Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Expectations Rising for Pujols and Angels


192------------------------------------------------------2008 - Career High (OPS+) - NL MVP
189--------------------------------------------------------------2009 - Career High (OBP) - NL MVP
187-----------------2003 - Career Highs (BA/R)
178---------------------------------------2006 - Career Highs (HR/RBI/SLG)
168-------------------------------2005 - NL MVP
157----2001 - NL ROY-----------------------2007 - Career Lows (R/HR)
147----------------------------------------------------------------------------2011 - Career Lows - Continued  -(BA/OBP/SLG/RBI/OPS+) Career High - (GIDP)

The chart above tracks Albert Pujols' OPS+ over the first eleven years of his career (2001 - 2011) - the ups and downs.  It also notes any career highs and lows established in any particular season, along with the awards (ROY - 3 MVP) he garnered during his St Louis years.  After his career year in 2008 (based on OPS+), each subsequent year reflects a gradual erosion in production (based on declining OPS+), culminating with five new offensive career lows in 2011 (actually, six; since leading the NL in grounding into double plays while setting a career high is a dubious distinction).

Here's another format that summarizes in greater detail the same information as above:
 YR   OPS+
2001 - 157 - NL ROY
2002 - 151
2003 - 187 - Career Highs (137 R/.359 BA)
2004 - 173
2005 - 168 - NL MVP
2006 - 178 - Career Highs (49 HR/137 RBI/.671 SLG)
2007 - 157 - Career Lows (99 R/32 HR)
2008 - 192 - Career High (OPS+) - NL MVP
2009 - 189 - Career High (.443 OBP) - NL MVP
2010 - 173
2011 - 147 - Career Lows (OPS+/99 RBI/.299 BA/.366 OBP/.541 SLG) - Career High (29 GIDP)

In 2011, Pujols got off to the worst start of his career (at the time); and by the end of May (56 games), was only hitting .267 - with nine home runs and thirty-one runs batted in.  That only put him on a 26 HR/90 RBI pace, but he finished strong - not only raising his batting average 32 points, but also hit 37 HR with 99 RBI.  Still, it was his worst season, from a statistical standpoint.

For Cardinals fans, however, 2011 may have represented Albert Pujols' most heroic season; overcoming the distractions of his pending free agency; overcoming an uncharacteristically slow start; and just when he was starting to get hot at the plate, suffered a broken bone in his hand after being hit by a pitch, which was supposed to sideline him for a month.  Instead, he came back in half that time, and soon started hitting like the Albert Pujols of old; rallying his team to perform late season magic and postseason impossibility.

The only other season that ranked as high on the "heroism meter" was 2006 - his fourth best on the metrics scale, behind '08, '09, and '03; however, none of those teams won a single postseason game.  Pujols had little help from his teammates in 2006; carrying the Cardinals to a division title with more clutch home runs than imaginable; finally, getting some help in the postseason, culminating in that stunning five-game World Series upset over the Detroit Tigers - the American League's wild card champion.

This season, Pujols had a terrible month of April; by far the worst of his career.  However, he's had a strong May, which puts him very close to his production from one year ago; except the batting average, which is still only hovering around .240.  He's going to have his work cut out for him if he hopes to even match last year's sub-par totals.

While his recent power surge has been cause for celebration in Halo Nation, especially since the team has put together a nice winning streak (8 games heading into Wednesday); the reality is, his overall production is still below average (sub-100 OPS+); especially by his lofty own standards.  While he's definitely heading in the right direction, it's a bit early to jump on the "I told you so" bandwagon; especially by various members of the mainstream media who have smugly scoffed at the possibility that the 32-year old Pujols may have lost some of his batting skills; despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Perhaps he's still got enough left in the tank to help his new team catch the Rangers in the AL West race.  I'm sure that would be good enough to keep the Angels organization happy; especially the way things looked just a couple of weeks ago.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Pujols & Fielder Have Much in Common

The two biggest winners in MLB's free agent sweepstakes - Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder - have much in common, aside from all the money.  Both are power-hitting first basemen who once played for rival NL Central teams - the St Louis Cardinals and the Milwaukee Brewers.  Both were widely revered - even idolized - by their legion of fans.  Both chose to leave.  Both signed massive long-term contracts with American League teams - the LA Angels of Anaheim and the Detroit Tigers.  Both are under the employ of very generous owners who are trying very hard to put together a winning team for their fans.  Both will finish their careers as Designated Hitters.

One was expected to help his new team reach the postseason for the first time since 2009.  The other was expected to help his new team easily win a second straight division title.  The fans in both cities - LA and Detroit - were deliriously happy; their new teammates were absolutely giddy when the news of their signings broke.

Both teams already had capable first basemen - Mark Trumbo and Miguel Cabrera - that have been forced to play other, less capable defensive positions.  Cabrera willingly made the move to third base where he has performed significantly worse, as expected, than incumbent Brandon Inge, who was subsequently released, as the odd-man out.  Ironically, Inge's career has since been revitalized as the new third baseman for the Oakland A's; hitting home runs and driving in runs like Lou Gehrig in his prime, until recently sidelined by a trip to the DL.

Trumbo has been the Angels' most productive hitter since breaking in with the team last season.  No longer considered a viable option at first base, Trumbo has proven to be a defensive liability at third base, while a log-jam in the outfield has kept him out of the Halos' anemic lineup far too often.  To help give him more playing time, the team released veteran Bobby Abreu, who subsequently hooked on with the Dodgers, and is playing quite well; naturally.

Meanwhile, as the season reaches the Memorial Day milestone, both teams are playing significantly below their expectation level - losing more often than not - and have more than just a few disgruntled fans wondering if the price of admission for future games is going to be worth it.

Both teams have a myriad of problems that need to be resolved for the remaining 70-75% of the regular season, if they hope to make it into the expanded postseason mix.  For the kind of money these guys are making, there are more than just a few casual observers who think neither one is earning their keep.  Pujols got off to the worst start of his career - one of the most well-publicized slumps in MLB history - but has slowly begun to dig himself out of the abyss; especially after Friday night's three-run bomb in Seattle, which helped rally the Angels to a come-from-behind victory.  He then added a solo shot in Saturday's win over the Mariners, so perhaps he's on the way to producing more "Pujols-like" numbers this season, although his 0 for 4 Sunday knocked his career batting average down to .325; three points lower than he began the season.

Fielder has maintained a very respectable batting average all season long, but hasn't quite produced the overwhelming power numbers the Tigers organization was hoping to see.  With Albert's recent power surge, he's very close to matching the run production which Prince has quietly accounted for so far this season.  The batting average, on base percentage, and slugging percentage is another story.  Through Sunday, here are their latest stats:

              G      HR   RBI   BA   OBP   SLG   OPS+
Pujols     48       7      26   .227   .271    .387     85
Fielder    47       7      28   .317   .379    .489    138

162 Game Projections:  Pujols - 24 HR - 88 RBI; Fielder - 24 HR - 97 RBI.

How does this compare to the typical offensive production each player has generated during their careers?  Well, if Albert goes on to only hit 24 home runs this year, he will establish a new career low (so far, 32 home runs has been his lowest total).  Fielder has slugged as many as 51 home runs in a season, so his current pace would yield about half that total.

Here's what Arte Moreno and Mike Ilich were probably hoping for when they made those large commitments to both sluggers:

162 Game Career Averages (Through 2011):

Pujols - 42 HR - 125 RBI - .328 BA/.420 OBP/.617 SLG - 170 OPS+

Fielder - 37 HR - 106 RBI - .282 BA/.390 OBP/.540 SLG - 143 OPS+

Fielder has been hitting for a slightly higher average since joining the Tigers, but is drawing fewer bases on balls, so his OBP is off a bit from his career average.  The big concern, which should be no big surprise, is this year's diminished slugging percentage.  Quite simply, Fielder's power numbers were inflated by playing half his games at hitter-friendly Miller Park; at least compared to pitcher-friendly Comerica Park where he now plays half his games.  That's understandable.  Pujols is another story.

