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Thursday, September 30, 2004

THE BIG DEBATE I'm talking, of course, about my picks for the postseason awards. I wrestled with a few of these (I cribbed a bunch of categories from Will Carroll), and I'm not confident I got every one right, but rather than explain my reasoning I'll open the floor for a good old-fashioned rhubarb. And feel free to add any categories of your own...

NL MVP Barry Bonds, SF
AL MVP Vladimir Guerrero, Ana
NL MVP, Mortals Division Jim Edmonds, StL

NL Cy Young Randy Johnson, AZ
AL Cy Young Johan Santana, Min

NL Rookie of the Year Khalil Greene, SD
AL Rookie of the Year Bobby Crosby, Oak

NL Manager of the Year Bobby Cox, Atl
AL Manager of the Year Eric Wedge, Clev

NL Best Free Agent Signing Roger Clemens, Hou
AL Best Free Agent Signing Vladimir Guerrero, Ana

NL Worst Free Agent Signing Andy Pettitte, Hou
AL Worst Free Agent Signing Brian Anderson, KC and Rich Aurilia, Sea

NL Best Trade Brewers (Sexson and Nance for Overbay, Counsell, Spivey, Moeller, Capuano, and de la Rosa)
AL Best Trade Tigers (Santiago and Gonzalez for Carlos Guillen)

NL Breakout Season Oliver Perez, Pit
AL Breakout Season Travis Hafner, Clev

NL Most Underrated Mark Loretta, SD
AL Most Underrated Melvin Mora, Blt

NL Most Overrated Kerry Wood, Chi
AL Most Overrated Bernie Williams, NY

NL Executive of the Year Walt Jocketty, StL
AL Executive of the Year Theo Epstein, Bos

NL Coach of the Year Dave Duncan, StL
AL Coach of the Year Orel Hershiser, Tex

NL Alien of the Year J.T. Snow, SF
AL Alien of the Year Ryan Drese, Tex

NL Least Valuable Player Hideo Nomo, LA
AL Least Valuable Player Desi Relaford, KC

NL Least Valuable Manager Larry Bowa, Phil
AL Least Valuable Manager Ozzie Guillen, Chi

NL Disappointment of the Year Mark Prior, Chi
AL Disappointment of the Year Jason Giambi, NY

NL Comeback of the Year Jaret Wright, Atl
AL Comeback of the Year Orlando Hernandez, NY

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

ASTRO ONSLAUGHT On August 14th, the NL Wild Card standings look like this:

               W    L    GB

Chicago 63 53 ---
San Francisco 63 55 1.0
San Diego 62 54 1.0
Philadelphia 59 58 4.5
Florida 57 58 5.5
New York 56 59 6.5
Cincinnati 56 60 7.0
Houston 56 60 7.0
A couple weeks later Baseball Prospectus wrote about the Astros (and I don't mean to pick on BP; anyone could have said the same thing), "Give them credit, they gave it a shot with the Carlos Beltran trade, but things just didn't gel, and the Astros are going to end up with their worst finish since they stumbled to a 72-90 record in 2000 after three consecutive division titles."

As of this writing, the Astros are, astonishingly, the leaders in the NL Wild Card chase. And they did it by knocking off the first-place Cards for the third straight night (thus they're the only team this season to finish with a record above .500 against the Birds).

Just by looking at each team's starting lineup, you might think that the Cards weren't trying:
1. Anderson, 2B         1. Biggio, LF

2. Taguchi, RF 2. Beltran, CF
3. Cedeno, LF 3. Bagwell, 1B
4. Rolen, 3B 4. Berkman, RF
5. Edmonds, CF 5. Kent, 2B
6. Renteria, SS 6. Ensberg, 3B
7. Mabry, 1B 7. Vizcaino, SS
8. Matheny, C 8. Ausmus, C
9. Suppan, P 9. Clemens, P
I did a little number-crunching before the game started to see how many runs each team could be expected to score. Using MLV rates with this personnel, the Cards came out to 4.37 expected runs and the Astros to 4.73 expected runs (if that's closer than you thought, credit Rolen and Edmonds in the middle). Plug in a few more numbers -- like Suppan and Clemens' respective runs-per-game totals -- and you'll find that the Cards will win about 47.8% of the time with this lineup and the Astros 70.4% of the time. Head to head, then, the Astros should have about a .722 winning percentage given the above lineup (and that's without adjusting for home-field advantage). I know, I know, this is an incredibly pointless (not to mention geeky) exercise -- I was just curious about how much we were conceding up front.

But the Cards certainly didn't roll over. Two times they erased Astro leads, and they were able to knock Roger Clemens out of the game with a no-decision (thank you, Scott Rolen -- nice to see that home run sprint again, wasn't it?). But alas, Jeff Suppan couldn't maintain the tie, and after Lights Out Lidge dispatched the Cards with two K's and a fly to right, Minute Maid Park came down with an epidemic case of pennant fever.

As for the Cards, well, they have to take three of four from the Brew Crew this weekend if they want to tie the franchise record for wins. Otherwise don't be at all surprised if their next playoff opponent is playing on Monday -- it's gonna be real fun to watch.

THE CURSE OF THE KILLER TARP Don't expect to see Chris Carpenter on a pitching mound again in 2004. The Cardinals finally, officially acknowledged that they have no idea when Carpenter will pitch again, and that his symptoms bear an eerie resemblance to Brad Penny's recent arm troubles. Penny, as you may know, is probably done for the season -- and no one is really sure why. Evidently it's just "one of those things."

What does this mean for the Cardinals' playoff chances? I'm not sure -- you're dealing with such a small number of games (Carpenter would likely pitch anywhere between one and six postseason games). But we do know that most of CC's starts will go to Jeff Suppan. What's the difference between Suppan and Carpenter? Both pitches throw about an equal number of innings per start (6.5 for Chris, 6.27 for Jeff), but Chris edges him by more than half a run allowed per game, 2.68 to Jeff's 3.27. But again, that's over a full season. Who knows how this will play itself out in a short series -- Suppan has been pitching poorly lately, but he's also pretty sharp on the road (until tonight, anyway). If the Cards are in a tight series, they'll most likely miss Carpenter tremendously; if not, they won't.

I've mentioned this before, but there seems to be a new curse taking hold of the Cardinals in the postseason -- call it the Curse of the Killer Tarp. Seems every time the Cards march into October, they're felled by some freak injury:

1985: Vince Coleman
1987: Jack Clark, Terry Pendleton
1996: Ray Lankford
2000: Mike Matheny (and Rick Ankiel?)
2001: Mark McGwire
2002: Scott Rolen (and Darryl Kile?)
2004: Chris Carpenter

Of course, postseason injuries are more common than you might think. Last World Series, for example, the Yanks were essentially without Jason Giambi and the Marlins were missing hotshot righty A.J. Burnett. And of course, if the playoffs started tomorrow, the Cards wouldn't be the only contender plagued by injuries. Brad Penny and Darren Dreifort are down for the Dodgers; Andy Pettitte and Wade Miller for the Astros; Jerome Williams and Robb Nen for San Fran; and Matt Clement, Joe Borowski, and Todd Hollandsworth for the Cubs. The only truly healthy team out there is the Braves, who just got Horacio Ramirez back after four months on the DL. Otherwise the Cardinals are not alone, so we don't really have any right to complain.

JINXED! So the Cards have made the cover of Sports Illustrated -- further proof that we aren't ignored by the mainstream media.

To some people, this is an unwelcome bit of attention, mostly because of the notorious SI cover jinx. I never did buy this nonsense, but if you're unpersuaded, note the three athletes who have appeared on the cover more than anyone else: Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, and Jack Nicklaus, each of them apparently star-crossed forever.

The article isn't anything new to you hardcore fans (although you'll be happy to know that it mentions Redbird Nation -- but only the phrase and not, unfortunately, the website). My favorite part of the article is when an exec refers to the Cardinals as "the best team out there." It's funny because the exec in question is Pat Gillick, ex-GM of the Mariners and Blue Jays. What, they couldn't find anyone in the NL -- much less anyone currently employed -- to go on record endorsing the Cards?

My other favorite part of the article is this snippet at the end:

[O]n Sept. 20, after a 7-4 victory over Milwaukee clinched the NL Central title, La Russa cut himself and his charges loose, romping around the visitors' clubhouse at Miller Park soaked in champagne and beer. When King gave him an impromptu ice bath from a plastic wastebasket, La Russa, easily 75 pounds lighter than King, chased the reliever around the clubhouse, leaping on top of him and riding him piggyback, fists pumping in the air.
Now and again I worry that old Tony isn't having enough fun. It'd've been better if he gave Ray King a ride rather than the other way around, but it's not a bad start.

THE MERELY GREAT Ben Jacobs of The Hardball Times asks a simple question: Are the Cardinals a great team? He doesn't mean a merely great team, in the sense that every year sees its great teams and its not-so-great teams. He's talking about a truly great team, up there with the '98 Yanks and '01 Mariners.

Ben's conclusion: no, the Cards are not a truly great team. He lays out his argument in three steps --

1. The Cards have not been winning at a high level for a number of years (witness their 85-win total last year).

2. The Cards have an unusual number of players enjoying career years (Edmonds, Rolen, Womack, Mabry, and Carpenter), which, again, suggests an element of luck rather than sustained excellence.

