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 Gamel, 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.
JM: 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.
JM: 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 that 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 school 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.Follow paulmbanks