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Wednesday, March 31, 2004

A SCOUT'S P.O.V. Do you ever get the feeling that most scouts are just talking out of their ass? In the SI Baseball Preview Issue, an opposing scout sizes up the Cardinals. First he says that the Cardinals will miss Fernando Vina's spark at the top of the order (doubtful, although maybe if you're comparing him to Tony Womack), then he says that the rotation is "significantly weaker than it's been" (weaker than last year?), and lastly he says that Steve Kline looks like he's hit a wall because he "has pitched 100 innings four years in a row." Kline's career high in innings pitched is 82.1, and that's if you include playoff games. Did they lay off all the fact-checkers over at SI?

ALL-BASEBALL.COM has its picks for various awards for 2004 -- part one is here; part two is right over here. I like reading pre-season picks, but I can't bring myself to do them. I mean, how interesting is it for you to know that I'm going with Pujols, or Bonds, or Thome as my MVP, or if I pick Jason Schmidt as my Cy Young? They're all from the same pool of certified solid good guys, aren't they? (Now, it might be more fun to make up your own categories, as All-Baseball did. Like breakthrough performer -- how about Justin Speier? Or Comeback Kid -- is it cheating to guess Pat Burrell?)

And as for picking teams, hell, I never get 'em right. I mean, I could have told you the Angels were going to take a plunge in '03, but I'd be lying if I didn't say the same thing about the '03 Braves. I suppose it's fun to pick the frontrunners, if only because it makes the upstarts so much more exciting. I will tell you that, aside from some depth issues here and there, I find almost no flaws with the Phillies. I thought that was a cliche pick until's Page 2 told me that they're "Not Hot" for 2004. We'll see about that...

WESTERN CIVILIZATION, R.I.P. This is hilarious. After the Yankees dropped their season opener in Japan, their network website instantly went into panic mode, asking if Game 2 (that's out of 162, not 7) was a "must-win game." Too bad the Bombers blitzed the D-Rays this morning or we may have seen King George stuff a pillow over Brian Cashman's face while weeping gently to himself.

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

HOW MUCH WOULD YOU PAY EDGAR RENTERIA? I got an interesting email yesterday from Jeff Luhnow, the Vice President of Baseball Development for the St. Louis Cardinals. Jeff's a sharp guy who keeps tabs on a lot of baseball chatter around the Web -- he's a daily reader of this very weblog, and maintains relationships with some of the best seamhead analysts out there. His email to me reads, in part:

I thought it might be interesting to start a discussion about signing Renteria. We all know what he brings to this team and we all know his contact is up at the end of this year. I'd be very interested to hear from you and your fellow bloggers [about] what kind of contract you think would be most appropriate for the Cardinals and Renteria. Clearly we all want him here, that's not the issue. The issue is what would be a good contract for both sides, one that the fans would support and is "doable" based on other deals out there, his likely demands, etc. Years and money is the question.

Unfortunately, this will have to be a one way conversation -- you all talking, me listening, for obvious reasons, but I would like you to have a voice.

Let me say for starters that I find this kind of outreach incredibly gratifying. It's a testament to the discussions we generate here at Redbird Nation, and, I think, a testament to Jeff's receptiveness. Not many front offices would be so broad-minded about their own fans, much less willing to do something about it.

So here's your chance to contribute to the topic at hand: the worth of Edgar Renteria, due to become a free agent at the end of the year. If you're anything like me, your knee-jerk tendency, especially with players you love, is to say, "Pay whatever it takes to keep him. I mean, it's not my money."

And yet, in a sense, it is your money. Albert Pujols just signed a contract for $100 million. Where do you think that cash will come from? That's right -- you, the fans. The revenue will be generated by the tickets you buy, the merchandise you pay for, the baseball games you watch on TV and hear on the radio or over the internet, and so on and so on. You invest a lot of time and money in this ballclub, and you expect a good return. So how much would you invest for a talent like Renteria?

There are many ways to attack this question. And unfortunately, none of them are simple. Contract negotiations involve a bramble of complications and unknowns. A list of relevant questions might include:

• What is Renteria asking?
• Does he wish to stay in St. Louis? If so, how long? How important to him is job security? Is he open to a hometown discount?
• How much money is in the budget? What's our expected cashflow down the line?
• What are the alternatives at shortstop? Who else is available, both on the market and within?
• Who else might be bidding for Renteria's services? Boston? Los Angeles? Anaheim? Would those same teams trade for him at midseason? Would the Cardinals be willing to trade him at midseason?
• How old is Renteria? Officially he's 28, but how likely is it that he's a year younger than that, as many reports suggest? If he's younger than he says, how much weight do we give that?
• Is it a higher priority to sign Matt Morris at the end of this year than it is Edgar Renteria?
• What's the ultimate goal -- to win the World Series or merely to put a good product on the field? If it's to win the Series, is that realistic? I think we all agree that win #90 is worth more than win #81, but how much more?
• What about intangibles? Should you put a pricetag on service to the community, or exciting play, or memories?

Like I said, it's a messy affair, and there's no simple formula or flow chart to address all these variables. So perhaps we should zero in on one reasonably narrow question: how many wins can we expect Renteria to contribute over the next few years? Let's break that down into even smaller categories --

1) Comparable Players. When generating forecasts for future performance, Baseball Prospectus assembles a list of similar guys for every active player in the majors. These comparisons are based on age, production, career length, general body type, and fielding position. The 10 players most like Renteria, in descending order of similarity, are:

Ryne Sandberg, Alan Trammell, Derek Jeter, Steve Sax, Granny Hamner, Harvey Kuenn, George Kell, Johnny Logan, Lou Whitaker, and Buddy Bell.

And the next ten includes guys like Curt Flood, Robbie Alomar, and Barry Larkin. That's an impressive list. Most of them are tall, thin guys who began their careers as slap-hitting middle infielders and developed moderate power as they got older.

(A side note: just a couple weeks ago I made a big hullabaloo about Alan Trammell's eerie similarity to Edgar Renteria at this point in his career. Turns out there's a guy out there, Sandberg, who's even more similar.)

2) Future Performance. I took 18 of Edgar's 20 most comparable players (I discarded Jeter because he's only one year older than E-Rent, and Don Money because of gaps in the data), and figured out their Win Shares from the ages of 28-32. Why Win Shares? Because it's a handy metric that works across eras, and across both sides of the ball (run production and run prevention). Why five years? Well, Miguel Tejada and Eric Chavez both signed six-year contracts this year, but both are younger than Renteria. I figure Renteria can ask for and receive 5 years on the open market, so those were my parameters.

I then weighted the Win Shares totals so that Sandberg, the most comparable player on the list, would have the most influence, Trammell the second most, and so on down the line. The weighted Win Shares for E-Rent's comparables look like this:

Age 28: 22 Win Shares
Age 29: 19
Age 30: 20
Age 31: 21
Age 32: 19

On average, that's 20 Win Shares per season. Those projections might seem a little low for a talent like Renteria, who garnered 25 Win Shares last season. But remember, for every Ryne Sandberg or Alan Trammell out there -- i.e., guys who had monster years in their late 20s and early 30s -- there's someone like Granny Hamner or Billy Goodman: a guy who tailed off soon after hitting the big 3-0. Besides, 20 is a very solid Win Shares total. Last season, for example, Pedro Martinez and Jeff Kent scored 20 WS (equal to about six and a half wins).

Now, one thing that jumps out at you is just how consistent those Win Shares projections are: 22-19-20-21-19. Of course, those are aggregate totals. Most guys fluctuate a lot from year to year. Robbie Alomar, from ages 28-32, was 31-21-19-35-20. Barry Larkin, at the same age, was 18-19-30-31-12. But we can still get some answers from the mean totals. For one, they indicate that players like Renteria, as a group, don't suffer any sharp declines in their late 20's and early 30's. And that's important to know.

3) Assigning a Dollar Amount. A guy named Studes, who has become the amateur guru of Win Shares analysis, recently ran a column in The Hardball Times in which he tried to put a dollar amount on each win contributed to the team.

