2006 W-L: 83-78 (1st place)
2006 Pythag: 82-79
Adam Kennedy, Kip Wells, Russ Springer, Ryan Franklin, Randy Keisler
Jeff Suppan, Ron Belliard, Jason Marquis, Jeff Weaver
The Cardinals In a Nutshell:
It's a sports truism that you don't count out last year's champs. Then again, it's rare that last year's champs were so decidedly mediocre. The Cardinals had plenty of breaks go against them; among others, Walt Jocketty didn't trade for Mark Mulder so that he'd rack up a 7.14 ERA.
At the same time, plenty worked in the Cardinals favor, as well: Adam Wainwright emerged as an effective closer; Scott Spiezio remembered how to hit, and Scott Rolen was healthy enough for nearly 600 plate appearances. we could play the good-luck/bad-luck game all day, but my point is that the Cardinals aren't going to gain five (or any) wins just from bouncing back to normalcy. A substantial improvement will require some key players stepping up, and it's hard to see where exactly that will happen.
Any team with Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen at the corners has a head start on nearly everybody else. There's no question that, as long as they're both in the lineup, the Cardinals can score some runs. The problem is the other seven spots in the lineup.
The most predictable parts of the offense are the worst: we can pretty much count on Yadi Molina and David Eckstein going out there nearly every day and just about match Jason Marquis's slugging percentage. That isn't to say they aren't valuable players, but it puts the mashing part of the lineup in perspective.
It's probably safe to throw Adam Kennedy into that second group as well, without quite the same negativity. Kennedy isn't likely to match his 2002 career year, but he is a good bet for regular, neighborhood-of-league-average production from second base. Best of all, Walt Jocketty got him for cheap. Somebody has to bat seventh, even on a winner. (On the other hand, Kennedy will probably get his share of at-bats in the #2 hole.)
The rest of the lineup is completely up in the air, either because of health issues (Jim Edmonds, Juan Encarnacion) or inconsistency (everybody else). As Nate Silver pointed out the other day, the opening day outfield could be Scott Spiezio, Preston Wilson, and Chris Duncan. That's three guys playing defensive positions they oughtn't be starting at (a low blow, given two of those positions are right and left field), without nearly the offense you'd expect to balance defensive shortcomings. Duncan and Wilson, or Duncan and Encarnacion, would make a nice platoon, but it looks like Tony LaRussa won't have that luxury, at least for a while.
All those health issues also neutralize one of the Cardinals's advantages: their deep bench. It's all well and good to have Scott Spiezio pinch-hitting effectively, but that doesn't mean you want him to be your right fielder. Or third baseman. Or anything else for nine innings on a regular basis. The same thing goes for Aaron Miles and, to a lesser extent, So Taguchi: they are like quality middle relievers who you never, ever want to see on the mound in the ninth inning.
If there's a silver lining to all of this, it's that all this uncertainty isn't replacing all that much production. Aside from Jim Edmonds's solid 400 plate appearances, the outfield wasn't all that good last year. There'll be more of the same this year; Jocketty probably ought to have done better, but St. Louis won't lose several wins simply because he didn't. Instead, they'll probably score about the same number of runs and put the onus for improvement on the pitching staff. That might not be a good idea.
I can't imagine very many World Series winners turn over 60% of their starting rotation the offseason following their championship. It's even rarer that doing so is probably a good idea.
Seven pitchers made up 160 of the Cardinals' starts last year, and only three of those are returning: Chris Carpenter, Mark Mulder, and Anthony Reyes. Of those lost, only Jeff Suppan was well above replacement level: the other three are the suddenly very rich Jason Marquis, the still inexplicably rich Jeff Weaver, and the inexplicably employed Sidney Ponson.
In other words, it isn't a bad idea to get rid of all the chaff; what's questionable is how successful the replacements will be. The best hope for improvement comes from one of the returning starters, Anthony Reyes. At this site, Mike Pindelski has argued that Reyes is a sleeper for the Cy Young Award; that may be optimistic, but ZiPS also likes him, forecasting an ERA under 4.00. Adam Wainwright, likely to convert from relief, is easy to be positive about too: ZiPS gives him an ERA under 4.00 as well.
