "team player".  That kind of stuff goes a long way in building team chemistry and whatnot.  Not only would it be a public relations coup, it just makes sense to get Trumbo's bat in the lineup every day.  Without trying to make anyone look bad, here's an interesting comparison:

Pujols -    16 G - 65 AB - 16 H - 0 HR - 6 R - 4 RBI - 5 BB - 0 SB - .246 BA/.300 OBP/.354 SLG
Trumbo - 10 G - 30 AB - 10 H - 2 HR - 7 R - 6 RBI - 4 BB - 1 SB - .333 BA/.412 OPB/.567 SLG

So, what have we here?  Pujols has had more than twice as many trips to the plate as Trumbo; yet Mark has out-homered him, scored more often, driven in more runs, and has even stolen a base, while slugging over 200 points higher.  Other than that, they're about even; just kidding.

Let's face it; although the season is barely 10% complete, the Angels cannot afford to stand pat, if they hope to contend in the AL West race.  The Halos really have nothing to lose; much to gain.  They're already seven games behind rival Texas, and falling fast; and the way things are going, they'll be fighting only for a wild card spot by the middle of May; at best.  I don't think that's what Arte Moreno had in mind when he brought the Machine on board.  I think he envisioned some extended postseason play for his team; possibly a World Series championship.

It's a simple solution to the problem of adding more offense to a lineup whose offense has so far this season, been very "offensive" to witness.  The natives are getting restless; this is a team that is not only falling by the wayside in the AL West race; they are also looking pathetic compared to the rival LA Dodgers, with Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier getting all the positive headlines in that highly competitive Southern California market.  The Angels really need to stir things up; this appears to be the best strategy.

But will Mike Scoscia have the guts to try it?  If his goal is to keep "the most productive lineup" on the field and "find the right roles" for his players; this makes sense.  Otherwise, it's going to be a long season of discontent in Anaheim.  Going to Disneyland would be the best bet for families looking for the best value for their entertainment dollars; sad but true.

Friday, April 20, 2012

First-Place Cardinals Defy Conventional Wisdom

The 2012 season is barely two weeks old, and the Cardinals continue to find themselves perched atop the NL Central with a record of 9-4; that's not surprising, based on the team's impressive overall performance in both hitting and pitching.  How they got there; that's the big surprise.

Indeed, the Cardinals' early success in 2012 seems to fly in the face of conventional wisdom, but as we discovered in 2011, that's nothing new for these high-flying World Champion Redbirds.

First of all, St Louis was not supposed to maintain their status as an elite MLB team when free agent superstar Albert Pujols abandoned his eleven-year Cardinal legacy in favor of the bigger payday Angels owner Arte Moreno offered.  After all, when a team loses the face of its franchise - particularly of the magnitude of King Albert - they're not expected to easily recover from that loss.  The signing of free agent Carlos Beltran was considered to be a step in the right direction, at best; not the solution.

Meanwhile, Tony LaRussa's surprising retirement, along with pitching coach Dave Duncan's indefinite leave of absence to tend to his ailing wife, was considered to be another insurmountable obstacle for the team to overcome; especially with an "inexperienced" manager - Mike Matheny - taking over the helm.

As the Cardinals were getting the kinks out during Spring Training, the ace of the pitching staff  - Chris Carpenter - experienced a reoccurring shoulder problem which will keep him out of commission for an indefinite period of time.  Forced into the starting rotation was the promising right-handed hurler, Lance Lynn, who displayed remarkable postseason poise coming out of TRL's bullpen, which the Cardinals hoped would translate into becoming a successful starter for Mike Matheny; at least until Carp's return to health.

With an aging core of veterans who have had a history of health issues, it wasn't long before one of those aging veterans - Lance Berkman - came up lame in the fifth game of the season, with a slightly torn right calf muscle.  After missing the next five games, Berkman's return to the starting lineup was short-lived; a re-aggravated calf muscle while chasing after a foul pop fly now has him on the 15-day disabled list.

Yet, through all the preceding turmoil, as of April 19, the post-Albert Pujols-Redbirds have compiled MLB's second highest team batting average (.293) and slugging percentage (.496) - trailing only the Texas Rangers - to go along with a third best on base percentage (.354) - trailing only Texas and the New York Yankees.  Their home run total (19) and run production (73) is also third best in all of baseball.  What makes all this seem even more remarkable  is the slow start from perennial-slugger Matt Holliday, whose current batting average is barely above the Mendoza Line (.203) - although he has contributed three home runs and seven RBIs to the cause.

What shouldn't have surprised anybody was the immediate impact David Freese provided in the heart of the Cardinals lineup; his first at bat of the new season drove in two runs, and he now has 13 RBIs to lead the team; although he's missed a handful of games with a sore finger, causing obvious concern about his durability for a full season.

Still, for the rest of this potent St Louis lineup, the beat goes on; the sweet swing of Carlos Beltran has already produced five home runs; twice, in a span of three days, the Redbirds slammed three home runs in the same inning; proving there is plenty of power up and down that lineup, despite the absence of Albert Pujols from that lineup, who has yet to connect for his first regular season home run while dressed up like an Angel (He did have seven long balls during Spring Training, however).

Perhaps even more startling than the Cardinals' power surge is how well the Cardinals pitching staff - minus the disabled-Chris Carpenter - has performed in the early going; surviving not only the loss of Carpenter, but the ineffectiveness of Adam Wainwright (0-3 - 9.88 ERA), who is still trying to regain the form that made him a twenty-game winner in 2010, before undergoing Tommy John surgery in early 2011.