I'm going to confess two things in regard to this article: (a) it's incredibly astute, and I shamelessly borrowed its logic for the last portion of this post; and (b) I can't fully reconstruct its conclusions for our purposes here. That is, Studes determines that players generally earn about $860,000 per year per Win Share above replacement. Problem is, I don't know what a replacement level Win Share total is at shortstop, and I'm not sure how to figure it out. My best guess is that a replacement-level player derives about 8 Win Shares, which means that Edgar Renteria, for the next few years, should be worth about 12 Win Shares above replacement. (If I'm way off base here, please let me know.)

So 12 WSAR at $860,000 per WSAR equals $10.3 million per year. What I like about that total is that it jibes with my intuition -- Edgar could probably get $10MM per if he were a free agent this past offseason, and the above calculations indicate that he's worth it. If Miguel Tejada, an ex-MVP who's a year younger than E-Rent, can command $12 million for six years, you figure Renteria can get $10 million for five.

4) Putting It All Together. Let's walk through the steps and see what tweaks we can make (this is one of the main areas in which I relied on Studes for help):

• Based on recent salary payouts, Renteria is worth about $10.3 million a year.

• But the current market is tighter than years past, so you may be able to discount that $10.3 million down to $8.3 million.

• On the other hand, shortstops get paid more than any position except pitcher -- as high as $1.02 million per WSAR per year -- so let's move that dollar amount back to 10.3 million.

• The Cardinals play in a smaller market and don't figure to contend in, say, 2008 as well as they do now. (I'm basing this mostly on our farm system). That would argue for keeping costs down. On the other hand, despite a faint glimmer of hope for youngster Hector Luna, the Cardinals have few viable options at shortstop from within and must be willing to pay to keep superior talent on the field.

• The Cardinals could justifiably offer a 5-year, $50-55 million contract to Renteria and expect a good return on that investment. But -- and this is perhaps the key issue here -- the wisdom of that offer depends heavily on available resources. In 2005, the Cardinals will pay over $9 million to four different players: Jim Edmonds, Jason Isringhausen, Albert Pujols, and Scott Rolen. Not even the Red Sox do that. If Renteria becomes #5, that'll be roughly $50 million from our budget to our top five players.

Last season those same five guys were superb -- some of them had career years, dream years -- and yet it was only good for third place. If a $10 million contract to Renteria (not to mention an additionally large contract to Matt Morris) hamstrings the Cardinals and makes them unable to flesh out the rest of their roster, then all of this is moot, especially if the goal is to win another World Series. We also know from experience that Walt Jocketty has a poor record of plugging holes with cheap, creative alternatives, so it's not at all wise to leave him with a tight budget.

However, if the Cardinals have enough dough on hand -- perhaps from new season ticket and seat license sales -- then $50 million to Edgar Renteria is a reasonable sum. After all, superstars are rare commodities.

DUBYA HONES HIS SPLIT-FINGER As you may know, our Commander-in-Chief has been invited to throw out the first pitch of the Cardinals season opener on Monday. What you may not know is that this isn't some spur-of-the-moment formality -- the Cardinals brass has been chummy with Bush for years. Big time.

Bill DeWitt, the team's principal owner, helped G.W. get started in the oil business, and has already raised over $200,000 for his re-election campaign. In return, Dubya let him spend a cozy evening in the Lincoln Bedroom. (Remember when Bush slammed Clinton and Gore in 2000 for opening the White House to campaign donors? Haven't heard him say much about the practice now that he's calling the shots.)

Even Walt Jocketty is a Bush man. He and his wife both donated $2,000 to his re-election campaign, the maximum permitted by law.

MR. MEDHEAD REVISITED Want more Will Carroll? Read Josh Schulz's fine interview with him over at Go Cardinals.

SPOILED SUPERSTARS So Jay Leno will be making about $26 million per year, but I doubt we'll see newspaper editorials claiming that he's a greedy overpaid bastard. And he's worse at his job than A-Rod is at his.

DESKTOP GIBBY Reader Jason Russell sends along a link to some new Cooperstown figurines by Todd MacFarlane. Those things rock. In fact, that little six-inch Gibby looks like he could punch out Willie Horton in his prime.

ONLY IN MILWAUKEE In an attempt to justify his team's dearth of power hitters, Brewers manager Ned Yost has come up with a new method of scorekeeping:

"[W]e're trading home runs for doubles and the ability to manufacture runs. Doubles are almost better. I mean, home runs are great, but when you've got guys who smack those doubles, you're in good shape, you've got a lot of guys in scoring position.''

I'd like to play poker with Ned and convince him to trade his four of a kind for a two pair, which is really almost better and leaves you in good shape.

Monday, March 29, 2004

MR. MEDHEAD In today's Baseball Prospectus, Will Carroll does a Team Health Report for the St. Louis Cardinals. And it ain't pretty. Nearly every starter on the Cardinals roster has yellow or red warning lights, making Cavity Sam the new unofficial mascot for our ballclub.

Will Carroll is one of the first writers to popularize the intersecting fields of baseball and medicine. He's a tireless worker who writes a regular column for Baseball Prospectus called "Under the Knife," hosts Baseball Prospectus Radio, has just written a book called Saving the Pitcher (I've had my copy pre-ordered for months now), and even expounds on baseball, politics, Prince, and other urgent matters over at his lively weblog. He somehow found time in his schedule to answer a few of our questions about the Cardinals and the state of medhead research in general:

RBN: A few websites have noted that Scott Rolen had an off-year defensively in 2003. Tom Tippett over at Diamond Mind speculated that this may be due to the aftereffects of his shoulder injury in '02. I myself haven't noticed anything (Rolen's arm still seems like a bazooka to me), but I'm wondering if you've heard anything about Rolen's wing. Is it at or near full strength?

WC: There were some upper back problems that may have been related to the shoulder, but that's speculation. I think the lower back problem was more of an effect. You'd have to ask Clay Davenport or Mitchel Lichtman for more info on range and arm, but the Rolen of 2003 wasn't the Rolen that struck fear into bunters or pull hitting righties.

RBN: Apparently Jim Edmonds was lifting weights in November, noticed that his shoulder still hurt, and scheduled off-season surgery. Who decides if and when players get surgery in the off-season? I've always thought this was more the team's discretion than the player's, but Edmonds' case (as well as Shaq taking his own sweet time with toe surgery a couple years ago) suggests that different teams handle things differently. How does this work?

WC: Ultimately, it's the player's body, but the team owns the rights to it on the field. I doubt he did this in a vacuum, but more players are beginning to exercise their rights to second opinions, using their own doctors, etc. I wouldn't be surprised to see this become more common as questions about team doctors' objectivity keep coming up.

RBN: I'm puzzled by the yellow light you gave Renteria [which indicates he's a moderate health risk]. You said it was "almost entirely" because of his position - and yet, you give the huge majority of shortstops green lights (obnoxiously enough, I checked). You also suggest that the yellow light was because of back problems last year. But the man averages 150 games a year in a Cardinals uniform, set a career high for games last year, missed only one game last year with a sprained back, and you yourself admitted the sprain was more fatigue-related than anything else. So what gives?

WC: Shortstops start with the highest positional adjustment, better than 50%. It's a bit skewed, but the numbers are what they are. Renteria is pushing 30, so a back injury that came up because of fatigue is likely to happen again and worse if there's not a suitable backup -- and there isn't. I spoke with some people with the Cardinals and their subjective reports pushed him up into yellow. It's not completely scientific, but I'd rather err towards caution.

RBN: What did the Cardinals do differently with Isringhausen than the Giants did with Nen or the Padres did with Hoffman that allowed him to stay healthy for most of last year?

WC: The Cards were very very conservative. They didn't know what they'd get from Izzy, so they went with his own timeframe. It's just a different situation from the others. Hoffman had a very unusual surgery, so they had no idea what they were working with, while Nen's still trying to overcome a series of surgeries.

RBN: I've heard that Adam Wainwright, the Cards' #1 prospect, may be even taller than 6'8". Do tall, lanky guys like Wainwright face particular mechanical or injury problems? And have you seen anything in Wainwright's delivery that might account for his reduced velocity?

WC: No more than anyone else. There's no mechanical difference for short or tall -- anyone can pitch properly or improperly. Tall guys have errors magnified by their length, so it's tougher to get them right. I haven't seen Wainwright pitch, so I can't comment on the last part.

RBN: Medically speaking, the current Cardinals regime has probably had more downs than ups. I'm not going to ask you to rank the organization in terms of medhead correctness (for one, that's probably unfair to your sources) but I will ask: what are the relative strengths and weaknesses of our medical team?

