Friday, December 18, 2009

2010 Team Analysis: St. Louis Cardinals

St. Louis Cardinals:

2009 Record: 91-71

General Manager: John Mozeliak

Manager: Tony La Russa

Organizational Philosophy: after the firing of former GM Walt Jocketty many wondered if this would point to the end of Tony La Russa's clout within the organization.  Jocketty and longtime manager La Russa were considered allies and usually one didn't make a decision before getting an okay with the other but the recent hire of Mark McGuire as the hitting instructor does signify that La Russa may have more say than one may think.

Since John Mozeliak was hired after the 2007 season, the Cardinals have become much more dependent on acquiring and cultivating young prospects in order to supplement their roster.  Last season, the team made major moves in order to acquire Matt Holliday and Mark DeRosa in order to fill needs in the INF and OF and in the middle of the lineup after Rick Ankiel suffered a major neck injury.  This season may force Mozeliak to either go big for a big free agent or look to sign a short-term option until their battered farm system can regroup and produce prospects that are ready.  My guess is that the team will go for the latter in order to not derail their current (original) philosophy.

2010 Commitments:

Starting Rotation:

Chris Carpenter ($14.5M)
Adam Wainwright ($4.8M)
Kyle Lohse ($9.1M)
Brad Penny ($7.5M)
Jamie Garcia ($400K)

After losing the last two seasons to injury, Chris Carpenter seems to be back as he tries to salvage the extension he signed after the 2006 season.  Carpenter has two seasons left on his contract including a club option worth $15 M in 2012.  Last season, Carp put together a Cy Young worthy season.  His K rate was down a little bit from his previous levels (6.73 in 2009 compared to 7.93 in '05) but his command was still sharp and as he enters his age 35 season he should be able to revisit something close to his peak seasons.  Cardinal fans should be happy about this.

Even better news is how Adam Wainwright pitched last season.  2009 was a breakout season for this long promising RHP and with increases in his K/9 and GB%, Wainwright pitched like a bonafide #1 starter.  Wainwright depends on his slider and curveball combo and since his velocity isn't exactly overwhelming, he does induce a high number of swings outside the strike zone.  Looking at next season, I'm expecting Wainwright to pitch at a level very similar to last season and should pair up nicely as an excellent 1-2 punch with Carp in 2010.

The rest of the rotation rounds out with Kyle Lohse, a mediocre righty who is currently being rewarded with an expensive contract after posting a career season in 2008.  Looking over Lohse's numbers one sees a pitcher with good control but his below average fastball does tend to get him in trouble from time to time.  In his defense, Lohse did suffer from a chronically fatigued forearm but I don't see him getting above slightly-below league average next season.

Brad Penny was signed to a very shrewd one year contract this offseason.  Many pundits are praising this transaction and should provide this rotation with the necessary depth after Joel Pineiro seemingly priced himself out of the Cardinals range.  Last season, Penny struggled with Boston after returning from shoulder surgery the season before.  His fastball velocity was down but in the final few months his fastball seemed to come back to life and moving over to the NL Central should help allow him to throw 180 quality innings.

Rookie Jamie Garcia struggled with elbow problems a few seasons ago before undergoing surgery after the 2008 season. Garcia pitched well in 21 AAA IP but did give up 5 HR's in that brief span.  My guess is that the Cardinals would like to give this 22 year old lefty a little more seasoning before installing in the rotation.

Lance Lynn has been fast tracked since drafted in 2008, last season he made his debut in AAA and should get a chance to make the team this spring.  Lynn is considered the top prospect in the Cardinal organization according to some publications.  If Lynn can consistently keep the ball on the ground like he did in the minors last season he'll probably be on the Cardinal roster sometime in 2010 and projects, at best, as a future #3 starter.


Ryan Franklin ($3M)
Jason Motte ($400K)
Dennys Reyes ($2M)
Kyle McClellan ($400K)
Trever Miller ($2M)
Mitchell Boggs ($400K)
Blake Hawksworth ($400K)
Josh Kinney ($405K)

Ryan Franklin racked up a lot of saves in his first full season as the team's primary closer.  The Cardinals were hesitant to commit to Franklin for most of the season and, despite going 38 for 43 in total saves with a 1.92 ERA last season, maybe the Cardinals were right by tempering their enthusiasm.

A lot of times we find closers to be either lucky or unlucky due to the various situations and small sample sizes. We saw a complete turnaround from the Phillies Brad Lidge who was incredibly dominant in 2008 but couldn't seem to keep the ball in the park last season.  The Former Pittsburgh Pirate Matt Capps seemed like an excellent find in 2007 and 2008 by striking out a fair number of batters and showing exceptional command (his BB/9 in 2008 was an incredible 0.84) but his tendency to live and die by the flyball caught up with him last season as more FB's were converted into HR's in 2009.

