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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Cards Preview: National disaster?

Cards Preview: National disaster?
By Jeff Gordon
STLTODAY.COM SPORTS COLUMNIST
Thursday, Apr. 30 2009

THE STAKES: By taking two of three games at Atlanta, the Cardinals improved to
15-7 -– which is the best record in the National League. These four games
against the 5-15 Nationals present an obvious opportunity to keep rolling
despite their myriad injuries.


OF SPECIAL INTEREST: The Nationals are leaning on two former Cards -– washout
Kip Wells and oddball Julian Tavarez -- to shore up their flagging bullpen.
Washington relievers have posted a 5.51 earned-run average so far this season.

Wednesday night Tavarez banked his first save since 2006. "Nothing against the
guys in the 'pen, but the guys who've been around, they see us different --
when Kip Wells is in the game and myself in the game,” Tavarez told the
Washington Post.


PITCHING FOR THE CARDS: Mitchell Boggs (1-0, 1.17 ERA): The reigning Pacific
Coast League ERA champion is filling in for the disabled Chris Carpenter. He
has won four of his seven career big league starts, including a solid 8-2
victory over the Cubs his last time out.

Can he earn a permanent rotation role down the road? Or will he fall into a
middle relief role instead? The next month could define his career course.

(Boggs’ big league resume is still thin. The only current National he has faced
is Adam Dunn, who is 0 for 1 with a walk in two plate appearances against him.)


PITCHING FOR THE NATIONALS: Daniel Cabrera (0-2, 4.42 ERA). He might be the
biggest pitcher in the major leagues, but he certainly isn’t the best. This
will be the Cards’ first look at him; only Jason La Rue (0-for-2) has faced him
before.

Cabrera is a basic fastball-slider pitcher who must pound the ball down in the
strike zone to succeed. He shows his curveball and he almost never throws a
change-up.


LINEUP INTRIGUE: With Khalil Greene battling a sore arm and Brendan Ryan out
with a strained hamstring muscle, the Cards brought shortstop prospect Tyler
Greene up from Memphis for his first big-league look. He was hitting .296 with
a .412 on-base percentage, so Tony La Russa should be able to put him right to
work. Tyler impressed La Russa during spring training, so there is a comfort
level there.

Brian Barden can also play shortstop when Khalil Greene sits, but that could
detract from his valuable platoon with Joe Thurston at third base. These
injuries also put more focus on second baseman Skip Schumaker, who is gaining
traction at his new position.


BULLPEN INTRIGUE: With Kyle McClellan unavailable Wednesday night, the Cards
needed Chris Perez and Jason Motte to come through. And they did, although Ryan
Franklin (7 for 7 in save opportunities) needed to step up with a four-out save
to preserve that victory.

Give Adam Wainwright credit for toughing out six innings against the Braves and
allowing the Cards to bypass struggling middle man Trever Miller. La Russa
turned the game over to reliable Dennys Reyes in the seventh inning instead and
the 'pen delivered three shutout innings.


DOWN ON THE FARM: The Cardinals aren’t surprised that Matt Pagnozzi is hitting
below the Mendoza Line at .160. He has never been much of a hitter and the
organization values him as a defensive catcher who works well with pitchers.

But Joe Mather (.123), David Freese (.148), Jarrett Hoffpauir (.164) and
catcher Bryan Anderson (.171) are also off to poor starts. Redbirds hitting
coach Mark Budaska must feel like Dr. Phil these days.

“You just have to keep them confident,” Budaska told the Memphis Commercial
Appeal. “Come out and do some early work with them, and tell them to be ready
and aggressive on good pitches because they all have good swings. It's not
usually a mechanical problem at all. It's usually what you get to hit, and how
you manage the pitches you get.”

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Home-grown approach serves Cardinals well

Home-grown approach serves Cardinals well
By Jeff Gordon
STLTODAY.COM SPORTS COLUMNIST
Tuesday, Apr. 28 2009
So much has gone wrong for the Cardinals in 2009.

The team opened the season without an established closer after whiffing on free
agent reliever Brian Fuentes, who took less guaranteed money to pitch in
Anaheim.

Ace starting pitcher Chris Carpenter made a compelling comeback from assorted
arm and shoulder injuries, only to tear his oblique muscle swinging a bat.
Since the team allowed reliable Braden Looper to depart as a free agent, this
was especially painful.

After letting valuable infielder Aaron Miles leave as a free agent, the Cards
waived second baseman Adam Kennedy and ate the last $4 million on his contract.
Skip Schumaker moved in from center field to take his place, despite having
zero professional infield experience.

Third baseman Troy Glaus aggravated his shoulder injury between seasons, then
suffered a major setback in his rehab. Would-be replacement Joe Mather didn’t
hit a lick during spring training.

Another possible replacement, David Freese, suffered a foot injury during an
offseason car wreck. He missed a bunch of spring training, then struggled
during his first look at big-league pitching.

Reliable set-up man Russ Springer left as a free agent. Would-be replacement
Josh Kinney suddenly lost command of his pitches.

Outfielder Rick Ankiel battled the Mendoza Line for much of April and didn’t
hit his first homer until the 23rd. He resorted to growing a tremendous
mustache to break the slump.