WC: There's no way I'll ever rank based on anything but numbers. Every team has a qualified, committed, hard-working staff. It's a matter of results for me and over a period of years, we can get a good picture of who's getting the best results. Using that, the Cards rate just below the midline, but trending down.

RBN: Last Fall I did a study of Tony La Russa's legacy, and I wanted to know how responsible he was for injuries to Alan Benes, Matt Morris, Bud Smith, etc. Unfortunately, I soon found myself over my head. There SEEMED to be some causality between pitcher usage and injury, but there was unclear evidence on both sides. Can we say with any kind of certainty what causes catastrophic injury to pitchers, or, put another way, can we fairly blame La Russa for ruining Alan Benes' career?

WC: Again, we have to look at results. I wouldn't give La Russa and Duncan a young pitcher if I didn't have to, but they work miracles occasionally with guys like Williams or Izzy. We're not at a stage of certainty because we don't have enough data. Its a poor comparison, but imagine Bill James without access to statistics. That's the stage I'm at -- I see patterns, I see results, but we're still trying to find things to quantify these properly. Give me a couple years...

RBN: During a spring training broadcast a couple weeks ago, Gary Thorne said about the Cardinals' chances (paraphrasing here), "One thing you can't determine are injuries. No one knows when or how they'll hit." Now, I feel that injuries are like coin flips -- you can't predict heads or tails on any given flip, but over extended trials you can make reliable predictions. Do you think we'll ever see a day when we can predict injuries year-to-year with as much reliability as, say, batting average, or minors-to-majors stats, or things like that?

WC: I'm not sure whether I'll get that good, but I think we're getting closer. The THR [Team Health Report] system works pretty well overall -- a player who had a red light last year ended up having a significant injury in 50% of cases. Now, that may sound like a coinflip, but it's not. I think the system will be better. Instead of predictability, I'm using a risk management paradigm -- is the risk of player X worth the potential reward?

Thanks, Will. As always, good stuff. And keep your eyes peeled this summer, as Will hopes to make it to St. Louis as part of a Pizza Feed (basically, an excuse to eat pizza and talk baseball) with other BP writers, and if so, you'll all be invited.

TODAY'S TRADE For anyone out there who still clings to some hypertrophied version of Whiteyball, you can rejoice today: the Cardinals now have both stolen-base champs from 1997: Brian L. Hunter (who won the crown with Detroit) and Tony Womack (who won with Pittsburgh). We got Hunter in a swap with the Padres in exchange for outfielder Kerry Robinson.

When players from the same position are traded straight-up, it's called a "challenge trade" -- i.e., I think my new guy's better; you think your new guy's better; let's throw down and find out. But I doubt anyone will get too exercised about this deal, for Hunter and K-Rob are basically the same guy, especially if you squint your eyes just right. They're both speedy singles hitters who hack at too many pitches but make enough Web Gems to please the home folks.

So what do we make of this deal? The Cards do get a little older (K-Rob is younger than Hunter by two and a half years); but then again, Hunter probably has a higher ceiling -- he turned in a nifty little season as recently as 2002, even if it was in the hitter-friendly confines of Dick Cheney Field (to borrow a phrase from Will Leitch). Then again, Hunter's OBP has been falling for the last few years, and it wasn't too high to begin with (last year he reached base as infrequently as K-Rob himself). All in all, I'd say this deal is about as exciting as trading Kerry Robinson for Kerry Robinson.

There's something awfully weird going on around Roger Dean Stadium lately. All winter we've been saying that guys like Marlon Anderson, Bo Hart, and Kerry Robinson won't do, that they're productivity-sucking moray eels on the underbelly of the Great White Sharks in the middle of the Cardinals lineup. And, lo and behold, our prayers seemed to be answered -- La Russa and Jocketty indeed soured on each of those guys: Hart is likely headed for AAA, Anderson for the bench, and Robinson for San Diego.

But only half our prayers were answered (which brings up enough implications about the evil nature of God to make Leibniz lie awake in his grave). Our replacements for our replacement-level parts are frequently no better, and in some cases worse, than what we're letting go. Even more bizarrely, our new imports are the same types of guys as Hart, Anderson, Robinson, et al -- nimble Scrappy Doos with no power or on-base skills. So it's not like the club has found a new philosophy: they're just pulling levers willy-nilly, throwing spaghetti against the wall.

At least we can take solace that K-Rob, a good-hearted U. City boy who grew up a rabid Cardinals fan, went out on a high note -- his bases-loaded single against the Mets today gave the Cards a come-from-behind victory. The hit scored Bo Hart and So Taguchi, but it just as easily could have been Womack, or Anderson, or even Brian L. Hunter. They're all merging into the same fungal mass in my head.

Sunday, March 28, 2004

THE LATEST CUTS Greg Vaughn is out -- no surprise there. But so is Kevin Witt, who is reportedly "shocked" by his demotion to AAA. Now, normally when a player expresses shock that he didn't make the cut, I chalk it up to a whiny overestimation of his own abilities.

But I'm with Witt here. He was in good shape during spring training, bats lefthanded, and is in the prime of his career (and he's years younger than both Kerry Robinson and So Taguchi). He's consistently put up big slugging numbers in the minors, and he even hit okay during his stint with the Tigers last year (with 10 homers in 270 ABs in an extreme pitchers' park).

So the question now becomes: will the Cardinals bench ever hit a home run in 2004? They're filled with the biggest bunch of jackrabbits and banjo hitters you ever saw -- Womack, Robinson, Taguchi. It's a joke. So Taguchi gets a spot on a major league roster while Kevin Witt is thinking about playing in... where else?... Japan.

WELFARE FOR STADIA A new study claims that large public subsidies for the construction of major league baseball stadiums are unnecessary. That doesn't surprise me. What does surprise me is that Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist and author of the fine May the Best Team Win, has some doubts about the study's conclusion. He thinks that privately funded parks might actually need taxpayer assistance to recover their costs.

Busch Stadium III, of course, is (apart from a few breaks from the Mo. Dept. of Transportation and things like that) wholly financed by the Cardinals ownership. And if they get declining rates of return on their investment, then this would be a bad thing for us Birdnals fans.

BAREKNUCKLE BASEBALL Will Leitch has his annual preview of the upcoming baseball season, which is, as usual, a wild and robust affair. Definitely a lot of fun.

GEMS Alan Schwarz has a cool series over at on the greatest catches of all time. It's not meant to be authorative, which is sorta the rule when it comes to great catches -- everyone has their own favorite. (Although I suspect I share my favorite catch -- the one where Ozzie glided over Curt Ford -- with lots of other folks out there.) You can check out Alan's picks by position: pitcher and catcher, first and third, second and short, right, left, and center.

The best recent catch I saw was by Andruw Jones a couple years ago. I don't remember the particulars, I just know that it ended the game and (like Swoboda's famous catch in '69) it didn't look like he had a chance to catch it no matter how many times you saw the replay. Even after the fourth or fifth replay on my TiVo, I thought, "this time he's not gonna make it..."

NEPOTISM WATCH Josh Schulz isn't thrilled with the possibility of Cody McKay as the Cards' backup catcher. McKay, as you know, is the son of Cards first-base coach Dave McKay, and he's had an undistinguished career in the minors, so you can't blame anyone for throwing around the N-word (nepotism). After all, this is the same organization that grabbed Tom Pagnozzi's nephew in the 8th round of last year's draft.

But I gotta say, I don't see any big difference between McKay and Chris Widger. (I can't help but think of Derek Smart's pet theory that "all backup catchers are the same guy.") Both figure to reach base about 30% of the time, with a slugging percentage around .350 or so. Neither is a defensive liability. And given McKay's age (he's two and a half years younger than Widger) and health history (Widger has missed parts of the last few seasons with various ailments), I think McKay may be the safer bet. And besides, he's got that name -- Cody McKay. That's like something straight out of Duane Decker.

SEARCHING FOR STEVE BARTMAN Sean Biehle sends along this fine article, which updates the trials and tribulations of the elusive Steve Bartman.

HOW RICH ARE THE YANKEES? According to Doug Pappas, a new deal for YES (the Yankees network) will rake in about $185 million in subscription revenue per year. That's more than the total operating expenses of almost every team in the league.