3. The Cardinals have been extremely lucky on balls in play, which distorts the true value of their runs allowed totals.

I don't mind Ben's conclusion -- in general, I think you need a few great seasons to be considered a truly great team -- but his reasoning seems a tad bit off. As for point (1), I think it's reasonable to group the '04 Cards team with the '00-'02 Cards teams, which averaged 95 wins per season. As for point (2), yes, Edmonds and Rolen are enjoying career years, but they're not egregiously out of line with their established levels of play. And as for point (3), you can't fairly discuss our success on balls in play without at least mentioning the Cardinals' superior team defense.

Again, I'm not arguing that the Cards are a classically great team; that remains to be seen. But Ben seems to me a bit cavalier about his answer.

THE GREATEST Today is the 50th anniversary of "the Catch" -- Willie Mays’ famous running, over-the-shoulder grab from the 1954 World Series. has an article commemorating the event, which frankly isn't very good, but it did remind me of something Bob Costas said about the catch from Ken Burns' Baseball documentary:

It was more than just a great catch. It was a catch no one had ever seen before. When that ball left Wertz’s bat -- and this is one of the great things about baseball, where you calculate so many things simultaneously -- a ball is hit into the gap: How good is the outfielder’s arm? Where is the cut-off man? A quick look and a glance at the runners between first and second -- how fast is that runner? How many outs? Should he try for third? Is his history that he’s daring? Will he try for third? What’s the third base coach doing? And you take in all these things and with depth perception you try and calculate in those fleeting seconds, "what are the possibilities?" Well, when the ball left Vic Wertz’s bat, in the massive Polo Grounds, where it was headed, where Mays was standing, there was only one possibility: Could he get to it before it was an inside-the-park home run? Could he hold it to a triple? Catching it was out of the question. And he turned and ran to a place where no one can go to get that ball starting where he started with the ball hit as it was hit. So it was more than just a great acrobatic play. It was a play that, until that point, was outside the realm of possibility in baseball.
I've seen more impressive catches than Mays', but I think Costas is onto something pretty smart -- that is, that Mays' catch was in many ways the greatest catch in baseball history because it redefined what was possible. In an odd way it reminds me why Babe Ruth will probably always be the greatest player who ever lived, despite the latest heroics of Barry Bonds.

Over the years Ruth's records have been matched or surpassed by the likes of Maris, Aaron, McGwire, and Bonds. But Ruth was the first to achieve such lofty levels, and that makes all the difference, because he fundamentally redefined the frontiers of the game. As Bill James has noted, Ruth “had the courage to escape the fictions and falsehoods that constrained other men’s talents, and showed them what could be done.” Sure, the crowds who flocked to Yankee Stadium in the 1920’s were attracted by Ruth’s tape-measure shots, but they gravitated to him for an even deeper reason: because he expanded all common notions about baseball and gave fans a kid-like feeling that they were seeing the game for the first time.

THE BODYGUARD Last June I wrote a quick piece about all the baseball characters you grew up with who turned out to be fairy tales: the clutch hitter, the quadruple-A hitter, the mistake hitter. Now, says JC of Sabernomics, you may add one more to the list -- the "lineup protector," as in, the 800-pound gorilla who makes pitchers throw fat pitches to the guys ahead of him. The post includes four studies that all conclude that the idea of lineup protection simply doesn't exist. It's an interesting read.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

WIN SOME, LOSE SOME There's so much great baseball going on right now -- Dodgers vs. Giants, A's vs. Angels, Cubs vs. Astros vs. Giants -- that I feel sorta silly talking about the Cards lining up their postseason rotation, but oh well. There was still plenty of drama down in Houston tonight.

It was one of those rare good games for both teams. Good for the Astros because the Cubs are now within a half-game of their crosshairs; good for the Cards because our only real job is to get healthy and audition guys for next year, and on both counts we did all right. Scott Rolen played for the first time in two and a half weeks, and even though he didn't have any hits I was pretty pleased with his play. He went to his right and his left, jumped up for a ball, and came in beautifully on a Craig Biggio bunt -- all without any apparent creakiness. His timing was a bit off at the plate (he popped up on a fat 2-0 fastball in his first AB), but he did drill a ball into right center his second time up. Give him a week to get up to speed and he should be fine for October.

The other good news was Danny Haren. The only surefire starters in our rotation next year are Jason Marquis and Jeff Suppan. We have a team option on Woody Williams (normally it'd be a no-brainer to bring him back, but the $8 million pricetag muddies things), and Morris and Carpenter are set to become free agents. I'm guessing at least one of these guys won't be back in 2005, which makes it crucial that Haren be able to step into the void.

If he pitches like he did tonight, we'll be fine. Haren does have six wins in a Cardinal uniform, but only one of them (this past Aug. 15th vs. Atlanta) came against a good offense. Tonight he faced a serious Houston offense that has scored as often as any team since the All-Star break. And Haren pitched well. He went five, gave up two runs, and struck out six. He looked better than he's ever looked in the first, striking out the side, including Jeff Bagwell on a nasty splitter. The only real mistake he made was when he threw a 1-2 hanger in the 5th that Carlos Beltran just drilled to the base of the wall, 436 feet away. All in all, though, it was an encouraging outing.

As for the game, well, it was the type that would've driven you to tear our your fingernails with pliers if we were in a pennant race. And Brandon Backe -- well, I'm sorry to be ungracious about this, but he was not throwing well tonight. Fortunately for him, the Cardinals, at times impatient, at times distracted, let him junk his way through 5 innings of one-run baseball.

Oh, and then there was that play at the plate, where Reggie Sanders was safe by a mile but called out by umpire Brian Onora. (Is it just me or have there been more egregious miscalls this year than in years past?) If any Cubs fans out there are looking for evidence of malediction, look no further than this play, which may well have cost the Cards the game and allowed the 'Stros to creep back into the wild-card hunt.

Speaking of the wild-card hunt, it's grown truly wild. I heard a story once about Prussian soldiers who would relieve boredom in the barracks by tying two cats together by their tails, hanging them over a washing line, and leaving them to fight. That's what the National League looks like, with the Giants, Cubs, and Astros tied by the tails, clawing it out for supremacy. I'm just glad we're bystanders to all this, because things might get even crazier in the next couple days...

Monday, September 27, 2004

WHEELING, DEALING The Astros and Cubs won the NL Central in the preseason polls. They were the two sexiest teams in the division, full of movement and life and optimism. The Astros beefed up on a double helping of ex-Yankees, Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens, while the Cubs fattened themselves with the likes of Derrek Lee, LaTroy Hawkins, Michael Barrett, Todd Walker, and Greg Maddux. In the springtime, both clubs appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated – one read BRINGING IT HOME: THE BEST OF TIMES FOR ROGER CLEMENS, while the other announced HELL FREEZES OVER: THE CUBS WILL WIN THE WORLD SERIES.

Meanwhile, the Cards more or less sat on their hands all winter. They pulled off one splashy move – dealing J.D. Drew for pitching – but they mostly watched as other teams gobbled up the pricey free agents. At the time, local columnists and chat room trolls were begging for the Cards to do something – anything! – to improve the team, but Walt Jocketty was content to make a series of quiet moves, a nip here and a tuck there, nothing too drastic. It seemed to many people (and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t one of them) that the Cards were on the wayward side of history, destined for another third-place finish.

We were all wrong. It remains to be seen whether Walt’s team can go all the way this year, but it’s hard to argue with his roster moves. So I thought it’d be fun to go back and evaluate all the choices he made last winter. I’m not going to give the moves letter grades or anything like that (the way myopic “draft experts” do 24 hrs. after the NFL draft ends) – after all, many of these deals can’t be fully evaluated for many years. If, say, Jeff Suppan wins 20 games next year, or if Eli Marrero bops 40 homers the year after that, it’ll greatly affect our reading of Jocketty’s moves. It’s sorta like Zhou Enlai’s response to Henry Kissinger when asked, in the early 1970’s, about his views on the French Revolution: "It’s too soon to tell."

So with that perspective in mind, let’s a size up all the Cards transactions over the past year and see how we’re doing so far…

10/31 Declined the option on Sterling Hitchcock

Good call. Hitchcock has had a host of health problems over the years, and after battling groin, rib, and elbow problems most of the year, he’s made only 4 starts (bad starts) for the Padres all year. The only bummer is the Cards had to pay the guy $1 million just to let him walk, but he did go 5-1 down the stretch last season, so it wasn’t all wasted.

11/2 Declined the option on Jeff Fassero

You’d think this was a no-brainer, but it’s precisely the kind of move Jocketty didn’t make in the winter of ’02, when he was still nursing at the teat of old crusty types like Fassero, Painter, and Springer. (Sorry for the mental image.) This was Step 1 toward making the bullpen younger, leaner, and better.

11/3 Declined the option on Fernando Vina

Another good call. It seemed obvious to all of us that Vina was washed-up, but I’m certain there are some GMs out there who would’ve held on to him for fear of finding a suitable replacement. I mean, just look at the Tigers, who got snookered into paying Vina $3 mil for an offensive line of .226/.308/.270. And that was before he went down with a torn hammy (what else is new) and missed almost the entire season. Fortunately that was someone else’s problem, not ours.

11/7 Declined the option on Mike DeJean

We had to pay DeJean a small buyout ($200,000) last November, but that’s a lot less than the O’s paid ($1.5 million) to acquire him. If DeJean put up the same numbers with St. Louis this year, he’d have been far and away the worst pitcher on our staff, and he’d have blocked the progress of better pitchers like Kiko Calero.

