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.