Aside from Waino, the only other pitcher to sustain a loss this season has been Mark Rzepczynski (0-1 - 3.00 ERA).  The rest of the staff has been perfect; absolutely perfect, in accounting for the team's nine wins thus far in 2012.  In fact, their pitching line resembles something out of the Dead Ball Era, or 1968's Year of the Pitcher:

                             W-L            ERA       OPP BA      WHIP
Jake Westbrook      2-0             0.64         .146             0.86
Kyle Lohse             2-0             0.89         .149             0.59
Lance Lynn            2-0             1.50         .146             0.75
Jaime Garcia           2-0             3.06         .338            1.64
Jason Motte            1-0             1.80         .176            0.60

Of course, Adam Wainwright will soon start getting his share of wins, while some of these guys may even lose a few games along the way.  However, based on what we've seen in the early going, the quality of the Cardinals' starting rotation is excellent; it's for real.  Assuming a healthy and effective Chris Carpenter joins in on the fun, the Cardinals appear to be a championship-caliber team ready to defend their title.

It's apparent this team, from top to bottom, is loaded with talent.  Above all else, this team has displayed remarkable character and resiliency; a trait that became evident during last year's remarkable postseason run, and appears even stronger in 2012.

It's no wonder so many rabid fans of the Redbirds believe this team has what it takes to win back-to-back World Series Championships, with the familiar rallying cry:  "12 in '12!"  Why not?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Bobby V & Ozzie G: Masters of Media Disasters

When the Cardinals hired Mike Matheny to take over the managerial helm in the wake of the Tony LaRussa retirement, many baseball analysts criticized the move, citing Matheny's "lack of experience".  Many of those same analysts felt the Cardinals missed the boat by not pursuing the charismatic and overly outspoken former MLB manager (Rangers and Mets), Bobby Valentine.  After all, he had "experience".

When the volatile and egocentric Bobby V landed in Boston in the wake of the September Red Sox Collapse of '11, many baseball analysts thought it would be a good fit, for some reason.  I suppose it seemingly made sense to have a manager who is so comfortable being in the spotlight as Valentine; surely he would handle the media with relative ease and charm, while gaining the respect and admiration of his ballplayers; so they thought.

Of course, Bobby V's dumb move of openly criticizing the struggling Kevin Youkilis on a local Boston television station ("I'm glad he walked twice in yesterday's game, so his on base percentage will be higher than his batting average.") is the hot national story for Monday, April 17; however, it pales in comparison to the uproar created by the antics of the Miami Marlins' volatile and egocentric Hispanic manager, Ozzie Guillen.

In an interview with Time Magazine, the outspoken Guillen came across like the President of the Fidel Castro Fan Club (He "loves" him); a move so blatantly insensitive and dumb, an embarrassed Marlins front office hastily suspended Ozzie for five games.  Hooray; I wonder if this is what they had in mind when they hired this babbling jackass to take over the helm for the new-look Marlins - with all their overpriced and mostly over-the-hill free agents?

It seemed like a good fit, eh?  Surely, Senior Guillen would charm all those Little Havana residents into supporting this weird-looking, fundamentally ridiculous ball club, playing in that weird-looking, cavernous  new ballpark; so they thought.

When Guillen returns from his little five-day vacation on Tuesday, it'll be interesting to see what the reaction of the fans will be to Little Fidel's appearance in the home team's dugout.  Will they even care?  My guess is, there will be little fan reaction, because there will be little fan attendance.  When the season ends, and the Marlins are once again the last place team in the NL East, while hardly anybody bothered to come out to the old ballpark to witness those debacles in person; what will be the fate of Ozzie Guillen?

My guess is both Ozzie and Bobby V will be seeking new employment opportunities for 2013; while their former employers will be going back to the drawing board, trying to find another experienced manager to guide their teams deep into the postseason.  Good luck with that.

Meanwhile, back in St Louis, the quietly confident Mike Matheny seems to be adjusting nicely to the challenge of managing in the big leagues.  It helps when the manager knows how to communicate with his players by building mutual trust and respect.  It helps when the manager avoids making dumb and controversial comments to the media, too.  Over the course of Matheny's first year as manager of the World Champion St Louis Cardinals, there are bound to be some tactical mistakes made; moves that will be second-guessed.  That comes with the job description; he'll deal with it well; and he'll continue to improve his managerial skills.

When the 2012 season draws to a conclusion, Mike Matheny's "lack of experience" will have proven to be a non-issue.  He'll be in St Louis for a long time; his "experienced" counterparts in Boston and Miami won't fare so well, I suspect.

If nothing else, I'm sure both Bobby V and Ozzie G will provide us with a lot of laughs, along the way.

Monday, April 16, 2012

(The Other) Carpenter to the Rescue

After Sunday's 10-3 series-finale thrashing of the Chicago Cubs at Busch Stadium, the Cardinals stand atop the NL Central with an impressive 7-3 record, displaying a remarkable offensive prowess combined with solid starting pitching from everyone in the rotation except their ace, Adam Wainwright.

Waino, who was roughed up for eight runs in just three innings during Friday's Home Opening loss to the Cubs - his worst outing since 2007 - is still trying to regain the form that made him a twenty-game winner before undergoing Tommy John surgery last year.  Meanwhile, Chris Carpenter is still out of commission with an ailing right shoulder; his status remains uncertain.  Fortunately, Lance Lynn has pitched brilliantly while subbing for Carp; barring another unforeseen injury to someone else in the rotation, pitching shouldn't be a problem for the Cardinals.