11/18 Signed Cody McKay to a minor league contract

Not a terrible idea in theory – sure, you had to get past the whole nepotism thing, but lefty-hitting catchers are rare, and McKay did have some pop in the minors (freaky, no?). As it happened, his OPS was 80th among 80 major-league catchers. You know you’re doing something wrong when your stats are bad for a backup catcher.

Who the hell knows how you find good reserve catchers, but in retrospect we’d have done better with our old friend Alberto Castillo, who could have proved a good alternative to Matheny against RHPs. What’s more, McKay’s failure might have hurt the Cardinals long-term, as it forced the club to use Yady Molina on the bench and robbed him of daily at bats in the minor leagues.

11/20 Traded Tino Martinez for right-hander Evan Rust, first baseman J.P. Davis, and walking-around money

Let’s admit it – Tino was good this year. Maybe not good for a starting first baseman, but he managed to out-hit almost every member of our bench, which raises the inevitable question: as long as the Cards were paying 9/10th of his salary, and as long as we didn’t get much in exchange, couldn’t we have just kept him as a lefty bat off the pine?

There are complications with this argument. One, the Cards signed John Mabry, another slow lefty, for next to nothing to replace Tino. Mabry hit better than Tino this year, and he’s more versatile too (I can’t believe I just used the words Mabry and versatile in the same sentence), so we more or less had Tino Plus off the bench anyway.

The other complicating factor is the clubhouse stuff. It’s pretty clear, especially now, that Tino was the fulcrum for a lot of nasty stuff that went down behind the scenes last year. I have no idea if he was at fault (as Bernie Miklasz has suggested), or if he was just the scapegoat for a disappointing season (as Scott Rolen and others have suggested). Either way, his tenure was tainted heading into the last year of his three-year contract. And one can always make the case that Tino’s departure was addition by subtraction – an opportunity for the Cards to heal and congeal.

To be honest, I’m not equipped to make that call. I usually check out when people start talking about "intangibles" and "clubhouse chemistry"; and generally I’m inclined to agree with people like Bill James, who wrote the following back in 1983 (by the way, this is from Rich Lederer’s wonderful twelve-part retrospective on Bill James’ old Baseball Abstracts; if you haven’t dived into this series yet, do)... anyway, James wrote way back when:

When Enos Cabell was hot early in the year, you’d ask Sparky Anderson about him and Sparky would say "Enos Cabell is a we ballplayer. You don’t hear Enos Cabell saying 'I did this' and 'I did that.'" I think that’s what drives me nuts about Sparky Anderson, that he’s so full of brown stuff that it just doesn’t seem like he has any words left over for a basic, fundamental understanding of the game. I want to look at a player on the basis of what, specifically, he can and cannot do to help you win a baseball game, but Sparky’s so full of "winners" and "discipline" and "we ballplayers" and self-consciously asinine theories about baseball that he seems to have no concept of how it is, mechanically, that baseball games are won and lost. I mean, I would never say that it was not important to have a team with a good attitude, but Christ, Sparky, there are millions of people in this country who have good attitudes, but there are only about 200 who can play a major-league brand of baseball, so which are you going to take? Sparky is so focused on all that attitude stuff that he looks at an Enos Cabell and he doesn’t even see that the man can’t play baseball. This we ballplayer, Sparky, can’t play first, can’t play third, can’t hit, can’t run and can’t throw. So who cares what his attitude is?
Hear hear. I don’t think you should keep a guy merely because he’s a "we" player, nor do I think you should deal a guy because he’s a "me me me" player. That might be a cause for concern in sports that rely heavily on communication and teamwork (football, basketball, hockey) but not baseball. The bottom line is Tino still had some hitting left in him, and it’d have been interesting to see if he could have actually done a little of it in the National League.

Having said that, it’s important to remember the qualifier buried deep within James’ rant against Enos Cabell: "I would never say that it was not important to have a team with a good attitude..." The reason I cringe when publications laud a team for good chemistry is that 9 times out of 10 they’re just talking out of their ass. They don’t know, in any concrete way, how attitude translates into runs and wins and losses, but they make a connection anyway. (As Joe Sheehan once told me, he’ll buy that connection when someone makes it before the fact – when someone can use it as a predictive tool rather than a descriptive label that’s applied to teams playing well.)

But just because we don’t have the data to make a connection, doesn’t mean the connection doesn’t exist. Sportswriters blithely assume that good character = more wins, but saberheads often assume that there’s no connection whatsoever. It’s quite possible, however, that we simply don’t have the data to talk about it meaningfully. I mean, I can absolutely see how a team leader with a good work ethic can inspire his teammates to work harder and stay in better shape, and I can see how that might translate into wins on the diamond. I can also see how a disruptive clubhouse character could cause others to slack off, or phone it in when the team falls behind.

But as outsiders, we have to remain agnostic about all this. Right now I’d say a "winning attitude" is like extraterrestrial life – we don’t have any proof that it exists (outside of one heart-warming example), but we can’t write off the possibility altogether. Likewise, I doubt Tino would have cost the Cardinals any games had he stayed with the team as a bench/platoon player, but I’m also open to the idea that he was too poisonous to keep around.

11/20 Signed a whole bunch of journeyman relievers over the next few months – among them, Randy Flores, Allen Levrault, Alan Benes, Doug Creek, and Al Reyes

Only Flores and Reyes have seen any time with the big club. Both have been pretty good in limited September duty, and Flores might come in handy if Kline can’t make it back strong for the playoffs. So I’d give a thumbs-up to these pickups. And don’t worry much about the guys who didn’t make it. Relievers are like volatile stocks – you have to put up with a few failures to get the big payoffs, and it’s never a bad idea to have a few extra fungible commodities around.

12/1 Signed Chris Carpenter to a one-year contract with a club option for 2005

One of the great, unsung deals of the offseason. While Pettitte signed with the Astros for $10.5 million a year, and Maddux signed with the Cubs for $7.5 million a year, Carpenter signed with the Cards for a mere $500,000. Of those three pitchers, he not only had the best 2004, he might even have the best long-term prospects (it’d be an interesting debate, anyway). This, my friends, is how you win ballgames in a mid-sized market. Is Carpenter Jocketty’s best ever free agent signing? Well, they had to pay him last year for doing nothing, but I think he might be.

12/7 Signed free agent pitchers Steve Kline and Cal Eldred to one-year contracts

Jocketty chose the right veteran relievers to keep around. Kline has been one of the better short men in baseball (a 1.86 ERA) and Eldred was superb for half the season (a 1.64 ERA June through August, which coincided with the Cards hot streak). Together these two relievers make $2.6 million this year – not chump change, but worth it.

12/9 Signed free agents infielders Brent Butler and Steve Cox to one-year contracts

These guys didn’t cost the Cards much more than an invite to spring training, but in retrospect they had no business near a big-league ballyard. Butler is toiling in AA right now, and Cox is... well, where is Steve Cox? Dan of Get Up, Baby! went looking for him recently and found him nowhere. Says Dan, "I searched the Japanese leagues, I searched the minor leagues, but the only baseball-playing Steve Cox I found was in high school."

12/13 Traded J.D. Drew and Eli Marrero for Jason Marquis, Ray King, and Adam Wainwright

This is the big one, and probably the trickiest to assess. If you look at it crudely – in terms of sheer runs put up or taken off the scoreboard – Atlanta comes out way ahead:
VORP, 2004

Drew 81.3 Marquis 47.9
Marrero 20.6 King 20.0
Wainwright 0.0
------------------ -------------------
Total: 101.9 67.9
That’s a difference of about 3 wins. Or if you prefer to include defense in the equation, take Win Shares – the Braves still come out ahead, 44 to 21 (a difference of about seven wins!).

But it’s not that simple. The Cardinals traded Drew, in large part, because he was in a walk year. As I mentioned after the deal was consummated:
If Drew was gone after '04, then we didn't trade away his career. We only traded away one year of his career -- and got in return at least one year of Ray King, two years from Jason Marquis, and six of Adam Wainwright. The way I see it, the Cards were in a Catch-22. They s may have had enough money to re-sign Drew next year, but only if he had a so-so season. But if he had had that monster season we've all been waiting for, well then he'd have been unaffordable for '05 anyway.
That’s why this deal is so hard to measure. I’d love to have had J.D.’s .300+ average, 30+ homers, and 100+ walks – not to mention his glove and arm – out in right field. But there’s no way we could have afforded him and Renteria at the end of ’04, and Jocketty sacrificed one to save the other. In return he got a promising minor-league arm, another patch (a very good, very fat patch) in the bullpen, and a starting pitcher who could help us immediately.

The question is whether we could have found some of those commodities elsewhere. Danny Haren does not seem like he would have been ready to take a spot in the rotation. And among other available pitchers – i.e., those making less than $4 million a year who changed teams this past year – Marquis fares very well:
Support Neutral Wins above Replacement

Available Pitchers Making Under $4 Million

1. Ted Lilly ($2.5 MM) 5.0
2. David Wells ($1.25 MM) 4.3
3. Jason Marquis ($0.5 MM) 3.3
4. John Thomson ($3 MM) 3.2
5. Kenny Rogers ($3 MM) 2.8
Next on the list are Jose Lima and Glendon Rusch. Everyone else who switched teams last winter (guys like Steve Sparks, Pat Hentgen, Darren Oliver) pretty much sucked this year. What’s more, Marquis is only 26 years old and he’s made big strides from last year.

In the final analysis, I’d say the Cards may have given up too much to get Marquis and King, and I’m still sorry we didn’t get to see Drew’s big breakout season in a Cardinal uniform. But the trade did make the team more well-rounded, it plugged some holes, and it has good long-term potential. We’ll be better able to evaluate all these factors in about two or three years.