How much will it help the Yanks? We'll make a few guesses based on current estimates, plus the Yankees' 2001 budget:

Game receipts: $100 million
Local TV/cable: $185 million
Postseason: $10 million (it was $16MM in '01; we'll assume half that)
Other operating revenue: $50 million
National revenue: $25 million
Total revenue: $370 million

Player compensation: $215 million (includes luxury tax & benefits)
Other expenses: $85 million
Total expenses: $300 million

That adds up to $70 million in profits. Considering that's the exact pricetag for the year's biggest signing, you can expect the Yankees to land yet another giganto free agent for next season. Their shopping list will include Carlos Beltran, Jose Vidro, Derek Lowe, Pedro Martinez, and Matt Morris.

HARD-WIRED Everyone's getting online -- Barry Bonds, Mark Cuban, even Jody Gerut. This is good for sports, I think. I mean, sure, Barry's chat sessions will probably be about as illuminating as a press junket for Agent Cody Banks 2: Destination London, but anything that brings fans closer to players, owners, and managers is a step in the right direction.

THE NEW SPRING LINE Paul Lukas takes a look at some of the new uniforms for 2004.

MARK PRIOR UPDATE No one really knows how long he'll be out, but according to the Chicago Sun-Times, "it's hard to envision Prior pitching for the Cubs any earlier than May." If so, that's a pretty hefty chunk of the season. He lost a month last season, and it probably cost him somewhere around 35 innings (and one or two wins for the Cubs).

The likely substitute in the Cubs' rotation is righthander Sergio Mitre (if you're looking for a comparable, think Jason Simontacchi). This might sound like a nightmare scenario for Cubs' fans, but at least it gives Dusty Baker fewer opportunities to throw Prior's arm off.

THE BIGSHOT As Philip Johnson is to architects or Saul Bellow is to Jewish-American writers, Bill James is to a generation of baseball analysts -- he's become the eminence grise of his field, the Yoda-like figure who presides over countless offspring and imitators. Unfortunately, as official advisor to the Boston Red Sox, he doesn't get to speak as publicly as he used to, but it's still nice to hear him when he does.

YE OLDE BUCOLIC DAYS OF BASEBALL Here's one of the silliest articles I've read in a long while. It's by a guy named Mark Hulet, who says he's finding it harder and harder to root for the sport of baseball because recently, he says, "it became a business." Mark, I hate to break the news to you, but from its very beginning baseball was riddled with labor strife, player poachings from rival leagues, penny-pinching owners, gambling scandals, fire sales, hold-outs, franchise mergers, and every shady business practice you can imagine.

The funniest part of Hulet's article is when he asks wistfully, "Where have all the Ty Cobbs gone?" Cobb, a maniac who bragged about pistol-whipping a man to death (which turns out not to be true), was also a notorious miser who carried around paper bags full of cash and was reportedly worth over $12 million when he died. But of course, that was before baseball became a business.

Friday, March 26, 2004

GONE TRAVELIN' I took a day-off from Redbird Nation today to do some guest writing for The Hardball Times (a great new site, if you haven't checked it out yet). So head on over there if you get a chance and read my take on 5 central issues facing the Cardinals this season.

Thursday, March 25, 2004

THE 12TH MAN Evan Rust, Josh Pearce, and Jason Ryan were all sent to AAA yesterday, which means the Cardinals pitching staff is shaping up like so:



Alan Benes

That's 14 guys left, and La Russa has indicated he'll take twelve of them up north. The first five are pretty much set in the starting rotation, so they're all in. The next five are shoe-ins as well -- they've all had decent springs, and the Cardinals have shown faith in them with larger contracts.

Lincoln, Simontacchi, Calero, and Benes are officially fighting for the final two spots. Lincoln is pretty much in. He hasn't been touched all spring (no runs in 9 innings of relief) and he had a good major-league track record before last year. Alan Benes is all but out. He admitted that the Cards brass told him, "We want you to throw on the side a few more times and then face hitters and then go to Memphis."

That leaves Enrique "Kiko" Calero vs. Simontacchi for the role of 12th man. Both players have pitched well in spring training. Simontacchi had surprisingly good numbers in '02, even if skeptics chalked them up to high run support and a good defense behind him. Simo's ERA zoomed to 5.56 last season, and in some ways he pitched even worse than that.

At first blush Calero's record (a 2.82 ERA last year) makes him the easy choice. But there are caveats: that ERA was compiled in only 38.1 innings; he had no big-league experience before that; he's not any younger than Simontacchi (well, okay, a year younger); and he's rushing back to service after severely rupturing his right patella tendon last June.

But it's clear, at least to me, that Calero has much better stuff than Simontacchi. You can tell how good a guy's stuff is partly by looking at some of his peripheral numbers, and Calero bests Simontacchi in almost every category (I've used BP's equivalent stats to weed out some of the background noise):

K/9 innings:..............
Calero 10.6
Simontacchi 4.7

BB/9 innings:............
Calero 4.1
Simontacchi 2.7

H/9 innings:..............
Calero 7.2
Simontacchi 10.9

HR/9 innings:............
Calero 1.2
Simontacchi 1.5

Simontacchi has a much better walk rate, and he can hold his own when it comes to keeping the ball in the park, but that's it. Calero's arm is much livelier, and his numbers are more attractive going forward.

If the Cardinals were frontrunners in the Central and just needed someone to plug a hole (i.e., hold the fort, not walk everyone in sight), then you might be able to make a case for the Simo Man. But we're underdogs, and we need guys with as much upside as possible. That's clearly Calero. He should be our choice for 12th man.

MASTER FISHERMAN It's been a rough week for Walt Jocketty here at Redbird Nation. We've jabbed at him on three separate occasions for acquiring Tony Womack and then, just to be picky, I gave him some grief for failing to land a legit back-up catcher. So perhaps it's a good time to honor his legacy. I direct you to Daniel over at Get Up, Baby!, who forms an all-star team of Jocketty's biggest and best trades.

The "all-acquisition" team shouldn't surprise you much. It includes boppers like Mark McGwire, Scott Rolen, and Jim Edmonds. (In the wake of the Womack deal, John Yuda doubted Jocketty's credentials as a GM and said he could win a division for the Cards as long as he had players like Rolen, Edmonds, Renteria, Pujols, and Isringhausen. I had to remind him that Jocketty is the guy who actually acquired those players in the first place. A classic case of amplifying a guy's failures while muffling his successes.)

Anyway, what's almost as impressive as Jocketty's "all-acquisition" team is his "all-traded-away team." Who did we give up for all those superstuds? Here's Daniel's trade-bait roster:

C - Alberto Castillo
1B - Chris Richard
2B - Adam Kennedy
3B - Todd Zeile
SS - Jack Wilson
OF - Bernard Gilkey
OF - Ron Gant
OF - Dmitri Young

And then the pitching staff includes guys like Braden Looper and Jose Jiminez. Do any of those departures keep you up at night? Didn't think so.

So let's give a little love to Trader Walt. And for those of you still mad at the guy, just remind yourself that career retrospectives like this are something you normally do when a person is either retired or dead.

A MIX OF PIX, which contains some of the sharpest baseball minds on the Web, has its predicitions for the 2004 season. Not surprisingly, the Cardinals aren't picked to win the division by any of the 11 contributors. Most of them consider the Cubs the class of the NL Central (although, oddly, none of these folks pick the Cubs to go all the way... is that some anti-jinx ritual?).

Of course, the Cardinals are well aware that they aren't favorites this year, and a few articles have tried to spin this as a good thing: as in, "we like flying under the radar." But personally I enjoy seeing the Cardinals atop these preseason predicitions. It generally means you have a pretty good team. Then again, when you are ignored it makes it sweeter if you actually do win...

THE SANDMAN Matthew Namee asks himself if Mariano Rivera, who just signed a contract extension with the Yanks, is a Hall of Famer. His answer: no, not really. Not yet, anyway. And he uses some very orderly analysis to demonstrate that Rivera is only about the 10th best pitcher of his era.

I can't really argue with Matthew's logic, which is impeccable. And yet, me personally, I'd name Rivera to the Hall if I had a vote. And it's not because I think Rivera saved his team more runs than any active pitcher, or anything like that. It's because I don't get too analytical when it comes to the Hall. I think Rivera is the best postseason pitcher (if not the best postseason player, period) of all time, and that should count for a lot.