Hitting doesn't seem to be a problem, either.  Could it be the reigning World Champions have a bit of a chip on their shoulders after so many naysayers viewed them with such disdain in the wake of the Albert Pujols desertion?  Or could it be the addition of free agent Carlos Beltran to the lineup has essentially replaced the 2011 version of King Albert?  Or could it be David Freese's postseason heroics were no fluke; rather a sample of what lies ahead for the talented third baseman, barring injury?

Freese, of course, has had an uncanny propensity for getting hurt in his brief career.  The general consensus is Freese will have a monster year, if he can stay healthy; he certainly wasted no time in getting off to a flying start by driving in two runs in his first AB of the season.  His torrid hitting continued during the Cardinals' initial road trip through Milwaukee and Cincinnati; by the time it ended, Freese had slugged three home runs with eleven RBIs; while his batting average stood at a Ted Williams-like .406.

Freese has certainly had a little help from his friends; after feasting on Cubs pitching over the weekend, the Cardinals lead MLB in four offensive categories:  BA (.299), HR (15), RUNS (57), and SLG (.504).  What makes this even more impressive is Lance Berkman has been out of action after tearing his right calf muscle while legging out a triple in the fifth game of the season; a 7-2 win over Cincinnati, at Great American Ballpark on April 9.

Meanwhile, David Freese was a last-minute scratch from the lineup for the team's Friday Home Opener against the Cubs; experiencing "finger irritation" on his right ring-finger.  Apparently, this strange injury prevents Freese from gripping the bat well enough to hit in a Freese-like manner.  Hopefully, both Freese and Berkman will be back in the lineup by Tuesday, when the Cards square off at home for the first game of a three-game series against the Reds.

To complicate things even further, hot-hitting Carlos Beltran was nailed on the right forearm by a pitch in Sunday's rout of Chicago, and was quickly removed from the game for precautionary purposes; the Cardinals can ill-afford to lose any of these guys for any extended period of time; however, the rookie replacement for Lance Berkman at first base - Matt Carpenter - has posted some impressive numbers in his brief appearances, including a four-hit five-RBI performance on Sunday, which featured his first career major league home run - a prodigious blast to dead center field, not too far away from the spot David Freese deposited his iconic Game Six walk-off blast.  Carpenter now has ten RBIs (as does Yadier Molina) in just 22 ABs, and now trails the sore-fingered Freese by just a single RBI for the team lead.  Of his nine hits, five have gone for extra bases - a pair of doubles, a pair of triples, and one home run.

As a footnote to Matt Carpenter's Sunday performance, the five RBIs he collected in the game is one better than current Angel Albert Pujols has driven home in nine games.  In addition to the four RBIs he has amassed, Pujols has raised his batting average to a robust .243.  On a lighter note, Pujols has also established a new "personal worst record" by failing to hit a single home run in his first 37 ABs this year - the longest homer-less drought of his storied career.

Getting back the Cardinals - the way things are going, Mike Matheny is going to be penciling "the other" Carpenter's name in the lineup on a regular basis.  Lance Berkman is so impressed with his replacement at first base, he said he'd "gladly continue sitting on the bench if Carpenter could pound out four hits every game."  That's not likely; but the way the rookie's been stroking the ball in the early going, it's reassuring to know this particular contingency plan might work out quite well, if needed.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Emotional Opening Day in Store for Redbirds

The World Champion Cardinals - fresh off a very successful (5-2) seven-game three-city road trip - will finally play their first home game of the 2012 season on Friday afternoon, as they host the Chicago Cubs, who are probably looking forward to escaping the Friendly Confines, after a disastrous (1-5) home stand that has even the most optimistic Cubs' fan already looking forward to next year.  Well, this team is not as bad as most people think, folks.

For the Cardinals - whose last appearance at Busch Stadium was the delirious Game Seven of the 2011 World Series, when they completed the most improbable championship run in franchise history - this homecoming will surely be an emotional event, as their fans show love for the Post-Albert Redbirds, which will no doubt include a long standing ovation for that legendary former-nemesis and newest-Redbird - Carlos Beltran.

Beltran, along with the rest of the heavy hitters on the team, has gotten off to a great start - almost too good to be true; but the fact of the matter is, Carlos has already hit more home runs (three) than the entire LA Angels team (two); and only one of those long balls was hit "long enough" to clear the fence (the latest, was of the "inside the park" variety, by the speedy Peter Bourjos).  Strangely enough, Albert Pujols - who hit seven home runs for those Angels in Spring Training, has yet to connect in the regular season.  Another oddity:  Albert has just two RBIs in five games, and both came in losing efforts; whenever Pujols has failed to drive in a run, the Halos have won twice, while losing just once; proving once again that baseball is a funny game, especially when things like that happen to former Cardinal icons who suddenly leave town for a tad bit more money (in relative terms), from an owner they've never even met, face to face.

Of course, the season has just begun, so it's highly unlikely the Cardinals will maintain a .714 winning percentage for the entire schedule, to win 116 games; nor are they likely to maintain the same torrid home run pace, which projects to a new MLB-record of 278 four-baggers; but that would be something, eh?

Strangely enough, when Alex Rodriguez deserted the team that launched his epic career - the Seattle Mariners - after the 2000 season to pursue the riches free agency afforded him; those Mariners actually won 116 regular season games in 2001, to establish a new MLB record.  However, proving how unpredictable the postseason can be, Seattle failed to get past the Yankees in a Five Game ALCS defeat.

