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Saturday, July 31, 2004

THE NOMAR TRADE If on Friday night you took a snapshot of the Cubs' lineup, you'd find only one glaring weakness: shortstop. In fact, almost every starter on the Cubs ranks near the top of the league in terms of Marginal Lineup Value rate (a stat from Baseball Prospectus that measures offensive production per game). Here's how they fared vs. other NL starters at each position:

C Barrett, 2nd
1B Lee, 5th
2B Walker, 3rd
3B Ramirez, 3rd
SS Gonzalez, 16th
LF Alou, 6th
CF Patterson, 11th
RF Sosa, 5th

Corey Patterson is no great shakes -- at 24 years old, he sorta resembles Marquis Grissom at 34 years old: decent pop, no plate discipline. Otherwise only one blemish jumps out at you, and that's the putrid, gangrenous wound at shortstop.

Up 'til now, Cubs shortstops -- Alex Gonzalez, Ramon Martinez, and Rey Ordonez -- have been the worst in baseball. In fact, their collective line of .222/.270/.331 makes them just about the worst players at any position for any team (only Baltimore's centerfielders, and a few teams' catchers, come close).

After today's big trade, however, the Cubbies' MLVr rankings now look like this:

C Barrett, 2nd
1B Lee, 5th
2B Walker, 3rd
3B Ramirez, 3rd
SS Garciaparra, 1st
LF Alou, 6th
CF Patterson, 11th
RF Sosa, 5th

Quibble all you want about Nomar's flaws -- yes, he's fragile; yes, there are rumors that he's a clubhouse cancer; yes, he's only on temporary loan; yes, his bat is not as quick as it once was; and yes, like most of the Cubs, he's a hacker, not a taker. But any way you slice it, the acquisition of Nomar Garciaparra is a massive upgrade for the Cubs. Just massive.

In fact, given those MLV rates I was just talking about, I would guess that swapping out the tri-headed Ralon Gonzinez monster with Nomar Garciaparra is worth about 20-25 extra runs for the Cubs over their remaining 58 games. That's two extra wins, which happens to equal the Cubs' deficit in the wild-card standings. Given that the Cubs are almost certainly the best team in the wild-card hunt already, the addition of Nomar should be able to push them into the postseason.

Surprisingly, the Cubs didn't even give up a lot to get the guy. Actually, let me rephrase that -- they did give up a lot, but they didn't give up anyone who meant a lot to them. They shipped off Francis Beltran (a live arm, but not a huge deal), Brendan Harris (a good youngster, but he was stuck behind Aramis Ramirez), and lefthander Justin Jones (a top prospect, only 19 years old, but he's had some durability issues, plus his development is years away, plus the Cubs already have a bunch of good young pitchers).

In other words, they dealt from strength to plug a weakness. That's exactly what good GM's do. That's what allowed Henry to trade Jose Hernandez, Matt Bruback, and Bobby Hill to the Pirates for Aramis Ramirez, Kenny Lofton, and cash (um, remind me again why Pirates' GM Dave Littlefield got a contract extension?).

In fact, Jim Hendry is on a serious roll. Over the past year he's acquired Ramirez, Derrek Lee, LaTroy Hawkins, Michael Barrett, Greg Maddux, Todd Hollandsworth, Todd Walker, and now, Nomar. On top of that he got, along with Nomar, a nifty little leftfielder from the Red Sox -- Matt Murton, their #5 overall prospect, although with the Sox that's not saying a ton. He also got, I kid you not, a bundle of cash as part of the deal. How the Cubs got Theo Epstein to pony up Nomar and some money to pay for him -- without Matt Clement thrown into the deal -- is beyond me.

I said it a couple weeks ago and I'll say it again: "To win, it’s not enough to be loaded with talent; you have to be overloaded." The reason the Cubs were able to make this deal is that they were stacked at a couple different positions -- they were deep at third base (with Ramirez and David Kelton in addition to Harris) and deep at pitcher (with guys like Angel Guzman, Andy Sisco, and of course, Mark Prior and Carlos Zambrano, in addition to Jones). Because they were dealing from surplus, they could shave off some of their future to try to cash in on the present.

It's the type of deal that Walt Jocketty is not really able to make right now. Now, granted, Jocketty doesn't really need to make any big trades, and he's got all August to pull something out of his hat if he wants. But the fact remains that our shallow farm system really limits our options. I mean, Jocketty has been saying for weeks that he won't deal any prospects if the price is too high, but when you have only a handful of legit young talents (Haren, Molina, Daric Barton), almost any price is too high -- hell, you trade one of those guys and it's like mortgaging half your future.

Barring some kind of debacle, the Cardinals will still be playing in the postseason. But not once this season -- not after the injuries to Prior and Wood, not after the Cubs went a whole week scoring only 7 runs, not after they lost six of their final seven games to the Cards -- not once have I counted the Cubs out of the playoffs. I still think they're the likely bet to nab the Wild Card and perhaps meet the Cardinals down the line in the NLCS. After today's deal, that scenario took one step closer to reality.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

EVERYTHING BUT THE KITCHEN SINK The other day a friend of mine told me that Tim McCarver called this Red Sox-Yankees tilt -- another wild, 11-10 odyssey -- the "worst game" he's ever seen.  And indeed, the game featured lousy bullpen work, loads of errors, and even an ugly-ass fight.  But I still think there's a double standard when it comes to slugfests.  Low-scoring games are considered pristine, beautiful, lovely; scoreboard derbies are somehow ugly, sloppy, even uncouth.  Great pitching = great game.  Great hitting = a shit smeared on the face of minimalist art.

So what to make of tonight's Cards-Reds rollercoaster ride?  There was certainly some lovely hitting (look no further than Scotty Rolen's "super cycle" -- a single, double, and two jacks), plus some exquisite clutch hitting (did Barry Larkin really hit that pinch grand slam?), and even a couple of handsome plays in the field (most memorably, Wily Mo Pena's Edmondsesque leap-and-grab of Pujols' drive in the 4th).

But otherwise let's be honest: this game was hideous.  There were errors, wild pitches, rickety relief jobs, balls taking goofy hops, a balk, and, most of all, lots and lots of pitches out of the strike zone -- 183 of  them, to be exact (against only 210 strikes).  Jeff Suppan alone threw more balls than strikes, and became the first Cardinal pitcher in 33 years to reach double digits for walks in a single game.  There were 19 walks on the night, 13 of them from Redbird hurlers.  It seriously looked like every pitcher who went out there (except for the analgesic Cal Eldred) was pitching from a life raft in the middle of a raging sea.

Now, there are two ways of looking at all of this.  The first says that this game is a harbinger, that the Cards are showing signs of wear and tear.  Our team ERA after the All-Star Break is 50 points higher than it was before the break, and that includes four shutouts (not like you should factor out those gems or anything; I'm just saying that we've had some ugly performances mixed in with the good stuff).

Jeff Suppan has been especially worrisome.  After going 16 straight starts without allowing more than three runs, he's now allowed more than 3 runs three starts in a row.  His ERA over that stretch: 8.15.  This might not be so troubling if it weren't for the fact that Suppan was far worse after the ASB last year (3.73 ERA before; 4.83 after, which is right in line with his career trends).  No one will blame you if you think the guy might be turning into a pumpkin. 

On the other hand, look at the bright side.  It's a testament to this Cardinals team that they can play a game this shoddily and still pull off the win -- on the road no less, with the opposing team breathing down their backs the whole game.  (And let's take a moment to honor the pluck and verve shown by the Reds.  Losers of 7 straight heading into tonight's game, falling behind 8-1 early on, and watching their season basically disintegrate before their eyes, they had every reason to look ahead to tomorrow's day-off.  But they kept grinding away and almost pulled off a stunner.)  (Although I won't honor Reds manager Dave Miley.  Why he didn't pinch hit for Jose Acevedo, with two outs and the bases juiced in the bottom of the 3rd -- after it was clear Acevedo simply didn't have it and that the Reds would be playing catch-up all night -- is beyond me.)

The numbers say that this is our high-water mark for the season.  We've got our biggest lead (11 games), our best winning percentage (.644), and we're a season-high 29 games over .500. Somehow I'm not able to fully rejoice after tonight's game -- it left me feeling a bit less than squeaky clean.  But I will rejoice a little.  I mean, we did win.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

1968 ALL OVER AGAIN The Cards pitching staff has more shutouts in the past week (4) than either the Royals, Rockies, Yankees, Devil Rays, Giants, Phillies, or Cubs have had all year.

ROAD SWEET ROAD Yet another win in unfriendly confines.  Here are the three teams with the fewest road losses in the major leagues:

  1. St. Louis, 16
  2. Los Angeles, 21
  3. Minnesota, 22
The Cards have played in 16 road series all year and they've lost only 16 games.  Only seven other teams are over .500 on the road.  The best of them is L.A., five games over .500, at .553.  By comparison, the Cardinals are sixteen games over .500, with a .667 road winning percentage.  That's obscene.

Here's another pair of stats I got a kick out of:

Jason Marquis, batting average, 2004: .289
Jason Marquis, batting average against, 2004: .279

Not bad.

TRADE WINDS A recent thread over at Baseball Primer discussed various players who might be headed to the Cardinals before Saturday's deadline.  Here are the candidates, along with my takes: 

Randy Johnson: I think we have to face facts -- the Cardinals cannot land Randy Johnson without giving up Edgar Renteria for next season.  There's just no way we can win the Rent-a-Renteria sweepstakes with a team like Boston while saddled with Johnson's $10.5 pricetag for 2005 (and $6 million deferral for the year after that).  Would you take Unit over Renteria?  I wouldn't.  Unit has been far superior this season, but Renteria was far, far superior last season.  Well, you might say, Unit was injured last year... And that's precisely the point.  The guy turns 41 in a few weeks and he's got rusty knees.  I'll keep E-Rent and roll the dice with our other starters.