See, the Hall of Fame, to me, is not simply a warehouse of the best players. I think it's more a meeting of our collective memories, and as such voting should be almost as much literary as it is mathematical. Does that sound old-fashioned and mystical? Fine -- so is the Hall. Besides, the rules for election are pretty broad:

Voting shall be based upon the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.

That's a pretty wide net, and you can interpret the wording any number of ways. Sure, performance and numbers are key, but given these guidelines it also seems fair to consider more elusive qualities -- players who changed the game, or who moved us, of who stood at the center of a number of signature moments.

Take Nolan Ryan. I could use some pretty sophisticated sabermetric tools to "prove" to you that Ryan was no better than Chuck Finley or Rick Reuschel. (Actually you don't even need to be that sophisticated to put some chinks in his armor -- the guy walked 50% more batters than anyone in history, which ain't so hot.) But Nolan Ryan is the embodiment of the power pitcher, a legend in our shared conscience, and the heart of a lot of great moments. Is it voodoo to include those points when discussing Ryan's candidacy? Maybe. But it's our Hall of Fame, and we can do whatever we want with it.

Now, some might think this populist voting philosophy is unfair to people like Edgar Martinez, who never got to play in a World Series. Perhaps (although I would think Edgar has made enough unique contributions to make it over the top). It might also be unfair to people like Barry Larkin, who never played in a huge media market. Again, that's possible (although I would think his performance helps him despite a lack of signature moments). But I'm comfortable giving some leeway to the "fame" in Hall of Fame, and by that standard I think Rivera looks pretty solid.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

THE WOMACKALYPSE There's been some pretty strong reaction to the Cardinals' acquisition of Tony Womack, both here and elsewhere around the Web. A sampling:

"This trade has so many awful implications it makes my head spin." -- Rob

"Chin up, guys. We only gave up Matt Duff." -- Bob Reed

"This is manna from heaven to Astros, Cubs, Reds, Brewers, and Pirates fans." -- Doc Scott

"Personally, I think everyone is making way too much of this trade." -- Sean B.

"[N]ow [the Cardinals are] worse at second and still don't have a left fielder?! Ugh. Two-team race in the central, folks." -- Cliff C.

Everyone I've read agrees that Womack does nothing to help the Cards. But how much will he hurt us? It sorta depends on when he returns from elbow surgery and whether or not he starts, which has been hinted at here and there.

But let's suppose that Womack does indeed start and compare that to the alternative. Before the Womack trade, I think we could have expected a time-sharing arrangement like this:
Anderson 110 games
Hart 52 games

I'm just sorta pulling those numbers out of my ass, but it seems like a reasonable breakdown. For argument's sake, let's say the new 2B arrangement works out as follows:
Womack 110 games
Anderson 26 games
Hart 26 games

What kind of run differential are we talking about under each scenario? Well, let's use Baseball Prospectus' projected Marginal Lineup Value Rate for each guy. (MLVr is how many runs above or below average a hitter will generate per game. So if Albert Pujols' MLVr is .629 and he plays in 157 games, he will generate 98.1 runs more than an average player, which is exactly what he did last year.) So here are the runs for each scenario:
Anderson -10.2
Hart -6.8
Total -17.0

Womack -26.7
Anderson -2.4
Hart -3.4
Total -32.5

There are a lot of strings attached with this kind of analysis, but you can see that starting Womack could cost the Cardinals around 15 or 16 runs, which translates to 1½ wins.

To be honest, that's a lot higher than I would have guessed. I thought that starting Womack would cost us around half a win, tops, and I fully expected to write some piece about how the sky isn't falling and how the Womack acquisition says more about Jocketty's decision-making process than it does about actual wins and losses.

But damn -- one and a half wins. That's quite a hit. Again, we don't know if Womack will start at second base for the Cards, or even if he'll make the team. And if Anderson or Hart gets off to a quick start, La Russa might just pencil him into the starting lineup over Womack.

But if you trust the above numbers at all, you'd have to say that Womack is a ticking time bomb on the Cardinals roster.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

DOWN GOES VETERANS, DOWN GOES VETERANS! Rocky proves he's the champ once and for all.

IN ARREARS USA Today has put together a chart of each team's deferred salary obligations. Naturally the Yanks lead the way with the debt of a small South American country -- they're on the hook for three times as much salary as the second most team, the Philadelphia Phillies.

Which team comes next? Why, it's your St. Louis Cardinals, who will pay over $9.5 million to three different players (Edmonds, Pujols, Rolen) in 2006. None of these contracts are Steve Phillips-brand anchors (i.e., the Mets will shell out over $25 million this year to Roberto Alomar, Tommy Glavine, and Mo Vaughn), but they do hurt our maneuverability a bit down the road.

BASEBALL PRIMER has this interesting (if uneven) preview of the 2004 Cardinals. It includes some food for thought about Ray Lankford:

There's a principle here: If you have a bunch of candidates for a job, root for the guy who, if he has a good year, will have the best "good year" among the candidates. Lankford's main contenders for the Cardinal left field job are Kerry Robinson and So Taguchi. If either of those two succeeds, you get a decent average, mediocre walks, good defense, and base-stealing speed, but no power and not really enough on-base percentage for a leadoff man. If Ray succeeds, you get a slightly lesser average, good walks, decent defense, good speed, and decent power. Both Tony La Russa and I will take the walks and power over the speed and defense. Remember, this is left field, not shortstop. Sure, Ray is much older than the others, but his top end is still much higher.

STAR-GAZER Astros lovers are a bit behind the curve when it comes to infiltrating the blogosphere (by my count the team has fewer blogs than Milwaukee or Tampa Bay). So it's nice to welcome Astro in Exile, a new weblog that keeps track of life inside enemy territory. You might want to go check him out.

MR. APRIL Josh Schulz swears off his annual ritual of buying into the pre-season Mike Matheny hype. It's hard not to like Matheny as a person -- by all accounts he's a great guy, a real leader, and he works his ass off. I remember reading that he gets to the batting cages at about 6 a.m. every day during the winter, and he's obviously not too proud to take batting tips from a man ten years his junior.

Unfortunately, Matheny's character is sturdier than his performance. As Josh points out, he hits like gangbusters every March, then tails off once the ballgames actually count. And actually, Matheny's offseason work habits seem to bleed into April as well. His lifetime totals during the cruelest month:

AB: 502
H: 138
2B: 28
HR: 14
BB: 36
AVG: .275
OBP: .329
SLG: .414

Not bad. If he hit like that all the time he'd be a handy little backstop in the vein of Benito Santiago or Jason LaRue. Problem is, after April Matheny is downright awful, with an OPS below 700 every single month. Makes me wonder if Matheny is cut out to handle the rigors of catching every day (I'm talking about sheer durability here; I've never thought Matheny's performance warranting an everyday gig in the majors).

On the ESPN broadcast yesterday, Gary Thorne passed along a quote by Matheny, in which he said his knees go out after the All-Star break. And sure enough, last year Matheny sported a .109/.219/.172 line in August. It's possible that some guys around baseball would do worse than that -- Barry Weinberg, Garth Brooks, maybe Schoendienst -- but not likely.

Which makes it all the more crucial that the Cardinals have an adequate backup for Big Math. It's easy enough to figure out when to sit Matheny -- never let him start too many games in a row, and give him breaks against righties (the last couple years he's been fine against southpaws). In fact, last August we said, "finding a legitimate complement for Matheny at the plate will be one of Jocketty's prime chores this offseason." Unfortunately he phoned it in by simply re-upping this guy. Not too encouraging...

Monday, March 22, 2004

KEYSTONE KAOS Josh Schulz has the inside scoop on why the Cards traded for Tony Womack (it includes Jocketty, La Russa, a hookah, and some embalming fluid). What's more, the latest chirpings from the Post-Dispatch indicate that the second base job is Womack's to lose:

Second base apparently will be his job... He also projects as the leadoff hitter the Cardinals sorely need.

Didn't Ron Shandler say he'd be a sanity check for the Cardinals front office? Makes me wonder if he was on an office Arby's run while Jocketty got on the phone and closed the deal before he could get back.