12/15 Drafted Hector Luna via the Rule 5 Draft

He’s much more a Tony La Russa type of guy (plays 5 different positions) than he is a Brian Gunn type of guys (does lots of things okay, but few things very okay), but he’s not a bad little dude to have around. He’s seems to be getting better the more looks he gets at the plate, and the price for him was right – all he cost was a roster spot and minimum wage. Luna was among the best of the twenty Rule 5 pickups this season – besides Luis A. Gonzalez of the Rox and Lenny DiNardo of the BoSox, he’s the only one who didn’t either put up disastrous numbers or go back to his original team. So by that standard (the DiNardo Standard) you may score another one for Jocketty.

12/16 Signed Greg Vaughan to a minor league contract

Lasted roughly as long as the Fernando Valenzuela Era in St. Louis.

12/17 Signed free agent RHP Jeff Suppan to a two-year contract

Another good deal. Suppan was worth about exactly $3 million this year, holding down the fort with a 4.03 ERA and a 16-8 record. He really tailed off in the second half (in the first half he made 15 of 16 starts in which he allowed no more than 3 runs), but he was a completely serviceable 4/5 starter, and the type of guy who fits well within our system.

12/17 Signed free agent Reggie Sanders to a two-year contract

Reggie was masked from criticism this year, in part because he got off to such a hot start, in part because he’s such an amiable fellow, and in part because the Cards were winning and scoring lots of runs and no one really cared if he wasn’t pulling his weight. But Sanders kept up his run of alternating on year/off year, like clockwork -- 2004 is an even-numbered year, so Reggie was destined to slip to a .785 OPS, not very good for a corner outfielder.

Silver lining: if his pattern continues, he’ll be great next year. I’m dubious (he’ll also be 37 years old), but we have him locked up for one more year, so he’s ours whether we like it or not. Besides, Reggie’s not a player I worry about much. Your team’s no good if he’s your cleanup hitter, but as a #7 hitter he works out just fine. Oh, and one more cool thing: he’s 21 for 25 in stolen bases.

1/6 Signed free agent Mike Lincoln to a one-year contract

I really dug this deal back when we made it, and despite a 5.19 ERA, there was reason to think he was a keeper – batters hit only .164/.239/.262 against him before he blew out his elbow in May. Of course, that blown-out elbow defined his season and he ended up a bit of a bust. Nonetheless he was cheap, and as I said earlier, you always want to be overstocked in the bullpen precisely for cases like this. No big loss.

1/9 Signed free agent Marlon Anderson to a one-year contract

Well, he was good in the pinch (a .283 average and 3 home runs), but otherwise he was a mess for most of the season, enduring a .193 freefall since April and reviving memories of Dr. Strangeglove in the field. The Tony Womack trade kept this from being Jocketty’s most glaring misstep of the ’03-’04 offseason.

1/9 signed free agent Julian Tavarez to two-year contract

I still say $4.2 million for two years is too much to pay this guy, but his signing was far from the disaster I thought it’d be back in January. He posted an excellent 2.45 ERA (although he left a lot of runners on after he departed and had to be bailed out by others), and helped formed the core of the Cardinals’ bullpen resurgence. All in all Jocketty made no real mistakes when it came to acquiring relievers this offseason, which was perhaps the A#1 difference between this year’s team and last.

1/9 – 1/23 Acquired three would-be leftfielders, signing Emil Brown and Ray Lankford to minor league contracts, then claiming Colin Porter off waivers from the Astros

Emil Brown was released in May and since then hit well enough in AAA New Orleans (.337/.386/.533) that I regret not having him around. I took a shine to Porter while he was up here (even though he didn’t walk once in 35 plate appearances), and Lankford has been both more and less than you’d expect – his body kept breaking down, but he also sported a pretty nifty .341 OBP. He’s fine as a backup and not so fine as a starter (I still can’t believe he was our Opening Day LF), and like the others, not a bad risk.

2/12 Signed John Mabry to a minor league contract

Another win for Jocketty. Did you think he’d hit .295/.363/.515 in 80 games? Mabry basically pulled a reprise of his 2002 season, when he slugged .523 for Oakland in 89 games down the stretch. He also gave the Cardinals something they didn’t have coming out of spring training: depth. He did well enough that I’ve even forgiven him for the Official Worst Day of Any Position Player in Baseball. (By the way, if you’re curious, the worst day for any non-position player probably belonged to Lino Urdaneta.)

2/20 Agreed to an $88 million, seven-year contract with Albert Pujols that also includes a club option for an eighth year at $16 MM

How good was this deal? Put it this way – three years from now, in 2007, he’ll still be making less money than Jeff Bagwell. The best thing you could say about his 2004 is that he had another run-of-the-mill Albert Pujols season – a .330 average, 120+ runs and ribbies, 90+ extra-base hits. He’s our generation’s Jimmie Foxx.

2/23 Claimed Luis Martinez off waivers from the Milwaukee Brewers

Martinez wasn’t your typical head case – he was discarded by the Brewers for killing a guy over a disputed parking spot. Granted, he was cleared of all charges, but still – scary stuff. He didn’t do much for the Cards, except he was nice chum for the Rockies when it came time to package a deal for Larry Walker. For that alone he was worth the pickup.

3/21 Traded non-roster pitcher Matt Duff for non-roster infielder Tony Womack

In the aftermath of this deal, Baseball Prospectus called Womack an "offensive zero" and "the tactical equivalent of a spork." Josh Schulz said the trade was made after someone soaked Tony La Russa and Walt Jocketty’s weed in embalming fluid and slipped it into their hookah when they weren’t looking. And Redbird Nation (that would be me) tabbed the trade the Womackalypse and called him "an older, more rickety Brent Butler with bad footwork and a weak arm."

I’d say we were, like, wrong and stuff. All Womack did his post his highest-ever OBP, at .348, and play a perfectly decent second base. He was one of the five or six most productive keystoners in the NL, and even on a per-game basis held up pretty well. Most surprising of all, his year wasn’t too terribly different from Edgar Renteria’s.

How did this happen? You got me. Womack was one of three Cardinals (Marquis and Carpenter would be the others) whose sudden spike in ability explains our 100-win season about as well as anything. There were other second basemen out there before the season began (Bellhorn, Walker) who would have done just as well or better, but for the league-minimum salary, and as a last-minute replacement for Marlon Anderson and Bo Hart, Womack was truly an awesome pickup.

At this point the count is something like Jocketty 12, Redbird Nation 1.

3/29 Acquired Brian L. Hunter from the Padres for Kerry Robinson

In technical terms, -0.053 MLVr – (- 0.000 MLVr) = + 0.053 MLVr. In layman’s terms, crap for crap equals crap.

The Cardinals never really did figure out their left field situation – they should end the season dead last in the NL in OPS among left fielders. As with all questionable moves here, the temptation is to endorse them when in doubt – i.e., "we’ve won 103 games – what do you want, 150 wins?" But that’s one of the most amazing things about this Cardinals squad – there’s actually room for improvement. I mean, you can’t expect them to win as many games next year as they did this year, but they can counterbalance some leveling-off with mere competence from left field and catcher.

4/3 Traded Wilson Delgado and Chris Widger to the Mets for Roger Cedeno

Believe it or not, Delgado had a pretty handy year for the Mets – he walked in over 10% of his plate appearances and even slugged a couple of home runs. But Chris Widger did nothing (literally; I think he walked out on the Mets in a huff or something), and I’d rather have Cedeno than either of them. I’m not sure we couldn’t have Cedeno’s productivity just as easily from any one of about three dozen people in AAA, but oh well. The Mets are paying the huge bulk of his salary and he’s perfectly reasonable as a fifth outfielder.

So that’s it – Walt Jocketty’s assemblage of off-season moves. As we said, few of them were huge, few were flashy, but they provided enough duct tape for the Cards to get where they needed to go, primed for the postseason.

In many ways Jocketty’s best moves were the ones he didn’t make. At the end of last season I wrote the following:
There are two ways to look at our season. The first is this: You could argue that the Cardinals are more like the 97-win team of 2002 than the 85-win team of 2003, that this year was a mere aberration, a bad year done in by bad luck and few bad players. If this is the case, then the game plan for next season involves spackling a few holes (like our bullpen and our bench) and committing resources to one last pennant run, long-term future be damned.

The other viewpoint is more pessimistic. It sees the Cardinals as an aging, overpaid team with little renewable talent; it looks at the upstart Cubs and the rebuilding Reds and Pirates and sees the Cardinals sliding inexorably into the second tier of the NL Central within a year or two. If this is the case, then the Cardinals should take more drastic measures; they should be prepared to significantly alter our team in order to remain competitive for 2004, 2005, and beyond.
I argued for the latter – that the Cards should trade away key players to make themselves younger, more versatile, and less dependent on three or four great players. I was wrong. The first scenario I laid out applies perfectly to the Cards’ situation. 2003 was an aberration from a string of division titles, not a sign of our inexorable decline. Walt Jocketty recognized this better than I did, refrained from putting Jim Edmonds on the chopping block (as I argued, as the Post-Dispatch argued, etc.), and has 103 wins to show for it. What’s more, he still maintained enough depth and flexibility to go out and land his trademark big game (in the person of Larry Walker) at midseason.

Jocketty’s methods aren’t as logical or as explicable as Beane’s or DePodesta’s or Epstein’s, and he’s got some blind spots that can drive you up a wall (like his frequent disregard for secondary talent). But his track record holds up against just about any GM in the game, and in my opinion he’s the 2004 NL Executive of the Year.