Ugueth Urtain Urbina: He's been striking out a crudload of guys, but he's also been walking a crudload.  What's more, his ERA (4.58) is pretty uninspiring for a guy who pitches half his games in the wide-open prairies of Comerica Park.  On the plus side, Uggie is only owed about a million bucks the rest of the way, and he was pretty good in the NL playoffs last year.  Problem is, the Tigers, who are 8 games out of a playoff spot, don't want to raise the white flag just yet -- remember, this was supposed to be a year of trust-building between Detroit's organization and its fans.  So if they give up UUU they might be asking more than he's worth.  I say pass.

Larry Walker: He's slugging .780 this year... away from Coors Field!  Unfortunately, he's also guaranteed $12.5 mil next year and a $1 mil buyout the next.  The Cards should look into it only if the Rox pick up a hefty portion of that salary -- and if they did that, what would be the point of trading him?  This one's not gonna happen.

Jorge Julio: The guy had one good year two years ago, and he wouldn't excite anyone were it not for his 98-mph heater.  The word is that he struggles with his release point, and Dave Duncan licks his chops over guys with bad mechanics and great stuff.  I'm just not sure about an in-season project like this.  As a righthander he'd be replacing Cal Eldred on the depth chart (behind Izzy, Calero, and Tavarez), which begs the question: do we need to even worry about Eldred at this point?  The Cards should be building for the postseason, when Eldred will scarcely be used at all.  What's more, Baltimore, mired 18 games out of first, will want a real prospect for Julio.  San Fran or the Cubs seem like better fits.

Jose Mesa: Joey Table has spiffy numbers this year (2.28 ERA, 29 saves out of 30 chances), but his K rate scares me (only 5.61).  My guess is that he'd be a second Julian Tavarez for the Cards.  Nice, but...

Eddie Guardado: Now this guy is goood, the best closer in the AL this year outside of Joe Nathan, plus Guardado's been doing his thing much longer.  The downside: he's owed $9 million over the next two years.  There's just no point for the Cardinals to take on that kind of salary burden for an extra set-up man -- unless they made him their ace reliever, then turned around and flipped Izzy for a leftfielder.  Should that happen?  I'd be open to it.  Will it happen?  Uh, no.

If the Cards do want to make a love connection at the trading deadline, I suggest they go outside the want ads and do something more creative.  Meanwhile it's a shame we couldn't at least get a look at John Gall while Lankford is on the shelf -- he could be the righthanded-hitting outfielder we're looking for.  People say he's got a repellent glove, but did you see that butcher-job by Mabry in the bottom of the 11th last night?  Gall can't be any worse than that, can he?

MURDERERS ROWS I ran across this tidbit in yesterday's Cincinnati Enquirer:

Pujols (72 RBI), Scott Rolen (20 HRs, 88 RBI) and Jim Edmonds (24 HRs, 64 RBI) are the best No. 3, 4 and 5 trio in baseball.
Is that true?  Can we measure it?  Here are the top 5 "hearts of the order" -- 3, 4, and 5 men -- according to cumulative Value Above Replacement Level:

1. St. Louis -- Pujols (60.2), Rolen (50.4), Jedmonds (45.1) = 155.7
2. Philadelphia -- Abreu (53.5), Thome (50.9), Burrell (19.6) = 124
3. Boston -- Ortiz (49.3), Manny (53.2), Garciaparra (15.8) = 118.3
4. New York Yankees -- Sheffield (36.9), A-Rod (41.2), Posada (33.7) = 111.8
5. San Francisco -- Grissom (15.6), Bonds (83.6), Feliz (10.0) = 109.2

Just missing the list, the Reds, with a row of Casey (47.1), Griffey (23.5), and Dunn (37.8) (or substitute Wily Mo Pena for Griffey and you get just about the same numbers).  And for the record we should say that Boston was hurt by the fact that Nomah hasn't been playing alot this year.  When he's healthy their 3-4-5 trio is right up there.

Otherwise it seems pretty clear that, this season anyway, the Cardinals have quite easily the most dangerous middle of the order in all of baseball.

REVISIONIST HISTORY There's particular take on the 2003 Cardinals (and I'm as guilty of it as anyone) that goes something like this: the team was never that good, but by September they still had an excellent shot at winning the division -- until they ran into a buzzsaw up in Wrigley Field, dropped four of five to the Cubs, then played terrible baseball the rest of the way and dropped like a rock.

I mention this only because the conventional wisdom (or at least it's conventional in some parts) is that the Cubs, after running into a Cardinals buzzsaw a week ago in Wrigley Field, are too hobbled (psychologically and otherwise) to recover and make the postseason.

But as the great Derek Smart points out, this reading of the 2003 Cardinals is incorrect.  After falling in Wrigley, the Cards went 12-9 the rest of the way -- not great (especially given our competition), but their .571 pace down the stretch does exceed their .518 winning percentage up to that point.

The lesson: in baseball, as in real life, it's almost impossible to knock someone out with one punch.  The Cubs will be lingering around, if not in the upper echelons of the NL Central, then at least in the scrum for the Wild Card.

Monday, July 26, 2004

THE FRUITS OF PREPARATION There was a game a couple years back -- I think it was this one, but I'm not quite sure -- where the Cardinals were deadlocked with the Reds in the late innings at home.  With two outs a Reds player lofted a pop fly into left field.  Albert Pujols camped under it, held up his glove... and promptly dropped the ball.  The run scored, the Reds tacked on another run that inning, and went on to win the game.  Well, two years later the Redlegs returned the favor when Wily Mo Pena dropped a sure second out off the bat of Mike Matheny in the 11th inning, and opened the floodgates tonight for a 9-6 Cardinals win.

The Birdinals fell behind 3-0 in the first tonight, but I honestly wasn't that worried.  Their relentlessness -- which is the characteristic I've come to most associate with this team -- kept them in the hunt.  Even when the other team gets in a couple of good body shots, the Cards always seem to respond like patient boxers, backing their opponents into the ropes, cutting off their escape routes, waiting for them to drop their guard, then pouncing.

I was thinking about this -- the Cards' ability to exploit weaknesses -- midway through tonight's game, when Reds color man Chris Welsh was talking about the ways in which the Cardinals keep themselves prepared.  He mentioned how the coaching staff prepares Cardinals players by drawing up little index cards that break down how the opposing pitcher approaches each hitter -- i.e., what kind of pitches he throws, what patterns he's established, and so on.  The coaching staff, rather than rely on each player to pour over hours of videotape, instead hands out these handy-dandy "cheat sheets" that are clear, terse, and usable.

It's a small thing, I know, but it's the type of advantage that seems to keep this team on its toes.  As Dennis Eckersley said in his Cooperstown acceptance speech yesterday, "[Tony] La Russa always said the key to confidence lies in preparation.  Remember to cross your t's and dot your i's, he'd say."  That's why, I think, the Cardinals always seem to do better as the season wears on, and especially after they've already faced an opponent on the season.

Like this year the Cardinals have a .596 winning percentage the first series against another team.  But if they've already squared off against an opponent, their winning percentage shoots up to .681.  Same deal last year (.475 WP first time around, .553 after that), and the year before that (.538 vs. .627), and the year before that, although admittedly not as much (.567 vs. .578).  Of course, there are other ways to interpret that same data, but I do think that La Russa's vaunted preparation accounts for at least part of this trend. 

There's an old fortune-cookie saying: "luck is when opportunity meets preparation."  And in one respect, yes, the Cards were lucky bastards tonight.  But this team also makes their own luck; they're always prepared to pounce when the opportunity arises.  So when Wily Mo Pena drops a fly ball, or Paul Wilson hangs a breaking pitch (like he did to Scott Rolen in the 4th or Albert Pujols in the 8th), the Cards jump all over it and make it hurt extra-long.

Sunday, July 25, 2004

WEIRD WEEKEND Nothing went according to script in this series:

The Cards lost an extra-inning game (they had been 6-0).

Ex-Cardinal Dustin Hermanson pitched like the Second Coming of Jim Bunning, carrying a no-hitter into the 7th on Friday.

Ex-Cardinal Brett Tomko nearly matched him the next day, allowing only two runs in 8 innings (although, to be fair, Tomko did have a 2.88 ERA in 15 starts at Busch last year).

Ex-Cardinal Jason Christiansen completed the Revenge of the Turds saga on Saturday by carving up Jim Edmonds and picking up the save.

Our pitching staff (which leads the league in fewest walks allowed) issued 13 free passes on the weekend.

Only two of those walks were to Barry Bonds, while four were to J.T. Snow and two were to Deivi Cruz (who entered the series with only 9 walks all year).

The Cards made sloppy plays when it mattered most (Exhibit A: Womack flubbing Feliz's grounder in the 9th on Saturday; Exhibit B: Luna's lousy bunt to the wrong side of the infield in the bottom half of the inning).

Matt Morris (5.73 ERA since June 1st) was our best pitcher.

Jeff Suppan (who hadn't given up more than 4 runs in any start in three-and-a-half months) gave up 6 runs on Friday night.

Neifi Perez (whom some have called, with all sincerity, the worst player in baseball history) went 3-4 with a walk.

Ray King (who hadn't allowed a home run since last year, and had allowed only two runs in the past three months) gave up a two-run, back-breaking home run on Saturday.

And, most startlingly, that magic pixie dust we've been blessed with for the past two months seemed to be missing.  How else to account for third-base ump Kerwin Danley blowing the call (and possibly the game) on Saturday by calling Marlon Anderson out at third on Luna's bunt? How else to account for that slice by Womack three batters later, which would have won the game, landing just foul?  Hell, how else do you account for Tony Womack's 3-for-39 tailspin since the All-Star Break?

There's no doubt about it: the Cards are, once again, cursed.

Except, of course, they're not.

For if you think about it, it wasn't such a bad weekend.  We salvaged the game on Sunday with a lovely, Madduxian shutout from Matt Morris; we maintained our gaping 10-game lead in the Central; and by dropping two out of three to the Gints, we helped knock our nemesis Cubs deeper in the Wild Cards standings.  Really not a bad weekend at all.

