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.

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