Sunday, September 26, 2004

103-WIN FEVER So the Cards now have more wins than any Cardinals team in my lifetime. And if you're under 60, they've got more wins than any team in your lifetime too. I'd love to take this time to gloat in the face of all the people who didn't see this coming way back in April, but unfortunately I'd end up gloating at myself, because I sure as hell didn't predict this. I mean, I thought the Cardinals would do better than the pundits thought, but 103 wins? And counting? That's obscene.

The weekend series with the Rockies was pretty uneventual -- another TCOB special. But of course, a couple things have me worried. The first is the health of our team heading into the playoffs. It looks like Rolen will be back, Kline will be back at less than 100%, and as for Chris Carpenter -- well, I don't know any more than you do, but I wouldn't be surprised if he's already thrown his last pitch of 2004. Everything about his situation (the nature of the injury, the evasions and unknowns emanating from the Cards medical staff, the eerie similarities to Brad Penny's condition) seems rotten to me, and I'm girding myself for the worst.

The other concern is Rick Ankiel, although, to be honest, I'm not nearly as concerned about him as I was when I opened up the live box score online and saw that he'd given up 5 earned runs in 2 innings. My eyes immediately went to the walks column -- okay, no walks, breathe a little easier -- but it's still not a great situation. Ankiel did give up 6 hits, including four extra-base hits, and 60% of the pitches he threw were out of the strike zone. In fact, only 10 of his 59 pitches were either called or swinging strikes (and two of those were after he went 3-0 on the opposing pitcher).

So it was a bad game. Should we be worried? I guess it depends what kinda mood you're in. The pessimist in me remembers a few games that Ankiel threw in 2001, in both AA and AAA, in which his chief problem wasn't throwing strikes per se. It was being able to air it out and throw strikes at the same time. As I recall (and it's notoriously difficult to find box scores from individual minor-league games, so I hope my memory isn't faulty here), Ankiel had a few games where he started out throwing balls to the backstop. With runners on base, he was able to spot the ball and get it over the plate, but apparently he wasn't getting anything on the pitches and the hitters would just hammer him. He was short-arming the ball, or aiming it, or somehow getting out of his rhythm in his obsession to avoid wild pitches. His appearance yesterday, in which he hit the first batter he faced -- then got hit hard -- fits that pattern.

But just because that's the pattern doesn't mean that's what happened. I didn't see the game, and I'd hate to infer too much just by looking at the box score. To be fair, it's more likely Rick just had a bad outing, which we would expect from any reliever, particularly one fresh off the DL. Add in the fact that Ankiel was pitching in Coors, and the thin atmosphere seemed to be doing funny things to his curveball (both Ankiel and Matheny admitted that his pitches weren't breaking), and I think we can give Ankiel a pass on this one. We'll know more after his next outing, but don't be surprised if his progress is a bit touch-and-go from here on out. Even if things turn out well, I think Ankiel's rough outing lays to rest any idea that he'll be pitching for the Cards in the postseason.

KAP KONSPIRACY This whole charade with Julian Tavarez's suspension really pisses me off. As we pointed out a few weeks ago, there's almost no evidence against the guy (beyond the uninformed word of a habitually self-serving umpire, Joe West), and yet MLB not only upheld a lengthy suspension for Tavarez, they imposed it at a terrible time, and offered no justification why.

I'd normally vent a bit here, but Joe Strauss of the Post-Dispatch already vented for me with these spot-on questions:

This much isn't known:

Why did the process take so long, leaving Tavarez only two days of eligibility before the end of the regular season?

Why is Tavarez's infraction seen as more injurious to the game than one of the game's icons using a corked bat, teams fighting in the middle of the field, or a pitcher intentionally throwing at a hitter?

Why was the evidence produced at last Tuesday's appeal hearing in Milwaukee judged irrelevant?
MLB's handling of this case has been so shoddy and so unreasonable that it's fair to ask, as Tony La Russa did, if the league office has double standards for the Cardinals and other teams. I tend to think that the double standards are not against teams -- rather, I think there's a double standard for "beloved" players like Sosa, who the league has a vested interest in seeing on the ballfield, and guys like Tavarez, "problem players" who are mere irksome burrs on the petticoat of Major League Baseball. Tavarez certainly didn't help his cause by throwing his arm around home-plate ump Ron Kulpa before he got ejected back in August, and it seems to me that the 8-game time-out for Tavarez is as much an ad hominem decision as anything else.

But if you're into La Russa's theory -- that the Cards are being picked on by MLB -- you might get a kick out of a recent rant by King Kaufman on For the first time ever, fans are able to vote online for the winners of the Hank Aaron Award, given to "the best overall hitter" in each league. The six NL candidates include Aramis Ramirez of the Cubs, but not Jim Edmonds of the Cardinals (or, for that matter, Albert Pujols of the Cardinals, or Todd Helton of the Rockies). Kaufman's response:

By almost any measure, Edmonds has been the second best hitter in the league this year, after Bonds... All this guy does is hit like crazy and play a great center field year in and year out, and people ignore him. Even baseball itself, which presumably ought to know a thing or two about baseball, disses him. What did he ever do to anybody? Is it the blond highlights?

And look who is a candidate: Aramis Ramirez. Aramis Ramirez! Holy cow! Fine player, but one of the top six hitters in the league?... I didn't spend all morning on it, but I did put in a little time trying to find a statistic, traditional or sabermetric, in which Ramirez is higher than 10th in the league. Zip. He's 12th in OPS. He's 25th in runs created. Like the traditional stats? He's 14th in batting average, tied for 10th in home runs, 16th in RBIs.

Obviously what's going on here is that baseball wanted a Cub on the list, because Cubs fans mean hits on a Web site, I can tell you from experience. If Neifi Perez were the Cubs' best hitter, he'd be on this ballot. And if baseball decides the winner entirely on the Web voting, he'd win.

The same is true with the Red Sox in the American League. The Sox have a legitimate candidate in Manny Ramirez, but if they didn't, there'd be a Boston on the list anyway...
This is part of the reason I have trouble with the Cubbies and Red Sox. Both teams' fans cast themselves as underdogs, the Little Man vs. Moloch, when actually they're fawned over by Those Who Matter as much as any teams in baseball, if not all of pro sports.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

BIG YADY I swear, I saw it with my own two eyes. I mean, not technically -- I actually saw it on TV, maybe a good half-hour after it took place, on ESPNews. But there it was: a clip of Yadier Molina hitting his first major-league home run. Now, I knew Yady wasn't going to go his whole career without going deep, but I also didn't think he'd hit a major-league homer so soon. I said after his first game in the bigs that I couldn't see him ever hitting a home run, and nothing before today had changed my mind. Seriously, he had only 4 XBH's coming into today's game, and I probably saw at least three of them, and not one of them made it to the wall. They were all grounders or banjo hits down the line.

But today Yady took one over the wall, and better yet, it was a big hit too (or as big as hits get when you're ten jillion games up on everyone else), for it won the game for the Redbirds, our 100th victory of the season. Maybe 100 wins isn't a big deal to you, but I'm the type of guy who likes watching the odometer flip over to zeroes, and I like big round numbers. This is only the second time in my lifetime that the Cards have reached triple-digit wins in the season, and the last time it happened I was starting my sophomore year of high school (oops -- I just accidentally gave away my age, provided you're good at math). In fact, there are still nine franchises -- Anaheim, Florida, Colorado, Milwaukee, Montreal, San Diego, Tampa Bay, Texas, and Toronto -- who have never won 100 games in a season. So we should count ourselves lucky.

Dan Wetzel, who writes for Yahoo! Sports, claims that the Cardinals are winning all these games under the radar, that they're the Rodney Dangerfields of baseball:

Did you hear about the team with 99 wins, the best record in baseball (by 4½ games) and home-field advantage throughout the National League playoffs already locked up? Of course you didn't... That team is the St. Louis Cardinals, who may wind up with around 106 victories and no national profile. Has there ever been a team this good that received this little attention?
To be honest, I think the Cards are getting plenty of attention. Not as much as the Red Sox or Yankees, no, but they're getting plenty of what Ali G would call respek. They've got three players who have generated a lot of MVP talk, plus I've heard lots of broadcasters -- even during games that don't involve the Cardinals -- lionizing our team. There's also the recent cover of ESPN the Magazine, which features our three superstars alongside the headline "The Best Team in Baseball."

I'd say we're doing fine as far as national recognition. But both Wetzel and Jeff Bradley, who wrote the ESPN Magazine piece, have put their finger on something about this Cardinals team. They both claim that the 2004 Cards are, well, boring. Says Wetzel,

In some ways, they are a victim of their day-in, day-out excellence. These guys produce very few juicy news items. After reaching the playoffs three times (but winning just one series) from 2000 to 2002, the Cards dropped to third in their division last year. Instead of reworking the roster in the high-profile free-agent market, they chose to sit tight because manager Tony La Russa believed they were on the verge of becoming truly great with what they had. How boring, which is why they entered the season out of the spotlight.
Bradley makes a different point, but reaches the same conclusion:

If it weren't for Edmonds' trademark fall-back-and-admire-it home run follow-through, Reggie Sanders' little hop-skip-and-trot routine when he knows he's left the yard, or relieve Steve Kline throwing one of his temper tantrums, you might think you're watching 25 Rolens... "I know it's boring," Womack says. "But it's what we do."
You've heard stories of the old Mustache Gang A's brawling and mixing it up in the locker room? Well, here's what the Cards look like behind-the-scenes:

Before games, the clubhouse is serene, with hitters watching video of that night's opposing pitcher and pitchers comparing notes on the hitters they'll be facing.
Zzzzzzzzzzz. Of course, the Cards aren't the first exceptional team to be accused of such blandness. The Yankees in the late '40s and early '50s (i.e., after Joe D. started to decline and before Mickey Mantle became a household name) were considered coldly efficient, more like a wheat thresher than a ballclub. And remember those mid-'90s Braves teams, with Maddux and Glavine and McGriff and Blauser? You half-expected those guys to take the field with briefcases rather than baseball gloves.