Getting past the high number of saves, elite ERA and intimidating (?) beard in 2009, Franklin seems destined to disappoint many Cardinal fans next season.  His career of low strikeouts, fair number of walks (his K/BB rate does average out to a mediocre 1.50) as well as benefiting from a fluky BABIP and high strand rate points to this bearded closer as being the "inevitable regression to the mean" candidate next season.  However, there is a bright side to all this: his newly acquired and heavily utilized cutter did perform as a plus pitch last season and should continue to baffle opposing hitters next season but just expect the ERA and HR/9 to go up a bit next season.

After losing the closer role early in his rookie season, Jason Motte may get the opportunity to win it back in 2010.  Motte has an elite fastball that easily dominated minor league hitters but the straight trajectory of it as well as his difficulty to keep it down in the zone got him into trouble against better hitters.  The key to Motte's future success depends on his developing slider which has plus potential yet last season he had some trouble keeping its vertical movement consistent (especially against right-handed batters).

Dennys Reyes is the career LOOGY now given the occasional opportunity to close games since the Cardinals refused to label themselves with an official closer last season.  Reyes is a bonafide groundball specialist who tends to struggle with his control.  When the bullpen eventually sorts itself out, expect Reyes to compete with Trever Miller as the main LHP Cardinal reliever.

Speaking of Trever Miller, here is another journey man thrown into more high leverage situations than expected last season.  Miller has excellent K rates and fooled more batters than usual in 2009.  I would expect a slight regression next season as BABIP rates and BB/9 rise to previously established levels.

On the right-handed side, 25 year old Kyle McClellan has graduated to the bullpen but control problems has kept this GB pitcher from being considered elite.

Mitchell Boggs is another Cardinal groundball specialist brought up as a starter but relegated to mop-up duty in the bullpen after showcasing below average stuff and control.  Last season, Boggs traded in his promising curveball for his underperforming slider and the results were... meh. 

The last two pitchers, Blake Hawksworth and Josh Kinney, are more of the same: GB specialists who succeeded in the keeping the ball in the park in 2009 despite lousy control.  Some of that success can be attributed to luck and I would be surprised if next season this same corps of junkball pitchers throw up stats half as good.

On the field:

C: Yadir Molina ($4.3M)
C: Jason LaRue ($950K)
1B: Albert Pujols ($16M)
2B: Skip Schumaker ($430K)
SS: Brendan Ryan ($400K)
SS: Julio Lugo ($9.25M; salary to be paid by the Boston Red Sox)
3B: David Freese ($400K)
3B: Tyler Greene ($400K)
LF: ?
CF: Colby Rasmus ($400K)
RF: Ryan Ludwick ($3.7M)

Yadier Molina has seen his peripheral hitting stats quietly rise in the last three seasons.  He won't hit for much power but he has shown to be an excellent contact hitter along with developing some patience at the plate.  He doesn't hit a lot of flyballs and the number of doubles he hits are average, so don't expect any developing power as he enters next season at the age of 28 but his skillset is more than adequate for the position he plays.

Jason LaRue and Matt Pagnozzi will fight it out to see who spells Molina a day off every now and then.  Last season, LaRue seemed to hit a wall offensively as his below average contact rate and tendencies to chase balls outside the strikezone plauged him with career lows in BB% and K%.  LaRue did sign a one year contract extension at the end of last month so it looks as though the Cardinals have chosen their man.

Pagnozzi is expected to start the season in AAA and try to figure out how to bring his strikeout totals to a more respectable level. There is a club op

Albert Pujols is a God! and the main thing the Cardinal front office should be thinking about is how it will be possible to retain his services after the 2010 season.  The team does have a club option that will keep him in St. Louis in 2011 for $16M but failure to extend his contract before then may have him prepared to test free agency in 2012.  This recent article does lay out for us some speculation as to what Pujols may want from this organization along with the economic realities facing the Cardinals especially at a time when they are trying to figure out what to do with LF and what it would take to retain Matt Holiday's services.

Dealing with the Pujols situation is very similar problem facing the Mariners front office and Felix Hernandez.  Of course there has been whispers about Hernandez being on the trading block but no mention has ever been made (officially or unoffcially) about the Cardinals looking to trade Pujols but a recent interview with Cardinals President Blake DeWitt III does hint at the difficulty to retain a top-flight player like Pujols while fielding a team with a competitive payroll around $100M. 

The Cardinals made a big gamble by converting career outfielder Skip Schumaker to an everyday second baseman.  Defensively, this conversion did hit a snag as Schumaker failed to carry his defensive load (especially on a team with a pitching staff so dependant on inducing groundballs) but he did show signs of improvement as the season progressed.  If Schumaker can stick at 2B, his bat will fit nicely there since he did show some decent gap power but his declining speed and high BABIP can spell trouble if this predominantly GB hitter fails to cobble together his fair share of "lucky" hits.