Not only has Albert never hit less than 32 home runs in a single season, last year was the first time in his career he failed to drive in 100 runs, although he came close with 99.  While he may be able to muster up enough power and enough playing time to avoid new career lows in those categories - he is almost certain to fall well short of these previous "career worst" totals, set just last year:  .299 BA/.366 OBP/.541 SLG.

Despite his recent heroics, the thirty-two year-old Pujols is clearly experiencing a rapid decline in his batting skills.  If this continues for another nine years, it's likely his career batting average will fall below .300, his on base percentage below .400, and his slugging percentage well below .600; perhaps closer to a mere mortal .500 SLG.

If that sounds blasphemous, consider that his career batting average since joining the Angels has already dropped from .328 to .325; his career on base percentage is down from .420 to .416; and even more alarming, his career slugging percentage has dropped seven points, from .617 to .610.  As it stands, Pujols is one of only seven players in MLB history with a career slugging percentage over .600.  He still ranks fourth all-time, behind Ruth (.690), Williams (.634) and Gehrig (.632), but now he's just one point higher than Foxx (.609).  Bonds (.607) and Greenberg (.605) also figure to go up a notch as Albert slides further down the ladder, under that magical .600 plateau; probably before the end of the season.

When he fades from that elite slugging status, his reputation as one of game's all-time greatest players will surely be tarnished.  Of course, no matter what happens for the remainder of his career, Albert Pujols will still be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, when the time comes.  Somehow, it's hard to picture him being enshrined at Cooperstown wearing anything but a Cardinals jersey.

Fielder, who is four years younger than Pujols, may have already reached his peak, although he should continue to be a fairly productive hitter for the bulk of his nine-year stint with Detroit.  Whether or not that body will have enough batting skill left inside to warrant another contract somewhere remains to be seen.  If not, perhaps he'll begin a new chapter in his life as a batting instructor somewhere; maybe the Angels will need another one by that time; someone who could possibly help a 41-year old Albert Pujols get out of another season-long slump.

In the meantime, it appears the Cardinals found a significantly better replacement for their departed slugger than the Brewers were able to scrounge up for their lost power source.  Here's their comparison:

                            G     HR   RBI   BA   OBP   SLG    OPS+
Carlos Beltran      46     15     41    .290   .388   .605      169
Aramis Ramirez   43      3      25    .238   .310   .402       91

With the Cardinals as banged-up as they are at the present time, they can ill-afford to lose the services of the amazing Beltran - who currently leads the NL in home runs and runs batted in - for any extended period of time.  He has a history of knee trouble which has already held him out of the lineup for a few games; Cardinal Nation is hoping the baseball gods will manage to keep him healthy for the duration of what they hope will be a very long postseason run.

In the meantime, both Pujols and Fielder have avoided injury this season, keeping them in the lineup day in and day out.  At least they've proven to be highly durable athletes in 2012; another common denominator.

The Cardinals could have used a little of that quality for their growing list of walking wounded this year; proving that good hitting ability without good health is good for nothing.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Greene's Game Winner Silences Critics

When asked to explain his somewhat unorthodox approach to hitting, Yogi Berra supposedly once said, "Ninety percent of hitting is half mental."  Behind all the zaniness of the irrepressible Berra was a ballplayer with terrific hand - eye coordination, who used that natural ability to become one of the greatest hitting catchers of all time.  He rarely allowed his mind to be burdened with outside distractions or an over-analysis of his hitting technique.  When asked what he was thinking whenever he was in the batters box, Yogi responded, "Think!  How the hell are you gonna think and hit at the same time?"

Nowadays of course, many fine hitters watch hours upon hours of video, trying to figure out what they were either doing right or wrong in their approach to hitting at any given time, and armed with that information, take appropriate action.  For some - "the thinkers" - this is a very helpful tool; for others, Yogi Berra's "non-thinking" approach produces the best results.

That "non-thinking" approach certainly worked for baseball's all-time hit king, Pete Rose, who shared his perspective in a recent interview with sportswriter Michael Dolan:

"I never watched myself hit on video and I never hit a ball off a tee, and I got 4200 fucking hits.  I mean, a guy strikes out on a ball that bounces in front of home plate, and he runs into the dugout to watch it on video.  Why the fuck would you put yourself through that?

I used to get texts from A-Rod a few years back.  A-Rod would say things like 'I don't know what's going on, Pete.  I'm hitting inside the ball.'  I would say, 'Alex, I have no idea what the fuck you're talking about.'  You can't think about hitting all the time.  Calm down!  I would tell him that you've got to just get a pitch and hit the fucking ball hard somewhere."

Let's face it; not all hitters are convinced that simple approach works best for them, especially when they're not hitting well; especially for extended periods of time.  So they continue tinkering with their swing and continue trying new batting stances, until they find something that seems to work.  Quite often they would have made so many adjustments, they come full-circle and return to an approach that worked well for them earlier in their careers, but abandoned at the first sign of a slump.

"Slump?  I ain't in no slump.  I just ain't hitting."  That's how Yogi responded to a Yankees beat reporter who was pestering the three-time AL Most Valuable Player about his uncharacteristically slow start, early in the 1957 season.  The previous year was one of Berra's finest, tying a career high with 30 home runs while driving in 105.  Yogi also hit a solid .298, but most importantly, racked up a career high .534 slugging percentage.

It was bound to happen; after an impressive nine-year run (1948-1956) in which Berra averaged 106 RBI per season, the 32-year old Yankees catcher had his worst season in 1957, establishing career lows in three key offensive categories:  RBI (82), BA (.251), and SLG (.438).  That last number really stands out, since it's nearly 100 points less than the slugging percentage Yogi produced just one year earlier.  It's also the best yardstick for measuring a hitter's true offensive productivity.  Not only had Berra begun hitting for a lower average, his extra-base power was diminishing, as well; not uncommon for players on the wrong side of thirty.

When an aging player experiences a noticeable drop-off in production, the problem is often exasperated by drastic changes the player usually incorporates into his normal routine, designed to "fix" things.  Typically, with all the changes happening, the player becomes confused and frustrated; especially if the fans and the media are constantly harping on what is perceived to be a prolonged "slump".  Confused and frustrated players are usually unproductive hitters; that's why they're confused and frustrated to begin with!  Unfortunately, by the time they start figuring things out again, their season is usually deemed a failure; especially, if they're an over-hyped superstar in the first year of a long-term multi-million dollar contract that seemed to come with a postseason guarantee as part of the deal.

Quite possibly, the pressure to succeed for some players is so intense, they self-destruct; especially when playing in front 40,000 now-hostile home fans, who boo them on every strikeout, pop-out, or error.  That could explain why Cardinals second baseman Tyler Greene has had little success playing at Busch Stadium; while perhaps his finest hour came in a two-home run multiple-hit game in Houston earlier this year.  ***UPDATE:  Speak of the devil; Tyler's 2-out-2-run-8th-inning bomb was a game winner in St Louis! With the Cardinals already mired in a four-game losing streak, and only four outs away from losing their fifth straight game - at home - to the worst road team in the NL - the San Diego Padres - Greene's opposite field blast off a pitch clocked at 100 mph in front of 40,360 delirious fans, has now become the beleaguered second baseman's finest hour.