BIG MAN WALKING Yeah, Barry Bonds took Jeff Suppan deep on Friday, but give the Cards credit for pitching to him this weekend.  This is all relatively speaking, of course -- they did walk him twice in ten plate appearances (once intentionally), but compared to the rest of the league we were venturing right into his wheelhouse.

Check out how some other teams have approached Bonds this season:

Atlanta, 7 walks in 13 plate appearances
Oakland, 11 walks in 24 plate appearances
Los Angeles, 24 walks in 53 plate appearances
Florida, 8 walks in only 11 plate appearances

The Cardinals, in fact, challenged Bonds more than any team this season (close second: Tampa Bay, 2 walks in 9 PA's).  Perhaps La Russa learned something back in '02, when he walked Bonds 10 times in the playoffs and saw his team go down in five games.  Since that time the Cardinals have walked Bonds only 4 times in 26 plate appearances, almost unheard of compared to the rest of the league.

LANKFORD DOWN, HAREN UP So Sugar Ray will go on the DL with a sprained wrist, and Danny Haren has been called up from Memphis to take his place.  This doesn't hurt the Cards much in left, as La Russa has already been relying on a cavalcade of bit performers (and generally pushing the right buttons -- Cedeno, Mabry, and Taguchi have all done well lately in spot duty).  Lankford will be available to come off the DL the first weekend of August, against the Mets.  I think La Russa prefers the mix-and-match, tinkertoy flexibility he gets from having a bunch of part-timers vying for one lineup slot, but you gotta wonder if Jocketty is hot to acquire an actual mainstay in left before the trading deadline (midnight on Saturday).

The roster moves will likely help our pitching staff.  Unlike this past June (or, for that matter, most of last year), when Haren was pressed into emergency starter duty, he'll be able to get his sea legs in the bullpen.  Better yet, once Haren re-accustoms himself to the pace of big-league hitting, TLR has the enviable option of using him as a spot starter to rest old and/or mending pitchers like Woody Williams and Chris Carpenter.  Haren might get knocked around a bit, but one of the perks of being 10 games up is that those things don't matter too much, and in the meantime we don't have to worry about our starters getting exhausted down the stretch.

GEEZERS As you know, Barry Bonds turned 40 yesterday -- amazing considering he's still the best player in baseball, no qualifiers needed.  In baseball terms, Bonds is still 39 years old (traditionally, you take a player's age on July 1 to obtain his seasonal age), and he's well on his way to becoming the best player ever in his age group.  He was also, in fact, the best player ever at age 36, 37, and 38 (although Ted Williams gives him a run for the money in that last bracket).

So in honor of Barry (and Dennis Eckersley and Paul Molitor, who were inducted into the Hall of Fame today), here are my picks for the "40 and Over" All-Star Team.  Starters are listed first, backups second.  Also, I put the players at the position which they played most after age 40, so Darrell Evans is a first basema, Ty Cobb a rightfielder, etc.  Here's the team:

C Carlton Fisk, Bob Boone
1B Darrell Evans, Pete Rose
2B Nap Lajoie
3B Graig Nettles, Wade Boggs
SS Luke Appling, Honus Wagner
LF Stan Musial, Ted Williams, Rickey Henderson
CF Willie Mays
RF Sam Rice, Ty Cobb
DH Dave Winfield, Carl Yastrzemski, Paul Molitor
SP Phil Niekro, Nolan Ryan, Cy Young, Jack Quinn, Warren Spahn
RP Hoyt Wilhelm, Dennis Eckersley, Doug Jones

LF and RF are basically pick 'ems, with none of the players having a big edge over anyone else.  As you shift your way down the defensive spectrum (DH - 1B - LF - RF - 3B - CF - 2B - SS - C) you find fewer qualified candidates.  For example, there are a plethora of fine DH's over 40 (in addition to the ones above, Brian Downing, Edgar Martinez, Harold Baines), but very few good centerfielders (Mays is the only real one) or secondbaseman (even Lajoie is a stretch).  For this reason I'd probably pick Carlton Fisk as my "over 40" MVP.  He had the best combination of excellence and longevity, and he played a key defensive position.  He also had the most home runs, ribbies, and extra bases for an old guy, but I wouldn't put it past Barry to pass him up.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

RESPEK "Respek is important.  But the sad thing is, there's so little respek left in the world that if you looked up the word in the dictionary, you'll find it's been taken out." -- Ali G

The Cardinals didn't very much respek Ben Sheets tonight, despite the fact that he came into the game striking out over a man an inning, had the best ERA in baseball, and owned a filthy 7-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.  He gave up 9 hits and 4 earned runs and didn't even finish the 6th inning (although he did have a positively Sheets-like 7 strikeouts and 1 walk).  Great win all around.  A few loose thoughts:

  • In the first inning Jason Marquis leaped to spear a high-hopper off the bat of Geoff Jenkins.  Have you noticed how much Marquis likes to jump?  I mean in an elemental way, just as Frost's swinger of birches liked to swing.  Seriously, watch him sometime -- when Cardinals infielders leap in the air, he leaps with them.  A few weeks ago, Corey Patterson was robbed of a base hit when Tony Womack jumped in the air to nab his line drive, and there was Jason Marquis jumping along with him, like a synchronized pitcher.  I saw him do it once with Renteria too.  It's the damnedest thing.  Call it the Marquis Hop.

  • I think all that hopping around reveals something about Marquis' personality.  He's literally jumpy on the mound.  The key for him (as it was with Brett Tomko) is to stay grounded, tethered.  Tonight he did that. It was his best start in a Cardinals uniform -- 8 innings, 8 goose eggs, 9 hits, all singles.  Come to think of it, it's probably Marquis' best start since joining the big leagues.  As best I can tell, it's the only time he started a game and did not give up at least one run.

  • Remember when the Cubs starting raining bombs on the Cardinals back on Tuesday, with 8 runs in the first three innings?  Since that time, our pitching staff has gone 24 straight innings without allowing a run.  The team ERA is now 3.77, just a hair off the best in baseball (the Cubs are at 3.74).

  • Did you get the impression that Tuesday's thriller in Wrigley had so drained us that our team went into a sort of collective somnambulance on Wednesday?  The guys who had played on Tuesday afternoon went 1-for-23 on Wednesday night.  Luckily, the team came out alert and sprightly tonight, hitting the ball on the button and jumping on Sheets for two first-inning runs.

  • Ray King was miked up during the game.  The guy's incredibly engaging (at one point he said Steve Kline was "50 cards short of a deck") -- so much so that I'm surprised he doesn't have his own fan section somewhere in the stadium, perhaps a place where a bunch of collegiate types dress up as burgers and call their area Burger King's Kingdom or something like that.  Seriously, how hard can it be to turn the guy into a folk hero?  He's as round as Charlie Kerfield and almost as likable as Quisenberry.  Let's make this happen.  (I'd do it myself but I'm bad at making burger outfits.)

  • Edgar Renteria may have made his most Ozzie-ish play ever in the top of the 4th.  Wes Helms led off with a smash deep in the hole; Edgar went far to his right, dove, backhanded the ball, then threw from his knees to nip Helms at first.  Only one problem -- first base ump Jim Wolf called the runner safe.  He wasn't (unless you argue that umpires : baseball reality :: God : world).

  • Joe Buck was going off on the five-game suspension handed out to Carlos Zambrano today, saying "five games is nothing for a starter!"  Yes it is.  For the guy who gets suspended it's not much, but it forces his team to use a 6th starter (or a guy on three-days rest).  For most clubs that's a real blow.

  • Buck also said at one point (talking about Scott Podsednik), "you can't name 5 good leadoff hitters in the game today."  Depends on your definition of a good leadoff hitter.  Barry Bonds would make a great leadoff hitter, but I guess Buck was talking about guys who actually lead off.  How do you define a good leadoff hitter?  Just picking some numbers out of my ass, I'd say it's someone who has a .365+ OBP while leading off.  Strangely enough, exactly five major leaguers fit that criterion this year: Johnny Damon, Ichiro, Michael Young, Craig Biggio, and Juan Pierre.  Sorry, Joe -- among leadoff hitters with 250 or more PA's, Podsednik has the very lowest OBP, at .325.

  • I figured out who Craig Counsell looks like in the batter's box -- why, it's silent film comedian Harold Lloyd

  • The Cards had only one more hit than the Brewers tonight, but they still won going away.  This seems to happen a lot -- for example, the Cards have only one more hit than their opponents during their last five games, and yet they've won all five.  How does this happen?  Is it luck?  Partly.  We lead the league in hitting with runners in scoring position (.276), whereas our opponents are hitting 35 points lower in those situations.  But the reason we're leading the majors in run differential, despite giving up a fairly comparable number of hits, is that our pitching staff walks almost no one (we lead the league in fewest walks allowed) and they induce an unusual number of double plays (we lead the league in that category too, but I don't have the #'s in front of me).

  • Jason Marquis tonight: 18 groundouts, 4 flyouts, 2 strikeouts.  Think he had his sinker working?  Here's a graphical depiction of his pitches (press the Pitching tab and then the "Cumulative Graphical" link) -- of his 113 pitches, only 3 were balls high and out of the strike zone.

  • That 113-pitch total was Marquis' second-highest workload of the season.  I'm sure you've heard how Marquis has never thrown more than 142 innings in any one season in his professional career.  Cause for alarm perhaps (he's at 119 innings now), but Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan have actually treated him quite gingerly.  His Pitcher Abuse Points (a measurement from Baseball Prospectus which tracks stress on pitchers' arms) are at 13867, which ranks 71st out of all major league starters.

  • When was the last time the Cardinals went an entire series without giving up a run?  I know (from that the Cards shut out the Cubs for a series from June 18-20, 1968, but that was over three games.  Perhaps there was another two-game shutout in there, but I don't know how to look up two-game streaks on Baseball Reference.