Now, personally I don't find the Cardinals so milquetoast. Larry Walker cracks me up (there's something inherently clownish about the guy; put him in a tux and tails and he'd still look like the biggest slob on earth); Pujols is always good drama (how can you deny the potency of his glowering 60.5-foot stare?); La Russa is one of the all-time great manager/shit-disturbers; our bullpen is full of oddballs and would-be felons (King and Izzy are jokers in the old Quisenberry style, and it wouldn't surprise me if one day the umps decided to pat down Kline and Tavarez only to find out they were packing heat); and let's not forget Jimmy Edmonds, who is, after all, a three-ring circus unto himself.

But even if the rest of the nation doesn't find the Cards very entertaining, I don't care. This year has given me a newfound respect for humdrum consistency and machinelike efficiency. And I've discovered that 100 wins are never boring.

M*A*S*H UNIT When I was younger I knew some girls who, as part of a home ec assignment at their high school, had to carry around a bag of flour for one week. The flour was supposed to represent a newborn baby, and at the end of the week this pedagogical exercise would apparently teach these young women that they were in no way prepared to hazard the responsibility of raising a child round the clock (think of it as birth control for Catholic schoolgirls). One of my friends went out of her way all week to be a good, responsible, hypothetical mother -- she took the flour "baby" everywhere she went, made sure she kept it swaddled in blankets and never left it sitting at home or in the car or somewhere where the dog could attack it. But on the very last day of her assignment, she dropped the bag onto a curb, punctured the paper covering, and saw flour from inside spill onto the street.

I thought of this today in regard to the Cardinals injury situation. All year we've been nurturing this wonderful season, and the only thing that could mar it down the stretch is a serious injury heading into the playoffs. Scott Rolen seems like he might be on the mend, but we've been hit by two other injuries lately, and both of them look to be rather serious.

Chris Carpenter, easily the Cardinals' ace this year, is suffering from both a strained right biceps and nerve irritation in his upper arm. Evidently there's no structural damage, but trainer Barry Weinberg still said that Carpenter's status is "very uncertain." It's unlikely that Carp will pitch at all the rest of the regular season, and he could miss a start -- if not several starts -- in the postseason.

If that weren't enough to bum you out, Robb at Random Redbird Reasoning draws some frightening parallels between Carpenter's condition and the one that's afflicts Dodgers' righthander Brad Penny. (And Robb wrote his post before we got word of the nerve irritation in Carpenter's arm, which also mirrors Penny's symptoms.) Penny, as you know, has thrown only 3 innings over the past 6 weeks. If Carpenter's situation is at all similar, that's a blow to our postseason hopes. I mean, the fall-off between Carp and Suppan isn't enormous, but I sure don't feel good about an October rotation that includes both Soup and Matty Mo.

Adding injury to injury, Steve Kline is fighting through a partially torn flexor tendon in his left index finger. What I don't get is why, if Kline's finger has been torn for some time, the Cardinals didn't address it sooner. I understand recovery time from surgery might take up to 10 weeks, but Kline was going to miss significant time with the groin anyway, and he's said his finger has been hurting for awhile. If you were the Cards, wouldn't you have risked surgery around the All-Star Break (when the Cards had a big lead already) and hoped for a healthy Kline by the end of the season? Something about it seems awfully strange.

Of course, we could find out that Kline is ready for the postseason, but how much time will he need to ramp up to speed? (He had a 3.72 ERA in spring training, but I have no idea if that means anything.) And if Kline isn't ready to go, who takes his place as the second lefty (after Ray King) out of the pen? I know we all start salivating, Pavlov-dog-like, at the name "Ankiel," but I find it almost impossible to believe La Russa would take the risk of putting him on the postseason roster. Ankiel has yet to pitch more than two innings straight, and he hasn't been allowed to enter any game mid-inning. Besides, the postseason was the scene of Rick's first Chernobyl incident, and if he experienced another October meltdown this year, they'd erect a statue of La Russa outside Busch Stadium, right alongside Musial and Gibby, but for the sole purpose of letting fans throw feces at it.

A better bet is Randy Flores, who actually isn't half-bad. He's given up only one run in four innings of work with the big club, but more telling is his solid track record in the minors. He pitched decently in both Colorado Springs and Memphis, showed an ability to get out lefties, and sported a 2-to-1 ground-to-fly ratio, ideal for this ballclub. I'm not fooling myself -- he's no Kline -- but I'm trying to come up with reasons not to fret about all this.

ST. ALBERT Here's an interesting article about Albert Pujols' religious faith. To be honest, the article is a little eerie -- not because Pujols is so passionate about his religion (I admire that about him, even if at times I couldn't help but think of The Onion headline BASKETBALL STAR BLAMES GOD FOR DEFEAT). No, the part I found eerie was when Albert talked about how demanding he was of himself:

"Just a week ago we were having dinner together," [Pastor Phil] Hunter said in a Sept. 1 interview with The Pathway. "[Albert] was sharing with me and my son, Josh, about an illustration he had heard when Christian apologist and popular author Ravi Zacharias spoke to the Cardinals on a trip to Atlanta. Zacharias said he once asked Billy Graham what he prays for every day."

Graham's reply: That he would do nothing that would jeopardize the things God had done in and through his life.

"What thrilled my heart," Hunter said, "was when Albert looked at me and asked me how long I had been a Christian. I told him 42 or 43 years." Pujols, picking up on what Graham had said, then asked Hunter: Did he realize that if he did anything wrong, it would undermine everything he had done since he became a Christian?
Jesus. If he did anything wrong, it would undermine everything he had done since he became a Christian? If those are the standards Albert holds himself to, both on and off the field, then you can begin to understand the sheer intensity of his mission.

JOHAN TUDOR Next time you look at Johan Santana's stats, make sure you keep your eyes from popping out of your skull. Since the All-Star break, he's 12-0 with a 1.16 ERA, with a 118/18 K/BB ratio in 93.1 innings. Whenever I see pitching dominance like this -- whether it's Pedro from '97-'00, or Unit from '99-'02 -- I always think of one guy: Dwight Gooden, specifically Gooden in 1985.

For those of you too young to see him, I just can't describe how overpowering Gooden was back then. His 1.53 ERA is still the second best since WWII (only Gibby in '68 was better), plus he was only 20 years old. Little did we know that 1985 would be far and away Gooden's peak season -- back then it seemed as if he he'd 300 victories (and not struggling through drug rehab) by his early 30's.

But Baseball Tonight recently came up with another comp for Johan Santana, and oddly enough, it's another pitcher from 1985 -- our very own John Tudor. You have to understand, John Tudor is my very favorite baseball player of all time. I don't even know why really. I guess I sorta empathized with the loneliness he exuded out on the mound, or maybe it was because he was always the only guy on the field who seemed to be getting as agitated at the ballgames as I was. Whatever it was, I never would have thought of him as a proto-Johan Santana. Tudor was an off-speed specialist; Santana can bring it. Tudor grew up a pale East Coaster; Santana is from Venezuela. Nevertheless, BBTN's comparison seems apt:

Tudor was a decent, but not dominant left-handed pitcher who had never won
more than 13 games in a season. He struggled mightily in the first two months of the [1985] season, and at the end of May, was 1-7 with a 3.74 ERA. Much like Santana's fortunes turned after a start against the Mets on June 9, so too did Tudor's on June 8, 1985 with a three-hit shutout against the team that would be the Cardinals' chief rival for the division title. That was the second win in an absolutely incredible stretch. Over the last four months of the season, Tudor went 20-1 with a 1.37 ERA, including 10 shutouts. He threw three straight shutouts to open the month of September, the last a 10-inning, 1-0 gem against the Mets (whose opposing starter was NL Cy Young winner Dwight Gooden) at Shea Stadium on Sept. 11 that moved the Cardinals into a first-place tie with New York. The Cardinals went on to win the NL East by three games.
Unfortunately we all know how Tudor's season ended. He twirled two masterpieces in Game 1 and Game 4 of the '85 World Series, then went belly-up in the finale, pitching his worst game in over four months when it counts most. I'd like to say I've gotten over it, but to tell you the truth I'm not so sure.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

BREAK OPEN THE BUBBLY Okay, so I'm a day late celebrating the Cards division title. But I gotta say, the whole affair was pretty ho-hum, and not nearly as thrilling and emotional as our last division title, when Scott Rolen speared a liner to seal the victory and the Cards lovingly hoisted Darryl Kile's jersey at midfield.

This year things were, well, odd. First there was that business about the Cards clinching (undeniably, mathematically) on Saturday, but withholding from celebrating because it wasn't in a manner fit for Tony La Russa. Then there was that kooky loss on Sunday at home, which meant the Cards had to go on the road, officially clinch when the Cubs dropped a game in Florida, and finally allow themselves to celebrate after a strange come-from-behind win before only 14,000 fans.