Or it could explain why a young and talented Kansas City Royals team endured that mysterious twelve-game losing streak earlier this year in front of their adoring fans at Kaufman Stadium; yet have played quite well on the road, away from the distractions they encounter at home.

Or it could explain why even a seasoned team like the Boston Red Sox have had so much difficulty playing in front of their rabid Fenway Park fans; but when they hit the road, they start winning with relative ease, away from all the noise of talk radio.

Quite possibly, the best solution for players going through any prolonged periods of poor performance is to stop thinking about it.  That's easier said than done; especially when they constantly hear the outcry of public sentiment proclaiming them to be a bum.  Of course, the larger the market, the louder the outcry.  That may explain why some players simply don't feel comfortable playing under the intense scrutiny of New York or Boston, but thrive in more laid-back environments like Pittsburgh or Houston.

"Paralysis from analysis" can be a debilitating barrier to success in any endeavor; especially in a sport like baseball that requires split-second execution and timing.  The slightest bit of indecision on any given play can be disastrous; that state of mind usually occurs when players spend so much time thinking about every little thing they need to do, they overload their brains with useless information, and don't seem to do anything right.  If they were somehow unaware of their inability to perform their job description in a satisfactory manner, the fans would certainly remind them.

If more players would only heed the words of wisdom from both Yogi Berra and Pete Rose; to keep things simple; the quality of play would certainly improve, and the fans would really appreciate it.  That's a real no-brainer.  ***Finally; let's hope Tyler Greene will keep fans in St Louis cheering, rather than jeering his play.  The Cardinals needed him to come through last night in order to escape another bitter defeat; he did it, in dramatic fashion.  Lets hope this is the start of something big for Greene and the Redbirds!

Friday, May 18, 2012

Injuries Becoming a Concern for Ailing Redbirds

The good news:  The Cardinals have more than just a few players who are absolutely raking this season.

The bad news:  Most of them are injured; from day-to-day hamstring and/or knee issues to major shoulder issues which have them on the DL.

The latest casualty is Allen Craig, who got a late start to the season to begin with; in just 13 games, the unheralded Cardinal slugger had already driven in 19 runs; featuring five home runs and these amazing slash stats:  .373 BA/.424 OBP/.765 SLG.

That type of production is ridiculous, which if played out over 162 games, would produce a mere 237 RBI and 62 HR.  Unfortunately, Craig and that potent bat is heading back to the DL with hamstring issues, so Hack Wilson's 82-year old MLB-record 191 RBI seems secure.  Maybe.

Meanwhile, after splitting a two-game series with the Giants in San Francisco, the Cardinals lost the first game of a three-game series Friday night in LA (6-5) with a Dodgers team that rarely loses at home; even without all-world slugger Matt Kemp in the lineup (bad hamstring).  Obviously, if ever there was a time to capitalize on a very good Dodger team playing at Chavez Ravine, this weekend would seem to be the best opportunity available.  Chances are, a healthy Allen Craig in the Cardinals lineup may have provided just enough extra offense to turn that unsettling defeat into a victory.  I'm not complaining; just making an observation which millions of Cardinals fans have already made by now.  I also realize had Matt Kemp not been hurt, he probably would've made that one-run loss a two or three-run loss.

Despite their recent struggles, the Redbirds have in fact, displayed remarkable resiliency in the early going; first, overcoming Chris Carpenter's absence from the starting rotation with Lance Lynn's nearly flawless work more (in his first six starts) than taking up the slack; his two most recent outings have been not-so-hot; proving that he is human, after all.

For the most part, pitching has been a pleasant surprise for the Cardinals in the early going; although showing signs of weakness lately.  Without a healthy and effective Carp added to the equation pretty quickly, the second half of the season could be filled with peril; to say the least.  Yet the reality is, even if he returns sometime around the All Star break, chances are he'll be less than sharp.  Chances are he'd need several starts before he regains any semblance of the form he's had throughout his career.  In other words, this may be a lost season for the 37-year old Redbird pitching icon.

If the Cardinals have any realistic chance of defying the odds to repeat as World Champions, it may be the result of out-slugging their postseason opponents.  That's never an easy task when facing the best two or three starters on the top teams in baseball.  Certainly, the type of offensive production the Cardinals have displayed so far this year has been jaw-dropping; to say the least.  Thanks to the depth and versatility on the roster, the Redbirds have been able to maintain that strong offensive pace, even as the injuries to key players begin to mount; almost on a daily basis.

Manager Mike Matheny has already been faced with the on-going challenge of juggling his lineup, to fill the voids when the regulars are out of commission.  For the most part, these temporary substitutes have performed admirably.  However; sooner or later, the big guys will have to step up and grind it out, day in and day out, if the Cardinals are going to continue their potent offensive attack.  Heck, Carlos Beltran and Lance Berkman* could probably roll out of bed on Christmas Day and hit a 95-mile-per-hour fastball out of any MLB ballpark.  However, if they're physically unable to run the bases, or field their positions because their legs just won't allow it; St Louis could be facing nearly insurmountable odds this time around; perhaps even longer odds than they were able to overcome last season.

*Just to validate this supposition, Berkman entered Friday's game as a pinch hitter, with the Cards trailing 5-4 in the top of the ninth-inning, and promptly hit a game-tying home run.  Strangely enough, this was the third time within a week that the Cardinals rallied to tie a game, only to lose it in the end.

Getting back to the issue at hand; I truly believe this team has the potential of not only repeating their World Series success from last year; they have the potential of being regarded as the one of the best teams in franchise history.

That's saying a lot.  However, this is a team loaded with talent; possibly the best talent in MLB; all they need to do is keep their core players in the lineup on a consistent basis.  Easier said than done; but I'm always an optimist, when it comes to the Redbirds; especially after witnessing all those improbable events from last season that led to Number Eleven.

There's little doubt about it; injuries are becoming a concern for this somewhat battered bunch of Redbirds as May gradually runs into June.  There are many unanswered questions concerning the long-term health for several key players.  If those questions are answered favorably -and only time will tell - this team could be fulfilling Cardinal Nation's long-standing rallying cry:  "12 in '12!"

If not; then they'll still give it a good run.  Regardless of how this season plays out in the standings, one thing is certain:  The Cardinals are a team of character; a team of resolve.  They'll play hard every inning of every game.  Win or lose, their fans will appreciate the ride; as always.

I just wish we could have a little more luck with injuries over the remaining 75% of the schedule.  That's not asking for too much, is it?

Monday, May 14, 2012

Furcal & Beltran Have Much in Common

I don't care how good a baseball team is, they are going to have more than a few bad stretches of play during a 162-game schedule.  The Cardinals are currently experiencing one of those unsettling runs, which began with that discouraging twelve-inning fiasco last Friday night at the hands of the Atlanta Braves.  Inspired by their resilient victory over their nemesis, the Braves polished off the Redbirds on Saturday and Sunday to complete the three-game sweep.  Things didn't get any better for St Louis on Monday night; the best pitcher in baseball to have no wins to his credit - Ryan Dempster - pitched well enough to keep the Cardinals in their funk.  Fortunately, Yadier Molina's walk-off ninth-inning single in Tuesday's finale vs the Cubs salvaged an uneven 7-6 win, to close out the home-stand with a 1-4 record.

With the Redbirds beginning a West Coast swing in San Francisco on Wednesday, Jaime Garcia will try to get his act together after a couple of recent less-than-stellar starts, as he squares off against the Giants' Madison Bumgarner.  Perhaps the pitcher-friendly environment in San Fran will give the Cards lefty a boost.