As the giddiness of the weekend Cards-Cubs series envelopes Cardinal Nation, most fans will be anticipating a three-game sweep of the last-place Cubs by the first-place Cardinals.  That could happen, but it won't be because Chicago is going to simply roll-over for their long-time bitter rivals.  This team is much better than their won-loss record indicates; the only way the Redbirds will prevail is by executing the fundamentals flawlessly, every step along the way.  So far, the Cardinals have done just that in their head-to-head meetings with three teams many baseball analysts felt were superior in their prognostications - the Miami Marlins, the Milwaukee Brewers, and the Cincinnati Reds.

No doubt, the Cardinals are motivated by this lack of respect; it's fueled their desire to prove what they accomplished last postseason was no fluke; that they are still a championship-caliber team even after losing the former-face-of-the-franchise; old what's his name.  A new era of Cardinal baseball has begun, with a solid core of excellent players, such as David Freese, Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday, Lance Berkman, and of course, the newest addition - Carlos Beltran - who probably won't believe how passionately he is greeted by the fans, when first introduced.

It should be a very special moment, in what Cardinals fans hope - even expect - will be another very special season.  The fun has just begun for this very talented Redbird edition, as they try to accomplish something for the very first time as a franchise:  Back-to-back World Series Championships.

Why not?

Monday, April 9, 2012

Cardinals Playing Like World Champions

The Cardinals have started the 2012 season looking like a team that just won the World Series; not at all like a team in disarray after losing its best player to free agency, its Hall of Fame-bound manager to retirement and its long-time pitching coach tending to family matters; and whose pitching ace is sidelined for an indefinite period of time with an ailing shoulder, just for good measure.

Indeed, even after the Redbirds captured their eleventh World Championship last fall in historic fashion, many skeptics attributed that to just being "hot" at the right time.  So, when Albert Pujols, Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan vacated the premises, it was widely assumed the defending champions would stumble out of the gate, ice-cold, dazed and confused; led by a rookie manager - Mike Matheny - who would surely be overwhelmed by his new role. 

Well, that scenario hasn't been on the agenda, and it doesn't seem likely to happen any time soon.  The Cardinals are a very good team; maybe even a great team.  Certainly, the measure of just how good this team really is depends on how well they navigate through the long 162-game grind, and of course, whether or not they reach the postseason.  For this bunch of confident Redbirds who are off to a nice 3-1 start to the new season, reaching the postseason seems to be a foregone conclusion; they won't be satisfied with anything less than another World Championship.  Even the most impartial observer would have to say the Cardinals' chances are at least as good as anybody's, at this stage of the game.

Meanwhile, MLB's version of Sweeps Week featured some interesting results:

The Tampa Bay Rays swept a three-game series at home vs the New York Yankees.  In the Season Opener, the Rays rallied for two runs in the ninth-inning, as Mariano Rivera blew the save and the game for New York.  The aging Yankees have widespread issues, but starting pitching is their biggest concern.  Will the formerly-retired Andy Pettitte help bolster the rotation?  Don't count on it.

Baltimore's three game sweep of Minnesota was impressive; the O's seem to have some quality starting pitching in that rotation.  This could be the year Baltimore escapes the AL East cellar, although I'm not sure if the Yankees or Red Sox are ready to take that spot quite yet; but those appear to be the only candidates for that position in 2012.

Poor Boston.  They deserved a better fate than the three-game annihilation at the hands of the Detroit Tigers; however, blowing a three-run lead in the ninth inning is inexcusable; then, allowing the two-run walk-off bomb to Alex Avilla in the 11th-inning must have Bobby V wishing he was still managing in Japan.  If the Red Sox don't solve their back-end bullpen woes very soon, this could be another epic nightmare for Boston; a season-long disaster this time.

Poor Atlanta.  Apparently, they haven't recovered from their September swoon, either.  The New York Mets, with a healthy Johan Santana back in the starting rotation, and a healthy and confident David Wright swinging a hot bat, may be the surprise team coming out of the NL East this season.

Meanwhile, at Chase Field, the Arizona Diamondbacks overcame a six-run deficit to the San Francisco Giants on Sunday to complete a stunning three-game sweep of the 2010 World Champions.  The Giants managed to avoid starting the season at 0-4, when Barry Zito, of all people, pitched a four-hit shutout against the Colorado Rockies' - in their Home Opener, no less.  This is the first time a Rockies team has ever been shutout in any Home Opener (this was their twentieth); and it was Barry Zito who did it; Barry Zito.  It only took six years for that seven-year Zito contract to pay dividends for the Giants.

In other news, both the Cleveland Indians and Chicago Cubs would be 3-0 if their bullpens didn't blow late leads in their first two games of the season; however, they both came away with a Sunday win, and they both appear to have promising arms in the starting rotation.  Could this be the year both teams play each other in the World Series?  Not with those bullpens!

In the Battle of LA, the upper hand goes to the Dodgers, who just won three out of four games against the Padres in San Diego, while the much-ballyhooed debut of King Albert Pujols of the Angels was a non-event.  The KC Royals took two out of three from the Halos in Disneyland, as Albert's bat was a bit dormant.  So far, his only RBI of the 2012 season came on an infield ground-out in Sunday's loss to the Royals.

At this stage of the 2012 season, David Freese has driven in eight times (updated) more runs than the $240 Million Man.  With teammate Rafael Furcal off to a sizzling start, it's no wonder Freese and Company are getting a lot of RBI opportunities.  Despite being shutout in their one loss, the Cards have averaged six runs per game, and hope to improve on that average as they begin a crucial three-game series in Cincinnati.