Todd Wellemeyer, a 13-game winner last season, won just one of his first four
starts this season while posting a 6.14 earned-run average. He seemed to forget
all Dave Duncan taught him.

Middle reliever Brad Thompson started badly. So did soft-tossing replacement
P.J. Walters. Lefty Trever Miller had a crummy start, too, and newcomer Blaine
Boyer proved ineffective.

Given all that, you might have expected the Cards to start the season 6-14.

Instead, the Cards are 14-6. How could this be?

Credit manager Tony La Russa, of course, for mixing and matching his lineup and
bullpen until his found roles that worked for everybody. Circumstances gave him
much to do this spring and that’s just how The Skipper likes it.

(Bobby Cox likes rolling out the same guys every game, but that has never been
Tony’s thing. He loves deploying journeymen like Brian Barden and Joe Thurston,
hungry players who hustle and play multiple positions. He loves moving pieces
on the chess board.)

But the real story has been the organizational strength the Cards have
developed over several years. That strength is buying the injured Cards time to
heal and general manager John Mozeliak time to explore all his options.

On sports talk radio and in the Internet forums, fans pound “Mo” for his
relative inactivity in the face of adversity. He made some good moves last year
when injuries decimated the team, but mostly he relied on players within the
organization.

The Cards faded late last year, but not before speeding the development of
several home-grown players.

Now you are seeing the payoff. Schumaker and Kyle McClellan, two breakout
players from last season, are playing big roles. Ankiel and Chris Duncan, back
from surgical repairs, are bracketing Albert Pujols in the lineup.

Rookie Colby Rasmus has to be the best fourth outfielder in the majors. Chris
Perez and Jason Motte are strengthening the bullpen. Brendan Ryan has matured
into a useful infielder. Mitchell Boggs is filling a hole in the starting
rotation.

The plan is working. An assortment of bad breaks put this plan to a severe test
this spring; so far, it has held.

Going forward, Mozeliak will have to deal from this strength when the right
opportunities arise. This team still needs another veteran starting pitcher,
preferably a lefty, to complete the rotation. The bullpen will need another arm
if something better doesn’t surface from Memphis soon.

But the accumulated depth has given Mozeliak the luxury of dealing on his own
terms instead of scrambling after help. Fans may keep doubting this approach,
but so far in '09, nobody can argue with the results.

Cards Preview: Test for Lohse

Cards Preview: Test for Lohse
By Jeff Gordon
STLTODAY.COM SPORTS COLUMNIST
Tuesday, Apr. 28 2009
STLtoday.com sports columnist Jeff Gordon previews the Cardinals game every
Monday through Friday, exclusively in the Cardinals Update newsletter.


THE STAKES: The Cardinals have caught the Braves in an offensive funk. Atlanta
averaged just 3.7 runs per game on its recent nine-game trip, then left runners
all over the place Monday night. Timing means a lot in baseball. The Cards have
a real opportunity on this trip, since they head to Washington next to face the
horrible (4-14) Nationals.


OF SPECIAL INTEREST: The Cards feared Kyle Lohse would miss his next start -–
or several starts -- after tweaking his right knee while covering first base in
his previous outing. But he recovered quickly, to Tony La Russa’s considerable
relief. Lohse tests that wheel in this game.


PITCHING FOR THE CARDS: Lohse (3-0, 2.42 ERA). Braves outfielder Garret
Anderson saw plenty of him in their American League days and liked the view. He
has a career .360 mark against Lohse, with a 1.007 OPS. Chipper Jones (5 for 9,
homer, five RBIs) has been a nemesis, too. Yunel Escobar is 3 for 6 against
him. Jeff Francoeur, on the other hand, is just 1 for 10 against Lohse.


PITCHING FOR THE BRAVES: Jo-Jo Reyes (0-1, 7.94): Teams want to load lefties
against the Cards, who are short of righthanded power with Troy Glaus
sidelined. But Chris Duncan has hit .320 against lefties this season to defeat
that strategy. Leadoff hitter Skip Schumaker (.286) is also getting more
comfortable.

Against Reyes, Albert Pujols (4 for 7, homer, two RBIs), Khalil Greene (2 for
4, homer) and Yadier Molina (2 for 6, double, RBI) have had notable success
against Reyes in their careers.


LINEUP INTRIGUE: Rick Ankiel seems all the way back now. He decided Monday’s
game with a pair of RBI singles. La Russa would love to play rookie outfielder
Colby Rasmus in front of the home folks, but the .294 hitter was relegated to
late-inning defensive work Monday with Ankiel and Duncan producing runs.
Neither Ankiel or Rasmus has done great against lefty pitching, so that makes
tonight’s lineup a tougher call for La Russa.

Khalil Greene’s defensive slippage earned him a day off -– and Brendan Ryan
played spectacular shortstop in his absence. Looking forward, could Ryan and
Tyler Greene (hitting .284 at Memphis) fight it out for this job and Khalil
becomes a free agent?

The Brian Barden Insanity continued. His pinch-hit single Monday boosted his
season average to .438. Sports hernia surgery can do wonders for a man. The
red-hot utility infielder likely will start against the lefty Reyes.