Although the offense has been a bit inconsistent lately, the Cardinals still lead the NL in runs scored (198), home runs (148), batting average (.285), on base percentage (.356), and slugging percentage (.469).  A big part of that success has been the remarkable performances of both Rafael Furcal and Carlos Beltran; a couple of free agents signed by the Cardinals after the 2011 season, who are doing quite well in the early going of the 2012 season; to say the least.

This talented duo, teammates for the first time in their careers, have much in common.  The thirty-five year-old Beltran was the 1999 AL Rookie of the Year as a member of the Kansas City Royals; the thirty-four year-old Furcal was the 2000 NL Rookie of the Year as a member of the Atlanta Braves.  Beltran, a career .283 hitter with excellent power, has averaged 106 RBI per 162 games throughout his career; while Furcal, a career .284 hitter with excellent speed, has averaged 108 runs scored per 162 games throughout his career.

Unfortunately, both have had a history of knee problems; both have had seasons shortened due to those problems, at one time or another.  Furcal, who joined the Cardinals late last season to help the franchise achieve its NL-best eleventh World Championship, became a free agent at season's end, and was quickly signed to a two-year deal by the St Louis front office.  A good move for both parties.

Beltran was also a free agent at the conclusion of the 2011 season, and agreed to a two-year deal of his own to play for the Redbirds.  Still another good move for both parties, which probably would not have happened had another free agent - Albert Pujols - decided to stay in St Louis; rather, the former Cardinal icon chose the deal which gave him the most money; a deal he probably now wishes he'd never made.

While Albert Pujols languishes as a non-productive member of the LA Angels of Anaheim - a moniker team owner Arte Moreno adopted to generate more revenue for his franchise - his replacement, Carlos Beltran thrives as the most productive member of the St Louis Cardinals; and that's quite an accomplishment, since the entire team has been hitting like the 1927 New York Yankees so far this year.  Carlos has been doing a great impression of Babe Ruth to this point, as evidenced by his team-leading 13 home runs and 32 RBI.  If he keeps up this pace, Beltran will have belted about 60 home runs and driven in about 150 for the season; just like the Bambino, himself did in '27.  Okay, he actually drove in 164 that season; but this is the Sultan of Swat we're talking about.

Unlike the Sultan of Swat, manager Mike Matheny often uses the versatile Carlos in the number-two spot in the lineup, batting behind his new pal Furcal, who has been doing a nice job getting on base in the early going; so nice in fact, he's either leading the league in hits on any given day, or very close to it.  Rafael has also shown enough plate discipline to draw bases on balls with remarkable frequency, keeping his OBP well above .400.  In short, he's been the ideal lead-off hitter for the Redbirds, with these numbers to support that claim:  .359 BA/.425 OBP/.486 SLG.

Beltran has been the ideal power hitter on a team that has been at or near the top of the NL in home runs, since Day One of the 2012 season.  A remarkably smooth hitter with a beautiful swing from either side of the plate, Carlos has proven how well he can still play, when healthy; and so far, he's been relatively  healthy (although knee trouble has flared up recently), which has enabled him to post these very healthy numbers:  .295 BA/.403 OBP/.648 SLG

Likewise, the ability of Cardinals shortstop Rafael Furcal has never been in doubt, as long as he can avoid those nagging injuries which have frequently grounded him in the past.  Well, so far so good this year.

Although the Cardinals have been struggling lately, the big picture still looks good; Mike Matheny has used the running game with refreshing regularity; while Furcal and Beltran are no longer speed demons at this stage of their careers, they still run quite well.  Rafael, who has stolen as many as 46 bases in a single season (2005), already has seven, in eight attempts; while Carlos, who has stolen as many as 42 bases in a single season (2004), has already swiped five out of six; another encouraging trend for both players, and for their new team.

So yes, both Rafael Furcal and Carlos Beltran have much in common; both long-time veterans have had great success in their careers, along with troubling injuries.  Both are working under two-year contracts, and both have gotten off to a tremendous start this year, playing at an unprecedented level of excellence; and that's saying a lot.  The concern, especially for Beltran, is how well his knees hold up for the long haul.  Admittedly, it's a dicey issue; Cards fans are keeping their fingers crossed.

If Furcal and Beltran stay healthy, there's little doubt the Cardinals will be making a return engagement for postseason play.  For the Cardinals, this was money well spent, considering the combined income for both players is a mere twenty million dollars per year.  In today's environment, getting the services of two highly productive star players for millions less than the price of one fading superstar is quite a bargain.

I still like this team and I still like this one-two punch their free agents are delivering.  After all, there are lots of reasons the Cardinals are still in first place; Rafael Furcal and Carlos Beltran just happen to be two of them.  Let's hope they can continue making their contributions on a regular basis for the balance of the season.

Friday, May 11, 2012

2012 Cardinals Impersonating 1927 Yankees?

After the first thirty-one games of the 2012 season, the St Louis Cardinals are even hotter than they were over the final thirty-one games of the 2011 season, when they were by far, the hottest team on the planet.  But are they merely "hot" or are they just incredibly good?  At what point do we conclude this team is for real; that they are clearly the best team in the National League - quite possibly the best team in either league?

Taking it one step further, this particular Redbird edition is performing at such a ridiculously high level, it may well be regarded by Cardinal baseball historians as the best team in franchise history.

Far better than the fabled World Champion Gas House Gang of 1934 - featuring 30-game winner Dizzy Dean and fearsome slugger, Joe Medwick.

Far better than the '42 St Louis Swifties, who won 106 regular season games en route to an easy World Series title over the New York Yankees - featuring the greatness of rookie Stan Musial and the hard-nosed Enos "Country" Slaughter.

Far better than that great World Championship '67 team - featuring the electrifying Lou Brock and intimidating Bob Gibson at the peak of their careers.

Far better than any of them.  Certainly, the 2012 St Louis Cardinals have the talent, but also have the usual caveat:  They need to stay healthy to accomplish this historic potential.  If they can avoid an over-abundance of those season-shortening injuries (they've already had their share), I like their chances.  In fact, if this team is as good as they appear to be after thirty-one games - they may well be regarded as one of the most dominant teams in MLB history.

Believe it.  The sample-size is still only about 19% of the 2012 season, but these Redbirds are putting up some staggering numbers in three key (saber-metric) measurements of performance that boggle the imagination:

*Run differential - +75 after 31 games.  Aside from the Texas Rangers, no other MLB team is even within striking distance.  What this means is the Cardinals are scoring - on average - nearly two and a half more runs per game than their opponents (actually, 2.42).

*OPS+ - Forget batting averages, slugging percentages, home runs, and all those other traditional measurements of offensive production.  This number summarizes everything.  Keep in mind that a score of 100 is "average".  On a broader scale, even a few ticks higher than average can result in lots of extra wins.  After 31 games, the Cardinals' composite total is a whopping 128.

*ERA+ - Forget the traditional earned run average, strikeouts, hits allowed, and all those other traditional measurements of pitching effectiveness.  The same rules apply as above.  After 31 games, the Cardinals' composite total is a very strong 119.

The Father of Saber-Metrics - Bill James - devised a very complicated formula (PYTHAGOREAN WINNING PERCENTAGE) for determining a team's winning percentage, if "luck" - good or bad - were removed from the equation.  Here's the formula, which of course, makes absolutely no sense to me:

                    (RUNS SCORED) ^ 1.83
(RUNS SCORED) ^ 1.83 + (RUNS ALLOWED) ^ 1.83

Let's suppose the Cardinals maintain their current pace for a full season; let's compare those projections to how the previous eleven World Championship Cardinal teams performed (as shown below).  It's no contest; the 2012 Redbirds has all those other great Cardinal teams outdistanced by a fairly wide margin.  They're on a pace to win 105 games in 2012; according to Bill James' Pythagorean winning percentage, the Redbirds should be winning more like 120 games this season.

