Cardinals start migration to October

Do you remember this home run? I do.

Do you remember this home run? I do.

By Jake McCormick

Unlike the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals, this 2009 team isn’t moving towards October with the momentum of a freshman girl’s hangover from mixing Blue UV vodka, pink lemonade, and a few shots of Sauza tequila. Instead, the Cardinals are vying for home field advantage, and are gaining confidence and strength faster than the main boss at the end of Bioshock. And unlike the end to that game, the Cardinals won’t be an easy out when it comes to finishing the job.

The Bash Bros., minus the steroids

It’s safe to say that St. Louis has surprised nearly everyone this year, including me partially. That’s only because I refuse to believe the Cubs will meet anyone’s expectations year in and year out, and lo and behold, my winning streak stands at six seasons. The 2006 World Series team is Michael Jackson since 1990; they were only covered because it was obligatory even though they sucked, and it became increasingly difficult to watch until their finale, when everyone tuned it. The 2009 Cardinals are Jackson’s old self; they look good without constant facelifts, and just by watching them play you can tell something special is brewing.

In honor of the home stretch to October, I’m going to focus this column on a few key statistics and occurrences that have St. Louis sitting pretty in the NL Central and race for the World Series.

.386 BA, .444 OBP, 10 HR, 37 RBI

Those are Matt Holliday’s statistics since becoming the vice president to POTUS Albert Pujols on July 24. But like the Bush Administration, the vice president is doing most of the damage/work and leads the team in all four categories since that date. Just for reference purposes, Pujols’ has a .299 BA, .346 OBP, 7 HR, and 20 RBI in that span. And unlike the previous administration, the Cardinals’ VP is causing a bump in approval ratings, or offensive production if you want me to stop using political references. Earlier in the year, the Cardinal offense consisted of Pujols, and then eight other guys who might be on or off depending on the day of the week.

26-9 since Holliday trade
There’s a reason I’m calling the Holliday trade the best of the year, and it’s called the Cardinals’ win-loss record since his arrival. Cliff Lee is doing his best CC Sabathia impersonation, but he only goes out every fifth day. Holliday, along with other midseason Red Bird converts Julio Lugo and Mark DeRosa, has stabilized a rookie-heavy lineup with experienced veterans on a day-to-day basis. On top of that, DeRosa and Holliday have good reputations in the clubhouse, which will help the team push through any rough spots they encounter over the next month.

31-4
Three TenorsThat’s St. Louis’ record since July 1 with Pavarotti, Domingo, and the other guy on the mound. This includes 11 straight wins with Joel Pineiro starting, and Chris Carpenter’s 10-0 record with a 2.17 ERA in his last 12 outings. Pitching can carry a team through the playoffs, and the Cardinals have the most consistent 1-2-3 punch in the National League. You know what you’re getting every three out of five games, which is more than enough to win a playoff series. On top of that, John Smoltz is 1-1 with a 2.65 ERA in three starts for St. Louis, and is considered one of the best playoff pitchers of all time. Dave Duncan deserves some sort of Pitching Coach of the Year Award, but until then I’ll continue giving him the same clichéd props for turning Gandalf the Grey’s into Gandalf the White’s.

$6.5 million, including incentives through 2011
$2 million through 2010, with $2 million option for 2011
Those are the new deals signed this week by the 36-year-old dual dragons in the Cardinal bullpen, Ryan Franklin and Trever Miller, respectively. Franklin has put up amazing numbers as a closer this year, with 36 saves in 38 opportunities and a 1.37 ERA. Likewise, left-handed specialist Miller is 4-0 with a 1.70 ERA and 38 strikeouts in 37 innings. Franklin has had a history of bowing out in the second half, but he has converted 11 straight saves and was a candidate for August Pitcher of the Month. Both relievers have been unbelievably lights out all year and deserved these extensions. Kudos to the Cardinal front office for getting these deals done so the team can focus on re-signing Holliday and DeRosa in the offseason.

Chris Carpenter5-0, 2.20, 37 K in six starts
Those are the stats for the August Pitcher of the Month, Chris Carpenter. Easily the steal of my fantasy baseball draft, where I took him in the second to last round, Carpenter has looked just as good if not better than his 2005 Cy Young campaign. He is 15-3 with a MLB-leading 2.28 ERA, and was sidelined for a month with an oblique strain. He’ll get Comeback Player of the Year for sure. Fellow ace Adam Wainwright, who leads the team in innings pitched and has compiled a decent stat line of 16-7, 2.47 ERA, and 164 punch-outs, gives Carpenter some friendly competition for the NL Cy Young award. I think it will ultimately go to my favorite pitcher Tim Lincecum, but boy is it tough to be a Cardinal fan right now.