As the field and offense is concerned: after Pujols and Molina I believe the next important Cardinal is SS Brendan Ryan.  Last season, Ryan was elite in terms of defense (again, those groundballs call for above-average glovemanship) and his speed and ability to make contact pointed to Ryan as being a quality #1 or #2 hitter (Ryan was used mostly in #8 or #9 spot last season) but with expected regressions coming from Schumaker and Colby Rasmus' lack of BB's and high K's I think Ryan would be a better fit in the early part of the lineup.

Next season, Ryan will be 28 and after slowly trodding along the Cardinals farm system (he was hampered by wrist injuries after being drafted out of high school) 2009 was a watershed year and one I think he can quietly build upon in the coming season.  Ryan doesn't hit enough flyballs to ever show average power but his contact rates (83% overall and 90% within the strikezone) and modest K numbers are promising.  Next season, Ryan needs to show improvement in his ability to take a walk; in 2008 his BB% registered at a low 5.8, a lot of this is due to his high frequency to swing at pitches outside the strikezone (28.2%) but with more experience I would expect this part of his game to improve a bit in 2010.

Next season, 27 year old rookie David Freese is set, again, to be the starter at 3B.  Freese has trodded along the Padres lower minor league system before being acquired by the Cardinals in 2007 for Jim Edmonds.  After spending the entire 2008 season in AAA, Freese clubbed 26 HR's and hit .306/.361/.550.  His strikeout rate was a bit high (23. to suggest a future batting average around .300 but a BABIP at .351 helped to artifically boost his average.

Last season, Freese did battle injuries and had to undergo ankle surgery in May but he did show the ability to hit for decent power and average in 17 games.  If healthy I would expect Freese to hold his own in terms of power but with his high BABIP expected to eventually come down; I see him as a .250 hitter and should fit fine later in this lineup.

If things don't go as planned, Tyler Greene will be ready to offer his services (although the organization sees him more as a utility/pinch running option) but one name to keep an eye on is Allen Craig

Like Freese, Allen Craig isn't quite young enough to to earn the title of "superstar" in front of his prospect label (he turns 27 in July) but he has shown considerable power and his strikeout rates seem 'manageable' for a slugging corner infielder since his 20.1% last season in 472 AAA at bats does suggest improvement.  For the last couple of seasons, Craig has been rewarded by a high BABIP but his rate of contact and improving BB% does put him closer to being a .300 hitter than Freese (in the long run).  Last season, Craig spent some time in the outfield and could be positioned as the Cardinals next left fielder.

Speaking of the outfield, LF is still officially vacant since Matt Holliday filed for free agency.  The Cardinals have made an offer to Holliday but with other high priced teams (Yankees, Red Sox and Mets) currently not in the mix it will be tough for him to find a better offer.  Rumor has it the contract is in the neighborhood of $120 million over eight seasons but his representation wants a deal similar to one Mark Teixiera recieved last offseason from the Yankees.  Recently, Peter Gammons went on the record and stated that the Red Sox offered Holliday a contract at 5 years and $16M per.  Holliday has developed the rep as being a great player but better suited for the NL and with the Yankees looking for fill LF with a short-term FA for less than $5M, I can't imagine better options coming his way.

If this 8 years/$120M proposal is true, the Cards would be smart in putting a time limit on this deal with the hopes of scaling it back to 5 or 6 years.  If this team is serious about retaining Pujols then signing Holliday may make that scenario a bit more difficult.

In CF Colby Rasmus is set begin his second full season with the Cardinals.  Last season Rasmus displayed excellent defense (+13.7 UZR/150) and his minor league numbers do suggest that he should improve upon his 2009 batting line of .251/.307/.407.  In terms of BB's, Rasmus did walk less in the pros than he did in the minors (7.1% vs. 12.9%) but his K% wasn't overwhelming (20.0%) in 520 MLB plate appearances.  Rasmus will be 23 at the start of the 2010 season and should see improvement as his BB% creeps closer to one established in the minors.

Ryan Ludwick will return in RF and is due for an arbitration hearing although last season was nothing like his 2008 breakout.  In 2009 we saw decreases in his ISO (.292 in 2008 to .181 last season) as well as BB's (10.3% to 7.8%) and his batting average (Ludwick hitt .299 in 2008 partly due to a high BABIP of .349).  Next season, Ludwick will turn 32 years old and as more teams throw less fastballs at him (Ludwick is an excellent fastball hitter but his lower production last season was also due to a decrease in overall FB's thrown) I would expect his decline to continue.

Next Season's Forecast: With younger players like Allen Craig and David Freese due to come up as well as second full seasons from Colby Rasmus and Brendan Ryan, I wouldn't be surprised if the Cardinals offense plays better than expected.  Of course I don't see it necessary that they sign Matt Holliday but if the two sides do come together (which is expected) then trading Ryan Ludwick may be a luxury worth exploring since his perceived power and inexpensive services could net this team a capable mid-rotation starter. 

And having that capable starter will be necessary since pitching is the area where I see the 2010 Cardinals having problems.  Signing Brad Penny should help but it's the question marks at the backend of this rotation as well as the expected regression from last season's overachieving bullpen where the problems will surface.

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