It's interesting to note, the only team in MLB history that compares favorably to the early-season Cardinals of 2012 are the 1927 New York Yankees - considered by many baseball historians (including this one) to be the greatest team ever.  They weren't called "Murderers Row" for nothing.  Ruth and Gehrig were the featured attraction.

1926            89-65           817 - 678 = 139                 90-64                                   101        107
1931           101-53          815 - 614 = 201                 97-57                                     98        116
1934            95-58           799 - 656 = 143                 90-63                                     97        115
1942           106-48          755 - 480 = 275                107-47                                   103        135
1944           105-49          772 - 490 = 282                107-47                                   107        134
1946            98-58           712 - 545 = 167                 97-59                                     99        115
1964            93-69           715 - 652 =  63                  88-74                                     94        112
1967           101-60          695 - 557 = 138                 97-64                                    101        108
1982             92-70          685 - 609 =  76                  90-72                                     95        109
2006             83-78          781 - 762 =  19                  82-79                                     97          98
2011             90-72          762 - 692 =  70                  88-74                                    112         99

2012 STL    105-57          909 - 517 = 392                120-42                                   128       119
1927 NYY   110-44          975 - 599 = 376                109-45                                   127       122

Statistically speaking, the 2012 Cardinals of Freese, Molina, Beltran and company are almost identical to the '27 Yankees of Ruth, Gehrig, Lazzeri and company.  There may have been previous seasons in St Louis Cardinals history that began as robustly as the current one; however, that seems unlikely.  Whether or not this team can maintain this torrid pace for an entire 162-game schedule remains to be seen.

Regardless, the 2012 season to this point has been one of great satisfaction for Cardinals fans.  Yes, it's still early; however, there's a very good chance this team is only getting better; that's almost a scary thought.


Tuesday, May 8, 2012

High Flying Cardinals Still Flying Under MLB's Radar

The defending World Champion St Louis Cardinals - written off by many before the season even began - sit atop the NL Central (19-11), led by rookie pitcher Lance Lynn's perfect 6-0 (1.40 ERA) start and a powerful offensive attack that is, arguably, MLB's best; certainly its most balanced.

Somehow, Mike Matheny's Redbirds are flying under the radar, and that probably suits the soft-spoken rookie manager just fine.  Compared to Tony LaRussa, Matheny is practically invisible.  Meanwhile, the on-going struggles of the dearly-departed Albert Pujols grab the headlines, while Matheny and company grab the wins.  That seems fair enough.

Of course, there are many other stories that are far more compelling than the low-key, professional, mid-western Cardinals (one Brewers' blogger, Tim Schaefer, referred to the then-LaRussa team as, "boring and craggy", in the aftermath of Nyjer Morgan's September tirade).  Give me a boring and craggy team that wins over one filled with unprofessional lunatics that don't win; okay?  Tim's Brewers are currently in last place.

Getting back to those non-boring teams, just take a gander at what's happening on the east coast.  The Baltimore Orioles are still leading the AL East, while the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox are bringing up the rear; at least for the time being.  If Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine could get permission to play the rest of the schedule away from Fenway Park, they might win the World Series.  The Orioles, after sweeping Boston at Fenway - featuring an epic 17-inning marathon - returned home a bit tuckered out and now have to deal with the Texas Rangers at Camden Yards.  Monday night's reality check:  Texas 14 - Baltimore 3.  Tuesday night's unbelievable reality check:  Rangers crush O's again, 10-3; Josh Hamilton hits four (two-run) home  runs and a double - good for an AL-record 18 total bases.  Now THAT deserves some headlines!

More eastern seaboard drama features the inexplicable admission of Phillies' pitcher, Cole "I Cannot Tell a Lie" Hamels, when he said:  "I deliberately hit Bryce Harper with that pitch."  The nineteen-year-old phenom's crime was apparently being a rookie; along with grabbing an enormous amount of media attention - and loving every minute of it.  Just for fun, after the plunking, the irrepressible Harper, once he reached third base, stole home on the befuddled Phillies hurler.  In your face, Hamels!

This saga will no doubt continue to heat up; and continue grabbing more headlines.  It doesn't hurt when Harper's team - the Washington Nationals - have been the darlings of the national sports scene all season long; led by the NL Pitcher of the Month for April - Stephen Strasburg - and the rest of that vaunted rotation.  Future contests between these two now-bitter rivals will no doubt be national headline-grabbing events.  This just in:  The highly touted Nationals lost to the underrated Pirates by a score of 5-4, on a two-run walk-off home run by catcher Rod Barajas.

Along with the surprising success of the Baltimore Orioles in the American League has been the equally surprising success of the New York Mets in the National League.  When rookie Jordany Valdespin spun a Jonathan Papelbon fastball over the right field wall on Monday night for a game-winning three-run home run - his first big league hit - he became an instant legend in Mets' lore.  Of course, the Phillies fans have now added one more opposing player to hate.  Not to mention one more Phillies player to hate - the former closer of the Red Sox who had the audacity to give up the first hit to any batter with runners in scoring position all season.  Nobody's perfect.  This just in:  The Mets won again in Philly Tuesday night, 7-4 (their MLB-leading tenth come-from-behind victory).  The natives are getting restless in Philadelphia.

Boston has had little to cheer about so far in 2012, but that changed in a hurry when they called up rookie sensation, Will Middlebrooks, to replace the ailing Kevin Youkilis on the roster.  All Will the Thrill did was hit a game-tying grand slam home run against Baltimore in Saturday's eventual loss, then launch two more bombs in Kansas City - good for another five RBIs - in Boston's 11-5 win over the Royals on Monday night.  If you expect me to make some snide remark about Will's 9 RBIs in 4 games matching what Albert Pujols has amassed in 30 games; forget it.

Meanwhile, the Texas Rangers got off to the hottest start in franchise history, prompting the universal-media consensus of opinion that they were sure to win the next World Series.  The third time's the charm, eh?  Not so fast.  While Texas has stumbled a bit recently, those resourceful Tampa Bay Rays have taken it up a notch, even with Evan Longoria on the DL.  This must be the best team in baseball; at least for another week or so.  Not so fast.  Josh Hamilton and his four home runs deserve some kudos, while Tampa Bay just lost to the Yankees.  It's a close one; this fight for being acclaimed MLB's best team may take a while to settle.  That's why they play the World Series, I do believe.

Naturally, we can't forget all that excitement taking place in the other media hotbed, Southern California (aside from the Pujols Career Decline).  Matt Kemp and the Dodgers are tearing up the NL West, and a new ownership group - featuring the one and only Magic Johnson - is firmly in place.  I'm not sure how closely Magic has been following his new team this year, but during last week's press conference, an emotional Johnson acted like he was taking over a last place - not a first place - club, when he solemnly vowed, "We'll turn things around here; it may take time, but we'll get it done!"  Maybe he meant they'd try to figure out a way to slow Kemp and the boys down to keep the competitive balance intact in the Wild West?  Otherwise, I'm not sure what else "may take time"?  Nor did I hear anyone bother to inquire what Magic was referring to when he gave his little pep talk.

Other than all that newsworthy stuff going on around the world of MLB, the boring, craggy, Cardinals lead the NL with 39 home runs - five of which were launched Monday night against the D-Backs at Chase Field; (two more were launched on Tuesday night - both by Carlos Beltran, giving him 10 for the season, to go along with 26 RBI) they've now scored a NL-leading 167 runs in 30 games.  That's over five and a half runs per game, which raises the obvious question:  "Why haven't they won more games?"  Maybe they'll pick up the slack as the season moves along.

