On the outside looking in

kolten_wong_2017

In the first game of a double header against the Blue Jays, the Cardinals played the field the way I want them to play it the rest of the year. The results were mixed.

The positions were as follows: Molina behind the plate, Carpenter at first, Wong at second, Gyorko at third, Diaz at short, Jose Martinez in left, Fowler in center and Piscotty in right.

Through two innings Diaz made a competent play in the hole and Gyorko made a barehanded play up the line. Wong also committed an error on a ball hit up the middle.

Thus far, the Cardinals have committed nearly an error per game. The Cardinals committed 107 errors in 2016, the sixth worst mark in the majors. Atlanta, Cincinnati and Oakland all played better defense.

I believe the reason the Cardinals were so bad last year, and have been even worse on defense this season, is that the team is not playing a regular defensive lineup. As an example, Diaz made a diving stop on two-foot hop about 7 feet from the second base bag in the game on Tuesday. He gets up, hesitates and then throws the ball past the outstretched glove of Martinez. The error goes to Diaz, but Rick Horton commented that Martinez should have gotten off the bag and played the ball, sacrificing an out for security.

Carpenter may have made that play. Matt Adams probably would have made that play. Martinez has never played first in his pro career and he is under the added pressure of trying to prove himself in the big leagues. Diaz is still a young player and he should be throwing to the same guy in nearly every game.

With a set lineup, certain position players will be on the outside looking in. Well, I have an opinion about who those players should be.

Jhonny Peralta

 Jhonny is on the disabled list with a torn ligament in his thumb. I think he should be the next victim of the curse of Wally Pipp. Jedd Gyorko is a better player than Peralta in every way.

Last year in 289 at bats, Peralta hit .260 with 8 homers, 29 RBI and 37 runs. His on base was .307 and his slugging was .408.

Gyorko in 400 at bats hit .243 with 30 homers, 59 RBI and 58 runs. His on base was .306 and his slugging was .495. Jedd is off to a hot start this season, hitting .340 with 3 home runs.

You would think that Peralta being a converted short stop he would be a better fielder, but Gyorko has just as much range and more consistent hands.

Randal Grichuk

 There’s a scene in “The Natural” where Pop Fisher is talking to Bump Bailey, trying to convince Bailey that he better shape up because Roy Hobbs is going to take his job. I hope Mike Matheny has already had this conversation with Randal Grichuk.

There is no indication that Jose Martinez is going to stop hitting. He’s currently batting .375, more than 100 points better than Grichuk. Martinez deserves Grichuk’s job in left field.

Unlike Gyorko and Peralta, Grichuk is a much better defensive player than Martinez. While a good athlete at 6-foot-5, Martinez has looked very stiff in the outfield. Grichuk could play major league center field.

But, Martinez is much better in left than at first. The Cardinals were willing to put up with an occasional brain fart from Matt Holliday. I am willing to bet that Martinez defensive play will smooth out with regular playing time.

Matt Adams

 I feel bad for Matt Adams because the guy has worked really hard. He lost a ton of weight in the offseason and he looked sharp in spring training. However, Matt Carpenter has to play somewhere and the best option is at first base.

Adams, 28, has had plenty of opportunities over the past three seasons to win the first base job and he has failed to hit consistently. Teams need their first baseman to hit and hit both lefties and righties.

On the other hand …

 In the first game of the double header on Thursday, Kolten Wong committed an error and made a bonehead, base-running mistake by the sixth inning. Wong hit a double and then got picked off by Russell Martin at second.

Kolten Wong is the guy I want to step up. It was my feeling that the constant platooning over the past couple of seasons hurt him more than any other player. His talent at the plate and in the field is undeniable.

Of any of the Cardinals that can play second base, he has the most range. The team can’t wait forever and there may be a point where playing Greg Garcia every day may be the better options. Garcia’s ceiling is much, much lower, but he does not make these types of mistakes.

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Transaction Traction

heyward

It’s become about a every other month tradition. The Cardinals make some type of trade. I don’t like it and whine but eventually except it.

It’s a little bit different this time though. With this most recent trade I really do understand the logic, even though I’m still not completely on board.

The trade with the Atlanta Braves was that the Birds sent Shelby Miller and pitching prospect Tyrell Jenkins to Atlanta for Jason Heyward and reliever Jordan Waldon.