A FEW GOOD SWINGS Brady Anderson has a pretty wild response to Jim Palmer's innuendoes about his supposed steroid use in 1996:

"I know what I accomplished, am proud of it, and know that it was done with integrity. I'll state this once again: It was 26 more home runs than I hit in any other season, but that's just one more home run per week, just one more good swing. That is the data that simultaneously comforted me and haunted me, the small difference between greatness and mediocrity."

MY LEADOFF OBSESSION, CONT'D Steve Goldman brings up a point that's so academic it's easy to overlook:

In the end, the batting order is a tool for distributing playing time on a plate appearances per game basis. Over the course of the season, the leadoff hitter will bat more often than the number two hitter, the number two hitter more often than the number three hitter and so on.

Indeed, Cardinals leadoff hitters last year came to the plate 754 times. Compare that to, say, the 684 plate appearances from our number-six hitter (usu. Edgar Renteria). That means if you move a hitter from 6th to 1st in the lineup, he'll bat about 10% more often. Ten percent. I'm sure I don't need to connect the dots for you...

THE END OF AN ERA Remember the old days, when the Cubs were all about getting belly-sunburn in the bleachers, listening to Harry Caray slobber all over his microphone, and smelling hot dogs BBQ-ing from the Waveland Ave. rooftops? Well, these aren't your father's Cubbies, and they ain't messing around no more.

ANOTHER FIRE DRILL Baseball sure loves a crisis. The sport is downright promiscuous about 'em -- this year alone we've had the Pete Rose crisis, the competitive-imbalance crisis, the steroid crisis (which percolated all the way up to Capitol Hill), and, a leftover from last year, the "dearth of African-Americans" crisis. The latter is based on a seemingly troubling fact: black representation in MLB has been cut almost in half in less than ten years (from 19% in 1995 to 10% in 2002).

Flynn did a great post about this a few months ago, in which he suggested that the numbers were hardly cause for alarm. But if you are worried, take solace in the fact that the 2004 Cards stand to quintuple the number of African-Americans on their roster. A year ago, Kerry Robinson was our only black player, but the offseason netted us Ray Lankford, Ray King, Reggie Sanders, and Marlon Anderson. Without checking, I'd guess that we have as many black players as any team in the league, which is pretty cool in a white-liberal-guilt sorta way.

WAR ON THE EGGHEADS This article by Dan O'Neill, which skewers the so-called "genius" of A's GM Billy Beane, is useful only as a primer on how to write a reactionary baseball column. You gotta hand it to O'Neill -- he's got the formula down pat:

(1) reduce Beane's management philosophy to one or two simplistic chestnuts;
(2) find an example of how and when said chestnut actually failed;
(3) use said failure as proof that Beane isn't as smart as he thinks he is.

What O'Neill fails to understand is that Beaneball, at its core, isn't about "on-base percentage" or "station-to-station baseball" or "drafting college players" or anything -- it's about exploiting market inefficiencies. If OBP is undervalued, then Beane can acquire high-OBP guys at a premium. If glovework becomes undervalued, then Beane can land good defenders without blowing his budget. And so on.

Such an approach is necessary given the A's financial limitations, and there's no reasonable argument -- at least none that I've heard -- that suggests it isn't working.

THE JULES VERNE OF SPRING TRAINING Reggie Sanders, who's been with seven teams the past seven years, has the lowdown on the best and worst spring training spots.

In today's game Reggie took a bad pitch from Russ Ortiz and hammered it into left center for a two-run double. It's always been my impression that Reggie will jump all over hanging curveballs, but a good pitcher (especially one with a live heater) will carve him up and eat him for breakfast. So I looked at a few of his batter vs. pitcher matchups to see if that idea held any water. Mind you, this is hugely unscientific, and it has an inherent selection bias, because I'm judging Sanders against only the best hurlers. Nevertheless, Sanders does seem to struggle against top pitchers, even more than you'd expect.

He seems to have special trouble against fastball pitchers: 8-34 vs. Schilling; 5-34 vs. Kevin Brown; 0-11 (with eight K's) vs. Kerry Wood; 6-47 vs. Smoltz; 0-12 vs. Billy Wagner; a little better, at 8 for 31, vs. Big Unit. In fact, I couldn't really find any good fastball pitchers that Sanders hits well. Of course, this is just a quick snapshot, nothing more, but it does jibe with the "book" on Sanders, that he's vulnerable to fastballs up and out of the zone.

TURN ON ESPN The Cardinals game is starting right now...

Sunday, March 21, 2004

OH JESUS... So you've probably heard by now that the Cardinals acquired Tony Womack. Back in January I wondered why the Red Sox -- you know, the team run by the brain trust of Theo Epstein and Bill James -- would sign Womack to a minor-league deal. Now I know the answer: they knew there were enough suckers out there who would trade actual talent for the guy.

Womack adds nothing to the Cardinals. He can't hit for average, he can't walk, he can't hit for power. He can't hit righties; he can't hit lefties. He can't field and he can't throw. He doesn't have room to grow (he's 34 years old) and he's not durable (he had Tommy John surgery in October). He's worthless.

Okay, to be fair, he can bunt a little.

But honestly, I have no idea what the Cardinals see in Womack. He's just an older, more rickety Brent Butler with bad footwork and a weak arm. If this is Walt Jocketty's idea of an answer at second base, then you have to assume that he's asking all the wrong questions.

LEFT FIELD UPDATE Mark Quinn is out. He strained his groin last week, which hampered his chances of making the team. Greg Vauhgn is hitting like, well, Greg Vaughn, so he's probably out of the picture too. K-Rob is having a decent spring, but the frontrunner at this point is actually Sugar Ray Lankford.

GOODBYE, BEHEMOTH Veterans Stadium, that unlovable concrete octorad, will be demolished today, unleashing a biblical plague of rats and dust on downtown Philadelphia. The Vet has one of the worst reps of any stadium in history, but it had its moments. Who can forget Tug McGraw jumping up and down after the Phils won their first (and only) World Series back in 1980? Or Mitch Williams striking out the last Braves hitter to nail down the 1993 NLCS? Or this wild game from 1989, when the Phils erased a 10-nothing first-run deficit and stormed back for the win?

But when I'm lying on my deathbed, and my neurons are evaporating into the ether, there's one memory of the Vet that'll be the last to go. It's from September 1982. The Cardinals were clinging to a 2-0 lead over the Phillies in the 8th inning. Phillies were batting, one out, bases loaded, Mike Schmidt at the plate. Whoever won the game would be in first place with two weeks to play.

So Whitey called on Bruce Sutter to try to put out the fire. Remember, Schmitty was the best player in baseball at that time, so I was thinking a tie ballgame heading into the ninth would be a blessing. But lo and behold, Sutter threw his wicked split-finger and Schmidt pounded it into the dirt, back to the mound. Sutter flipped the ball to Porter at catcher, who gunned it over to Hernandez at first for a 1-2-3 double play. Inning over, threat over, and the shutout held up. One week later, the Cards were 5½ games in front. Two weeks later they wrapped up the division. Five weeks later they were world champions for the ninth and, as of this writing, last time.

Friday, March 19, 2004

YOUR FUTURE HEROES Ted Nye goes Metacritic (hat tip to Baseball Primer) and compiles a consensus pick of the top 599 prospects in baseball. The list is so complete I'm actually a little embarrassed I'm not on it.

Here's a capsule Cardinals version of the top prospects:

31. Adam Wainwright
56. Blake Hawksworth
128. Luis Martinez
161. Chris Narveson
209. Daric Barton
218. Yadier Molina
279. Jimmy Journell
359. Tyler Johnson
463. Rhett Parrott
557. Josh Teekel
577. John Santor
593. John Gall

I don't know about you, but I'm having trouble putting that in context. We all know the Cards farm system is lousy, but how lousy? Let's design a little system. We'll assign points for each prospect's ranking, so that the last guy on the list (Miguel Pinango) gets 1 point and the first guy (Joe Mauer) gets 599. The Cardinals' system, then, would have... let's see... 3,559 points.