But there were still some genuine moments of revelry. My favorite was this tidbit from the Post-Dispatch:

After the game, a battery of players climbed Bernie's Dugout, the perch of Brewers mascot Bernie the Brewer, to pose for pictures and climb his yellow slide. Inside a darkened stadium, another team member swam beneath the sprinklers.
That reminds me of that joyous scene in Bull Durham, when the players create their own "rainout" by breaking onto the ballfield after dark, turning on all the sprinklers, and hamming it up with bellyflops in the mud. I just love picturing the current Cardinals (I'm guessing the revelers included our bullpen quartet of Kline, King, Tavarez, and Izzy) enjoying a rare moment of bliss after all the fans and concessionaires had gone home, leaving only the NL Central champions to drink in the moment.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

DOES SEPTEMBER MATTER? Of course September matters for teams in the playoff hunt -- in fact, it's a matter of life and death for the Cubs, Giants, A's, Angels, Padres, Astros, and (suddenly) Dodgers. But what about those teams that have been assured of playoff spots for some time now, teams like the Twins, Braves, and Cardinals? Do the last couple weeks of the regular season mean anything for them?

In one sense, the answer is no; it would be foolish to place much stock in how these teams are playing. Take the Cardinals -- every day at least one big starter gets a day off, La Russa is pulling his starters after five innings, So Taguchi and Hector Luna are getting regular starts, and guys like Randy Flores and Al Reyes are carrying heavy workloads out of the pen. Clearly this isn't the Cardinals team that raced to a massive 17-game lead in early September, nor is it the team that the Cards will likely field in the playoffs. In other words, consider the rest of the regular season like spring training -- pay less attention to wins and losses and more attention to the beautiful sights and sounds of the game.

And yet, I have trouble following my own advice. I still find myself rooting for the Cards to win most nights -- partly out of habit, partly out of a desire to match the all-time franchise win total of 106, and partly because I fear the team is going flat. I mean, it doesn't seem like a totally unreasonable fear. Some Cardinals are struggling mightily (Renteria is hitting only .183 this month, and Jason Marquis has given up 16 runs over his last 17 innings), while other Cardinals seem to be wearing down (Chris Carpenter with his strained biceps; Rolen with his strained calf). It's not like we're playing terrible or anything (we're 11-8 for the month), but it's hard to shake the impression that we aren't operating at full-on Redbirdosity. The fear is that our recent mini-funk is a harbinger of things to come, or that we'll be unable to summon our mojo in time for the playoffs.

Does this really happen? Do teams with big leads become too complacent? Does a poor record down the stretch spell doom when it comes to the playoffs?

To answer these questions, I invented a little study. I took all the teams that had made the playoffs since the '95 wild-card format, and tried to determine if their record in September had any bearing on their performance in October. I judged September records not in absolute terms, but in relation to the team's record coming into the final month of the season. For example, the '97 New York Yankees went 17-11 in the final month, which was pretty good, but normal compared to their 79-55 record over the first five months of the season (that's only an .018 difference in winning percentage between September and the rest of the year).

After determing the relative value of each team's September record, I put them into three different bins: playoff teams were either "rolling," "holding on," or "flailing." And I wanted there to be an equal number of teams in each bin so I could compare them pretty easily. The teams that were "rolling," then, were in the top third of September teams. The '95 Yanks improved the most, at 22-6 after playing only eight games above .500 going into the final month. Second best was the '01 Athletics, who went 23-4 down the stretch and were playing their best baseball of the season heading into the playoffs. (I don't want to give too much away, but you may note that both those teams lost in the first round of the playoffs.)

The teams that were "holding on" more or less played up to their expectations, with September winning percentages no more than .050 above or below the average of all teams in the study. And the "flailing" teams simply flailed. The worst September team of all was the '98 San Diego Padres, who played 40 games over .500 heading into September, but went only 9-15 in the last month of the regular season.

So without further ado, here's a breakdown of how those teams did when October rolled around:

SEPTEMBER    Lost in LDS   Lost in LCS   Lost in W.S.   Won W.S.

Rolling 14 8 1 1
Holding On 11 7 5 2
Flailing 11 3 3 6
I have to admit, I sorta expected that there would be no inherent advantage to pouring it on in the last few weeks of the season. But these results surprised me. They suggest that, if anything, the teams that seem to be flailing down the stretch actually do the best once they reach the playoffs. In fact, there seems to be an inverse relationship between September and October performances -- hot teams are more likely to go out in the first or second round; lukewarm teams are more likely than the other teams to make it to the World Series but fall short; and cold teams are the most likely to win it all.

This indicates to me that, on average, it's far more important to be rested heading into the playoffs than it is to be "playing on all cylinders." The 2000 season is a good illustration of this principle. That year the Oakland A's went 20-7 in September to overtake first Cleveland in the wild card chase, then Seattle for the division crown. They were playing their best baseball of the season, winning 18 of their final 24 games, and seemed like they were putting it all together and primed for a playoff run.

The '00 Yankees, on the other hand, were in a funk at the end of the season, losing their last 7 games and 15 of their last 18. Of course, they could afford to be complacent, having built a hefty 9-game division lead before their cold streak. But as the postseason began, I can distinctly remember pundits asking if the Yankees had dug themselves in too deep of a hole. Instead, they went on to knock off the red-hot A's in the ALDS, and eventually won their third straight World Series.

Of course, not every season works out that way, but it's not at all unusual. I did a similar study in which I looked only at teams that won their division by 8 or more games. There were 22 such teams since 1995, and the Twins, Braves, and Cardinals should be joining them after this year. You'll be happy to know that, as with the above study, I could find no evidence that these teams are in big danger of going soft in October. The hottest team in the study was the '96 Cleveland Indians, at 16-4 down the stretch -- they lost the ALDS in four games to the Orioles. The coldest team was, again, the '98 Padres, who went on to capture the National League flag. The '95-'96 Braves were also pretty weak over their last couple weeks, only 21-19 those two years combined. The '95 Braves, however, won the world title, and the '96 Braves fell just short. So much for staying sharp at the end of the regular season.

All of this tells me what you probably already know. That is, if you've won your division going away, it's okay to sit starters, to take it easy, to line up your rotation properly, and to rest injured players. History shows that good teams can turn it on for the playoffs, regardless of how they played at the end of the regular season. Conversely, a strong September might get you into the playoffs, but it won't necessarily keep you there. And that's good news for the Cardinals.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

"NO SHAMPOO TODAY" That's what Cards co-owner Drew Baur said after this afternoon's loss. The shampoo in question was essence of champagne, division champion variety. Technically the Cards have clinched the division, although Tony La Russa isn't convinced, and our magic number still stands at one for outright possession of the NL Central title.

The Cards split the six-game homestand and took two out of three from the D'backs, outscoring them 13-6, but while all that sounds okay on paper, the Cards still seem like they're in a real funk. Part of this is due to our opposition -- I mean, seriously, anything less than a sweep against the Diamondbacks is a little embarrassing. Check out the lineup they've been trotting out lately; I just can't recall anyone fielding a team this faceless:

1. Luis Terrero, CF
2. Alex Cintron, 2B
3. Danny Bautista, RF
4. Shea Hillenbrand, 1B
5. Chad Tracy, 3B
6. Chris Snyder, C
7. Josh Kroeger, LF
8. Jerry Gil, SS

On Friday the Cards somehow struggled to beat this team. Then on Saturday they won -- but it felt like a loss, on account of a biceps injury to ace Chris Carpenter (turns out he'll probably miss only one start). And then today the biggest question seemed to be whether the Cards would clinch by beating Arizona, or whether we'd clinch with the help of the Reds beating the Cubs. Neither came to pass.

The Cardinals are on pace for 106 wins; they have the best record in baseball; and they're just days away from clinching home-field advantage throughout the NL playoffs. And yet, amazingly enough, the mood around the ballpark seems almost funereal. The postgame article in the Post-Dispatch says no music played in the clubhouse after today's game, and while several players took turns apologizing for failing to clinch at home, La Russa griped to reporters who claimed the division was already sewn up. The Cardinals suddenly seem, without a doubt, the unhappiest champions in history.

I guess it's a bummer we didn't get to celebrate in front of the hometown fans, it's a bummer we lost to a AAA pitcher recovering from a torn labrum (Mike Gosling), and it's an even bigger bummer that Jeff Suppan has suddenly turned into a first-class weakling. But overall I'm not worried about our recent play. If we're still in a funk the last week of the regular season then I might be concerned.

In the meantime take heart in this quote from Alex Cintron about Rick Ankiel: "His curveball -- I've never faced anything like it in my life." When you consider some of the charleys that Cintron has faced already in his career -- David Wells, Ben Sheets, Josh Beckett -- that's definitely something to get excited about.

REDBIRD NATION MAILBAG A few items from our fine readers:

I'm not sure of when I first had this thought, but I wondered from time to time if LaRussa "played harder" later in the year... Not that it happened much this year, but other years it seemed like he would rest guys more often early. Once he has his team set, he gets into September and bears down. Now this year may be skewed because of the big lead, but I wonder if there are stats by month of the teams he's managed that shows his teams have an upswing in September. If that could be seen statisticaly, it might even make me think he's better then I think. I think. -- Dan McDowell
We've speculated on the causes behind La Russa's success in September before, but it seems to be a more recent phenomenon. Entering this season, TLR's Cardinals teams were 130-84 in Sept./Oct., which is nearly 100 winning percentage points better than his record in the first five months of the season.