BULLPEN INTRIGUE: The back end of the 'pen remains settled. Chris Perez
contributed an impressive punch out. Kyle McClellan barely survived the eighth
inning Monday, but he toughed out the “hold” when La Russa opted to rest lefty
Dennys Reyes. Ryan Franklin remained flawless as the closer (for now).


DOWN ON THE FARM: Brad Thompson’s third start for Memphis was more typical of
his career work. He allowed four runs on seven hits in 5 2/3 innings, boosting
his Redbirds ERA to 3.45. On the plus side, veteran lefties Royce Ring (1.08
ERA) and Charlie Manning (1.00) continue to post decent numbers.

Might the Cards add another veteran lefty to their bullpen mix at some point?

Offensively, the Redbirds continue to struggle. Offensive prospects Jon Jay
(.224), David Freese (.148), Joe Mather (.129) and Jarret Hoffpauir (.170)
appear to be in no rush to earn promotions to The Show.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Like it or not, La Russa gets credit here

Like it or not, La Russa gets credit here
Bernie Miklasz bjmiklasz@ post-dispatch.com 314-340-8192
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Sunday, Apr. 26 2009
It's only April, not September, and baseball's long expedition always exposes
the counterfeit contenders.

So it is probably a bit premature to inform Cubs fans that they're only two
games out in the wild-card side of the National League standings. It is
probably too soon to declare that first place in the NL Central is pretty much
out of the question for the Cubs.

But the Cardinals are off to an impressive start, perched atop the division
with a surprising 13-5 record after Saturday's 8-2 demolition of the Cubs. The
Cardinals will go for the three-game sweep on Sunday at Busch Stadium.

It's not as if the opening month was set up as a carefree joy ride for the
locals. The Cardinals began the 2009 schedule with no established third
baseman, no set closer, and an outfielder playing second base.

After that launch came the detours: the Cardinals lost

rotation ace Chris Carpenter to the disabled list on April 14. They've
squandered three victories by immolating leads carried into the eighth inning.
They've committed 19 errors, the highest total in the majors.

All of that, and somehow it adds up to 13-5 and an early lead in the NL
Central. Having this Albert Pujols fellow batting third is a plus; a lightning
bolt of a grand-slam on Saturday jacked his April totals to seven homers and 25
RBIs.

After the game, I told manager Tony La Russa that he'd be foolish to retire and
walk away from the Cardinals as long as he can write the name "Pujols" on the
daily lineup card.

Every manager would covet Pujols as a weapon of choice, but it goes beyond
that. La Russa is scribbling a lot of other names onto those lineups. And he
wins with them, too.

I realize that La Russa will always have his critics, and they'll never declare
a cease fire. And that's fine. Your local heavyweight sports columnist (ahem)
has gotten into the occasional snit with the intense manager over the last
13-plus seasons.

But by now, isn't it obvious that the guy is pretty good at what he does?

No, it's not all about him, either. When I pursued this angle after Saturday's
game, an uncomfortable La Russa wanted to deflect compliments. He credited his
players, his coaches, the trainers, the equipment guys, the scouts, and key
front-office types.

Indeed the La Russa staff, anchored by pitching coach Dave Duncan, is terrific.
General manager John Mozeliak catches shrapnel from fans, but Mozeliak has
found some excellent bargains — Ryan Ludwick, Brian Barden, Joe Thurston —
during a phase of payroll reduction. (Walt Jocketty was the GM when Ludwick
signed, but Ludwick was scouted and recommended by Mozeliak.)

But La Russa's hard-driving personality and his two pillars of competition —
effort and execution — have created a winning culture here. And that's
undeniable.

Since La Russa became the manager in 1996, only Atlanta has won more
regular-season games in the NL, and only the NY Yankees have won more
postseason games. During this decade, the Cardinals lead the NL in
regular-season victories and have the most postseason wins by an NL team. Their
33 postseason victories since the start of the 2000 season are 14 more than the
NL team (Arizona) with the second-highest total.

One of the reasons for La Russa's success is that he consistently squeezes the
most from his roster. And he's doing it again this season. Not counting the
pitcher's spot, La Russa has used 18 different lineups in 18 games.

So far La Russa has gotten a combined .366 batting average, 17 RBIs and 14 runs
scored from Barden and Thurston, who are splitting time at third base. The
trauma of losing regular Troy Glaus to shoulder surgery has been lessened by
the surprising RBI production coming out of the third-base spot. So far in the
NL, only the Cubs and Dodgers have culled more RBIs from third basemen than the
Cardinals.

And these highly effective patch jobs are nothing new. Think of all of the role
players, bit players, who have delivered some of the best baseball of their
careers or experienced a revival — while working for La Russa here.

That roll call would include Barden, Thurston, Thomas Howard, So Taguchi, Aaron
Miles, Joe McEwing, Scott Spiezio, Abraham Nunez, Miguel Cairo, Marlon
Anderson, Craig Paquette, Eduardo Perez, Felipe Lopez, Bo Hart and John
Rodriguez. And I'm sure I've left a few out.