Let's stack that up against other organizations around the league:
1. Braves 8,745
2. Blue Jays 8,740
3. Indians 8,218
4. Dodgers 7,991
5. Pirates 7,802
6. Twins 7,482
7. Diamondbacks 7,421
8. Mariners 7,361
9. Cubs 7,231
10. Angels 7,107
11. Rangers 6,742
12. Brewers 6,426
13. Orioles 6,136
14. Reds 6,258
15. Devil Rays 6,020
16. Mets 5,886
17. Tigers 5,796
18. Rockies 5,349
19. Yankees 5,312
20. Marlins 5,259
21. Royals 4,850
22. Padres 4,727
23. Astros 4,682
24. Expos 4,446
25. Red Sox 4,361
26. White Sox 4,347
27. A's 4,264
28. Giants 4,064
29. CARDINALS 3,559
30. Phillies 3,097

A few thoughts:

• The Cardinals' farm system is, um, well -- what's the opposite of "super amazing"? They had the fewest real prospects (12) of any team in baseball and only the carcass of the Phillies organization saved them from last place. And at least the Phils can comfort themselves with hotshot pitching god Cole Hamels at #6.

• Can we safely say that Marty Maier, the Cardinals scouting director for the past three years, is the Ed Wood of talent evaluators? Luckily he was demoted this past winter, but not before Branch Rickey (who invented the modern-day farm system while GM of the Cardinals) rolled around in his grave a few times.

• Are we in for a changing of the guard in the NL Central? The Astros and Cards, who have combined to win 7 of the last 8 divisional flags, are near the bottom of the list. Meanwhile, the other teams in the NLC are all in the upper half, with the Bucs and Cubbies in the top ten.

• We may also be due for a sea change in the AL East -- the Blue Jays missed first place by a hair, and both the Yanks and Red Sox fared poorly. Fortunately for those two, however, they're among the few teams that can acquire ready-made major-league talent without going bankrupt.

• I was very surprised how high the Pirates' organization ranked. They're loaded with pitching prospects, and actually rate higher than the vaunted Brewers system (ranked as the best farm system by Baseball America). Other surprises: the Orioles at #13 and the Reds at #14. Both systems have terrible reps, despite some decent mid-tier talent.

• The Indians had the most overall prospects in the Top 599, with 31.

• Detroit had the lowest ranked "top" prospect of any organization, with pitcher Kyle Sleeth coming in at #88. But to be fair to the Motor City, some of their talent would rank higher if they weren't pressed into major-league service last season.

• What's up with the Athletics? According to this system, they have the fourth wost organization in baseball. There are two likely explanations: either (a) Billy Beane and Paul DePodesta aren't as wizardly as Michael Lewis would have you believe; or (b) the A's players are ranked too low by most scouting services, which is exactly how Beane was able to snatch them up in the first place. My gut says the truth is somewhere in-between.

• Needless to say, this ratings system isn't perfect. Hell, scouting itself isn't perfect (see Neugebauer, Nick, for illustration). But I do wonder if the point system I devised should be less linear. For example, is Joe Mauer twice as valuable as the #300 prospect? Is he worth more than that? Less than that? I really don't know. But in the meantime, this loose list -- a consensus of several different scouting philosophies -- will have to do.

FOR THOSE ABOUT TO ROCK Back in June, my brother The Judge officially named Rock Raines his favorite non-Cardinal of his lifetime (and contemplated getting a tattoo of Raines in his Expos road uni on his neck).

Jay Jaffe joins in the lovefest with this fine ode to the Man in Powder Blue (that's always how I'll remember him anyway), whose number the Expos will retire in June.

THE REST Did you catch any of the Democratic debates over the winter? Didn't you hate how you'd want to hear something from Kerry or Edwards, but then the moderators would have to give equal time to spare limbs like Dennis Kucinich and Carol Moseley Braun? That's sorta what I feel like when I read previews for the bottom-feeders in the NL Central -- you just want to rush through or tune out the Brewers and Pirates until you get to the real meat and potatoes, the Cubs and Astros.

But luckily The Hardball Times has been doing a great job making those lesser teams intriguing. The Reds, as they point out, have a fascinating group of youngsters, and the Brewers are undergoing some interesting changes within their farm system. The Pirates are, unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your POV), still the same old Pirates, but Matthew Namee makes them sorta compelling anyway.

LIDS A fun website called Talking Baseball critiques the baseball caps for every team in the NL East and Central. The Cardinals actually rank in the bottom half of the cap ratings. Why? I couldn't tell you, but it has something to do with the author's obsession with symmetry.

TOTAL LOSER Life as a Loser is a new book by Blacktable writer (and longtime Redbird Nation reader) Will Leitch. The book is about Will's rocky life in and out of love, but it's also about his lifelong romance as a St. Louis Cardinals fan. It includes memories of playing at Busch Stadium in high school, watching his dad almost brawl with Dave Parker on a family trip to Cincinnati to see a Cardinals series, witnessing the longest home run in Busch history (but being too drunk to realize what had happened), and giving Willie McGee a cold during a 1983 Cardinals Caravan. You might want to check it out.

THE OVERLOOKED One thing about fantasy sports: it makes it harder and harder to find an actual underrated player. Every time some newbie goes 3-for-5 or pitches two shutout innings in spring training, you can bet there's a network of overeducated, underpaid drones clicking through his profile on RotoWire, hoping to scoop him up off the waiver wire.

Yet Straightaway CF has found seventy -- yes, seventy (hard to say that without hearing Bob Carpenter's voice) -- players he feels get the shaft when it comes to fame and respectability. It's actually a great list. Nearly every player on there really is underrated (and if this list gets widely circulated, every player will be overrated by the end of next week).

HOW THE NORTHSIDE SEES US Damn, I like this guy.

IVY, NON-WRIGLEY VERSION Every decade has its "hot field" for Ivy League grads. In the '70s it was Washington. In the '80s it was Wall Street. In the '90s it was Hollywood. And now, in the '00s, it's baseball.

Thursday, March 18, 2004

A CUBFAN ON THE CARDINALS Derek Smart, a great guy and a very objective Cubs fan, has a fine rundown of the 2004 Cardinals over at his blog, the Big Red C. Here's a smattering of what he has to say --

On our chances this season: "The St. Louis Cardinals haven't made the same splashy offseason moves that their main competitors in Houston and Chicago have, and many are using that fact as an excuse to write the team off in the NL Central race. This would be a mistake."

On the Cards leftfield situation: "[T]his 'competition' still reminds me of the round of Fear Factor where everyone has to eat something appalling."

On Pujols: "This may sound hyperbolic, but I would be shocked to see him win any fewer than three [MVP] awards over the life of his new seven year contract with the Cardinals, and wouldn't be surprised if he picked up a couple more."

On Mike Matheny: "[W]hen your starting backstop is outhit over the course of the season, any season, by the likes of Bengie Molina, it's time to start considering other options."

Read the rest of Derek's piece if you get a chance, and stay tuned for Part II of his analysis tomorrow.

WHAT WOULD J.D. DO? Four things I learned from reading SI's article about J.D. Drew:

1) He's never had a beer, or smoked a cigarette, and he was a virgin until he got married two years ago.

2) An anonymous Cardinal said of Drew, "Do we miss him? I don't think anybody really does."

3) He's seen the movie The Passion twice. The movie caused tears to stream down his cheeks.

4) He was heartbroken when he learned he was traded away from St. Louis: "His goal had been to win a World Series with the Cardinals, and instead he was being shipped out."

WHEN THERE'S NO ROOM IN HELL... If you get a chance, go see Dawn of the Dead this weekend. It's a truly scary, twisted, fun movie; and I'm not biased, even if, by some chance, perhaps, maybe, my brother wrote the script.

THE ONE-HOLE I know I'm beating a dead horse here, but I got to thinking about Edgar Renteria leading off again (maybe it was the microscopic possibility that Andy Fox could be leading off for the Cards this year). So I looked up E-Rent's lifetime numbers to see if, as his manager claims, he becomes a different player batting leadoff. Check it out, per 162 games:

Leading Off6331773601569.280.349.411
Not Leading Off6111773131055.290.349.400

Do you see much difference there? Seems like Renteria would be just find no matter where you put him.

NEW KID IN TOWN There's a new website called Management by Baseball. Forgive the lousy title -- it's really a good site, drawing on the author's experience as a baseball reporter and management consultant to talk about how to run (or how not to run) a baseball team.

PORTARME FUORI AL GIOCO CON LA PALLA Jason Simontacchi throws his weight around with the commissioner's office.