Let’s just throw Waldon out right now. He was the extra cheese on this trade pizza. Any reliever (any reliever) who is not a closer is only so valuable. But, Heyward is the type of guy you take a chance on. He’s only 25 years old and his numbers aren’t awful — .262 average, 20 homers, 153 hits and 87 runs, nothing to scoff at. He’s been disappointing considering his pedigree, especially taking into a account that he’s a power hitter playing in a hitter’s park. In comparison, Justin Upton’s numbers are only marginally better.

The trend recently with baseball is that pitching is the more available resource. Teams have scratched together competent rotations without having a bonafide ace. I would say both teams in the ALCS fit that bill. God help me because I’m about to say something positive about the Cubs, but the Cubbies, under the tutelage of ace GM Theo Epstein, have a smart franchise building strategy. With a variety of great starting pitchers in the league, the Little Bears have stocked up on hitting prospects. Everyone suspects the Northsiders will now use their molding mounds of cash on any one of the available starters on the market — Max Scherzer or Jon Lester as just two examples.

Heyward is also just like Oscar Taveras, smooth lefty power hitter, pretty good fielder. Obviously the Birds don’t think Randal Grichuk is ready to take over in right full time (plus he’s center field insurance if Jon Jay regresses). The downside (or upside if you think Grichuk just needs one more season of incubation) is that we only have Heyward locked up for just one year.

Still, the baseball traditionalist in me does not like the Cardinals giving up on young starters with good stuff. Miller wasn’t great last year but he wasn’t bad either. It was a decided advantage going forward that the Redbirds could throwout Miller and Wacha for years to come. With Jenkins, who was drafted the year after Miller, the Cardinals have three opportunities to get burned by pitchers; that includes Joe Kelly in Boston.

JD_drew

This current trade with Atlanta reminds me of another swap with the Braves back in 2003. That offseason the Cardinals traded young, talented, power-hitting, smooth-fielding right fielder JD Drew and backup catcher Eli Marrero for two pitchers. Those pitchers were Jason Marquis, who won 15 games multiple times as the Cardinals built a NL Central winning machine in the middle aughts, and Adam Wainwright, who has now won 20 games twice. I think the Braves wish they could have that trade back especially because Drew only played with them one year (albeit a very good season for the oft injured pretty boy).

Adjusting a little bit for the difference in eras, Drew and Heyward’s numbers at that point are very similar. Pluses though for Heyward is that he is younger and has been injured less.

Tyrell Jenkins is not as lauded as Adam Wainwright. Waino was the Braves best prospect at that point and was already in double A. Thus far Jenkins has not risen above single A, but was impressive in the Arizona Fall League. There is a very good chance, that with a new team, Miller is at least serviceable if not ace level. If Jenkins hits too, the Cardinals lose that trade regardless of what Heyward does.

Well, I’ll qualify that. If Heyward hits .300 with 30 homers and the Cardinals win the World Series next year, I won’t care what Miller and Jenkins do. If Heyward can hit 30 home runs, again somewhat dubious because he’s moving to a pitcher’s park, it’s worth resigning him — although, hopefully at something reasonable.

Obviously no one knew Taveras was going to die in the Dominican before the World Series even ended but I think it’s worth mentioning how all these trades relate. Although John Lackey helped the Cardinals get to the playoffs and past the first round, he is what he is. As Jalen Rose always says, Father Time remains undefeated. Lackey is only going to get worse. Along with Kelly, the Cardinals also gave up Allen Craig, who could play right field.

The Lackey, Craig and Kelly deal

That's Joe Kelly pranking STL rapper Nelly. Kelly and Allen Craig were locker room favorites.

That’s Joe Kelly pranking STL rapper Nelly. Kelly and Allen Craig were locker room favorites.

I hate the trade the Cardinals made acquiring John Lackey and single A pitcher Corey Littrell from the Boston Red Sox. The Redbirds gave up Allen Craig and Joe Kelly.

I have an emotional reaction to this deal, so I’ll get that out of the way first. Are we trying to get rid of all the guys from the 2011 World Series team that I love? Albert, Craig, Freese, Furcal, Edwin Jackson, Kyle Lohse, Chris Carpenter, Skip Schumacker, Lance Berkman and Ryan Theriot are all gone. I know a lot of those couldn’t be helped but I thought Craig and Freese were part of the young core going forward, those were building blocks.