  • What idiot said that Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year?  The Cardinals have won 7 of 8 since the break and 15 of 17 overall.  They've lost only one of their last 17 series, and their 38-12 record since May 26th is the franchise's best 50-game stretch since 1968.  In fact, the Cardinals were only one game over .500 when their 50-game streak began; they could go only one game over .500 the rest of the way and still finish with 95 wins.  Clearly the best time of the year is now.

A BLACK AND WHITE ISSUE Peter Gammons recently polled a group of All-Stars and asked them for a list of guys who play the game "the right way" -- that is, with respect, intensity, precision, competitiveness. Rolen got the most votes in the NL, Jeter in the AL.

So Gammons then polled a bunch of managers and GMs and execs and asked them who they'd name to the "Rolen and Jeter" All-Star teams. The top vote-getters include a lot of names you'd expect -- Curt Schilling, Darin Erstad, Todd Helton, i.e., guys who have sturdy values, don't draw attention to themselves, get the job done.

But Aaron Gleeman noticed something else they have in common:

The results of the survey were, to me, quite interesting, not because of the players who were named, but because of a trait the majority of them share: They are white guys. Of the 18 players who received the most votes (one player at each position for both leagues), 12 of them are Caucasian. Taking it even further, of the 47 total players who received at least one vote, 30 are white.
As Aaron points out, this phenomenon squares with results from a 2003 Sports Illustrated survey, in which one of the questions was "who gets the most from the least amount of talent?"  The top vote-getters were invariably white guys: David Eckstein, Craig Counsell, Jamie Moyer, Joe McEwing.   Get the picture?  White = scrappy and modest; black = instinctual and crass.  Or so the thinking goes.

What do you make of this?  I can think of three possible explanations:
  1. People who play and follow baseball are racist.  Perhaps not racist in an ideological sense, but in the insidious way that attributes Cal Ripken's success to his upstanding work ethic and Hank Aaron's to his strong wrists.

  2. Perhaps white guys really are apt to play the game "the right way."  But keep in mind, that's not necessarily a good thing.  "Playing the game the right way" may just be a euphemism for "boring."  I mean, we all know that Scott Rolen plays the game the right way (head down on homers, earns his paycheck without fuss or fanfare), but would you really want an entire league of Scott Rolens?  Give me a few guys who play the game the wrong way, who glory in their talents like Rickey Henderson, or thump their chests like Sammy Sosa, or swagger into the box like Barry Bonds.  Of course, Gleeman has a point; all three of those guys I just mentioned work their asses off, but often get discounted as too raw, too cocky, or, let's just say it, too black.  But I like the panache of modern athletics, and if the personalities responsible for it tend to be black (everyone from Muhammad Ali to Dennis Rodman), so be it.

  3. It's possible there's no issue at all.  Gleeman writes:

According to data published last year in the Toronto Star, of the 750 players on Opening Day rosters in 2003, "54.4 percent of the players were white." And yet, in Gammons' survey, 67% of the top vote-getters were white and 64% of the overall vote-getters were white.

First of all, a difference of 10-15 percentage points is awfully slim to draw any conclusions.  What's more, I'm not sure we should trust that data.  The Post-Dispatch ran the same breakdown in April 2003, and they had MLB divvied up like so: 70% Caucasian, 17% Latino, 11% African-American, and 2% Asian (sorry I can't ref the article online, but I did reprint the data in this post).  If the Post-Dispatch is "righter" than the Toronto Star, then there's no racial bias at all.  67% of the top vote-getters are white, which jibes with the 70% of whites in the league as a whole.

So take your pick from those choices.  Or, if you're like me, you'll suspect the truth is probably some mix of all three.

SUA CULPA Less than a month ago,'s Eric Neel obliquely referred to the Cardinals as "pretenders" and predicted the Astros would win the division and the Cubs would capture the wild card.  Neel may be right about the Cubs, but give the guy credit for owning up to his slights against the Cardinals.  In today's column he writes,

I am wrong. I am wrong to have doubted the Cardinals. I am wrong, very wrong, to have thought the Cubs could hang with this team. I am wrong, very, very wrong to have said that Houston even belonged in the same conversation with this team.  The Cardinals are right. Right as rain. Right as a rail, riding straight through to the playoffs.  And you want to know where I'll be on the Cardinals from here on out? Right in front of the television, saying "I am wrong," over and over and over again, like a mantra, like a desperate plea for forgiveness.

You're forgiven.

WHITHER BELTRAN? The Astros are now 14 games out of the division lead, and they're six games out of the wild card (behind eight other teams). Naturally there's been wild speculation about whether they'll unload their pricey summer rental, Carlos Beltran.  If so, Jim Baker has an idea where they can send him: a little city in the Midwest called St. Louis.  Says Baker, 

[A] very interesting move would be for the Cardinals to trade for Beltran and move him to left field, where Ray Lankford, So Taguchi, Marlon Anderson and John Mabry have been very so-so. I think my inspiration for this came from their late-season pickup of Cesar Cedeno in 1985. Cedeno was hellfire down the stretch, slugging .750 in 81 plate appearances. Folks always forget that he tanked in the playoffs, but that's beside the point. The addition of Beltran would make the Cardinals the "it" team of the National League -- more so than they already are.
Left field really is a weak spot in the Cards' lineup -- we're but 13th in the league in OPS from LFers.  Only Milwaukee (the disappointing Geoff Jenkins), San Diego (the disappointing Ryan Klesko), and Florida (the over-the-hill Jeff Conine) are worse.

I don't see Houston dealing Beltran to a division rival (terrible PR, plus they must know the Cards' history of wooing midseason pickups into longterm deals).  But if we could pony up Beltran's pro-rated 2004 salary (about $3.8 million), plus endure the oddity of a top-flight centerfielder in left (who is, in all likelihood, and forgive me for this heresy, an even better gloveman than Jim Edmonds), then I think it'd be a cool deal.

People have said that the Cards lack only one thing -- a dominant, Game 1 starter -- and that it's no use beefing up the best offense in the NL.  But I'm not sure I buy this logic.  First of all, there aren't many big arms available (Unit is too $$$$, and Kris Benson isn't much better than what we've got, although his 2.74 ERA since June 1st is something to keep in mind).  Secondly, runs can come from anywhere -- whether you're taking 'em off the scoreboard or putting 'em on, it's all the same ball of wax.  And Beltran can definitely put some runs on the board.

ALEX BELTH is sort of the Charlie Rose of basebloggers.  He only interviews folks who have something to say, and he gets them to open up with precise, probing questions (and unlike Charlie, Alex actually lets his subjects speak without habitually cutting them off).  Alex has two great chats up on his site -- one with Alan Schwarz, an incredibly lucid guy who just came out with a stat history book called The Numbers Game; and the other with Will Carroll, jack-of-all-trades and baseball medhead who has led a wildly nomadic life.  They're good reads.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

SQUEAKER After tonight's five-hit shutout spun by Woody Williams, Ray King, and Jason Izzyhausen --

Cardinals' record when scoring exactly one run, 1997-2003: 3-93
Cardinals' record when scoring exactly one run, 2004: 3-6

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

THE PUJOLS GAME I was supposed to be working today. But of course I couldn't help peeking in on the game, even after the Cubs went up 6-1, 7-1, 8-2, even after Eldred was called in for mop-up duty, even after the shadows started to lengthen and the game was more than half over and the Cards were still down by six runs. There's just something about this team that compels you to watch, that makes you buy into the ludicrous notion that six runs down on enemy turf is well within reach. Even crazier than that, you sometimes start believing that six runs down on enemy turf is exactly where this team wants to be, as if obstacles and adversity are the very lifeblood of their quest.

On the other side of the aisle are the Chicago Cubs, who have a familiar knack for wilting in the heat (I know, people have made too much of this, but it's hard not to acknowledge the history when it's staring you in the face).  And today we saw yet more frustrations boiling over, this time when LaTroy Hawkins took out his anger on -- who else? -- home plate ump Tim Tschida.  If you could design two games to utterly demoralize an opponent, I'm not sure you could do any better than what the Cards came up with last night and this afternoon.  It was September '03 in reverse, a revenge fantasy by way of John Ford, Quentin Tarantino, and Charles Bronson.