I'm not quite so optimistic about Wainwright; I figure he'll need some time to adjust back to starting, and there's no telling how the league will do against him when they get to see his repertoire multiple times per game. I'd be much more comfortable projecting success for him in 2008 than in '07; as it is, though, the Cards can probably get at least league average pitching out Reyes and Wainwright. In that regard, consider Suppan replaced.
What's dangerous is what Walt Jocketty has done (or not done) with the back of the rotation. Kip Wells was a nice pickup for $4 million; then again, he's the same sort of acquisition as John Thomson or Tomo Ohka: a gamble that you use to add rotation depth. That is, you don't slot him straight into your rotation, at least not with the same type of depth that, say, the Blue Jays have. Instead, the Cardinals are counting on him as a regular, despite the fact that he hasn't had any kind of success since 2003.
But compared to putting Braden Looper in the rotation, granting Wells a starting job is positively brilliant. I suppose you have to figure that Dave Duncan and Tony LaRussa know what they're doing here, but Looper is attempting a role change that rarely works, and that seems particularly poorly-suited for his skillset. Frankly, I have no idea how this will work out, but of the non-Wainwright relievers in the St. Louis stable, Looper is about the fifth one I would've picked to switch to the rotation.
Of course, it may be the LaRussa never intended Looper to start a single game: it's some canny gambit so that the Cardinals won't feel forced into trading for a starter such as Carl Pavano. That's reasonable enough, but the clock is ticking, and there are only so many replacement-level pitchers out there. Mark Mulder may pitch in the second half, but that could still allow Looper twenty starts of pain.
Even if everything breaks right for Wainwright and Reyes, the Cardinals still have plenty of holes in the rotation. Perhaps Jocketty shouldn't have spent money on better options, but he has found himself stuck with a back of the rotation with plenty of variance but not a lot of upside. That may put him in the position of acquiring the 2007 version of Jeff Weaver (Jeff Weaver, perhaps) in midseason, but without a postseason in which that pitcher will excel.
If Jason Isringhausen is healthy, the bullpen will be barely distinguishable from last year's group. If he's not, the whole house of cards falls down, and LaRussa will be scrambling for either a good late-inning reliever or yet another starter (if Wainwright returns to closing).
While it's easy to be snippy about LaRussa's bullpen management habits, he did a nice job last year working with spare parts and a handful of youngsters who may have been stuck in triple-A were they in a different organization. None of his prized lefties were very effective, but true to form, they didn't pitch very much, either.
The danger this year, especially if Isringhausen isn't rock solid from day one, is that all of those middle relievers who stepped up last year--Josh Kinney, Josh Hancock, Brad Thompson--will be under a lot more pressure. Moving Wainwright and Looper into the rotation is hardly like depriving a bullpen of Francisco Rodriguez and Scot Shields, but it's a stretch to say that the acquisition of Russ Springer will provide a thorough replacement.
So, much like the rotation, Walt Jocketty has put together a house of cards: if everyone stays perfectly still, it just might work. But it won't take much to expose all the cracks in the armor (it's cliche day at Beyond the Boxscore!), especially when the insurance is Ryan Franklin. I imagine Jocketty expects to tweak this staff throughout the season, and it wouldn't surprise me to see him start doing so very soon. In the meantime, though, it's hard to get excited about anybody except for Carpenter and Reyes.
All Together Now
I've gone on record predicting that the Cardinals defend their NL Central title, but I'm starting to have my doubts. I've always been impressed with Jocketty, and it's tough to discount the chances of a team that is more likely than any to include both the MVP and the Cy Young Award winner. And despite the Brewers young core, it isn't like there's a powerhouse in the division ready to knock them off.
So, I suppose I'll stick with my prediction: Cardinals first, Brewers second. But that depends entirely on the general manager's savvy: the Cardinals, as presently constituted, could easily find themselves below .500. Perhaps, say, a resurgent Carl Pavano would be enough to put St. Louis back in the postseason. Thirty Braden Looper starts sure as hell won't.