As one might suspect, the Cardinals also lead the NL in the "big three" offensive  saber-metric categories:


Oh yeah, they can also pitch a little bit.  Their 3.11 ERA is second best in MLB; batters are only hitting .234 against them (third best in MLB); and their WHIP of 1.11 is second best.

Now you know.  The St Louis Cardinals are a pretty good team; a balanced team.  The defending World Series champions may have lost a few cogs from last year, but the replacement pieces are working out quite well (the most notable "replacement" - Carlos Beltran - is on a pace to finish the season with 54 home runs and 140 RBIs); arguably better than the originals.

Meanwhile, those high-flying Redbirds are still managing to fly under the radar, and I don't know how they're getting away with it; especially with a MLB-best +70 run differential in the 30 games they've played; an incredible pace; probably an unsustainable pace.  At this current rate of domination, the Cardinals would end the season scoring 378 more runs than the opposition (902 to 524).  To demonstrate how ridiculous that is, last season the Redbirds only outscored their opposition by a total of 72 runs for the entire year, but it was good enough to reach the postseason.

In franchise history, the largest run differential of a World Series winner occurred in 1944:  +282.  The narrowest run differential for a World Championship edition was 2006's +19; which is no surprise, since they only won three more regular season games than they lost, before limping into the postseason; yet they managed to win eleven more games to grab their tenth title; didn't they?

To say 2007 was a  "down year" is quite an understatement.  The returning World Champions were outscored by an embarrassing 104 runs that season; the only season in the current millennium they scored fewer runs than they allowed.  On the other end of the spectrum, the 2004 Cardinals have been the most dominant team of the millennium, outscoring the opposition by a whopping 196 runs.  Of course, all that good stuff gets tossed out the window when the postseason begins; actually, it was the Redbirds who got tossed around in the World Series by the Boston Red Sox; a miserable four-game sweep.

Of course, the current 2012 season is still young - just 18.5% complete.  Still, the way it has begun is quite remarkable; it seems likely to result in a postseason berth for the Redbirds, barring some unforeseen misfortune.  Certainly, if the team maintains its statistical dominance, franchise history will likely be made; quite possibly, leading to a repeat performance of 2011's magic.  That would be something.

Come October, it's unlikely the St Louis Cardinals will be flying under anybody's radar.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Pujols Sideshow Finally Over

The Albert Pujols sideshow finally ended on May 6, 2012, in the 111th AB of what has so far been a season of well-paid misery for the former King of St Louis.  It ended with that long-awaited first official home run (although he hit seven in Spring Training) as an Angel; a wait that was so excruciatingly long and drawn-out, it reminded me of the similarly long and drawn-out death watch on the Nightly News of Spain's Generalissimo Francisco Franco, who stubbornly refused to die for weeks-on-end back in '75.

So, Generalissimo Alberto Pujols, who stubbornly refused to hit a home run for weeks-on-end, became the most heralded and well-covered failure in sports journalistic history.  As every new AB resulted in the same old outcome, the scrutiny intensified, the team losses began building up, and so did the boos launched in the direction of the beleaguered Alberto from his disgruntled legion of fans.  Pujols had never been booed before; at least nothing like the chorus that rained down on him after striking out for the sixteenth time this season, in his second AB of the game on Sunday.

These are the same fans who gleefully greeted the former Cardinal icon at a December 8, 2011 celebratory press conference with chants of, "Thank you, Albert!"  There hadn't been that much excitement in Anaheim since the Rally Monkey Halos won the 2002 World Series - the first in franchise history.  Clearly, the expectation level going into the 2012 season was as high as it's ever been in the aftermath of that first World Championship.  After all, with a future Hall of Fame-two-time-World Series-champion-slugger added to the lineup, the Angels were expected to at least be a playoff-caliber team; possibly, even a World Championship-caliber team.  If there's one silver-lining to the cloud hovering over the Halos' head, it's that the Texas Rangers have been scuffling lately as well, and haven't pulled all that far away yet (seven game lead).

When Pujols made his third trip to the plate with a man on base, and the Angels holding a slim 2-1 lead, he promptly launched a hanging slider 390 feet over the left field fence into the jubilant Angels' bullpen, bringing back memories of the three bombs he crushed in Game Three of last year's World Series.  On that occasion, Pujols had come into the game looking for his first hit in the Series, and had been criticized for a fielding miscue in Game Two which help facilitate a Rangers victory.  He was even criticized for ducking the horde of reporters after that game who were in search of comments from the King himself about his miserable performance on baseball's grandest stage.

It's safe to say he had a bit of a chip on his shoulder going into Game Three in Arlington, Texas.

Quite possibly, all those boos he had been hearing lately put another chip on his shoulder.  Perhaps the confused and indecisive Albert has been replaced by the focused and confident Albert; the Albert with a chip on his shoulder who finally got that first Halo home run in front of those now-cheering Halo fans, who suddenly wanted a curtain call from their new-found hero.  He didn't oblige them; I'm not sure he has any plans to accommodate any future requests for the rest of the season, for that matter.

Yes, Albert is back.  He'll more than likely finish the season with pretty decent numbers; after all, Pujols still managed to hit 37 home runs last year in St Louis; a season in which he endured a 27-game-105 AB homer-less drought.  That one must have seemed like a walk in the park compared to his most recent ordeal.  What a difference a year makes.

Whatever happens for the rest of the season is anybody's guess.  I'm pretty sure Pujols will keep that chip on his shoulder for the remainder of the schedule, which should be good news for the Angels and their fans.  However, it appears the honeymoon is over.  This very expensive ten-year marriage has gotten off to a rocky start; this doesn't bode well for the next nine years, as Albert's inevitable decline in production becomes more pronounced.  For the time being, at least there is cause for a bit of optimism in Anaheim.

The Albert Pujols sideshow has finally ended; and Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Brewers Trying to Pawn Off Nyjer and His Alter Egos

"Nyjer, he's got energy, and he felt it.  Sometimes a player sees something a little different than a coach does." - Brewer's manager - Ron Roenicke, trying to explain Nyjer Morgan's thought process

In the strange case of Nyjer "T Plush" Morgan - the weirdest player in MLB  - "seeing something a little different" is the norm.  The latest case in point - the night of April 18, 2012:

T Plush enters a game vs the Dodgers as a pinch runner, in the bottom of the tenth; score tied, 2-2.  Our hero proceeds to steal second, then advances to third on the catcher's errant throw.  After a couple of walks load the bases, with one out, MVP Ryan Braun pops one up to short center field, where MVP-runner-up Matt Kemp is stationed.

Such drama.  Kemp, who is the greatest hitter in the game at this particular moment, is a good center fielder,  but could be better.  T Plush, the bizarre folk hero in Milwaukee (last season, anyway), has been a bust for the Brew Crew in 2012.  With a chance of becoming a hero for perhaps one last time, T Gumbo (his alter ego's alter ego) ignores third base coach Ed Sedar's wildly frantic stop sign; and despite a weak, offline throw by Kemp that grazes the pitcher's mound on the way to the plate, the skipping ball still arrives in plenty of time for the catcher to apply the tag to Morgan's backside before his foot touches the plate.

There have been worse calls than this one, but not many.  T Plush, in all his idiotic splendor, is ruled safe.  The headline in Brewer Nation:  "What a rush by Plush:  Brewers walk-off again!"  Oh boy.

I wonder if Roenicke's private conversation with his walk-off hero was a bit more direct than the predictably diplomatic "he's got energy" quote the skipper gave to the media.  I wonder if Roenicke interrupted the usual celebratory post-game "Plushdamentals" to let his deranged center fielder know his actions violated the most fundamental concepts of baseball strategy.  Whether or not that little chat occurred, the vibe surrounding Nyjer Morgan's antics is somewhat different these days.  T Plush was nowhere to be found after the "rush by Plush" game-ending heroics.  No insane sound bites.  No inflammatory quotes to belittle the opposing team or its players.  What gives, Gumbo?