UPDATE:  The Cardinals did improve that six runs per game average (to 6.2), by scoring seven times in their easy win over Cincinnati, 7-1.  The Redbirds jumped on Reds pitcher Homer Bailey for four first-inning runs, featuring three "homers" by Matt Holliday, David Freese (two-run job), and Yadier Molina.
One final observation:  Less than 17,000 fans were in attendance at Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati for the big showdown between the hometown Reds and the World Champion Cardinals.  That seems unusually low, in light of the fact that the Reds have won a few games in the early going, including an exciting comeback win over the Marlins on Sunday, and particularly, in light of the front office locking in their big-time slugger, Joey Votto, essentially forever.  Apparently, the fans aren't buying the notion that the Reds are legitimate contenders; or, they had a bad feeling about that game with "Homer" pitching?

Game two of the three-game series with the listless Reds featured another outstanding pitching performance from Kyle Lohse (2-0) and more long-ball from the heart of the Cardinal lineup; Carlos Beltran's solo first-inning blast (3) gave St Louis a quick 1-0 lead; David Freese's opposite-field shot (3) in the sixth-inning with Lance Berkman on base, padded the lead to 3-1, and that's how it ended.  The Road Warrior Redbirds are now 5-1 on the young season, and now have hit eleven home runs as a team; they're looking forward to their Friday Home Opener, although playing on the road doesn't seem to bother them at all.  This is a confident team, and it shows; they know they're good, and seem intent on letting the baseball world know they're for real.

They're certainly convincing folks from Miami to Milwaukee, and over to Cincinnati of that fact; in convincing fashion.  Hopefully, the Redbirds will complete the three-game sweep of the Reds on Wednesday, and continue their red-hot play when they finally get to play in front of the home crowd. I know there are thousands of fans who can hardly wait to welcome their heroes home; they'll get their chance on Friday.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Road to 12 in '12

The Cardinals opened the 2012 season on Wednesday by helping the new-look Miami Marlins inaugurate their weird-new-exotic ballpark by handing the Miami-nine something they were quite used to in 2011 - another loss, by a score of 4-1.

After the bizarre pre-game ceremonies which looked more like a Latin-version of Cirque Du Soleil, the home team looked anything but comfortable being introduced to the curious throng like cheesy beauty contestants escorted out to the field by a weird assortment of scantily-clad feathered-babes who were clearly enjoying the festivities way more than the embarrassed players.

Perhaps still in shock from the outrageous extravaganza they had been subjected to, Ozzie Guillen's highly touted squad promptly fell behind after the first half inning when World Series hero David Freese knocked in two runs off Marlins ace Josh Johnson; and with Cardinals pitcher Kyle Lohse yielding nary a hit through six innings, that was all that was needed to beat the Marlins, although the Redbirds tacked on another couple of runs, anyway.

After spoiling the Marlins' bizarre home opener with the win which also gave new Cards' manager Mike Matheny his first as a big league manager, the Redbirds headed north, where they would play the division-rival Milwaukee Brewers in their Friday home opener.  After spotting the Brewers an early 2-0 lead, the Cardinals played long ball to take command of the contest; in the second inning, an extremely fit-looking Yadier Molina hammered the first pitch he saw from Yovani Gallardo (now 1-8 in his career against St Louis) over the right field fence.  It was the first of four home runs the Cardinals would belt in the game; in the third inning, Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday hit back-to-back home runs to first, tie the game, then give the Redbirds a lead they would never relinquish.  Then, with a man on, David Freese hit the third bomb of the inning deep to left field, extending the lead to 5-2, en route to an eventual 11-5 victory.  Freese added another RBI later in the game, padding his two-game season total to five.  In case anyone was wondering, that puts the red-hot and healthy Freese on pace to drive in 405 runs.  Let's hope he stays healthy this year!

Cardinals starting pitcher, Jaime Garcia settled down nicely after yielding the two early runs; allowing no further scoring in his six innings of work.

The Cardinals, with a 2-0 record in the very early going of the 2012 season, have a two-game lead over the 2011 Cardinals, who dropped their first two games of the regular season, at home, to the San Diego Padres.  As a footnote to that slow start, when the Redbirds went on to win the World Series last year, it marked the first time since 1946 the Cardinals lost their season-opener only to go on to win the Fall Classic.

Later today, the long-awaited return of Adam Wainwright to the Cardinal starting rotation becomes a reality, as Waino squares off against the goofy Zack Greinke, who went on record prior to last year's NLCS that "nobody on the Brewers likes Chris Carpenter because he yells a lot and stuff".

I hope Greinke adds Adam Wainwright to that "least-liked list" as the 2010 20-game winner tries to garner win number one against the Brewers at Miller Park.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Is It Time for NL to Add Designated Hitter?

Being a National League-oriented baseball purist, I have always scorned the American League and their use of the Designated Hitter.  We've heard all the reasons why the National League-oriented baseball purists don't like it.  I won't even bother to rehash all the anti-DH rhetoric.  Whatever has been said before hasn't changed the reality of the situation; the Designated Hitter is not going away.

Next year, the long-time National League franchise - the Houston Colt 45's/Astros/Colt 45's - is switching from their role as doormats of the National League Central to super-doormats of the American League West.  At that time, both leagues will be comprised of fifteen teams, and thanks to that even balance of teams in each league, the novelty of inter-league play will be long gone, as inter-league play in 2013 will be happening somewhere in MLB, for a full 162-game slate; no exceptions.
I suppose for some pitchers in the American League, having the opportunity to bat in a real, live game when  playing a National League opponent in their ballpark is an exciting adventure.  For others, it's a terrifying experience, especially if they somehow manage to reach base.  Of course, the best strategy for accomplishing that unlikely feat is to stand in the batter's box like a statue, and never, ever swing at anything.  Occasionally, the opposing pitcher will psyche himself out and begin "guiding" his pitches to the plate, which of course, results in a total loss of control, known as the "base on balls".