19
That’s the magic number to clinch the division and a playoff spot, but I think it’s safe to say that with a 10.5 game lead on the Cubs and 13 on the Brewers, the Cardinals are guaranteed another division champions banner for the new Busch Stadium. St. Louis is 23 games above .500, Chicago is two, and everyone else is below the Mendoza line and discussing offseason changes. Of course, the Cardinals are still unable to get the love ESPN gives to the Dodgers and Phillies even though they’re playing much better baseball right now, but that’s just the way they like it. Just ask the 2006 team, which was baseball’s equivalent to the 2007 New York Giants playoff run. This team is focused, experienced, confident, and lapping the divisional competition. That’s a scary combination to face when October baseball comes knocking.

Brewers-Cardinals exchange: May the most mediocre man win!

CardinalsBrewers

By Melissa S. Wollering and Jake McCormick

It’s safe to say that the NL Central is deadlocked in a tight race for who wants it the least. The division is similar to Toppers or Papa John’s pizza in that it’s good until you notice the higher quality competition made with better ingredients. The St. Louis Cardinals have been consistently holding the first place spot since early July, yet they haven’t been playing like a first place team and are only one game ahead of the bipolar Chicago Cubs and surging Houston Astros. In contrast, the Milwaukee Brewers have dropped two games back and have the same record over the past 10 games (3-7) as the Cardinals. Writing anyone off in the Central wouldn’t be smart  considering its parity (if that’s what you call it), so Melissa Wollering and Jake McCormick have engaged in The Sports Bank’s first 2009 Brewers-Cardinals exchange.

JM: Despite the division’s mediocrity, the Central has been Ground Zero for buyers in the trading market. With four out of the six teams within two games of the top, it looks very similar to a poker game, where each team is trying to one up the other but won’t reveal their hand.

To get Mark DeRosa, the Cardinals had to part with a valuable prospect in fireballer Chris Perez. Milwaukee Brewer GM Doug Melvin has repeatedly said top prospects Mat Gamel, Alcides Escobar and Brett Lawrie are all but off-limits in trade discussions. If Toronto Blue Jays GM J.P. Riccardi calls today and says he just wants one of the three to be involved in a deal for Roy Halladay, which one would you send to Canada as a piece of the deal?

MW: Great question, Jake, because Melvy knows deep down his farm babies are the most attractive chess pieces on the table this season. White knight to E5 only captures the pawn. My fear is that Toronto will only be satisfied if the Milwaukee Brewers are willing to give up 4-5 kids. Now you’re talking an entire Kostics Trap (chess move that takes all yo’ pieces man, in nerdspeak).

If you want to hang onto JJ Hardy, deal Alcides Escobar. If you’re willing to give up Brett Lawrie, don’t give up catcher Angel Salome. If you’re nervous about forfeiting Lawrie, offer Jonathan Lucroy. If they want Mat BrunoGamel, ask them to consider a Lorenzo Cain, who is an outfielder but could provide just as much batting power as Gamel in another year. Bottom line, Toronto is asking for proven farm talent and lots of it. A combination of the above plus a current starter could be their asking price. Bruno obtaining a toddler in exchange for an iPod sums up how I feel about the situation.

JM: If the Brewers somehow pulled a deal for Halladay, it would be checkmate against any other potential trade. The only concern I would have is expecting him to perform like CC Sabathia last year, but things would definitely get much more interesting in an already unpredictable division.

Before the Cardinals picked up DeRosa, the Brewers had been in some pursuit of him but felt he was getting too prospect-expensive. Seeing as they just picked up Felipe Lopez, a similar utility player that has already made his presence felt at the top of the Brewer lineup, would you prefer DeRo or Felipe?

MW: Well, if Felipe gets injured next week, I’ll feel indifferent about the whole thing. No seriously, both were great pickups for NL Central teams. The moves collectively pissed off the Cubs organization ten-fold (especially DeRo), which sweetens the whole deal. Sorry, David K.

Both men bring strong defensive skills to the infield and strong bats to the top or near-top of their respective lineups. The only difference: we got just as much bang for less buck by merely surrendering Cole Gillespie and Roque Mercedes. The Cardinals were willing to pay an asking price that the Brewers were not. Therefore, in the spirit of value, I welcome Felipe and for now, I’ll say I prefer him.

Sour Patch KidsJM: I listen to 670 The Score a lot and Cub fan callers were starting to talk about DeRosa like he was Mike Ditka or something. That put the sour in my Sour Patch Kids and made the trade worth it for me. I wouldn’t mind either player, but Mark DeRosa wins for me because he can also play outfield and the Cardinals need as much protection for Albert Pujols they can get. Plus, St. Louis just committed the ultimate cardinal sin (pun fully intended) of Little League by trading coach’s son Chris Duncan to the Boston Red Sox for shortstop Julio Lugo, who will give the team more veteran depth in the infield. Now that’s the way Tony La Russa likes it.