Of course, Nyjer Morgan's volatile and erratic behavior has been on display on a regular basis since making his MLB debut as a left fielder with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2007.  Initially, his rants seemed like harmless exuberance; referring to his little section of the outfield as "Morgantown".  Apparently, the Pirates' front office wasn't all that impressed with the Mayor of Morgantown; shipping His Honor off to the Washington Nationals where he could take his creative talents to a new level; his antics in our nation's Capitol featured the following:

*A cheap shot on Cardinals catcher Bryan Anderson while scoring during a September, 2010 game; then-manager Jim Riggleman apologized to the Cardinals for Morgan's unwarranted flying elbow.

*A seven game suspension from MLB for throwing a baseball into the stands at a heckler, which smacked another non-heckling fan in the face, instead.

*Another September, 2010 game, saw Morgan charging the mound, then punching an unfazed Marlins pitcher Chris Volstad with a glancing blow to his head, for zipping one of his servings directly behind Morgan's rear end; a benches-clearing gathering ensued, highlighted by Marlins' first baseman Gabby Sanchez's beautifully executed "clothes-line" tackle of little Nyjer.

*Engaging in a well-publicized verbal diatribe with fans in San Francisco over some advice offered by the Giants' faithful.  Local media called Morgan's belligerent behavior "simply a disgrace", labeling him "punk of the month"; quite an honor.

After alienating the entire Nationals team over his mean-spirited, over-the-top antics, he was traded to his present employer, the Milwaukee Brewers on March 27, 2011.  At first, Morgan's exuberant play and quirky post-game interviews were a big hit with Brewers fans; as the T Plush routine became more elaborate and entertaining (at least for Brewers fans), Morgan's popularity soared; his specially created tee-shirts and merchandise was actually outselling similar items from such stars as Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun.

In addition to a real, live Nyjer Morgan Fan Club being formed, an outfit known as "Athlete" began tapping into Morgan's popularity, by offering fee-based "corporate appearances, speaking engagements, endorsements, and autograph signings".  T Plush was hot back in the day; alas, not so much anymore.

When Nyjer disappeared into the night after his ill-advised-but-successful mad dash which plated that second straight walk-off winning run vs the Dodgers, something seemed terribly amiss.  Is it possible T Gumbo is sulking these days because he's hitting a buck-eighty so far this year?  Or did someone inside the Brewers inner-circle threaten to pummel T Plush into a pile of gumbo if he dared open his babbling pie-hole again?  The baseball gods don't like classless-smack-talking players who utter comments, such as this classic gem:

"We're still in first place; believe it.  It's nothing left to say other than we're still in first place and they're chasing us." - Nyjer Morgan (After nearly inciting a bench-clearing brawl in a September 7, 2011 loss - 2-0 - to Chris Carpenter and the Cardinals; talking smack after striking out in the ninth inning, Nyjer also heaved a little hunk of chewing tobacco out of his mouth and into the direction of the Cardinal pitcher, who was unaware of the Plushdamentals that were taking place at the time.  Former-Cardinal-Great Albert Pujols caught Nyjer's act and quickly rushed towards the livid strikeout victim, while engaging in a discussion of baseball etiquette with the clueless Gumbo.)

The baseball gods also don't care for ballplayers who use Twitter to express negative feelings towards opposing teams and/or players in 140 characters or less; such as these classic September 8, 2011 "tweets" from @TheRealTPlush:

"Where still in 1st and I hope those crying birds injoy watching tha Crew in tha Playoffs.  Aaaaahhhhh!!!"

"Alberta couldn't see Plush if she had her gloves on!!!  Wat was she thinking running at the Plush!!!  She never been in tha ring!!!" (Space restraints no doubt prevented TheRealTPlush from closing with his usual, "Aaaaahhhhh!!!")

Aside from having the spelling and grammar skills below that of a first-grader, Nyjer's mystifying approach to dealing with professional MLB rivalries served no purpose for his Brew Crew; unless, they actually wanted to inspire the Redbirds to go on and win the World Series, after all.  Better yet; reach that lofty pinnacle by thrashing Milwaukee in a best of seven NLCS, in just six games; featuring that Game Six 12-6 bombardment of tha Crew right there at Miller Park in front of all those stunned T Plush fans.

I wonder if that's what "Morganna" had in mind last September when she lost her mind?  For the Redbirds, this had to be the sweetest of revenges; moving on to the World Series while squashing TheRealTPlush and his Plushdamentals.

Meanwhile, Nyjer Morgan, who began his 2012 season with an appropriate 0 for 8 effort in the Brewer's opening three-game series against those crying birds; is still taking up a spot on Milwaukee's not-so-potent roster.  You can bet Ron Roenicke would love to see T Plush take his act to yet another team; Gumbo has long-since worn out his welcome in Milwaukee.

Unfortunately for Roenicke and Company, Nyjer Morgan's tired act isn't a sought after commodity these days.  Pawning him off, along with his alter egos, won't be so easy this time around.  The baseball gods have spoken, although T Plush/Gumbo is probably not listening.

It's unlikely anybody's really listening to Nyjer anymore, for that matter.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Cardinals Played Free Agent Game Well

As the first month of the 2012 MLB season draws to a close, the St Louis Cardinals (14-8) remain atop the NL Central by three games over the second place Cincinnati Reds (11-11) - the only other team in the division not under .500.  Clearly, the Cardinals appear to be the strongest team in an otherwise weak division, yet their failure to win some close games (like Sunday's irritating 3-2 loss to Milwaukee) is cause for some consternation; but relax, Cardinal Nation.  The season is still young, and the Cardinals have more talent on the disabled list than some teams have in their starting lineups.  If the Cardinals return to full-strength any time soon, it could be lights out for the rest of the Central.

With every passing day, the NL-leading Cardinals offense dispels the notion that they wouldn't be able to thrive without their former icon (actually, it's the former icon who's not thriving).  While Albert Pujols is barely hitting .200 and still searching for that first home run as an Angel, the Cards have whacked 24 as a team, trailing only the Brewers (32) in the National League.  Go figure; St Louis loses Albert Pujols and Milwaukee loses Prince Fielder; yet, there they sit, atop the NL home run leader board.

The Cards are hardly a one-dimensional team, however; with a well-balanced attack that really hasn't even hit its stride yet, the Redbirds lead the National League with 113 runs scored (tied with Atlanta prior to Monday), thanks in large part to these NL-leading key hitting metrics - .280 BA/.350 OBP/.442 SLG.

The pitching staff has been the biggest early season surprise - rising to the occasion with Chris Carpenter on the DL and Adam Wainwright still "a work in progress", after missing all of last year with elbow surgery.  The other four starters have been nothing short of sensational (combined 13-2), led by a pair of 4-0 aces - Lance Lynn and Kyle Lohse.  The staff ERA of 2.61 is second best in all of MLB, trailing only the Washington Nationals (2.33).  What Redbird pitchers have done better than any other MLB staff is pitch efficiently, limiting base runners to an amazing 1.04 WHIP.  To understand how good that is, Pedro Martinez had the fourth-best career WHIP in MLB history (1.05).

While some teams have spent tremendous amounts of money on long-term contracts for big-name free agents, the Cardinals wisely took a different, short-term and fiscally responsible approach - re-signing shortstop Rafael Furcal to a two-year $14 million deal; then, after the King's abrupt departure to Southern California, the Redbirds wasted very little time in securing the services of outfielder Carlos Beltran for the next two years, as well; if his knees hold up, the $26 million investment will be money well spent.