But I wasn't sure it was gonna work out that way, even after the heroics in the top of the ninth.  In fact, I got sorta terrified in the bottom of the inning, what with Jason Isringhausen missing the plate, Ramirez the winning run at the dish, and the lingering sense that this was one of those zany Wrigley games where we all fell down the rabbit hole and anything could happen.  But I really shouldn't have been too scared, for there's one giant difference between the Cardinals and the Cubs: they don't have Pujols. 
I know, that sounds academic, if not a little glib, but I feel like it needs to be said.  Because even though I just got done talking about the Cubs wilting in the heat (and yes, Carlos Zambrano and LaTroy Hawkins did flip their lids the last couple days), the Cubs didn't lose because they don't have heart, or because they're quitters, or any of that nonsense.  To make that case is practically an insult to the excellence of our team.  No, the Cubs lost because they don't have Pujols.  Simple as that.
Because when Pujols is in a zone, there's no one this side of Barry Bonds who's more deadly.  Usually when a guy hits three homers, or collects five hits, or drives in five runs, he's on the plus side of a blowout, one of those stat-padding contests where the last few licks come off the last guy out of the pen.  But today all of Pujols' hits were huge, and necessary.  He doubled in the go-ahead run in the first, started the comeback with an opposite-field shot in the 3rd, singled to ignite a big rally in the 6th, homered to tighten the noose in the 7th, and then slammed home the game-winner in the top of the 9th.  Five at bats, five monster hits.  Truly one of the best individual performances I've ever seen.
But the funny thing about baseball is that no one guy can take over a game the way, say, Jordan could in basketball or Mike Vick occasionally can in football.  I remember Bill James made this point back in his 1986 Abstract, when George Brett had one of the great games in playoff history, and yet still relied on guys like Steve Farr, Jim Sundberg, and Willie Wilson to eek out a win.  "I think," wrote James, "that just shows how false, how truly silly, the idea is that one player 'carries' a team, or that one player turns a team around, or that one player is, really, anything except one player."
So let's show a little love now for all the other Cardinals who helped deep-six the Cubs today: Reggie Sanders, Cal Eldred, Kiko Calero, Ray King, and, not least, So Taguchi, who did what you're supposed to do with a 97-mph fastball from Kyle Farnsworth -- put bat to ball, watch ball go.  Just a brilliant, coordinated team effort. 
(Let's also take a moment to dump on one Cardinal who didn't help matters today, Matt Morris.  Now, I know he had perhaps the worst start by a St. Louis pitcher this season -- if you remember, even Danny Haren was the victim of a lot of dinks and dunkers during his Hindenbergian outing back in June, whereas Morris was getting hammered on every pitch he threw today.  Either he was tipping his pitches, or he had zero stuff, or the Cubs bats came down with a case of the mojos, or perhaps all three -- whatever it was, Morris was bizarro Pujols today, almost single-handedly blowing the game.  That being said, I can forgive a guy for a lapse in athletics, but I have a harder time forgiving a lapse in ethics. His throw behind Patterson's back to start the game was idiotic.  Did Morris not get the memo that the sweetest retaliation against the Cubs was last night's scoreboard?  Did he never read the poet Stephen Dunn, who wrote "I love the power / not to use power, the weaker wolf / offering his jugular / and the stronger wolf refusing"?  Morris could have been the stronger wolf today and refused to bite on what Zambrano had offered, but he didn't.) 
Anyway, back to Pujols.  As a few people have noted on this site, the seeds of Pujols' rampage were planted last night, when he was the first guy out of the dugout during both the tiff with Barrett and the brinksmanship from Carlos Zambrano.  There's something eerily intense about Pujols in these moments, as if he burns with a desire to exert his will on anyone in his path.  Who knows what it is in Pujols' makeup, or in his past, that motivates him so, but let's just say I'm glad I'm not on the business-end of his bad moods.
My cousin Mark and I have been talking lately about what an odd couple Pujols and Rolen make: Pujols -- brutal, revengeful, almost swaggering; and Rolen -- respectful, workmanlike, self-effacing.  Together they form the heart and soul of this Cardinals team; they take no extra glory, but they take no prisoners either.  The idea of seeing the two of them in the same lineup for years on end is one of the great joys of being a Cardinals fan.  But after their performances these last two games -- Rolen hitting a game-winning homer last night, Pujols copying him today -- it's clear that their heyday is now.


Monday, July 19, 2004

NINE UP You hear lots of words to describe Carlos Zambrano -- "fiery," "emotional," "competitive," "demonstrative."  I'll add a few more: "deranged son of a bitch."

Let's walks through the sequence of a flare-ups tonight:

  1. 1st inning: Zambrano plunked Jim Edmonds on the thigh.  Almost certainly not intentional, especially with runners on base (and CZ seemed pretty pissed at himself for letting the ball get away).

  2. 4th inning: Jim Edmonds took the first pitch from Zambrano and deposited it onto Sheffield Ave.  Edmonds stood there admiring his blast for a bit, but it didn't seem too out of line to me.  I mean, Edmonds was plunked his last at-bat, and it's not like he stared down Zambrano or did a three-step hop or anything.  Just a little "take that," before he moved on.

  3. So Zambrano yelled at Edmonds as he rounded the bases: "I just told him," said Zambrano, "to run the bases and don't try to be cocky."  (If I was just taken deep by someone, I'd probably keep my mouth shut, but maybe that's just me.)

  4. Next thing you know, Michael Barrett stared into the Cardinals dugout, someone in the Cardinals dugout yelled back at him (the not-so-original fightin' words: "what are you looking at?"), Barrett got up and marched toward the visitors, a few guys from both clubs trotted onto the field, words were exchanged, no big deal really.  But I started to wonder if a Chris Carpenter beanball would escalate the cold war into a hot war...

  5. But actually Zambrano kept things tense before Carpenter even took the mound.  With two outs in the 4th, Zambrano struck out Matheny on a wicked two-seam fastball.  Then Zambrano -- the same guy, mind you, who yelled at Edmonds a moment earlier for being so cocky -- pumped his fist furiously, pointed to heaven, roared out loud, then pointed to heaven again (presumably to thank Jesus for making him such a hot dog).  At the time I'm thinking, "dude, you just struck out Mike Matheny."

  6. In the 6th inning, Zambrano kept up his act.  He squared off against Edmonds again, and this time struck him out on three pitches.  Afterwards he wagged his finger at Edmonds as if to say, "not in my house."  Meanwhile Chris Carpenter was just going about his business.  He absolutely carved up Aramis Ramirez to end the fourth but didn't congratulate himself at all.  He simply walked off the hill.  At that point it was pretty clear which pitcher was 29 years old and which pitcher was 23.

  7. In the 8th, Zambrano got rocked again -- this time by Scott Rolen, who went yard for the eventual game-winning home run.  On the very next pitch Zambrano plunked Edmonds a second time, and at that point I seriously became a bit embarrassed for Zambrano.  I mean, he just gave up 5 runs in a game Steve Stone was calling "an almost must-win game" and his response was to throw a baseball at Jim Edmonds?  I mean, that's the way a child thinks -- as well as, evidently, the folks at Wrigley Field.  After the beanball at least half the fans on TV -- and I'm talking the fans in the sweet seats behind home plate, not the drunken bleacher bums --  clapped and laughed and cheered.  Last year I commented on the ugliness of the Wrigely crowd when it came to beanballs, and apparently things are no better up there.  Fortunately Edmonds, just like Carpenter, chose not to retaliate -- he didn't even look at Zambrano after he was hit.  Instead he let the scoreboard do the talking.

It's not difficult to see why there's bad blood between these two teams.  I mean, yes, there's been a history of headhuntings and shouting matches, and yes, both teams have managers that are cocky and competitive as hell.  But the context is even more important.  This was supposed to be The Year for the Cubs -- after all, they fell just short last season, their young studs were ripening, their older stars still had gas in the tank, and management was spending resources (like $7.5 million for a fifth starter) to win now.

Well, it hasn't quite turned out that way.  That's not to say the Cubs won't right their ship -- they're only two games out of the wild card, and I think they're far superior to the teams they're chasing (San Diego and San Fran).  So they should be fine, particularly if Prior and Wood can stay healthy and get the Cubs into a short series where their strengths are amplified.  But the fact is, the Cardinals and Cubs have played almost 100 games now, and I think it's becoming clearer by the day that the Cardinals are simply a better team. In fact, they currently have the best record in baseball.
Which is why I can understand the Cardinals' testy feelings as well.  If this was supposed to be The Year for Chicago, it was also supposed to be the year St. Louis sunk into irrelevancy.  Back in December former Reds GM Jim Bowden was asked who was going to win the NL Central.  Bowden replied, "You mean between the Cubs and Astros?"  And that was pretty much the party line around the country.
Hell, even Dusty Baker blew off the Cardinals.  Last March, while being interviewed by Dan Patrick and Rob Dibble on ESPN Radio, Baker mentioned the Astros and Reds as the main competition for the Cubs this year.  Dibble asked him about anyone else, and Baker said Milwaukee has a really improved ballclub.
Well, he was right about Milwaukee -- they're only a game and a half behind Chicago.  But there was another division rival conspicuously overlooked by Dusty. Back in March, that is.  Somehow I don't think Dusty is overlooking the Cardinals now.  As Scott Rolen said tonight, "I think it says a lot when we're nine games up in a division that was supposed to be a two-team race -- without us as one of the two teams."
It does say a lot, Scotty. A hell of a lot more than wagging your finger and throwing beanballs.

Saturday, July 17, 2004

DON'T CALL IT A COMEBACK I was beginning to think the Cardinals were allergic to losing. After erasing a one-run deficit to win on Thursday night, a four-run deficit to win on Friday night, and four more runs to tie the game in the 8th inning today, it seemed like the Cards might be headed for their 11th win in 12 games.  But alas, it wasn't meant to be, as our bullpen stumbled for the first time in ages and fell to Big Adam Dunn and the Reds.
The Cards' pitching has been pretty shaky this series.  Morris gave up only two runs on Thursday, but he pitched half the night like his hair was on fire.  Woody Williams got roughed up last night, and Jason Marquis was very un-Marquis-like this afternoon (his ERA went up 15 points, and frankly it could have been a lot worse).
But instead of bitching and moaning about our sludgy second-half start, the Cardinals are in the enviable position of winning the first two of three in this series and maintaining their big lead on the Cubs.  And that's due almost entirely to the thriller on Friday night, which is in serious contention for Game of the Year.
Marlon Anderson's gigantic three-run pinch-hit bomb might be our hit of the year, and Jimmy Edmond's snag on Jason LaRue's ninth-inning drive is undoubtedly the play of the year.  Not only is it, I think, his best catch in a Cardinals uniform, it's the perfect snapshot for our season so far. The look-what-I-found sense of glee on Jed's face as he hit the ground sorta sums up my feelings about the 2004 Cardinals.

Tomorrow's game is a biggie -- it's the difference between staying on a roll and kissing your sister -- but I'm going to be out of town for the next couple days, so I won't be posting anything until Tuesday. Hope our bats stay hot and the Reds do not, and I'll meet up with you again after the Cards play in Wrigley...

CARD COUNTING The Baseball Crank has a nice piece up about how the Cardinals are doing compared to their established Win Shares levels.  Couple things struck me:
One, our everyday lineup is doing exactly what you would have predicted from their established Win Shares -- except Womack and Rolen, who are on pace to go up +33 on what you'd expect.
Same deal with our pitchers.  If you take out Carpenter and Marquis, they're -4 on the year compared to their performances in recent years.  But Carpenter and Marquis, by themselves, are +21.
Those four names alone -- Rolen, Womack, Carpenter, and Marquis -- aren't solely responsible for our success this year, but they're almost solely responsible for how surprising we've been.

