This pitching preview was written by Ryan of Cardinals Diaspora, "A Refuge for Cardinals Fans Disenfranchised by Geography." Be sure to check out his site, and enjoy this preview.
Imagine a Successories poster that said "Effectiveness & Efficiency: Getting the Job Done Is the Most Important Thing." While it does present an important principle, the message's lack of panache doesn't make it very marketable to the corporate awards giving crowd. Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan, however, would be proud to display such material, so long as the poster's image was the Cardinals' pitching staff. For 2006, you can expect to once again the Cardinals staff to embody the unheralded values of efficiency and effectiveness. Let's review...
I don't know if it was the shoulder surgery, the tutelage of Dave Duncan, or a combination of the two, but Chris Carpenter has entered the prime of his career over his last two seasons in St. Louis. Carpenter had control and an ability to keep the ball in the park before Cards GM Walt Jocketty signed him. In St. Louis he has benefited from the organization's emphasis on defense and a powerful lineup, but his improvements have also come independently of such external factors. With a 2 seamer, 4 seamer, slider, changeup, and a mean curve, Carpenter has a brilliant arsenal to get the strikeouts and groundouts. His K/9 went from 7.5 to 7.9 in the last two years, and his WHIP went from a golden 1.14 to 1.09. As they are wont to do, TLR and Duncan brought out his inner groundball pitcher, and Carpenter's G/F ratio has topped 1.9 for the last two years. I would be surprised to see Carpenter repeat his Cy Young season, but any regression will still leave him in the elite class.
I don't know how Mark Mulder put together the season he had in 2005. His periphrials resembled his 2004 season far more than the Mulder of "Big Three" fame. Looking at his PECOTA card, his equivalent K/9 has gone from 6.1 to 5.3 to 4.5. He regained some of his control as his BB/9 went from 3.1 to 2.9 in the last two seasons. Much of his success last year was due to his whopping 2.74 G/F ratio. There were some lingering mechanical issues for Mulder last year. They were partially addressed last year by feeding him the groundball kool-aid, and the key to success for him in 2006 (and the rest of career) is to get his K back. The word from Jupiter, FL says that this is happening, as the team is reporting he's feeling great and has improved his mechanics from the last two seasons. Through 15.3 innings Mulder has 12 K and 3 BB this spring. He's also only 28-years-old. This is the last year of Mulder's contract with the Cards; someone is either going to overpay for him or really overpay for him in 2007.
Jeff Suppan is the `96 Honda Civic of pitchers, making up what he lacks in flash with reliability. When you look at Suppan's peripheral stats, you might think you were looking at Mulder's, except for Supe's year-to-year consistency. The PECOTA projection for Suppan is hard to disagree with, while his ERA will probably nudge back to around 4, but his walk and strikeout totals should be about the same. Suppan can be counted on for around 200 innings, and more importantly, he gives his team a chance to win every game - the definition of "efficiency and effectiveness."
Jason Marquis struggled through his mid-twenties existential crisis last season. Fighting the wise guidance of the Cardinal coaching staff, Marquis continually tried to throw pitches that just weren't there for him. In the months of May, June, and August, he walked more batters than he struck out. It was a long, hot summer, and his equivalent ERA jumped by a run from 4.33 in 2004 to 5.29 in 2005. His lack of maturity damaged him the most as runners got on base and moved into scoring position. To wit, young Jason's WHIP went from 1.27 to 1.41 as he went from having none on to RISP. More telling that that was a significant decline in his K/BB ratio as opposing batters got on base. With runners in scoring position he actually walked more batters (22) than he struck out (21). If Marquis has truly learned to keep a cool head and worked out some of the kinks in his pitches other than the sinker, then there is no reason to think he might have a year more reminiscent of his 2004 performance.
Let's face it, every Cardinals fan really knew that Sidney Ponson would be named the fifth starter this year. He's a veteran and a groundball pitcher on a LaRussa coached team, everything in life should carry such certainty. If the Cards can get 20 mediocre starts out him this season it will be a successful deal, and Suppan will be glad to have someone else on the team that people can refer to as "league average." In spring training so far, Ponson has pitched fine, giving up well under a hit per inning and sporting a K/BB rate of 1.75. Cardinal fans will be glad to see him reach his PECOTA projections. However, Ponson cannot be counted on for a full season, but for once we have some young, quality depth that is capable and ready for the majors - unless they get dealt in a one year lease of some aging veteran before July.
It's a solid enough rotation after Carpenter that will keep the Cardinals de facto champs in the NL Central, the playoffs are a different story.
To the pen.