And La Russa's top lieutenant, Duncan, has done the same on the pitching side,
getting improved results from the likes of Kent Bottenfield, Woody Williams,
Garrett Stephenson, Jeff Suppan, Kyle Lohse, Jason Marquis, Todd Wellemeyer,
Daryl Kile, Chris Carpenter, Braden Looper, Andy Benes, etc.

I believe this is one of the reasons why ownership has trimmed payroll; La
Russa and Duncan are victims of their resourcefulness. It is now expected that
they'll get overachieving performances from players who come to St. Louis with
thin resumes or deteriorating form.

Whether he wants it or not, La Russa gets a lot of the credit. And I'll be
happy to argue with him over that.

Albert Pujos earns new nickname

By Derrick Goold
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Pujols jokes that peers call him “The Invisible Man” for the way he steals bases and swipes extra bases on hits. He’s got a well-earned reputation for tagging up from first on fly balls if he thinks he has a chance to surprise the outfielded and take second. Last summer, he did what remains an unthinkable act — he scored from second on a groundout to Colorado’s second baseman. I was explaining how this happened to another writer Sunday and all he could do was shake his head: “He really is the best, isn’t he?” This past week Pujols stole a base in three consecutive games. He had never stolen two bases in two consecutive games before. But it’s not like he hasn’t stolen bases before. In 2005, he stole 16. La Russa said there’s one reason why Pujols may be stealing again: Health. Sore feet and that nagging hamstring ache kept Pujols fairly visible during the past couple seasons. “He’s feeling good running again,” La Russa said.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

"Perfect Player" Keys Cardinal Victory

As Cardinal fans, we've seen Albert Pujols for the last eight-plus years. We've seen him do astounding things at the plate, whether it's walk-off shots or multi-homer games. We've seen him be aggressive on the bases, famously scoring from second on an infield grounder last year in Colorado. Now, apparently, we are seeing the evolution of him from Ted Williams to Rickey Henderson.

There's a reason Tony LaRussa called him a "perfect player" after the last game with the Mets and Buster Olney tends to agree. Whatever needs to be done to win the game, Pujols is going to try to do. And, lately, that means adding to his repertoire the stolen base. Once that ball Ryan Ludwick hit passed the second baseman, there was no question Pujols was scoring. Ryan Franklin locked it down and that was that.

There were a few others that had strong games. Joe Thurston smashed a two-run double and went to second on the throw, scoring on a single by Skip Schumaker. Franklin pitched a pretty solid ninth, with only the walk to pinch-hitting Milton Bradley blemishing the record. Ludwick had two hits, counting the game winner.

Really liked the way Kyle McClellan looked last night before Franklin came in. His spring struggles appear to be behind him and he's one of the few St. Louis can rely on coming out of the pen right now, it seems.

The person that made the most impact, though, was Adam Wainwright. Wainwright hasn't looked like the ace he was becoming last year so far in 2009. His command has been shaky and he's been good enough to keep the team in the game, but only by a thread. Last night, though, he looked more like Adam Wainwright. His breaking ball was moving quite nicely, he didn't walk but one, He wasn't able to get a decision due to a breakdown behind him, but he'll take that kind of game just about every time.

Can someone explain, though, what is going on with the Cardinal defense? We knew going into the season that it was a little shakier than it has been in the past. Still, there was Yadier Molina, Albert Pujols, Rick Ankiel, likely Colby Rasmus, Khalil Greene, guys with good defensive reputations. So how come this team is leading not only the National League but the majors in errors? Seventeen in seventeen games.

If you said two weeks ago that Skip Schumaker would make a crucial error that would help blow a Cardinal lead, you'd have probably railed that the second base experiment just wasn't working and the Cardinals needed sure hands at the keystone. However, Schumaker makes this error after moving to left field to provide defensive support, replacing Chris Duncan.

The error virus seems to have infected everyone, with no real reason for it. Pujols has four, which is totally unlike him. Schumaker is supposed to be very strong in the outfield. Hopefully this is just a concentrated streak and things will hit the other end of the pendulum very soon.

The Redbirds opened the last Cubs series with a win as well. They hope to do better in the next two games than they did up in Chicago starting this afternoon. Mitchell Boggs goes against Sean Marshall. Marshall has done pretty well against the Redbirds in the past. If it wasn't for LaRussa's assertion earlier in the week in the Fox Midwest pregame that Ludwick was going to play five of the six games this homestand, only sitting out the second Mets game, I'd think he'd take a pass today with his .182 mark against Marshall. Rick Ankiel and Duncan seem to have good, if very small sample size, numbers against Marshall, so it's probably another day on the bench for Rasmus.

Boggs has a very small sample size against the Cubs, but the numbers are good for him. It'll be like a new experience for most of the Chicago batters since they've only seen him once. Hopefully he'll be able to show something to the national audience that will be tuning in on Fox!

Friday, April 24, 2009

A Boy Who Loves Baseball

by Michael Riehn
Last night my son wanted me to tell him a story. We were in our car, driving home from dinner, so I didn’t have the benefit of a book to read him. I had to make up something on the spot, and this is not one of my strong suits. He is 5 years old though, and is at a great age for being interested in my limited story telling ability. Kids at that age haven’t had much experience in the world and are interested in learning and/or anything you find exciting.