SO LONG, HONEST MIKE Mike Lincoln is out for the season after ligament-transplant surgery on his elbow, and the poor guy might miss next season too. "So what," you might say, "Lincoln had a 5.19 ERA and since he went down we've had one of the best pens in baseball -- we don't need him."

True, we don't need Lincoln, but it was nice to have him around.  First of all, you always want insurance in case one of your other relievers goes down, and Izzy, Calero, and Eldred have all battled injuries in the recent past.  Secondly, Lincoln wasn't pitching that bad.  He was bailed out by the relievers that came after him less than almost anyone else in baseball, and, even more suprisingly, he had the lowest opposition OPS of any guy out of our pen, including King and Kline.

Enemy hitters were batting just .164/.239/.262 against him.  It would have been nice to see if he could have kept it up.

ESPN VALENTINE Rob Neyer has doubted the Cards all season, but he now has a lot of nice things to say about our pitching staff and argues that the team's lead is "pretty safe."

LICENSE TO KILL GOPHER BALLS At one point this season the Cards' pitching staff had yielded far and away the most homers in the league. But despite the three yard jobs our pitchers gave up this afternoon (and two last night), we've climbed to the middle of the pack in terms of least home runs allowed. Give Dave Duncan credit for these numbers:

HR Allowed per 9 Innings, by Month

April: 1.27
May: 1.21
June: 0.90
July: 0.82

BIG UNIT UPDATE From Lee Sinins:

According to the Boston Globe, a MLB executive "with direct knowledge of the talks between the clubs" says the Cubs think their chances of acquiring Nomar Garciaparra are "50-50", with the only chance of that happening being a 3-way deal in which the Redsox acquire Randy Johnson.

According to the LA Daily News, the Diamondbacks are focusing on the Angels, since they aren't impressed by the prospects the Yankees could offer for Johnson. Meanwhile, Angels owner Arte Moreno is backing off from a statement earlier in the week in his downplayed the chances of the team acquiring him.

According to NY Newsday, the only team Randy Johnson's interested in waiving his no trade clause to is the Yankees.
For their part, the Cardinals aren't doing much to woo the Arizona lefthander. Matt Morris said, "Do we need him? No," while Ray King joked, "If you get Randy, who would you bump to the bullpen? I'd put Randy in the bullpen." Tony La Russa argued "let's win with what we've got" and Jim Edmonds agreed: "They've said in the past that sometimes the best move you can make is not to make one."

FEAR FACTOR The Cards have tamed Adam Dunn so far in this series -- he's 0-7 as I type this.  But damn he scares me when he steps into the box.  Here's my completely subjective list of most terrifying opponents to see standing at the plate:

  1. Jim Thome
  2. Barry Bonds (would be #1 if he wasn't being pitched around so much)
  3. Adam Dunn (6'6", 240)
  4. Lance Berkman
  5. Moises Alou

I know Alou seems out of place on that list, but I always feel like he's going to cut our throats.  Runners-up: Todd Helton, Craig Wilson, and Sammy Sosa & Mike Piazza if they're on a roll.  Manny Ramirez would be right up there if we played in the AL.

UPDATE: Not ten minutes after I wrote this Adam Dunn crushed a three-run, game-winning homer. I thought I was paying him the appropriate respect by talking him up, but apparently the baseball gods disagreed.

THE BALLAD OF JEFF STONE Here's a heart-rending article about the brief career of ex-ballplayer Jeff Stone.  I wonder how Stone -- basically a rube who got swallowed up by the rush of big-city life -- would have fared under a welcoming presence like Whitey Herzog.

HOW WE DOING? It might be a good time to check out the Five Questions I posed for the St. Louis Cardinals in a preseason article I did for The Hardball Times.  The preliminary answers to our questions:

  1. Is the Cards' rotation a ticking time bomb?  Clearly the rotation is infinitely more durable than anyone thought, but the second half will tell us more about how Woody and Carpenter (fragile arms) and Jason Marquis (professional high in IP = 141.2) hold up.
  2. Should we be worried about the Cards' defense? I thought there were legit reasons to fret about our glovework, but I think the answer is pretty clearly: no, we shouldn't be worried.
  3. How much will the Cardinals' bullpen be helped by subtracting Esteban Yan and Jeff Fassero?  The preseason answer: a lot.  The current answer: seriously, a lot.
  4. Is Albert Pujols a sure thing? I was talking about whether he's a sure thing to join the all-time career greats, but Albert has done nothing this year to create any doubts about his abilities.
  5. Is it now or never for the Cardinals? I thought this was the last year the Cards would have a shot at going over the top, but with young talent playing well, I think we can hold off on any sky-is-falling scenarios.

CHANGES AFOOT Don't like the current format of deciding home-field advantage in the World Series by who wins the All-Star Game?  According to Jayson Stark, things might change if you just wait a year:

"Most players will tell you," [Tom] Glavine says, "that they want home field decided by whichever team has the best record during the regular season."

Selig insists he has heard from "a number of players who told me just the opposite." But in our survey of players at the All-Star Game this week, we couldn't find even
one player who sided with the commish on this.

If the Players Union gets their way, we might see the old format return.  Or they might bargain away the current agreement in exchange for other items on the table, such as changing the All-Star Game, at least occasionally, from league-versus-league to USA vs. World; extending the Division Series from best-of-five to best-of-seven; shortening the regular season to 154 games; and/or adding two, and possibly four, teams to the playoff field.
I wouldn't mind seeing them mix up the ASG, which generally bores me.  But I don't favor any move that extends the playoffs (leave that to the NHL and NBA).  The 154-game schedule is a toughie -- I don't think you need those extra 8 games to determine the best teams in baseball, but they do help with scheduling and, of course, records.

WHISKERS The New York Sports Express has a fun article about the 10 Greatest Moustaches in Baseball History.  I don't think I'm giving anything away by telling you that Rollie Fingers is, appropriately, #1.  But if I had to make my own list I'd include Rod Beck's Ambrose Burnside Special, J.D. Drew's prepubescent caterpillar, Frank Viola's porny moustache, a moustache Ted Simmons wore in the late '70s that might be only in my head, and the old-fashioned handlebar moustache Mr. Red had until 1968 (sorry, couldn't find a picture; only this moustacheless one).

Friday, July 16, 2004

ROLEN'S KNEE My last post about Rolen's knee generated a lot of discussion, and I sorta realized that I'm clueless when it comes to talking about injuries, so I consulted Will Carroll, author of the fine Saving the Pitcher, for his thoughts about Rolen limping around last night.  His reply: 

What you describe (stopping) sounds like JD Drew. Drew (and Giambi and McGwire) have patellar tendonitis. Rolen has something else - offered Synvisc injections (like Unit) - it appears he has some bone-on-bone in his knee. I can't find confirmations that he's had previous knee surgeries. With b-o-b, it will hurt sometimes, not others, and much depends on angle and usage. So, while we dont *know* what's wrong in there, the information gives us a pretty strong clue.

Hope that clears things up, and thanks, Will, for the info.

Thursday, July 15, 2004

MISSING UNIT Peter Gammons on SportsCenter tonight:

"Randy Johnson has informed the D'backs he wants to be traded to either the Yankees or the Cardinals.  And the Cardinals can't afford him."
How quickly do you think we can develop a YES Network for the Cardinals?

A CINCH IN CINCY The final score, 7-2, indicates another businesslike win for the Birdinals, but it wasn't such a cinch.  "That game was misleading," said La Russa. "We ended up with a lot of clutch pitching and a lot of clutch hitting."  Indeed, the Cardinals went 3-for-8 with runners in scoring position, while the Redlegs went a mind-boggling 2-for-16.  That was the difference.  A few thoughts:

• Rolen pulled up short while hustling down the first base line in the 2nd and limped back to the dugout, apparently aggravating his tender left knee (it's not running that murders the knees; it's stopping).  He also limped back to the dugout after his K in the 4th.  I was thinking we should rest him for a bit -- after all, that's one of the luxuries of having a 7-game lead -- but his home run in the 7th argued against that.  Besides, Rolen's knee might not improve without surgery, so resting might not do much good.

• Taguchi's RBI bunt single in the 4th was a thing of beauty.  The stat wonk in me doesn't care much for So So, but personally I've grown to love him.  I wish I could get a plush doll version of him, and give him a hug now and again.

• In the 4th inning Reds pitcher Jesus Sanchez was dithering -- meeting with his catcher and his pitching coach, taking forever between pitches -- and home-plate ump Jerry Davis kept clapping his hands and telling him to keep things moving.  Not too many people realize this, but it is, by rule, the umpire's job to keep the game moving at a brisk pace.  Davis is one of the only umps I've seen take that seriously.  They say baseball is the only sports without a clock (I'm not sure what that says about tennis or golf), but personally I'd like to see more umps act as stopwatches to hasten the game.

• Jim Edmonds' homer streak ended at 5 games.

• Matt Morris has the lowest K rate of his career; the second-lowest K/BB ratio; he's surrendered more home runs than ever; and his ERA is almost a full run worse than his career average.  And yet somehow he's managed to rope-a-dope his way to 10 victories (he's on pace for 19).  Very weird.

• Don't look now, but Edgar Renteria has his batting average up to .291.  Renteria has struggled all year with righthanded pitching, sporting a measly .237/.276/.311 line.  Tonight he collected four hits, two of them off righties, the last of them a powerful drive deep to the opposite field.  I don't think I've seen that kind of hit from Edgar in several weeks.

SCRAPPED Jimy Williams is out down in Houston; Phil Garner is in. This is mostly addition by subtraction. I don't think Jimy was a goot fit in Houston -- he bunted more than anyone in baseball (ridiculous with that lineup in that ballpark), he had Adam Everett (OBP: .296) batting second most of the year, and his use of relief pitchers was downright goofy.