God forbid, the number eight hitter reaches base with less than two outs, forcing the pitcher to attempt the dangerous act of bunting the runner to the next base.  Baseballs travelling at 95 mph with sharp-breaking movement - up, down, over, in, and all around the plate - are dangerous projectiles; just ask AJ Burnett, the former Yankee-now-Pirate pitcher, who hasn't had much experience at the plate in recent years.  AJ was attempting to perform some rudimentary bunting drill shortly after arriving at the Pirates' Spring Training facility in Bradenton, Florida in early March, when he fouled a bunt attempt straight back into his face, breaking a bone beneath his right eye socket, which required surgery.  He'll be out of action for another couple of months, giving him plenty of time to contemplate how much he's going to enjoy playing in the National League again, where pitchers get to hit!

Aside from getting hit by a pitch that breaks a bone, causes a contusion, or causes potentially significant head trauma, there are a variety of other ways for pitchers to jeopardize their safety; merely swinging at a pitch could cause a strained oblique (the latest injury trend these days), or other such muscle strains and/or tears.  Although a lot of pitchers are great athletes who love to compete, many aren't so adept at running the bases; consequently, if they happen to reach base somehow, they greatly increase the risk of sustaining some sort of freak injury; maybe even the "career-ending" type.

Back in 1972, the Cardinals had a colorful and very talented up-and-coming young pitcher by the name of Scipio Spinks.  In addition to a blazing fastball, Scipio also had blazing speed on the bases; in fact, Cards manager Red Schoendienst used him to pinch run from time to time.  Unfortunately, on July 4, 1972, in a game at Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium, Spinks singled, then later tried to score all the way from first on a double; running through the third base coach's frantic "stop" sign, Scipio tore ligaments in his right knee while sliding into home, which was being guarded by Reds catcher Johnny Bench - an immovable object.  The only good news for Scipio:  He was safe.  The bad news:  He was lost for the season.  Prior to that collision, Spinks had compiled a 2.67 ERA in 16 starts; however, thanks to notoriously low run support from his teammates, his won loss record was only 5-5; which probably explains why he tried to score on that play to begin with - runs were hard to come by when he was pitching!

Spinks returned to the starting rotation the next season, but he wasn't the same; he pitched poorly in '73, compiling a 1-5 record with a 4.89 ERA before having shoulder problems which essentially ended his career.

The moral of the story:  Even athletic pitchers who know how to hit and run the bases should not be allowed to hit nor run the bases, because they get hurt a lot.  Even the great Cardinal pitching legend, Bob Gibson - a tremendous all-round athlete - got banged up running the bases late in his career; the bum knee he got as a souvenir for his base running exploits hastened his retirement after the '75 season.

Most people know Dodger great, Sandy Koufax retired from baseball shortly before his 31st birthday, after the 1966 season, due to severe arthritis in his left (pitching) elbow.  Certainly, pitching didn't help his condition, but the elbow was originally injured while on the bases; diving back to the bag on a pick-off attempt, Koufax landed hard on the elbow, and the trouble had begun.

Why run the risk of having someone like a Roy Halladay or a Tim Lincecum running wild on the bases when their specialty is keeping the opposition from running wild on the bases?  It makes no sense, especially from an economic standpoint.  There are too many millions of dollars at risk nowadays to justify an antiquated adherence to the National League rules (I thought I'd never say that).

It's not really the extra offense that makes adding the DH a logical alternative now for the National League to adopt; it's more about allowing normal position players (who actually know how to handle a bat) to hit and run the bases, instead of pitchers.  So yes; it's time for the National League and American League to get on the same page, especially when the increased inter-league activity happens in 2013.

The two leagues have played by different rules for over 40 years now.  Although the DH position hasn't generated as much offense as originally expected, it's still more compelling to watch them swing the bat and run the bases than the average pitcher.  Ten or fifteen years ago, there may have been a few good-hitting pitchers out there - Greg Maddux, Mike Hampton, Tom Glavine, and Rick Ankiel (now an outfielder) - just to name a few; but that number seems to be dwindling to the point of absurdity.  Some of these guys are actually so inept at handling a bat, they're putting themselves at great risk just stepping into the batter's box.  Should I mention AJ Burnett again?

The bottom line is quite simple:  By adopting the Designated Hitter rule, the National League will be creating a bit more offense for the fans to enjoy, while giving its teams added flexibility with their lineups, and of course, protecting its most valuable commodity - pitchers - from banging bunt attempts off their noggins and whatnot.

Yes, baseball fans; it's time!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

MLB Prognostications Usually Off-Base

Bruce Sutter's 1982 Game Seven ninth-inning strike-out of Milwaukee Brewers slugger Gorman Thomas nailed down the Cardinals' first World Championship since 1967, and made the bearded relief ace a St Louis icon; and rightfully so.  The reliable future Hall of Fame split-fingered relief specialist was brilliant in his brief stint with St Louis, which ended after racking up a league leading 45 saves for a rather mediocre '84 Redbird edition.

When the Cardinals front office wasn't willing to cough up the money to satisfy the free agent Sutter's contract demands, off he went to Atlanta, where Braves owner Ted Turner gladly made him an offer he couldn't refuse.  By securing the services of the man who had notched save number 45 games just a few months earlier, Atlanta was now considered the odds-on favorite to win the NL West, beat any challenger from the NL East in the NLCS, and easily defeat any team that represents the inferior American League in the World Series.