After quickly going through my standards (Boy Who Cried Wolf, David and Goliath), I was running out of ideas. Yesterday’s Cardinal game was fresh in my mind, so I told him the story about a little boy from the Dominican Republic who loved baseball. The boy’s name was Albert and he went from a player that nobody wanted (barely being drafted) and the last man picked out of Spring Training his rookie year, to one of the best players to ever play the game. My son loved this story, and wanted me to tell it again and again. It made me realize what a remarkable journey this player has had and how lucky we are to watch it.

Albert Pujols crushed 2 home runs yesterday for his 25th career multi-homer game, and is now on pace for 60 Home Runs, 212 RBI, 182 R, 130 BB, 20 SB with only 40 strikeouts on the season. The man puts up sick statistics that you only see from the game’s all time greats, and he does it every year. He has already accumulated a .344/.458/.719 slash line (BA, OBP, SLG) on the young season and is coming off a week long SLUMP where he hit under .200 for 7 days. For the 9th season in a row, we can sit back and enjoy the ride. Can a player that puts up these type of Hall of Fame statistics year in and year out be underrated?

With Albert, it is the little things that go unnoticed. When your superstar works the hardest on the team and is probably the team’s best hitting coach you have something even more special than the numbers can illuminate.

How do players constantly have better seasons when they join the Cardinals? Khalil Greene was terrible last year, but seems to be taking a new approach to hitting (more walks, not chasing bad pitches). Is it a coincidence that he followed Pujols around during hitting drills in Spring Training? There is no secret that Pujols has helped Yadier Molina’s game, who at age 27 may be turning the corner as one of the best defensive AND offensive catchers in baseball. Pujols sets a great example for everyone and gives up his time in order to bring out the best in his teammates.

Pujols has no speed, yet stole a base the last two games and is one of the smartest baserunners in baseball. How many times does he take the extra base on a bad throw or score a run when a speedier runner would have stopped? When was the last time he was thrown out? On Wednesday, Duncan hit a line drive at Delgado a couple of feet from the bag with Pujols on 1st base. He is probably the only player in the majors that doesn’t get doubled off in this situation. Albert has this uncanny sixth sense that you can’t teach. His mind is always in the moment and he rarely makes a mental mistake. Contrast this to Manny Ramirez, who is in my opinion the second greatest right handed hitter in the game today. They may hit alike and have affable personalities, but that is where the similarities end.

Pujols is one of the best fielding 1st basemen year in and year out. He currently leads the National league in UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) and is on pace for a 14.3 UZR/150. This measures the amount of runs a player saves above an average player over 150 games (thus Pujols would save over 14 runs on the season… this is a lot). This doesn’t even take into count his throwing ability. How many times has he cut a ball off from the outfield and throws out a runner trying to stretch a base? Remember, this is the man that has needed arm surgery for 5 years, but plays through the pain.

He’s the most competitive player on the team, yet he’s the guy picking up his teammates after they make a mistake. Most great players have a difficult time having patience for their lesser teammates’ mistakes. Some of the best players in sports are also the most competitive. Legends like Michael Jordan, Ted Williams and Ray Lewis are famous for constantly putting pressure on their teammates. Players with competitive fire, have trouble turning it off and can sometimes go too far. This is not the case for one of the nicest players in the game. Players love Pujols, pitchers fear him.

You know what is scary about the 2009 Pujols start? As good as he’s been, he has actually been unlucky. He only has a .292 Batting Average on Balls in Play. This is a measure of the number of batted balls that safely fall in for a hit (not including home runs). Over Pujols’ career he averages a .322 mark (which is 30 points higher than he is currently averaging).

How good can this man be? Adding in his community work, family involvement and faith, he is the total package. With all due respect to Stan Musial, are we watching the greatest Cardinal ever?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

St. L ouis Cardinals' Jeff Luhnow faces an early test

Bernie Miklasz
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Thursday, Apr. 16 2009
The early departure of Chris Carpenter to the disabled list is regrettable but
predictable. He's a great pitcher when healthy, but the breakdowns have been
too frequent to ignore. Hoping that Carpenter would go through an entire season
without suffering an injury was the equivalent of playing the lottery.

Cardinals management took that gamble, and declined to sign a veteran starting
pitcher, even after some bargain opportunities materialized through the
winnowing of the free-agent market.

For instance, the Cardinals could have re-signed Braden Looper before he went
to Milwaukee for a 2009 salary of $4.75 million. The Brewers have an option on
Looper for 2010, but can buy him out for $750,000. And Looper is capable of
starting or relieving; his flexibility and durability are pluses.

But after Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt reduced the payroll, general manager
John Mozeliak had little choice but to stick with that big ticket on Carpenter.
If Carpenter holds up, it's a winning proposition. But if he didn't last, the
Cardinals would be left scrambling for starters.

And that's exactly what's happening. With no veteran protection behind
Carpenter, the Cardinals have promoted rookie P.J. Walters from Class AAA
Memphis.

Walters will make his major-league debut on Friday at Wrigley Field. That's a
tough first assignment.

Is Walters ready? People in the organization genuinely like him, including his
Winter League manager, Cardinals third-base coach Jose Oquendo.