All that being said, I understand getting rid of Craig. Matt Adams is five years younger and having a great season at first base, hitting .315. Oscar Taveras is eight years younger and a mega prospect we have to play in right field.

And Craig has been horrible this season, hitting .237. In fairness, I think the move to right field has messed with Allen Craig. Second, you’re telling me he couldn’t be valuable as a pinch hitter in the playoffs? Third, we’re losing a veteran position player and replacing him with one of the guys famous for eating chicken and drinking beer with the Red Sox.

Yadi is coming back at some point and he’s an amazing leader. After Yadi though, you have Matt Holliday (who has never struck me as a great leader), Jhonny Peralta (ditto), Jon Jay and Matt Carpenter (neither of whom I’m sure are ready for that role) for veteran leaders. The chemistry of this team has been off this season and I don’t think this move helps.

However, the Joe Kelly decision is the real puzzler here. I’ve never liked John Lackey much but I’ll be fair. Lackey is an older version of Lance Lynn. He does not have great stuff but he is durable and consistent. He’s never had an ERA under 3.00, coming close in 2007 at 3.01, but most of the time he has an ERA around 3.50. This season his field independent pitching is better than his ERA, which is a good sign. We also get him for two years.

But he’s 35 years old; Joe Kelly is 26. Kelly is a valuable player right now, either in the rotation or in the pen. Kelly has great stuff, a fastball that moves and dirty breaking pitches. Joe Kelly’s problem is that he didn’t throw enough strikes and that’s fixable. I wasn’t ready to give up on Kelly as a starter. I would not be surprised at all if he’s like Ervin Santana: starts throwing strikes consistently and becomes a beast.

I think Kelly is going to haunt us. This trade reminds me of the Mark Mulder and Dan Haren swap. Haren was languishing in the back end of our rotation before becoming an ace in multiple stops hence.

Then again, I guess Mulder has a ring from 2006 and Haren does not.

La Russa to the Hall of Fame

Carlos Beltran Striking Out

Tony La Russa is really one of two managers I’ve known as a Cardinals fan. I would say my sports consciousness starts in 1996 with the Cardinals team that made an improbable run to the post season.

I’m a pretty big fan of TLR. His greatness is undeniable: three world series, second all time in wins and he made the playoffs with the Cardinals 10 out of 16 years.

Some Cardinal fans still think Whitey Herzog was a better manager but I have to point to the score board on that one. La Russa has two rings, not one.

I believe Tony La Russa’s greatest accomplishment as a Cardinal skipper was his management of the Cardinals bullpen during the 2006 playoffs.

That season the bullpen was a considerable weak point, even before Jason Isringhausen went on the DL. By carefully playing the match ups, La Russa turned a hodge podge group of also-rans into world beaters.

First, Adam Wainwright is the only one still in the league. All the rest of the guys were either out of baseball by 2011 or dead. La Russa saw what it took in Waino to be a shut down closer and that worked out with spectacular results (see the picture above).

Braden Looper, who made me hold my breath every time he came in, was a very serviceable setup man during the playoffs.

Tyler Johnson, for one brief shining moment, was a tank against lefties. He basically only threw sliders but it didn’t matter because it was unhittable.

The two Josh’s Hancock and Kinney served as twin right hand table setters. Randy Flores and Brad Thompson were good in spots.

The Cardinals finished 83-78 considerable bellow their talent level but still it took deft managing from La Russa to win that World Series.

Second Half Keys for the Cardinals

Mike Matheny has managed his way to consecutive postseason appearances, once to the NLCS and last year getting all the way to the World Series. However, those teams were loaded. This year’s team is too, but injuries and offensive struggles have increased the degree of difficulty.

How the Birds finish this season will go a long way to determining my confidence in the young Cardinal Skipper.

1. Figure out what to do with the outfield
oscar_taveras

The Dodgers are getting all the attention right now for their bonkers outfield situation and rightly so because it is ridiculous. One current all-star (Yasiel Puig), three former all-stars (Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp), a lanky legacy kid with speed and pop (Scott Van Slyke) and a hot prospect with a great name (Joc Pederson) are vying for three spots.

But the Cardinals situation is almost as crazy. Holliday is entrenched in left, no one is usurping him, especially when he’s the only one on the team hitting with runners in scoring position this season (although his average is only .265 and he’s hit just 8 home runs, his average jumps up to .359 with runners in scoring position).