In Oakland La Russa's A's were 143-124 in the final month (slightly worse than his overall record), and in Chicago he was 136-116 in September (slightly better than his overall record, but that's almost entirely due to a 24-6 mark in September '83). If you add all his teams together, he has a .558 winning percentage down the stretch vs. .522 in the other months.

But I wouldn't put too much stock in this. If you look at Tony's teams, you'll notice that the good ones tend to be very good in September, and the bad ones tend to be very bad. I've never studied this, but I would imagine that follows a general trend. Good teams have more to play for down the stretch, whereas bad teams trade away talent, give more playing time to untested rookies, and probably phone it in a bit more. The end result is centrifugal, with September standings more polarized than they'd be in the other months -- or so I'm guessing. La Russa has had mostly good teams in his career, which is why he might have a relatively improved record in September.

I was having a casual discussion with a friend about who the MVP should be, assuming it were to come from the Cards (which we both acknowledge probably won’t happen). I said it should be Edmonds, mainly because of his ~20 point lead in OBP over Albert and Scotty. He countered by bringing up Jimbo’s hefty strikeout total. I trotted out the lame argument that strikeouts aren’t all bad, and that grounding into a double play is one thing that’s worse. Then I decided to check my facts, and I was somewhat shocked. Pujols leads the team with 17, whereas Jimmy has the lowest total of all our full-timers. Then I looked a little deeper and found that Edmonds has only ground into 86 DPs in 5000+ career AB’s. Pujols, in his first 2300 AB’s, has 71 GIDP’s. I don’t know which is closer to the norm, but either Edmonds is amazing at avoiding the DP, or Pujols is extremely succeptible to it. -- John VonBokel
Now check out this email that I got the very same night:

Of the top 50 in MLB in total bases, Edmonds is #1 in fewest GIDP. -- Richard Lederer
Weird, isn't it? Two emails about a half-hour apart, both talking about how great Jedmonds is at avoiding the DP. And you know, I've never considered that one of Jimmy's strengths, but it makes absolute sense. I seriously can't call up one image of Edmonds grounding into a double play -- in fact, I don't recall him having to leg out grounders much at all. His groundball/flyball ratio is a miniscule 0.74, or 70th out of 78 qualifying National Leaguers. (But surprisingly it's not the lowest on the team -- Scott Rolen gets it in the air even more often.)

But that's not impressive in and of itself. Aramis Ramirez, for example, has the same 0.74 GB/FB ratio as Jimmy E., and he's grounded into a whopping 19 double plays. Edmonds, on the other hand, almost never hits into twin killings -- only 4 times all year. Baseball Prospectus keeps track of double plays as a percentage of opportunities (number of times a batter comes to the plate with a runner on first and fewer than two outs), and Jim Edmonds has grounded into 8.7 fewer DPs than you'd expect from an average player in his situation. That's the second best figure in all of baseball, behind only Bobby Abreu, who has some serious wheels. It's yet one more reason to bow before the greatness that is Jimmy Jedmonds.

What's up with Milton Bradley? I was sitting a few rows behind the Cardinals dugout [last Sunday], and in the 8th inning Bradley grounded out. He took his time getting back to the dugout, and apparently something must have been said by one or a number of the Cardinals players, because once he got back to the dugout, he started screaming and yelling toward the Cardinals and then flipped them the bird. I'm sure LaRussa will not forget the tirade should the two teams meet in the playoffs. -- Tom Esswein
Bradley flicked off the Cardinals last week? Did anyone else know about this? Bradley was plunked by Woody Williams the day before, so maybe that had something to do with his anger. More likely it was because Bradley is one crazy em-effer.

Finally, last week I mentioned the difference between Matt Morris' performances when he was coming off of light and heavy workloads. I was not the first person to notice this trend, and said as much in my post, but I couldn't recall whose idea it was. Well, I've discovered the person who deserves credit -- a great Cards fan named Paul Gardner. Considering I got credit for the stat over at Baseball Prospectus, the least I could do is attribute Paul here.

WALK YEAR The Cardinals have announced that they won't resign any potential free agents before the end of the season, which means several players on the team will be eligible for FA after the seasons ends: Morris, Renteria, Womack, Matheny, Lankford, Eldred, Kline, Mabry, and Marlon Anderson.

I'd care if we lost all those guys, but I wouldn't care much if we lost any one of them. Morris will probably ask for more than he's worth. Womack is handy, in part because he's played good ball, in part because he's cheap, but he becomes less useful the less cheap he gets. As for Matheny, well, I'm still not convinced Molina is ready for prime-time play (the guy just has no pop whatsoever -- check out that .276 slugging average), but I've never liked Matheny as a starter (especially one making $4 mil a year). Lankford, Marlon Anderson -- shrug. Mabry has been a very nifty bench player, but like Womack, his solid play may have priced him out of our budget. I'd like to see Eldred and Kline around, but Flores, Cali, and (depending on whether he's ready to start) Ankiel could probably fill their spots adequately.

That leaves Renteria as (no surpise) the big question mark. Which is the real Edgar Renteria -- the one who had the greatest offensive season by a Cardinals shortstop since Rogers Hornsby in 1917, or the one who currently trails Julio Lugo and Cesar Izturis in OPS? One theory is that Renteria is doing poorly precisely because he's in a walk year. La Russa has hinted as much, and Renteria's recent performance (a 2-for-33 tailspin, a shocking number of dropped ground balls, getting picked off the other night) certainly suggests his mind is elsewhere. But my general belief is that these psychological explanations only go so far -- and besides, if a guy's psyche is so fragile that his contract status overwhelms his play, then surely that's a strike against him.

It's situations like this that make me thankful I'm a fan and not a GM. It's possible Renteria will be able to land $40 million for 5 years in the offseason -- that's great if he plays like he did in 2003, but much too steep if he plays like he did in 2004. I'm inclined to think he's better than this year suggests (I'm also inclined not to see Hector Luna's name on the lineup card every day), but it's a tough call. Worse yet, if we don't sign Renteria, one of our division rivals might:

A windfall of almost $30 million between Sosa and Alou, whose $11.5 million option likely won't be exercised, would allow [the Cubs] to pursue the free-agent likes of J.D. Drew and Magglio Ordonez, if not exorbitantly priced Carlos Beltran. In desperate need of a closer, general manager Jim Hendry will find Armando Benitez on the market. There also is the question of Nomar Garciaparra, who may have too many nagging injuries to merit a sizable long-term investment, meaning Hendry may have to use big money to steal Edgar Renteria from St. Louis.
Word is that Nomar now wants to play in California (where his wife lives), plus Hendry has a relationship with Renteria dating back to his days working in the Marlins system. So it's not at all implausible to see Renteria in Chicago blue next year. As if you needed any other reasons to root against the Cubs...

GREAT EXPECTATIONS Bernie Miklasz passes along this item in his latest Bits column:

Speaking on the ESPN morning show, "Cold Pizza", columnist Skip Bayless offered this analysis of the Cardinals' postseason prospects: "Their biggest plus is the fans of St. Louis, but I think they become a minus in the postseason, because they put too much pressure on the home team. And I don't think that team will be able to live up to it and will crumble under huge expectations."
What on earth is Bayless talking about? How exactly do the fans of St. Louis put too much pressure on the Cardinals in the postseason? What does it look like? What does it feel like? Is it any different than the kind of pressure they put on the team in the regular season? How do the Cardinals react to it?

If anyone has any guesses, please pass them along, but I suspect this is just Bayless talking out of his ass.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

THE WAITING "You don't want to surgarcoat it," said Tony La Russa. "Bad ballgame." The Cards have had a string of bad ballgames lately, dropping their third straight series. The last time we dropped even two straight series was... are you ready for this?... April 28th!

So yeah, we're slipping a bit. This poses particular problems for a blogger. I mean, you don't want to overreact to something that's not a problem. The Cards are still 14.5 up, and they've basically sewn up both the division and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. If our problems are temporary -- say, we're simply losing our focus (have you noticed how many times Edgar Renteria has dropped easy groundballs lately?), or we're merely nursing injuries -- then there's no reason to complain, just as long as we can regain our sharpness by the time October rolls around.

Then again, there's always a little voice in the back of your head (or at least in the back of my head) that says we're acting out some version of the Peter Principle, that we've risen to our level of incompetence. Is there any evidence for this? Well, we've all heard about our Achilles heel of a pitching staff, how they're not durable enough to whether the hurricane season that comes around every autumn. And indeed, some recent outings might give you pause:

Chris Carpenter, 9 runs in his last 12 innings
Matt Morris, 9 runs in his last 9 innings (although that does include one good start)
Jason Marquis, 12 runs allowed in his last 12 innings
Jeff Suppan, 9 runs in his last 8.2 innings

All in all our starting pitchers have surrendered 43 runs in their last 51.2 innings pitched. Not good. But again: is that because they've lost their focus (I mean, why wring yourself dry when you've got such a big cushion?), or are they genuinely hitting a wall? Who knows?

In fact, there may be no scenario that would make us (or me, anyway) completely comfortable. For example, imagine everyone in our rotation were pitching lights-out baseball. Isn't it possible that we'd then wonder if they were burning themselves out, failing to pace themselves. The bottom line is that nothing that happens now matters much at all. We won't know anything until the playoffs start, and as Tom Petty once sang, "the waiting is the hardest part..."

[A quick administrative note: I've been swamped with other commitments lately, hence my light blogging. I hope to correct this soon, but bear with me if I'm a bit AWOL the next couple days. Thanks.]