With Carpenter (strained side muscle) expected to be out for at least six
weeks, the Cardinals aren't likely to spend any money in pursuit of a starter.
They'll put their faith in the hyped player-development system instead.

This will be an instant credibility test for Jeff Luhnow, the VP of scouting
and player development.

Not that DeWitt wanted to dish out money for a veteran starting pitcher, but
the owner clearly felt fine about moving forward with no safety net under
Carpenter. DeWitt was assured by Mozeliak and Luhnow that the Cardinals had
attractive options at the minor-league level.

Walters, Mitchell Boggs, Adam Ottavino, Blake Hawksworth and Clayton Mortensen
were touted as solid Plan B possibilities should the major-league rotation take
a hit. And another graduate of the farm system — reliever Kyle McClellan — is
another alternative starter.

It's possible that Luhnow's confidence in his system will be validated here.
Cardinals fans certainly hope so; the team's ability to contend depends on it.
The Cardinals don't need Walters or the others to be spectacular or heroes; the
rookies just need to pitch well.

That said, the Cardinals are once again opting to cover a gap with youth
instead of more costly veterans. The same is true, at least in part, of the
effort to close out late-inning leads. (The courting of free agent Brian
Fuentes aside.)

DeWitt's Cardinals veered into a new direction several years ago — empowering
Luhnow and taking full control away from Walt Jocketty, the GM at the time —
and there's nothing evil about that shift in philosophy.

Unless you're demographically matched to have a New York, Boston, Chicago or
Los Angeles payroll, smart baseball people have little choice but to prioritize
the player-development system.

But here's the rub: At some point the prospects have to come through and play
important roles in upholding the franchise's winning tradition. They just can't
hold roster spots as fringe guys. A reasonable share of them must move to the
forefront and become front-line stars, the way Albert Pujols did in 2001, and
Yadier Molina did in 2005.

One of Luhnow's precious Fabergé Eggs, outfielder Colby Rasmus, appears to be a
special talent, worthy of the considerable hyperventilating that preceded his
arrival.

OK, so what about the pitchers? This is a vital area. Will Chris Perez or Jason
Motte develop into elite closers? When will the Cardinals' draft and farm
system harvest its first top-of-the-rotation starter since Matt Morris?

If the kids emerge and perform in a way that justifies Luhnow's enthusiastic
efforts in marketing and promoting them as legitimate links to a strong future,
then the Cardinals will grow and continue to win.

But if the youngsters don't have the right stuff necessary to fulfill Luhnow's
claims, the Cardinals will experience a substantial shortfall in talent.

One of the major challenges of a minor-league system is being pliable and
viable enough to present genuine solutions when a crisis strikes.

Losing Carpenter qualifies as an emergency.

And now we can reexamine the policy put in place over the winter. Rather than
invest in more expensive starting pitching to reinforce the rotation's depth,
DeWitt chose to invest in Luhnow.

So here we are.

We've arrived at the first 2009 checkpoint for Luhnow.

This is where hype meets the hard reality.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Wellemeyer Recovers; Let's Talk About the Bullpen

Continuing the pleasant early trend of excellent starting pitching, Todd Wellemeyer recovered from a bad opening start with 7 innings of 1 run ball, enabling the Cardinals to take a 2-1 decision in the opener against Arizona.

This marks the fifth quality start in a row, which, naturally enough, led to the Cardinals fifth win in a row.

Albert Pujols and Brian Barden provided all the scoring with solo home runs in the third and eighth innings. D-Back starter Doug Davis was just as tough as Wellemeyer, scattering seven hits over eight innings. He made two mistakes. Wellemeyer made one, and wriggled out of a couple of other tight corners.

St Louis, San Diego, and Toronto currently share the best record in baseball at 6-2. You would have won a lot of money if you bet those three teams would have the best record in baseball at this point.

It's pretty obvious a major reason the Cardinals are off to a fast start is the starting pitching. Let's take a look at the relievers; are they holding up their end of the bargain?

From the first week, here's the usage grid for the first week.



Of course, if that were at all legible you'd see what I mean.

Couple of notes. What you're looking at is the inning the pitcher entered and how many outs they recorded. For instance, McClellan on 6 April entered in the seventh inning and retired one batter, then pitched the eighth.

Most of the high leverage innings so far have been thrown by McClellan and Franklin, the horses from last year's bullpen. Thompson has the lion's share of the innings (5 of the 18 bullpen innings through Sunday), but all of those have been in games the Cardinals won in a blowout, or lost in a relative blowout. Reyes seems to have worked himself into leverage situations. Miller hasn't been used since 8 April (and that includes last night).

The bullpen stats, which I don't post here, show an ERA of over 4.00 for the year; but that number is really driven by Motte's bad outing on Opening Day, and the fact Thompson has surrendered 2 runs in each of his last 2 appearances. I like Brad Thompson, but early returns indicate he's the worst pitcher on the staff; LaRussa is using him exactly as he should (long man/mop up man).

Anyway, I thought this would be an interesting thing to track throughout the year. Of course, if the starters continue to throw like Wellemeyer did last night, this will be a very boring exercise.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The First Cardinal Sweep Of The Year

Hey, wonder who the Hero of Saturday's game should be? Joe Thurston went three for four with an RBI and two runs, maybe him? Colby Rasmus may have had his best game yet, with two hits and a walk and a couple of runs, does he get consideration? Rick Ankiel went three for five, is that enough? Adam Wainwright threw five scoreless innings--does anyone remember that?