Is Scrap Iron the right man to replace him? Hard to say. I had assumed that Phil Garner, who came of age in the small ball '70s, was one of those "dirty uniform" guys who admired grit, sacrifice, and going from first to third on a single more than actually scoring runs. But his track record doesn't really bear that out. Sure, the first team he helmed, the '92 Brewers, led the league in stolen bases and was runner-up in sac bunts, but his subsequent teams in Milwaukee and Detroit were all over the map. Some ran, some didn't at all; some bunted a lot, some almost never; some were built for power, some were strictly punch and judy.

The negative spin on all this is that Garner has no real managerial style, that he's still groping in the dark (indeed, he's endured 10 straight losing years as manager). The positive spin is that he had to make do with whatever meager talent his bosses gave him. I mean, could you build a run-scoring powerhouse out of talent like Franklin Stubbs, Scott Fletcher, and Pat Listach?

The hope down in Houston is that Garner will give the rudderless Astros a much-needed shot in the arm. I'm not so sure. First of all, the Astros seem like a pretty self-motivated bunch already (I mean, it's not like Bags, Biggio, and Clemens have trouble getting up for games). Secondly, this doesn't seem like a case of Burt Shotton Syndrome.

What's Burt Shotton Syndrome, you ask? It's something Bill James came up with back in 1984. It’s when an intense manager (usually a ballbreaker, a demanding guy with a lust for details) gets replaced by a low-pressure, no-big-deal guy and the team subsequently experiences a period in which the talent seems to gush out of them. Examples abound: Harvey Kuenn following Bob Rodgers in Milwaukee, Jim Frey following Whitey Herzog in KC, Joe Torre following Buck Showalter in New York, and (of course) Burt Shotton following Leo Durocher in Brooklyn.

But Jimy Williams was a pretty low-key guy himself, and Garner is one of those high-blood-pressure types who supposedly eats nails for breakfast. I don't see the Astros suddenly relaxing under his watch and saying "let's just play ball." In fact, they might be even more panicked than ever.

ALL-STAR THOUGHTS So if the Cardinals make the World Series, they gotta travel to Fenway or Yankee Stadium or Oakland Colesium for Game 6 because Roger Clemens threw some hanging breaking pitches to Manny and Soriano in July? To be fair, that's no more random than the old rotating format, but it sure feels weird.

Here's something else to irritate you: as Rob Neyer points out, if the current method of determining home-field advantage had been in place twenty years ago, the Cardinals would have played at Busch for Games 6 and 7 for both the 1985 and the 1987 World Series. Would it have made a difference? I don't want to go into all the math, but the answer is yes.

DETROIT TIGERS, win total, 2003 = 43

Detroit Tigers, win total, 2004 = 42

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

NATTERING NABOBS OF NEGATIVITY Ask almost anyone how the Cardinals are doing this year and you get the same answer: "They’re doing well, but..." – and here they explain away the Cards’ fine record with a series of doubts, qualifications, and dismissals.

But how many of these gripes hold water? How likely are the Cards to finish the season in first place? What, if anything, ails this team? Let’s see if we can get some answers to these questions by exploring what the naysayers think about the St. Louis Cardinals:

1. "The Cardinals aren’t as good as their record."

There’s a fascinating section in Michael Lewis’ Moneyball where he compares ballplayers to that class of securities known as derivatives. Lewis describes how these new financial instruments, which came about in the early ‘80s, differed from traditional stocks and bonds:

It was impossible for anyone to say what a simple stock or bond should be worth. Their value was a matter of financial opinion; they were worth whatever the market said they were worth. But fragments of a stock or bond, when you glued them back together, must be worth exactly what the stock or bond was worth. If they were worth more or less than the original article, the market was said to be "inefficient," and a trader could make a fortune trading the fragments against the original.
We find similar inefficiencies in baseball. Take, for example, two different scenarios. In the first, Cody McKay gets jammed by an inside fastball from Roger Clemens, splinters his bat, and hits a dying quail into center. Adam Everett would normally catch it, but he’s playing too far to his right. Beltran can’t get it because he gets a late jump after losing the ball in the sun. It drops in for a weak single.

In the second scenario, Albert Pujols takes the same pitch from Clemens, smokes a line shot into the left centerfield alley, and only a fantastic running pickup by Beltran prevents extra bases.

According to the scorecard, both of these hits are the same – single, runner on first. But no one would claim that these hits are of equal value. For the constituent elements, the fragments, of each single (which includes the trajectory of the ball, the positioning of the fielders, and so on) are totally unequal. Repeat both performances over and over and Albert’s hit would yield much more positive results. It’s a better hit.

Some people have claimed that the Cardinals are the equivalent of a Cody McKay single. Sure, the results are nice, but their superior record in tight games (they’re 6-0 in extra innings), plus their timely hitting (they lead the NL in batting with runners in scoring position), indicate that their overall record might be inflated by fluke statistics.

But this isn’t the case. The Cardinals have scored 455 runs and allowed 356 – that’s easily the best ratio in baseball, right in line with a 54-33 record. And actually, their record in close games (games decided by one or two runs) is, at 21-17, worse than their overall record. In other words, the Cardinals haven’t had many cheap victories.

If you tighten the microscope even further, all the elements of the Cardinals record add up. Baseball Prospectus adjusts the standings every day to see if teams are outperforming their underlying statistical fragments. If, for example, a team is scoring an inordinate amount of runs compared to the performance of their hitters (like, say, the Braves) or if they’ve faced weaker opponents (like, say, the Twins), the system downgrades their expectations.

Such is not the case with the Cardinals. They’re not getting lucky with their performance elements and they haven’t benefited by playing weaker foes. If, like Michael Lewis’ derivatives trader, you took apart the Cardinals’ record, divided it into constituent parts, adjusted for context, then glued it all back together, you’d still have a team with a .600+ winning percentage. Our record is not inflated.

(One note, however: the Cubs and Astros are playing well below what you’d expect from their run elements. Were it not for some bad luck, the Astros would be at 47-41, and the Cubs would be a too-close-for-comfort 52-35. That bodes well for both clubs in the second half.)

2. "The Cardinals have had an easy schedule."

This theory was floated a couple weeks back, when the Cards were fattening their record vs. the likes of Kansas City and Seattle while the Cubs were stuck playing the AL Central-leading White Sox. And indeed, the Cardinals schedule so far is only the 5th toughest in the division.

But this is mostly because the Cardinals haven’t had to play themselves. And in fact, the Cardinals schedule in the second half is a tad easier than it was in the first (the weighted winning percentage of our opponents before the break is .504; it’s .503 from here on out).

The NL Central team that benefits most from their second-half schedule is the Astros, largely because they’ve yet to play Montreal or Arizona, and they play the Cards only 6 more times. The team with the toughest schedule? The Brewers, who have no more games against the Rockies and Expos, and play the D’backs only once more, on the road.

3. "The Cardinals are playing over their heads."

The list of Redbirds enjoying supposedly fluky seasons is quite long: Carpenter, Suppan, Marquis, Womack, Kombustible Kline, even Scott Rolen. Conventional wisdom says these guys will fall back to their established levels and the Cards will sink in the second half.

There are several ways to measure whether or not this is true. One way is to compare the Cardinals’ 2004 performance with their preseason projections.

Let’s start with our hitters. If we take the Value Above Replacement predicted by Baseball Prospectus in the spring, then adjust it for playing time, you can measure how Cardinals are performing vs. their expectations:

1. Tony Womack, +27.7 runs above PECTOA projection
2. Scott Rolen, +26.4
3. Chris Carpenter, +15.7
4. Jason Marquis, +15.2
5. Ray Lankford, +12.6
6. Jim Edmonds, +12.3
7. Jeff Suppan, +12.0
8. Steve Kline, +10.8
9. John Mabry, +10.0
10. Ray King, +8.3
11. Jason Isringhausen, +6.6
12. Roger Cedeno, +4.7
13. Marlon Anderson, +4.5
14. So Taguchi, +4.1
15. Yadier Molina, +3.6
16. Mike Matheny, +3.1
17. Kiko Calero, +2.4
18. Julian Tavarez, +2.4
19. Hector Luna, +2.2
20. Albert Pujols, +2.0
21. Woody Williams, +0.3
22. Reggie Sanders, -1.4
23. Matt Morris, -1.5
24. Edgar Renteria, -2.7
25. Cody McKay, -4.4
26. Jason Simontacchi, -4.7
27. Cal Eldred, -6.0

What surprises me about this list is how thoroughly the Cards are meeting their expectations. 21 of the 27 roster players are exceeding their PECOTA projections, and no Cardinals are having outrageously bad years. Of course, guys like Renteria and Eldred are doing worse than expected, but not by a ton.

The other thing that struck me is that, yes indeed, a number of Cardinals seem to be "playing well over their heads" (that is, if you trust that preseason estimates about their ability are accurate).

The question is: will they keep it up? Obviously no one knows for sure, but I think I can make two predictions with a fair amount of confidence:

A) Among our big success stories this year (Womack, Rolen, Carpenter, Marquis, Lankford, Edmonds, Suppan), at least some of those guys will perform at a high level throughout the second half. The fact is, ballplayers go whole seasons as outliers, and you can’t assume that everyone will tend toward some hypothetical mean over 162 games. Too many variables go into a player’s success that can’t be accounted for in the stats – maybe he’s adjusted his mechanics, or is playing injury-free for the first time, or has better coaching, or is peaking at the right time, or whatever. Just because a player’s year looks like a mirage doesn’t mean it is. In fact, we can be reasonably sure that at least some of those surprising performances above are legit.

B) Just as some of the performances are legit, some of them, surely, are not. In fact, I can say with a fair amount of confidence that the guys playing over their heads, as a group, will perform worse in the second half. In this way the naysayers have a point about the Cardinals' inflated record. With so many guys having career years, the team is very unlikely to win at a .621 clip the rest of the way. (Then again, there’s always the example of the 2002 Angels to help us sleep at night.)