Last year, the Brewers’ starting pitching was ranked second in the National League. The 2009 season looks a bit different, and the bullpen has pitched just about as much as the starters have lately. In contrast, the Cardinals starting pitching has been in the top five in the NL for most of the season, and it seems as if the bullpen isn’t in a run-off with the Crew for the “Most Blown Games that Could’ve Led to a Division Title” Award. Obviously the loss of Ben Sheets and Sabathia was expected to sting, but how can they come close to matching that production this year?

MW: Can I say it’s a miracle we’re still in the chase for the division title, given the stark starting pitching contrast between the two clubs? Our record should suck more than it does. But yours should be better than it is….*grin*

The short answer to your question is: they can’t. They cannot come close to matching that production. So what is Plan B? Plan B is some combination of what the team has been doing (albeit not very well) and using the days prior to July 31 to the best of the organization’s ability (aka trade smart).

Relying on the offense? Gotta do it. Manufacturing runs in addition to playing long ball? Gotta do it. Demanding quality starts from your starting pitching staff when possible but using your entire bullpen effectively if that doesn’t work out? Just gotta do it. The only person who would contradict this is George Bush, Sr. who’s “not gonna do it, at this juncture.”

Hey, speaking of the long-ball, Jake; are the Red Birds relying on it too much as of late? Some of their recent games, all five or six of their runs have come in just two or three swings. Will this catch up to the club? Sounds a bit like the same problem the Brewers had last year.

Ryan LudwickJM: I would be worried, but Ryan Ludwick, Rick Ankiel, and Troy Glaus combined for 56 home runs before the 2008 All-Star Break. This year, all three combined for 20 dingers in the same time period; 31 if you include rookie Colby Rasmus. I think the Cardinals mashers are just playing catch-up for lost time, including DeRosa, who is starting to remember that he destroys the Central any chance he gets and just had his first multi-home run game as a Cardinal last night. The increased long balls from anyone but Pujols is a good sign for a club that struggled to find power throughout the first half of the season. It’s like the scene in The Matrix where Keanu finally figures out his powers and gives that little smirk before sending the agents running. The only difference is the Cardinals’ smirks are highlighted with lavishly beautiful moustaches.

Even though there have been times where the Cardinals offense has looked deader than a CSI victim, Albert Pujols has backpacked this team to stability to remain at the top of the NL Central. With Ludwick heating up and Rasmus skimming the profits off the number two spot in front of Pujols, the Cardinal offense looks as resurrected as Optimus Prime in Transformers 2: Big Explosions, Stereotypical Characters, and Spinning Cameras Around Shia Labouf and Megan Fox. Sorry the name was so long, but Michael Bay’s personal orgasm was so bad it made the first one look like the Dark Knight. Back to relevant topics: Prince Fielder is shrugging off the worries of over-swinging after winning the Home Run Derby and is the Brewers’ version of Albert “Terminator” Pujols, but what’s wrong with Ryan Braun?

MW: There have been quiet rumblings Ryan Braunthat Braun has been hurt. Like “in pain for several months and not telling anyone” hurt. I don’t know if it’s his darn intercostal or what. It didn’t help he took a pitch to the thumb last week either.

Before the All-Star break, Braun had a .120 week, with just 3 hits in 25 bats and insists he just wasn’t swinging the bat well as of late. There’s the possibility he’s trying too hard to produce after the criticism he took from Melvin regarding the team’s need for starting pitching. There’s the possibility he’s in an uncharacteristic slump and fans are griping about it for the first time. Speaking of high expectations, it’s not like Charlie Manuel wasn’t disappointed by Al Pujols’ skid prior to the break. I think we’re going to see this from time to time because after all, it is baseball.

JM: Yeah baseball can be like a monkey bar competition. As long as a team can hang on while the fatigued or less talented teams start dropping like flies, they give themselves a chance in the playoffs. The NL Central has been consistently unpredictable over the past few years, and this one is no different. Even the Pirates, who are 7.5 games back, could theoretically make a push if no one pulls away. The Brewers and Cardinals have experienced enough late-season slumps to turn that around this year, especially considering the Central-favorite Cubs haven’t come close to preseason expectations of another runaway divisional title. The Central continues to entertain with its even competition and high schoolKlements racing sausages relationship (or trade market) gossip. Things will really begin to get interesting after the trading deadline, but until then I’ll be enjoying the Cardinals place at the top of the division because God knows it’ll get more cluttered than even the closest of Sausage Races, brought to you by Klements.

Cardinal ‘Stache Attack! A Midseason Report

Cardinal moustaches

By Jake McCormick

It’s the All-Star Break and the St. Louis Cardinals are partying like it’s 1985. Literally. Instead of sporting retro powder blue jerseys, Cardinal starters and some position players are growing moustaches in true Tom Lawless and Todd Worrell fashion.