The other two positions are up for grabs. The plan at the beginning of the season was for Allen Craig to succeed Carlos Beltran in right. That plot was spoiled when Craig started the season hitting sub-Mendoza. His average is only .242 now and his on base is below .300.

The backup plan was for super prospect Oscar Taveras to to take that spot. The dude hits like a monster at Memphis but in 27 games is hitting .205 with a single (while majestic) homer.

The idea in center field back in April was that Peter Bourjos was in line for that gig after being acquired in the David Freese trade. In 73 games, Bourjos is hitting .228 with an on base below .300.

Jon Jay has been one of the best stories of the year. He gets crapped on by everyone during the playoffs (including me) for his shoddy defense and his minimalist hitting. He’s hitting .289 with an on base of .347.

I support what Matheny has done so far, which is exactly what La Russa would do, and that is play everyone. Bourjos is the fastest and best defender of the three, Jay’s a lefty, so a lefty starter and Bourjos plays. Taveras has been playing more lately but he’s left handed and Craig is right handed, setting up another platoon situation.

I want to see it go even further. Let’s play both center fielders together a little. I wouldn’t mind seeing Taveras playing a little bit of center. I would work Holliday in and out a little bit.

2. Got to get something out of the back end of the rotation.
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You know what you’re getting out of both Adam Wainwright and Lance Lynn at this point. Waino is going to be great. Even after a shaky start on Tuesday against Tampa, he has 12 wins, an ERA of 2.02, FIP of 2.59, 119 Ks and he leads the league in home runs per nine innings at .3.

Lynn is just solid: 11 wins, 3:05 ERA and 117 Ks. He’s walked too many guys this year but that’s my only complaint.

After that is a little bit of a crap shoot. Joe Kelly has only pitched in five games but has been good with two Ws and a 2.82 ERA. Carlos Martinez has only started seven games and has been shakier with an ERA of 4.57 and 30 walks. Shelby Miller has pitched 19 games is 7-8 with a 4.25 ERA and he’s given up 12 homers. Jaime Garcia is out for the season to the surprise of no one.

Michael Wacha is coming back soon and he’s shown no indication he’s not going to be good — ERA of 2.59, WHIP of 1.12 and works entertainingly fast. The question is which one of those three guys — Martinez, Kelly and Miller — do you drop down? Yesterday, Matheny decided to move Miller back into the rotation and Martinez back to the pen.

Martinez is the best reliever of the three, a definite weapon there, but I worry about his long term maturation if he’s in the pen too long. The league is littered with setup guys — Joel Zumaya is one that jumps into my head — that never became anything else. He’s too talented to waste as anything other than a starter or closer.

But there might be a confidence crisis brewing with Shelby Miller. After starting last season like a house on fire, Miller collapsed down the stretch and openly pouted about losing his starting role in the playoffs. So I support this decision. If Miller collapses again, I have no problem with Martinez permanently taking his spot in the rotation. I hope he figures it out and becomes the beast he was early in 2013.

3. Do some creative things to help the team on defense
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The picture above is second baseman Kolten Wong committing an error, which I feel like happens every time I watch the team. He’s only committed seven errors this season, but it feels like more.

At least Wong makes up his sometimes shaky glove work with good range. His infield mate Jhonny Peralta has eight errors and is down grade in range to Pete Kozma. He makes up for this with by hitting 14 home runs.

Yadi is out until September (Wah, wah. That’s me crying) so there is a massive down grade defensively at catcher. Matt Carpenter, who I would be the best infielder of the group, has nine errors at third. Matt Adams, while improving, is not a good defensive first baseman. Matt Holliday is historically shaky in left; Craig has struggled in right.

My doomsday view of the defense is a little exaggerated. The Birds have committed the fifth fewest errors in the majors.

However, the way to make up for defenders who aren’t that good is to both shift and platoon. Every left handed hitter, we should be shifting the infield (especially because Carpenter has good range at third). I also want to see Carpenter play some second base. We’ve still got Daniel Descalso and Mark Ellis.

4. We have to beat up on bad teams.
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We start out with the Cubs and Padres in the next two series. I want sweeps of both.

5. trade_stanton

I like Giancarlo Stanton but even if he were available, the Cardinals should not trade anyone. We shouldn’t go after David Price; we shouldn’t go after Cliff Lee. No one.

Historically, when you give prospects at the deadline, you will regret it. The Cardinals built the best farm system in the baseball while consistently contending. Let’s not do anything drastic.