4. "The Cardinals are no more than one major injury away from disaster."

That sentiment was expressed recently, verbatim, by BP medhead Will Carroll. And there are plenty of reasons to think the Cardinals are due for some kind of serious ailment. First of all, they're an old team, with most guys on the wrong side of 30, and several key players (Eldred, Williams, Womack, Edmonds, Lankford, Sanders) age 34 and older. Many of these guys were poor second-half players in ’03 (especially Woody and Jedmonds), and might be wearing down a bit.

What's more, several Cardinals have weathered nagging injuries this year: Matheny, Pujols, Woody, Rolen (whose left knee is literally "bone on bone"), Lankford, Renteria, Cedeno, and Edmonds. And other Cardinals, notably Womack and Carpenter, have undergone serious surgery just in the past year.

Given that the Cardinals have been unusually injury-free this year – only Matheny, Cedeno, and Mike Lincoln have spent any time on the DL – you can expect that something bad will happen from here on out. And although the Cardinals have plenty of stars to pick up the slack if someone goes down, they’re not exactly well-stocked at either the major-league level (our bench is decent, but nothing special) or the minor-league level (only Danny Haren and John Gall seem equipped to step in and perform adequately as a fill-in).

The injury bug seems to be biting everyone nowadays. More guys were on the DL at one point this season than ever before in major-league history (so much for advanced health techniques). And injuries have played a key part in the disappointing seasons of division rivals Houston (who have missed both Andy Pettitte and Wade Miller) and Chicago (whose roster has at times seemed like a triage unit).

That’s one of the reasons I got pissed off a few weeks ago when I read this headline in the San Francisco Chronicle:

La Russa: Izzy’s absence cost Cards title

La Russa has hauled out that old complaint before, claiming that the Cardinals would have won the division in 2003 if Isringhausen had been healthy to start the season. Not only is this argument debatable at best (we explored the issue last January), it’s a pure fallacy to measure your team against some ideal where everyone is completely healthy. The fact is, teams don't play against their ideal selves; they play other teams, and not one of them is able to avoid serious injury for a full season.

Hell, just look at last year’s playoff teams – and mind you, these are playoff teams, the so-called "lucky ones." Every one of them suffered some seeming catastrophe:

The Yankees lost Jeter for a couple months, Bernie Williams and Nick Johnson for stretches, and had Jason Giambi limping around with patellar tendinitis from May onward. Boston missed Pedro for a month, Fossum for two months, Chad Fox and Ramiro Mendoza for several weeks each. Oakland saw Mark Mulder go down in late August, out for the season. Jermaine Dye and Jose Guillen broke bones. As for the Twins, Rick Reed, Corey Koskie, Jacque Jones, and Joe Mays all missed serious time. Eric Milton was out for 5 1/2 months.

In the National League, the Braves lost John Smoltz for the entire stretch drive. San Francisco suffered injuries to Ray Durham, Kurt Ainsworth, Jesse Foppert, and Kirk Rueter. The Marlins – who were supposedly very fortunate when it came to health – saw A.J. Burnett miss most of the season, Josh Beckett on and off the DL, and Mike Lowell break his hand in September. The Cubs suffered serious blows to Sammy Sosa (toe), Mark Prior (shoulder), Mark Grudzielanek (hand), Dave Veres (shoulder), Corey Patterson (torn ACL), and Hee Seop Choi (concussion). All told, that group spent about 35 weeks on the DL.

My point is not to make excuses for all those teams. Some of the above injuries were preventable (like A.J. Burnett’s), and some didn’t affect the pennant race. But what worries me about La Russa’s comments (and Bill DeWitt’s earlier this year) is that they betray a basic misunderstanding about how to construct a team. Yes, the Cardinals would have been better off last year if Izzy didn’t get hurt; but the fact is you must assume that your team is going to suffer injuries throughout the year, and you’ve got to be prepared when they happen.

This is precisely what has made or broken the Cardinals during the Jocketty/La Russa years, the extent to which they acquire secondary talent. Last year the attitude seemed to be, "Isringhausen is down, woe is us" rather than "Isringhausen is down, how do we tackle the problem head on?" (Contrast this to, say, 2000, when Jocketty went out and landed Will Clark at the trading deadline.) At their worst, the Cardinals brass tends to develop a case of "creeping determinism," which is what happens when organizations get fatalistic about their problems.

I don’t know whether the Cards will suffer any big injuries in the second half. But I do know that they have to act as if they will. To win a division, it’s not enough to be loaded with talent; you have to be overloaded. You need spare parts, plug-ins, glue. And if the spare parts aren’t on hand within the organization, then you’ve got to go out and trade for them.

Which dovetails very nicely with the next negative you hear about our chances...

5. "The Cardinals can’t improve themselves with trades."

Perhaps the best way to answer the issue of trades is to break the problem down into three parts (a format suggested to me by reader Jason Russell): What do we need? Who’s available? What do we have to give up?

Question 1: What do we need?

Some have answered: nothing. And they have a point. The Cards are 21 games over .500; they’ve had superior work from their lineup, their rotation, and their bullpen; and if they have any weaknesses, they’re not exactly glaring.

I buy all that. But my feeling is that opportunities like this – when you’re cruising at the All-Star break and have a good chance to make the postseason – don’t come around very often, and you’ve got to seize the moment and build a machine that can last deep into October. You have to win. Now.

If I were GM of the Cardinals, my wishlist would include: a corner outfielder who has some pop from the right side and can actually play acceptable defense; a catcher who can hit a little; and possibly a power starting pitcher.

Question 2: Who’s available?

I don’t think the solutions will be found within the organization. Memphis farmhand John Gall would seem to fill our needs in the outfield, were it not for one big problem: apparently he’s a cigar-store Indian in left, no range at all. Adam Wainwright and Danny Haren were mowing down hitters earlier in the year, but Wainwright is now out for the season, and Haren might be a year away from contributing to the big club.

So let’s see what there is outside the organization. Because so many teams are in contention for the wild card, only a handful of clubs figure to be in trading mode this July: Arizona, Colorado, Montreal, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Kansas City, Seattle, and Toronto (and maybe throw in Cleveland, Detroit, Tampa, and Houston if they lose significant ground in the next couple weeks).

You gotta figure anyone on the trading block must be either overpaid and/or doesn’t factor into his team’s long-term plans. Among players who suit the Cards' needs and who may fit the aforementioned criteria –

Randy Johnson, Danny Bautista, Jeromy Burnitz, Charles Johnson, Larry Walker, Carl Everett, Livan Hernandez, B.J. Surhoff, Juan Gonzalez, Randy Winn, Gregg Zaun, Matt Lawton, and Rondell White.

Now, I’m not saying we should go wholeheartedly after all of these guys. Larry Walker, for example, is simply too expensive and too fragile to commit to long-term (and he has 3 years left on his contract). Randy Johnson is a dream, but the Cards would have to come up with $16.5 million to pay him next season, plus surrender prospects that they don’t have. (Unless a three-way deal takes place, the Angels and Rangers are much more likely candidates for his services.) It'll be difficult to land most of the players without creative wheeling and dealing, but fortunatey Jocketty is pretty good at pulling rabbits out of his Cardinals cap.

Question 3: What do we have to give up?

Virtually nothing. To get an impact pitcher, I’m guessing we'd have to cough up a legitimate arm – some young guy on the move like Jason Marquis or Danny Haren. Adam Wainwright has arm troubles, but he’s also got a great pedigree and might make decent catnip for teams who can afford to be patient. (The calculus gets pretty tricky when it comes to dealing young pitchers, what with the Cards likely to lose Morris after this year.)

As for hitters to give up, we don’t have much. John Gall is mashing the ball in AAA, but as I said, he’s a zero in the field (sort of an older Jack Cust). Teenager Daric Barton is the only truly sexy prospect in our system, but I wouldn’t flip him unless we could get Randy Johnson.

6. "The Cubs are too good – they’ll flag down the Cardinals by the end of September."

Cubs shortstop Ramon Martinez said about the Cardinals recently, "They have a good team over there but I think we have a better team." A lot of people think the Cubs have a better team, but the question is: are they 7 games better over half a season? That’s a lot of ground to make up, even assuming they play better ball as their team continues to mend.

I’ll leave analysis of the Cubs to the Cub experts – after all, you’re reading a Cardinals blog, and this post is getting pretty gargantuan. But I will say that history is on the Birdnals’ side. Since the switch to the three-division format, teams that were in first place at the All-Star Break won the division 73% of the time. The tipping point seems to be a lead of 4 games. If your team has a lead of 3.5 or fewer at the break, it’s basically a crapshoot whether you’ll win the division (frontrunners are only 11-10 since 1995). But teams with a lead of 4 or more games are in the catbird seat: 27-5 since the three-division format. And if the lead is between 6 and 8 games, teams are 8-1 at keeping the lead (the sole exception is the 2003 Royals, who had a 7-game lead at last year’s break and saw it go up in smoke).

7. "It doesn’t matter. Even if the Cards do make the playoffs, they’re not designed for a short series."

It’s strange to think that the Cardinals – who had all kinds of durability concerns entering the season – are now considered a team that’s built for the long run. But our rotation really does look like it’s made up of nothing but #3 starters. That’s fine over 162, but sometimes I shudder at the idea that we could make it to the playoffs, then match Jason Schmidt with... Jeff Suppan?

But that’s a small concern. There’s no one way to win in the playoffs (I mean, why do people place such a premium on having ace pitchers in the postseason; can’t you win just as easily with "ace hitters," which the Cardinals have in spades?). Besides, I can think of plenty of recent teams (the '02 Angels, '02 Giants, '95 Indians, '93 Blue Jays, and in some ways the '99 Yankees) that went deep into October without a bonafide ace.

So maybe the Cards can win in the postseason; maybe they can’t. At this point I’d love to find out.