Despite the collective "gulp" that echoes through Busch in the ninth, Jason Isringhausen (righty) is a steadying presence at the back of the Cards' bullpen. A drop last year in his K/BB rate was mostly due to him groping for his mechanics in the first third of the season after having offseason hip surgery. This team rarely does well when Izzy is out of the lineup, and you can be sure that he'll miss some time. How much time is the big question... Hopefully, Isringhausen won't miss too much time, because right-handed Branden Looper becomes the closer in his absence, and there is not a red blooded Redbirds fan that isn't right now wondering whether or not Duncan's magic will work with Looper. Don't buy into all the hype around how Ponson will fare, Looper's fate is a much bigger question with a 3 year/$15M contract and an entitlement from the team to the prime eighth inning spot. A shoulder injury sapped him last year, and his K/9 was lower than his ERA. That can rebound at Duncan's school for retreads in need of a fresh start. It's his split versus lefties that really troubles people. If Duncan can work with him on his delivery and harness his groundball inducing ability, he should be able to make it through entire eighth innings. PECOTA is particularly harsh on Looper's 2006 outlook, but the magic computer has some pretty sound reasoning to base its projection on. I'm cautiously optimistic, but I can't imagine him clicking into form before June. At the very worst, he becomes one pricey right-handed specialist, a really, really expensive specialist that will be the bane of seventh and eighth hitters throughout the NL...
Who is that 13-year-old RHP on the mound you ask? Why that's 24-year-old Brad Thompson. Young Brad displayed excellent control in the minors, and his control was solid last year. It could have been even better and should be this year. If he becomes effective with the split-fingered fastball, he could raise his K/9 rate from 4.75 closer to his minor league rate of 6.55. He's also a groundball machine - recurring theme alert. With his veteran poise, he'll have a bigger role with the team this year; keep an eye on him if Looper falters... It was announced on Wednesday that Adam Wainwright will get a spot in the bullpen. Wainwright is a solid rookie that most project to be an above league average, middle rotation starter someday. He'll get the chance to start this year, guaranteed, but for now he can be a strikeout guy in middle or long relief. Wainwright is 24 and this will be his first season in the majors. PECOTA projects him pitching 137 innings, but LaRussa would rather eat a rare hamburger than let a 24-year-old start more than 10 games. His control is good and he doesn't get damaged by the homerun much; his HR/9 rate was 0.89 through a full season in the hitter friendly PCL. Another "efficient and effective" guy without the jewel encrusted lining, a prototypical LaRussa pitcher... Ricardo Rincon is the team's new LOOGY, and he seems to fit the bill just fine. He gets lefties out, and does it well. As for the right-handers, well, he's a LOOGY on a LaRussa team, so who cares. He's 36 so injury is definitely a concern... In the more than just a LOOGY - LOOGY role is Randy Flores. While he fares much better against lefties, he can still work two outs or a full inning as needed. I don't see his walks jumping up quite as much as PECOTA projects, and he is able to get strikeouts when he needs to, not a bad thing for a situational pitcher. While his overall numbers aren't as good as Scott Eyre's, Flores is still a quality left-handed set up man for considerably less money and fewer years on his contract.
Written in small, chiseled text on stone tablet somewhere in the Holy Land is a sentence proclaiming that Tony LaRussa must always carry seven relievers on his 25-man rosters. As of this writing, that seventh reliever has yet to be anointed. We do know that it will be a right-hander. Using logic and spring training performances, my pick is Josh Hancock. No, I didn't spend my morning sniffing glue, today anyway. The Reds' castoff has blown hitters away in Florida this year, 8 HA, 2 ER, 1 BB, 11 K through 9 innings. He's got the tools to be a league average bullpen guy, capable of making a few long relief appearances. He's only 28, and his psyche is probably energized to be out of Cincy. In second place for the seventh spot (wasn't that an Iron Maiden album?), is Alan Benes, yes Alan Benes. Cardinal fans have an Achilles heel for great comeback stories, and LaRussa probably feels some loyalty to him and likes him because he is over 30. If you want to bet on who gets the last spot in the pen, the money is on Benes. Benes has been okay this spring, giving up one run in 10 innings, but he's walked as many as he's struck out (6). He's got quadruple A written all over his future. The third horse in this race is Brian Falkenborg, a 28-year-old who had Tommy John surgery in 2000. His injury history since then is far more telling than his stats. He has been effective this spring, not surrendering a run until his last appearance on Sunday when he gave up 3 against Florida. Being league average in spring training probably doesn't translate well to the regular season. He may get called up to fill in this season.
Still awake? We'll you won't be if focus exclusively on the Cardinals pitchers not named Carpenter this season. I'm not saying they'll be bad, quite the contrary. This team has thrived by assembling a reliable staff that pitches well enough to steal the occasional game and always gives their team a chance to win ball games. You may not remember many of the names, but back-to-back 100 win seasons are a powerful testament to the importance of "efficiency and effectiveness." It may be the only reminder until the motivational poster industry starts answering my phone calls.
Once again, this preview was written by Ryan at Cardinals Diaspora.