I guess when you’re exceeding preseason expectations and holding first place in a competitive division, even porn star attributes are acceptable. The Cardinals are positioned to hold steady in the NL Central race heading into the season’s second half, but it’s time to look at some of the reasons they are defying the “experts” who had already bet on the Cubs turning in a dominating regular season and subsequent World Series appearance.

First half MVP: Albert Pujols (.337 BA, .461 OBP, 32 HR, 87 RBI, 10 SB 71 walks, 35 strikeouts)
Albert PujolsIs there even an argument to be made against Pujols as the baseball MVP of the Planet Earth? Pujols has a legitimate shot at the Triple Crown and is on pace to become the first player to post 60 home runs under the new MLB performance-enhancement drug testing policies. Most players and fans would be content with any player posting those numbers by the end of the year, and Pujols has been a model of consistency and leadership even without Miller Lite sponsored protection to lock in his carbonated swing for maximum power. As Pujols goes so do the Cardinals, regardless of who bats behind or in front of him.

Most Improved Player: Ryan Franklin (0.79 ERA, 21 out of 22 SV, 27 K, 0.79 WHIP)
Ryan FranklinFranklin has stabilized a bullpen that spent most of the 2008 season throwing batting practice and notched an impressive 31 blown saves on the year. If the bullpen had only took 19 craps, the Cardinals would’ve won the NL Central and easily ran away with the Wild Card. The numbers this year are much more promising. The St. Louis bullpen has recorded six “here we go again” groans and only one by Franklin, and is ranked fourth in the National League with a 3.64 ERA. The Cardinals finished last year 25th in save percentage, but are ranked third at this point in 2009. Franklin will undoubtedly falter a few more times in the second half, but he’s been a force so far and has St. Louis all but forgetting Jason Isringhausen’s sad tumble from stardom to obscurity.

Biggest strength: The pitching ‘stache’
Captain planetCarpenter! Wainwright! Piniero! Lohse! Wellemeyer! By their moustaches combined, they are the Cardinals pitching staff!

With an offense that has struggled to find consistency behind Pujols, St. Louis pitchers have registered a combined 3.76 ERA, good for third in the National League. The Duncan/La Russa philosophy teaches development of consistent control, inducing ground balls, and trusting the defense to make plays. With the exception of historically bad Todd Wellemeyer, the Cardinal pitchers have excelled in these categories.

St. Louis’ groundball-to-fly ball ratio is .97, whereas the league average is a much lower .80, and they lead the league in total defensive chances and assists. They are tied for the league lead in shutouts (three), tied for third in home runs allowed (47), and are second in walks with 161. Wainwright and Piniero average 6.8 innings per start, with Carpenter slightly below that at 6.4 innings. If all three pitchers keep competing for the role of staff ace, the Cardinals will undoubtedly be talking playoffs come September.

Biggest weakness: Outfield production and Pujols protection
The production from the two, four, and five spots in the order looks significantly different compared to last year. Here are the 2008 midseason numbers for Rick Ankiel, Ryan Ludwick, Troy Glaus, and Albert Pujols:

Ankiel – 20 HR, 50 RBI, .270 BA/.343 OBP
Ludwick – 21 HR, 65 RBI, .289 BA/.365 OBP
Glaus – 15 HR, 59 RBI, .276 BA/.377 OBP
Pujols – 18 HR, 50 RBI, .350 BA/.466 OBP

Now look at their 2009 numbers:
Ankiel – 5 HR, 22 RBI, .215 BA/.278 OBP
Ludwick – 15 HR, 54 RBI, .264 BA/.333 OBP
Glaus – incapacitated, although he has taken a rehab assignment in class A Palm Beach
Pujols – 32 HR, 87 RBI, .332 BA/.456 OBP, 10 team-leading SB

Cool Hand LukeWhat we have here is a failure to produce. Ankiel has as many home runs as Khalil Greene, and the third base combination of Joe Thurston, Greene, and Brian Barden have barely reached a quarter of Glaus’ 2008 midseason totals. Despite the influx of Yugos parked next to the Porsche in the Cardinals lineup, there have been encouraging signs of life lately. Center fielder Colby Rasmus is setting himself up for Rookie of the Year honors, and is getting dangerously comfortable batting in front of Pujols. Ludwick has returned to form and tallied a .305 batting average, 6 home runs, and 25 RBIs over the past month. Add in a healthy Mark DeRosa at third base, and St. Louis starts to look like the most complete team in the NL Central.

Second half expectations
With the All-Star Game in the rearview mirror, the Cardinals’ are the healthiest and most complete team in their division. But there are still questions surrounding consistent play from every part of the lineup except the three hole, and it remains to be seen if the pitching staff can continue to perform on all fronts. The moustache revolution has boosted St. Louis morale in hopes of continuing its first half success, but it remains to be seen if the comparisons to the 1985 Cardinals extend beyond fashion statements.