Cards manager Whitey Herzog, never one to pass up the chance to give the media an entertaining piece of his mind, offered this assessment on losing his relief ace:  "I just became 45 games dumber."  Apparently, every major sports publication in existence agreed with Herzog; shortly before the 1985 season began, the overwhelming consensus of opinion pegged the Redbirds as a virtual lock to finish dead last in the National League East.  In the entire history of the franchise, it's doubtful the team has ever entered any season with such universal scorn.  That mindset remained intact after the Redbirds dutifully dropped the first four games of the season, and continued to struggle well into May, firmly entrenched in the NL East cellar.

Clearly, the slow start the Redbirds encountered was an aberration; they had already acquired via trade two key players - slugging first baseman Jack Clark from the Giants, and left-handed pitcher John Tudor from the Pirates - who would help lead the team to two World Series engagements over a three year period ('85 and '87).  Clark provided the only real power needed (22 home runs) in a lineup built for speed, while Tudor overcame a horrendous 1-7 start to win almost at will; over his final 23 starts, the crafty southpaw won 20 times with just one defeat.  Of those twenty wins, an astounding half of them were shutouts.  Joaquin Andujar chipped in with twenty wins of his own, marking the last time a pair of Redbird hurlers won twenty games in the same year; in what would be Andujar's last as a Cardinal.

That gaping hole in the back-end of the Bruce Sutter-less bullpen was filled to perfection by Whitey's implementation of what became known as the "bullpen by committee".  Guys like Jeff Lahti, Ken Dayley, and Bill Campbell took turns closing out games; and they did it to perfection.  Rookie Todd Worrell was called up in September and quickly asserted himself as the primary closer in a bullpen that never blew a ninth-inning lead all season.  Of course, that streak ended in the postseason - Game Six of the '85 World Series; we all know what happened.

The final piece to that great Cardinal team of '85 was Rookie of the Year Vince Coleman, the offensive catalyst at the top of the order who stole a Rookie record 110 bases, and in the process, created absolute havoc for the opposing teams.  He was practically unstoppable, until the postseason, when Vincent Van Go was finally nailed by an automatic tarp machine travelling at the blazing speed of one mile per hour.

In the end, the vast majority of the baseball experts who viewed the Cardinals as a pre-season joke pegged them as the prohibitive two-to-one favorite to beat the Royals in the World Series; we all know what happened.

As the 2012 season unfolds, the World Champion Cardinals - ranked 13th in the latest MLB Power Rankings - are given little chance of successfully defending their title, after losing another future Hall of Famer - Albert Pujols - to free agency.  However, the player that left the Cardinals isn't the one who drove in 130 runs a year; it's the one who drove in 99 runs last year.  That's a pretty big difference.

Although replacing that lost production doesn't necessarily have to come from one player, the guy the Cardinals signed in the off-season - Carlos Beltran - should come close enough.  Let's compare the pair's 2011 offensive statistics:
                BA    OBP    SLG    HR    RBI
Pujols       .299   .366     .541     37      99
Beltran      .300   .385     .525     22      84

Arguably, placing Beltran in the middle of that potent Cardinal lineup - which led the league in RUNS, BA, OPB and SLG - would greatly increase his RBI opportunities.  In fact, a healthy Beltran may easily surpass the 2011 Pujols production.  Time will tell.

Without a doubt, the Cardinals have enough talent to win more than the 90 games they won last season.  If they are able to make it through the regular season relatively intact, postseason play seems quite likely; if they're one of the ten qualifying teams in the hunt for another World Series trophy, I wouldn't bet against them.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Ten Teams Most Likely to Improve in 2012

The 2011 MLB season will be forever remembered for that outrageously dramatic conclusion - Game 162 - which settled two of the wildest Wild Card races, ever.  That final game capped off epic September collapses for both the Boston Red Sox, in the American League, and the Atlanta Braves, in the National League.

The beneficiaries of these epic collapses - the St Louis Cardinals and Tampa Rays both finished strong, and took care of business in Game 162; the Cards were easy winners with their ace, Chris Carpenter completely shutting down the Astros; while the Rays overcame an eighth inning seven run deficit to beat the Yankees, capped off by Evan Longoria's low-flying walk-off laser down the left-field line which barely had the height requirement to clear the lowest fence in baseball (excluding Little League fences).

Lost in the daily September Wild Card drama that was unfolding in both leagues, building up to that exciting night of baseball known as Wild Card Wednesday - Game 162 - was the contrasting lack of drama in all of the division races.  In case you've forgotten, just take a look at the margin of victory each division champ enjoyed by season's end:

Yankees (97-65) - 6 games
Brewers (96-66) - 6 games
D-Backs (94-68) - 8 games
Rangers (96-66) - 10 games
Phillies (102-60) - 13 games
Tigers (93-69) - 15 games

Not only did these teams play extremely well last season, getting career years from many of their key players; their divisional rivals, for the most part, had unusually bad years, which helped foster a great deal more disparity than normal between the top teams and those on the bottom of the heap.

Many of the teams that struggled last year appear well-positioned to rebound in 2012; some even appear to have playoff-caliber talent after investing in some key free agents and/or making shrewd trades; some teams were decimated by injuries last season but appear to be relatively healthy now; while others have up and coming talent waiting in the wings to emerge as star players right now.  The net effect in 2012 should be a great deal more parity from top to bottom, which should make the division races themselves, much more competitive, and - unlike last year - much more captivating for the fans.