Of course not. Because when Albert Pujols makes a statement, he gets the Hero award. I was listening to the game as I came back from a family outing and knew the slam must have been a monster when Mike Shannon said immediately, "Grand slam!" No "Get up, baby, get up" means that it's a no-doubter.

The next at-bat, I was on the street in front of my house. Knowing I couldn't hurry and get in to see it, I slowed down because I just knew he was going to do it again. (Apparently, I wasn't that subtle about it because the wife commented on that fact.) Sure enough, another long ball. A wonderful day for Pujols, though that won't cut down on the machine theory. (Nice coincidence--the two anchors in that spot were anchoring Saturday night's SportsCenter, which led off with Pujols's big day.)

So who do you give the Goat to on a day when the team pounds out 19 hits and doesn't allow any runs until the ninth? Almost every starter got at least two hits, so I think you have to go with Brad Thompson, who threw two innings but did allow those two in the ninth, unimportant as they might be. All Heros and all Goats are not necessarily created equal.

One other thing that was notable about Saturday's game was that Jason Motte came into the game in the sixth. After Friday's game, Tony LaRussa made this a possibility and didn't waste time having it happen, especially in a game where there was no pressure. It seemed to be effective, as he struck out two in his inning and I believe at least one of them was on the breaking ball. A few more outings like that and they may try him again in the ninth.

If the Hero was obvious on Saturday's game, it wasn't that much more difficult to find one on Sunday either. There was at least one solid alternate choice, with Khalil Greene having his first three-hit day in over a year, including a run, an RBI and a steal in a close ballgame, but I think you have to go with Kyle Lohse on this one.

Lohse was tremendous and, coupled with his first start, has invigorated the fan base that was a little tepid on his resigning. After seeing Kaz Matsui single on the first pitch of the ballgame, I wasn't sure what the Cards were in for. Lohse didn't falter, though, and didn't allow another hit until the ninth. So, in the first week, we've seen a pitcher twice thrown one-hit ball through at least seven innings. That's a good sign for the pitching staff, isn't it?

The interesting thing is that Houston had a lineup of hitters that had pounded Lohse in the past, though that was mostly in the not-so-recent past. It lends some credence to the theory that Dave Duncan has really changed his style and approach, that last year's career year could be relied on instead of seen as a complete outlier. If the first two starts of this year are any indication, last year was a sign of a new Lohse.

I was a little surprised to see LaRussa leave Lohse in after a runner got on in the ninth. I was really surprised to see Lohse face Lance Berkman as the tying run. That could have ruined the afternoon real quickly had he tied into one. I'm glad that it worked out, but I think I might have been tempted to bring in Ryan Franklin or Kyle McClellan to finish that off.

The Goat for this game would be David Freese, I think. 0-3 with two strikeouts and three left on base. Granted, there wasn't much offense against Wandy Rodriguez, but that seems to be the worst line. Rodriguez is reliving '08 again, where he holds the Cardinals in check but still can't get a win.

Various other things to talk about before we look at the Arizona series that start tonight. Chris Duncan is doing much better against lefties this season, part of which he attributes to seeing them more often. That's one thing I don't like about LaRussa pigeonholing these guys so early. I know he's playing for the advantage, but you don't know a guy can't do it until he gets a chance to do it. Once he gets a chance to get adjusted to lefties, he might be able to be an offensive threat, something that Duncan seems to be developing into.

Motte seems to have learned something in his outing against the Astros. At least, if his comments to the paper are any indication, he has. He didn't go out there and try to blow past people. He used the sinker and the cutter to mess with timing, which is so vital. If he can throw a regular second pitch, he'll be dominant. Of course, that's what we've been saying since his callup last year, if not before.

The Cards finish the week 5-2, tops in the NL Central and not too far off the pace of the best record in the NL. Birds In The Busch thinks this week was pretty critical when you look at the rest of the month. If the Cards are able to win 75% of those games, we might have something special going here. More likely we'll have to be happy to win half of them, especially since you've got trips to Arizona, Chicago, and Atlanta in there.
Wellemeyer has been a point of concern so far this year. His spring training was pretty rough and he didn't look good in the loss to Pittsburgh on Wednesday either. His numbers against the Diamondbacks as an organization or his career numbers against the hitters that he'll face tonight don't inspire much confidence either, even if those career numbers are pretty indicative of small sample size.

Wellemeyer noted in the paper that he was going to tinker with his hands, mechanics, etc. If he's successful, that may have something to do with it. When I hear tinker, though, I start worrying and thinking about a slide. Hopefully the Colonel will bounce back tonight.

Doug Davis, on the other hand, has struggled with the Cards as an organization but has decent career numbers against the current roster makeup. Albert's got a couple of homers off of him, which is not a surprise, but most everyone else has just been average.

Hopefully the Cards get off to a good start tonight and keep their winning streak going!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Didn't We Just Leave This Party?