My Favorite Dave Duncan Reclamation Projects

As a St. Louis Cardinals fan, I miss Dave Duncan’s wizardry as a pitching coach. For all accounts, Derek Lilliquist has done a fine job since Tony La Russa and Duncan retired but Duncan is the greatest pitching coach ever. La Russa once called him the Albert Pujols of pitching coaches; in retrospect that was an understatement.

Duncan’s specialty was getting the most out of pitching cast offs. He did this with great fame in Oakland but I’m going to focus on Cardinals guys.

5. Darryl Kile
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Kile went 8-13 with a 6.61 ERA, 116 strikeouts and 109 walks in his last season in Colorado. His FIP was 5.98 because he gave up 33 home runs. His WHIP was 1.752.

His first season in St. Louis, he went 20-9, with an ERA of 3.91, 192 strikeouts and 52 walks. His WHIP dropped to 1.175 and his FIP to 4.24 even though he still gave up 33 homeruns (striking out way more guys helps that).

Kile’s resurgence was as much about getting out of Denver as Duncan’s expertise. The thin Mile-High air messes with curveballs and Kile’s 12-6er was always his best pitch. The difference in amount of strikes thrown is significant. Pounding the zone was always a Dave Duncan staple.

Who knows if Kile would have kept that up; he died just three years later.

4. Matt Morris
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Morris was the first guy I remember ever coming back strong after Tommy John Surgery. He sat out all of 1999 and most of 2000. Next year he rattles off a 22-8 record, 3.16 ERA, 185 strikeouts, 3.05 FIP and 1.257 WHIP.

I’m not sure if many people remember but Morris when he came up threw ridiculously hard, like 98 mph. He had to change the way he pitched after the surgery. He threw way more curveballs afterwards and generally worked the corners with his fastball.

3. Woody Williams
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This is the classic case because it involved an in season transformation.

Woody in San Diego in 2001: 8-8, 4.97 ERA, 102 Ks, 1.428 WHIP and 5.02 FIP.
Woody in St. Louis: 7-1, 2.28 ERA, 76 Ks, 1.055 WHIP and 3.76 FIP.

In this case, Duncan taught Williams a sinker, which the red-haired hurler through very often henceforth.

2. Jeff Weaver
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Weaver was not a very good regular season pitcher for the Birds. In 2006, he went 5-4 with a 5.18 ERA.

It’s what he did in the post season though as to why he’s included in this list. Second only to La Russa’s mastery of a maligned bullpen, Weaver was the most improbable thing during that World Series run. He won three games that year in the playoffs, including one in the series against Detroit. His overall ERA was less than 2.00.

The Jeff Weaver story is fascinating to me. He was a fireballer with an unorthodox deliver –wild leg kick — and an unruly blond mane when he was young. His best season was 2002 with Detroit and the Yankees: he went 11-11 with a 3.54 ERA and 132 strikeouts. He was 6-8 for Detroit which was an accomplishment for what was one of the worst teams ever at the time.

The Yankees messed him up though. They changed his delivery and made him cut his hair. He bounced around after that and didn’t have an ERA under 4.00 again.

I really think Dave Duncan got him to revert back to the old Jeff Weaver, just wing it up there and we’ll live with the consequences, if only for a short period of time.

1. Chris Carpenter
2ChrisCarpenter

Carpenter was a decent pitcher in Toronto, but he never had an ERA under 4.00. After he had Tommy John, the Cardinals picked him up. In 2004 he went 15-4 with a 3.46 ERA and 152 strikeouts. The next year he went 21-5 with a 2.83 ERA, 213 strikeouts, 1.055 WHIP and 2.90 FIP. He went on to have one of the best careers of any Cardinals pitcher.

I think the Dave Duncan adjustment here was to get Carpenter to take a little off his velocity, not have every pitch be perfect and then throw a lot more strikes. His last season in Toronto he walked 75 batters. He averaged 48 walks per season as a Cardinal. At the same time, he averaged 177 strikeouts per year with the Red Birds.

And he’s one of the best postseason pitchers ever, crucial in both the 2006 and 2011 World Series wins.

I’m a homer but if you gave me a choice of Chris Carpenter or Roy Halladay, one-time Toronoto teammates, right at the beginning of their careers, I would pick Carpenter even though he did not have as spectacular numbers.