Both players have contributed nicely to the Cardinals' impressive offensive attack so far this season; both got off to great starts, helping the team build its early-season advantage in the standings.  Although Beltran has cooled off recently (.256 BA/.376 OBP/.462 SLG), his five home runs and seventeen runs scored lead the team, and is in sharp contrast to what Albert (the player he replaced on the roster) has done for the Halos (zilch).

Furcal has been getting on base with remarkable consistency (.315 BA/.384 OBP), scoring 14 runs from the top of the order - often in the very first inning - helping the Redbirds regularly seize control of games from the outset.  If he stays healthy, there's no reason to suspect that trend won't continue.

Essentially, for $20 million per year, the Cardinals are getting the services of two key components to its success - a pretty good shortstop who knows how to get on base and create scoring opportunities, plus a premier-hitting outfielder capable of a .380-plus OBP, while hitting 25-plus home runs and slugging over .500.  In today's high-priced - often over-priced - talent pool throughout MLB, Furcal and Beltran could be among the biggest bargains out there.

Meanwhile, other teams appear to have made good free agent acquisitions, as well, based on some early results:

*Jonathan Papelbon - 4 years/$50 million - With the Phillies' anemic offense, the team can ill-afford to blow any ninth-inning leads; they haven't, as Papelbon has saved eight out of eight so far this season.  Four years may be longer than desired; closing is a risky business, but he's clearly the best in 2012.

*Bartolo Colon - 1 year/$900,000 - In one astounding performance against Pujols and the Angels, Colon pitched brilliantly; pounding the strike zone 38 consecutive times at one point, getting the easy win.  He's pitching like it's 2002, not 2012 (3-2/2.53 ERA/.214 BAA/0.94 WHIP).

*Carlos Pena - 1 year/$7,250,000 - After a one-year exile to the Chicago Cubs, the power-hitting Pena is returning to the Tampa Bay Rays, where he has flourished, and should continue to flourish for a very good team (.286 BA/.412 OBP/.488 SLG/4 HR/13 RBI).

*Cody Ross - 1 year/$3 million - The 2010 postseason hero for the San Francisco Giants has been hitting home runs in bunches for Bobby V's Boston Red Sox, helping them stay afloat in the AL East (.257 BA/.317 OBP/.500 SLG/5 HR/18 RBI).

*Erik Bedard - 1 year/$4.5 million - If he could get any run support from the light-hitting Pittsburgh Pirates, he'd never lose.  His current won-loss record is deceptively bad (1-4/2.48 ERA); that should improve over the course of the year; he fits nicely into what has become a very formidable rotation for a team I boldly picked to end its 20-year streak of below .500 finishes; assuming they can score a few runs every now and then.

*The Hairston Brothers - Jerry - 2 years/$6 million - and Scott - 1 year/$1.1 million - Jerry has played well for the NL West leading Dodgers (.300 BA/.417 OBP/.350 SLG), especially defensively; while Scott recently hit for the cycle in a Mets loss to Colorado; perhaps a waste of hits, but he should continue adding some punch to the underrated Mets' lineup (.244 BA/.277 OBP/.467 SLG).

*Michael Cuddyer - 3 years/$31.5 million - Escaping pitcher-friendly Target Field was a good move for the former-Minnesota Twin fan favorite; he's played well for his new team, the Colorado Rockies, and loves hitting in that altitude (.299 BA/.365 OBP/.517 SLG).

Certainly, there are others that figure to work out well for the new teams; these are the ones that caught my eye first.  What really caught my eye were some of the deals that seem unlikely to pan out in the long- run or short-run, for that matter.  The free agent lemons:

*Albert Pujols - 10 years/$240 million plus incentives -  At what point does the King's "slump" become acknowledged for what it really is; "declining performance"?  Albert will hit some more home runs over the next ten years of this contractual nightmare; but he'll never hit enough of them to justify this type of expenditure, Halos fans.  That's the harsh reality (.217 BA/.264 OBP/.304 SLG/0 HR/4 RBI).

*Jim Thome - 1 year/$1,250,000 - Speaking of "declining performance" - I know this is chump change by today's standards, but this 40-something fossil is hitting below the Pujols Line for the punchless Phillies (.111 BA/.238 OBP/.111 SLG).  I could hit better than that, and I'd be willing to work for $1.25 per hour.

*Heath Bell - 3 years/$27 million - Signing an aging (34 year-old) closer whose strikeouts per nine innings rate has been steadily declining; who recorded all those career saves at pitcher-haven Petco Park which gave him an undeserved reputation of excellence; who has somehow managed to save two games in five save opportunities (losing the other three games); is the heavy favorite for being the first free agent from the Class of 2011 to be released prematurely by his new employer, the Miami Marlins.  His ERA of 9.53 suggests that he should take up another profession; his WHIP of 2.82 suggests he's putting so many runners on base, he's adding at least another half hour to the length of those Marlin debacles; he's got to be a fan favorite for providing all that extra excitement whenever he dashes to the mound in those perilous  ninth-inning blown save opportunities.  He's certainly got to be MLB batters' favorite pitcher; they're only hitting .346 against their cuz; maybe they can take it up a notch.

*Jose Reyes - 6 years/$106 million - The good news:  He's been healthy so far this season.  The bad news:  .205 BA/.276 OBP/.321 SLG.  This isn't what last year's NL batting champion (.337) is being paid to do; strangely enough, his partner in crime on the left side of that porous infield - Hanley Ramirez - another former batting champion is also hitting:  .205 BA/.276 OBP/.321 SLG.  No lie; that's how great this season is going for this overrated band of misfits.  At least they're consistent.

*Mark Buehrle - 4 years/$58 million - It's not that he's pitching poorly; he's 1-3 with a low 2.63 ERA.  The deadly combination of an anemic offense, lousy defense, and a closer that can't close, has made all that money going to waste.  It's a shame, but Mark should have gone anywhere else but Miami if he wanted to play on a winning team.  At least he's reunited with his old manager, Ozzie Guillen; that should be worth some laughs after the Fish are mathematically eliminated for postseason play by the 4th of July.

*Ryan Madson - 1 year/$8.5 million - Sometimes, unforeseen bad luck turns what seemed like a good signing into an unfortunate allocation of funds.  Such was the case with Madson, who seemed like a good fit for the Cincinnati Reds' bullpen - as closer.  He did a nice job for the Phillies the previous year in that capacity; however, he's going to be missing this entire season with Tommy John surgery.

By the way, I know Miami Marlins outfielder Giancarlo Stanton (.247 BA/.286 OBP/.342 SLG/1 HR/9 RBI) wasn't a free agent acquisition, but that name sounds like he should be singing opera; not hitting home runs.  Last season, when he was "Mike", he hit 34 bombs; this year "G" has gone yard but once.  I'm sure others have suggested ditching the new name since it's obviously causing nothing but bad luck on that team; especially for the fans who actually pay good money to watch 'em lose on such a regular basis.  The Curse of the Giancarlo!

Also, I refrained from putting Prince Fielder on the list of bad signings; however, at 9 years/$214 million, his new team - the Detroit Tigers - would like to get 30-plus home runs and 100-plus RBIs from the former-Brewer; actually, they really need him to do that, if they want to repeat as AL Central champs.  Currently, Prince is hitting for average, but not much power (.309 BA/.387 OBP/.444 SLG).  His 3 HR and 11 RBI in 22 games only has Fielder on a 22 HR/81 RBI pace; not horrible, but not worth $24 million per year.  The jury is still out; however, if his career takes a dive in his early 30s, this could prove to be another of a long list of bad long-term contracts.