Opening Day has come and gone for 2009. Cardinal fans will be forgiven if it seemed more like a continuation of 2008 than a new beginning.

As we return to another season, that means that the Heroes and Goats device returns for another year. Remember that this is just my personal opinion. It's not necessarily the person with the best or worst game, just the person that made the most difference (positive or negative) in my eyes.

For example, until the ninth, Josh Kinney was in the running for the goat. Walking the pitcher with two outs is just unacceptable and it led to Pittsburgh tying up the game, and they'd have likely taken the lead had Paul Maholm not been a little reckless on the basepaths.

Yadier Molina came under consideration as well. A rally-killing double play, a passed ball and a stolen base allowed (on a play where a stronger throw probably gets him) wasn't the way Molina really wanted to start his season.

However, with the ninth inning, there is no other place to go than Jason Motte. Allowing four runs after being staked to a two-run lead is just crushing, especially when last year's bullpen woes are taken into account.

Fungoes has a great illustrated piece on the problems Cardinal pitchers had in finishing off key hitters, mainly because they pitched to the hitter's strengths. You have to remember that, though they may play for a weaker team, Pittsburgh's hitters are still major leaguers. There's a reason they play in MLB. There are things they can do, so you should stay away from those things if possible.

Let me stipulate that yesterday's loss was crushing. Two outs, two strikes on Jack Wilson and the game gets away. All that said, let's not start screaming that the sky is falling. I was not shocked to log into CardsClubhouse last night and find a thread such as this. The football mentality of some fans, where one game makes or breaks a season and things are always so immediate, really can't be done in baseball. At least not if you plan on keeping your sanity.

For example, the Yankees went out and shored up their hitting and pitching by signing CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira. Are you going to say their offseason was a total flop because Tex went scoreless and failed to drive in key runs and Sabathia didn't have his fastball yesterday? Are you comfortable in saying that the Yanks should pack it in for '09?

I'd hope not. And the same should apply to the Cardinals and Motte. All closers are going to blow 4-6 games in a season, most likely. If Motte can do that, it doesn't really matter when the games come, does it? In other words, what if he'd saved 6 games before blowing one like yesterday. Would you still call the bullpen makeover a failure?

It's not what you want to see out of a revamped pen, I realize. Motte knows that as well and says he's shaken off the loss. It's sad to see people booing him this quickly. The instant gratification of our society seems to have infected the Cardinal Nation as well. It went wrong and it's frustrating, but there's no need to take it out on the players, especially not after one game.

It wasn't exactly the greatest of days for Adam Wainwright, either. He didn't actually give up any runs (though Trever Miller allowed the runners he put on to score), but five walks in less than six innings? He seemed to be missing low in the zone a lot early in the game. The weather may have had something to do with it and hopefully we'll see a better command of the zone in his next outing.

On the positive side, the Hero of the game has to be Ryan Ludwick, mainly for his tie-breaking home run in the 8th that should have won the game for the Cardinals. Nice to see that the late surge in his spring has carried over into the beginning of the season. Consideration was also given to Albert Pujols for his three hits and a walk and David Freese for getting a sac fly RBI in his first major league game.

As I said on the radio show Sunday night, this might be one of the rare times where the second game lineup is more interesting than Opening Day. Colby Rasmus makes his major league debut tonight, and you have to assume that Freese will start at third and Skip Schumaker at second. There is going to be a lot of interest in seeing what Rasmus can do tonight. Hopefully people won't declare his career over if he goes 0-4.

Troy Glaus is heading to Phoenix to continue working on his rehab. You continue to hope that he'll return this year, but the longer he goes without an estimated return date, the more it seems likely that he may not. If he's back before the All-Star Break, it'd be a major accomplishment.

Tonight, Kyle Lohse takes the mound against Ian Snell. Lohse has had pretty good success against the Pittsburgh batters in his career, though there's not a huge sample size on any of them. Chris Gomez has hit him at a decent clip, but no one just has great power numbers against the Cardinal hurler.

We all know that Snell has troubles with Pujols, but he actually had more success against the MVP last year, so perhaps he's made some adjustments. Still, the Cardinals as a whole have done some damage against Snell in the past. Last year, at least twice they piled on runs in the first inning, only to go quiet and lose the game. Let's hope in this regard that 2009 actually is different and they can put the game away.

Friday, April 3, 2009

CARDINALS 25-MAN ROSTER 2009

04/03/2009

INFIELD

Albert Pujols, 1B

Skip Schumaker, 2B

Khalil Greene, SS


David Freese, 3B

Yadier Molina, C

OUTFIELD

Chris Duncan, LF

Rick Ankiel, CF

Ryan Ludwick, RF

ROTATION

Adam Wainwright, RHP

Kyle Lohse, RHP

Todd Wellemeyer, RHP

Chris Carpenter, RHP

Joel Piñeiro, RHP

BULLPEN

Ryan Franklin, RHP

Josh Kinney, RHP

Kyle McClellan, RHP

Trever Miller, LHP

Jason Motte, RHP

Dennys Reyes, LHP

Brad Thompson, RHP

RESERVES

Brian Barden, IF

Jason LaRue, C

Colby Rasmus, OF

Brendan Ryan, IF/OF

Joe Thurston, IF/OF