CRUDALE ON THE CRUD HEAP So Mike Crudale wore out his welcome in Milwaukee almost as quickly as he did in St. Louis. The Bru Cru released him yesterday.

Could Crudale be a member of the Ken Phelps All-Star Team? The Ken Phelps All-Star Team, if you're unfamiliar with the concept, was invented by Bill James in his 1987 Abstract:

They are players whose real limitations are exaggerated by baseball insiders, players who get stuck with a label -- the label of their limits, the label of the things they can't do -- while those that they can do are overlooked.

Ken Phelpsers are like original copies of Exile on Main St. at a garage sale -- they're practically free. Take David Eckstein. Textbook Ken Phelps All-Star. The Red Sox used to own him a few years back, but the knock on him (back in those pre-Theo days) was that he was too short, too weak. So the Sox simply waived him. He was picked up by the Halos, was given a shot, and turned into a pretty nifty little squirt. Not great, still not a slugger, but useful enough.

But Ken Phelps All-Stars are hugely important. Why? Because they're the types of players who win championships. Most contending teams (like, oh, say, the Cardinals) have a decent core of top players. What often separates them from a title is their inability to acquire cheap, useful, freely available talent.

The 2003 Marlins, for example, were full of good role players who were stigmatized before they wore teal for the first time: Dontrelle Willis (goofy delivery), Chad Fox (injury-prone), Rick Helling (washed-up), even, I guess, Jack McKeon (too old). And yet if you pick up those kinds of stocks on the cheap, you can turn 'em around for a big profit.

Which brings us back to Mike Crudale. The knock on him is that he's too fat and too lazy. That's why the Cardinals kept him in the minors for most of 2003, and I have no doubt that's why the Brewers cut him ahead of clowns like Leo Estrella and Wayne Franklin. But his big-league numbers are pretty solid: a 2.09 ERA in 73.1 innings, and 7.4 K's per nine innings.

But here's the trick to finding Ken Phelps All-Stars -- you have to be able to distinguish manageable limitations from unmanageable limitations. For all I know Crudale really is fat and lazy. But will he fail because of his fat laziness, or succeed despite it? Some team out there is bound to find out, but you can bet it won't be the Cardinals.

A THRIVING BREED An article in the Boston Herald declares Reds shortstop Barry Larkin the "last of a dying breed" -- the franchise lifer:

Perhaps the most unique man in baseball will turn 40 years old in April, a month that will start his 19th and final season in the game. But what makes Barry Larkin a dinosaur, truly the last of an endangered species, is the fact that he has played all 19 of those seasons for the Cincinnati Reds.

The article goes on to mourn the loss of such cornerstones:

Times have certainly changed in the major leagues, and they have not necessarily changed for the better. One of the problems the game now faces is that there are not enough players and people like Barry Larkin, who have come to define the uniforms they wear. The unfortunate truth is that players like Alex Rodriguez and Nomar Garciaparra can change teams with alarming regularity, no matter how good they are, because that is the business that baseball has become.

Strange that they mention Nomah -- who has spent all eight years of his career with one club -- as one of those players who "can change teams with alarming regularity." But does the Herald have a point? Is baseball losing those hearty loyalists who stick with one team their entire career?

No. First of all, it's easy to cherry-pick players like Musial, Mays, and Mantle and hold them up as the ideal of fidelity. But we often forget that even during the days of the reserve clause, players were sold or traded all the time. Babe Ruth played for more than one team. So did Tris Speaker, Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson, Hank Aaron, Rogers Hornsby, Joe Morgan, Eddie Collins, Jimmie Foxx, and on and on and on.

What's more, the "one-town athlete" is more alive than you'd think. Among active players, you've got Bernie Williams, John Smoltz, Frank Thomas, Bags and Biggio, and Edgar Martinez, to name a few. And if you look at the numbers across time, you see that Barry Larkin is not part of a dying breed. Last November David Pinto assembled a list of all players who played at least 12 seasons for only one major-league franchise. And if you break it down by the decade in which the players retired, you get something like this:

1890s 3
1900s 0
1910s 1
1920s 5
1930s 8
1940s 13
1950s 10
1960s 10
1970s 16
1980s 17
1990s 15
2000s 11

Note that the 2000s includes active players (and one player on Dave's list, Javy Lopez, has since moved on). We can see, then, that in the early days, the owners (who held all the cards) were as finicky and disloyal as any of today's post-Marvin Miller superstars. In fact, you could make a case that Barry Larkin isn't part of a dying breed so much as a decades-long trend.

GUILTY PLEASURES Anyone particpating in a fantasy baseball league might find this to their liking. But, who am I kidding, if you are in a fantasy baseball league chances are you are also the type of guy who is ensnared in a giant bracket of college kids wearing shorts below their knees for the next four days. Read this on Monday.

DUST-UP One of our readers, Marty, posted this in our "comments" section, but it's too good not to put center stage:

Dusty Baker really dissed the Cardinals on the Dan Patrick show Tuesday. In an interview they did live with Dusty Tues. afternoon, he said that the Astros and Reds would be the Cub's main competition this year. When Rob Dibble asked him if any other teams in the central would suprise anybody he mentioned Milwaukee as having a really improved ballclub.

Yow. Dusty has beaten us head-to-head for two years in a row now, so perhaps he's got some room to brag, but man, what a dick.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

OZZFEST The Yankees payroll this season is 212 million dollars. Their players have made, collectively, over 60 All-Star appearances. They're trying to win the 27th championship in franchise history. And their fifth starter is Donovan Osborne. Did we all fall down the rabbit hole?

I have one, clear-cut, overriding memory of Donovan Osborne. It's the 1996 NLCS, Braves/Cardinals. Game 7 is about to start, series tied at three apiece. Win and we go to our first World Series in almost ten years. The Braves have the mo -- they've won the last two games by a combined score of 17-1 -- and the home crowd, and they also have Tommy Glavine warming up in the bullpen before the game. The TV cameras focus on him, and he's so cool he could just as easily be sitting in front of the tube, half-baked, watching Barney Miller reruns.

The Cardinals counter with Donovan Osborne. Not a great pitching match-up for us, but remember, he did beat Glavine in Game 3, he pitched pretty well all year, and, what the hell, maybe the worst is out of our system. So the TV screen cuts over to Osborne down in the Cardinals pen, and I swear to God I knew the game was over right there.

Osborne was fidgety, glacing over his shoulder, and his eyes were as big as saucers. Like the eyes of a giant squid. And if I had a better TV back then, I'm sure I could have made out the palpitations from his quivering hummingbird heart, the trickle of urine twining down his leg, and the sweat matting his hair like it did my nephew Griffin when he came out of the womb.

There were two other lifelong Cards fans in the room and we all knew what that look meant. In fact, you could have handed me a blank scorecard right then and there and I'd have filled it out ahead of time: first-pitch single, first-pitch double, two quick outs, then walk-single-single-HBP-triple. By the pitcher. With the bases loaded.

6-0 and Osborne wasn't even out of the first. La Russa yanked him and the Cardinals played themselves into a 15-zip loss and a long flight back to St. Louis.

But I contend the disaster began with Donovan Osborne's look while warming up in the bullpen. In fact, I've seen that look a few times since: on Adam Melhuse's face when he made the second-to-last out of the ALDS last year; on Kerry Collins' mug every time he looked at Ray Lewis during the 2001 Super Bowl, and on replays of Michael Spinks before he got mauled by Mike Tyson. My brothers and I have long had a name for that look: the Donovan Osborne face.

Now, flash forward to the present day. Boston and New York are the new Sparta and Athens. And this baseball season will act out their ancient, tribal blood feud. Drums are pounding. Storm clouds are gathering. Both cities are assembling teams of orcs to grind out swords and axes and maces and hording them in some hellish pit. Old folks in Mass General are on life support, desperate to hang on for seven more months and die happy, with their beloved Sawx finally Winning It All. Meanwhile, Bronxsiders are kneeling before Moloch with rosaries coiled around their fists, praying that the mighty Yankees can chew up their mortal enemies one more time. And by the end of the year, one of the cities -- if not both -- will burn to the ground in either exaltation or humiliation.

And at the center of all this fury, prepared to go toe-to-toe against Pedro and Schilling and Lowe and whoever else the Red Sox can throw at them is none other than our old friend Donovan Osborne. I almost feel sorry for the guy.