Here are ten teams that should win a lot more games this time around.  For some, those extra wins have playoff implications; for others, it's just a small step towards respectability:

*Chicago Cubs (71-91) - They probably won't make the postseason, but old school new manager Dale Sveum has already had a positive influence in changing the lackadaisical Cub culture; making the players accountable, getting them to hustle and play sound, fundamental baseball; that alone should bring them back to respectability; dishing their number one head-case, Carlos Zambrano off on Miami doesn't hurt.  2012 PROJECTION:  79-83

*Minnesota Twins (63-99) - Had the worst luck with injuries than any other team in baseball last year, losing both Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau for extended periods of time; everything seemed to go wrong with this team last year; however, if they can stay relatively healthy this year, they should come very close to .500 this year - giving them the distinction of easily being baseball's most improved team.  2012 PROJECTION:  80-82

*Pittsburgh Pirates (72-90) - This team played well enough in the first half of last season to spend a day or two in first place in the NL Central; lots of young talent here, featuring center fielder Andrew McCutchen, who keeps getting better every year.  The rotation could be decent, if Erik Bedard stays healthy and AJ Burnett gets healthy and stays healthy while returning to his pre-Yankees pitching form.  Finally, if former-Brewer slugging third baseman Casey McGehee rebounds from a disappointing 2011 to knock in close to 100 runs again (like he did in '10), this could be the year the Buccos play .500 ball for the first time in 20 years; Barry Bonds' last year in Pittsburgh.  2012 PROJECTION:  81-81

*Kansas City Royals (71-91) - Sure, they were dealt a blow when they lost closer, Joakim Soria to season-ending Tommy John surgery, but they'll have Eric Hosmer for a full season with a strong supporting cast, including the slugging doubles machine, Billy Butler, defensive whiz Jeff Francoeur patrolling right field, and the talented Alex Gordon; they'll score a bunch of runs and could reach .500 level with any luck at all.  2012 PROJECTION:  79-83

*Colorado Rockies (73-89) - Many picked the Rox to win the NL West last season; that's how badly things unraveled for them; made many wholesale changes, including signing free agent Michael Cuddyer in the off season; returning to a hitter-friendly environment will help him return to old form, when the Metrodome was his home; throw in the hitting prowess of Troy Tulowitzki along with a healthy Carlos Gonzalez, and this team could lead the league in runs scored.  Pitching may be an issue, but they picked up a reliable starter, Jeremy Guthrie from Baltimore, who should give them 200+ quality innings this year.  Their number two starter is 49-year old Jaime Moyer, who would be the oldest human to ever win a major league game, if he does it; he'll probably do it at least twelve times if his body can hold out all season.  2012 PROJECTION:  83-79

*Cleveland Indians (80-82) - The Tribe got off to a sensational start last season, but gradually faded as the Tigers went on a late season tear; they have a solid pitching staff, but need Ubaldo Jimenez to pitch like he did in Colorado to make a serious run for the division title; Silver Slugger shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera should be even better this year; finally, if the oft-injured pair of Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore can play over 100 games apiece, that may help the magic return to Progressive Field all season long this time around.  2012 PROJECTION:  87-75

*LA Dodgers (82-80) - After getting off to a horrendous start last season, LA recovered nicely over the second half, fueled by Matt Kemp's monster near-Triple Crown-MVP-caliber season and the brilliant pitching of Cy Young Award winner, Clayton Kershaw.  The offense should be much better, overall, assuming Andre Ethier and James Loney return to form; adding the potent bat of former-Angel Juan Rivera to this lineup should help them score enough runs to win the very competitive NL West.  2012 PROJECTION:  92-70

*Miami Marlins (72-90) - After spending tons of free agent money in acquiring shortstop Jose Reyes, pitcher Mark Buerhle, and aging closer Heath Bell, while importing volatile manager Ozzie Guillen to run the ship, and adding the volatile pitcher Carlos Zambrano to the rotation, this team is expected to be much better; along with changing the team name, they'll occupy a brand-new stadium, but will it be enough to reach the postseason in the competitive NL East?  That's unlikely, but at least they'll escape the cellar.  2012 PROJECTION:  83-79

*Atlanta Braves (89-73) - They were one of the best teams in baseball for most of last season, boasting a young and very talented bullpen which simply ran out of gas in September.  The starting pitching should be good enough, assuming a healthy Tim Hudson returns to the rotation sometime in May, while Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrgens stay healthy and pitch effectively.  Second baseman Dan Uggla, who had a terrible start last year but came on strong at the end, should be able to put it all together for a full season; possibly good enough to earn him his first NL MVP Award; also, expect a healthy and trimmed-down  Jason Heyward to swing the bat much better this year; finally, if Chipper Jones can keep his knee troubles to a minimum in his final season to play at least 120 games, it could be one to remember; yes, they should be able to get past the banged-up Phillies this time around.  2012 PROJECTION:  95-67

*LA Angels (86-76) - When the Halos landed Albert Pujols, they became the best team in the American League, just like that.  Unless he sustains some sort of freak injury, Pujols will have a monster season for his new team, putting up typical AP numbers (last season was an aberration), and become a strong candidate for the AL MVP Award; especially if his new team wins the AL West this time.  Not only will Albert do much damage of his own at the dish, he'll make the rest of the lineup better, with his mere presence, batting third in the order.  Almost lost in all the Pujols hype is the addition of flaky lefty CJ Wilson to an already formidable starting rotation.  2012 PROJECTION:  96-66

These ten teams are projected to win 96 extra games, over last year.  Most of the extra wins will be coming from the 2011 division champions; the end result for 2012 will be much greater parity throughout major league baseball; and that means each division race is likely to come down to the wire this time around, creating even more fun and excitement than last year's Wild Card Wednesday.