St. Louis Cardinals
GM Walt Jocketty basically hit the lottery last year in that just about every one of his moves paid off in a big way. He got much better than expected years from reclamation starters Andy Benes, Darryl Kile and Pat Hentgen; he got a rejuvenated star centerfielder at a discounted price in Jim Edmonds; and when Mark McGwire went down with injury, got the All-Star version of Will Clark in trade, rather than the pedestrian hitter that had claimed that name for much of the 90's. And after sweeping the Braves out of the playoffs in the first round, it looked like everything was gonna come up roses. But the team they matched up with reasonably well against (the Giants - the Cards were 4-5 against them) lost in the other first round match-up to the team they didn't match-up well against (3-6 vs the Mets) and their fate was all but decided.
The Cards boasted an offense that scored the fourth most runs in the NL last year despite Mark McGwire missing almost half the year. They were helped slightly by their ballpark, which boosts runs scoring by a little less than 5%, but that's not enough to deny that the Cards have some formidable offensive players. It starts with their middle infielders. Second baseman Fernando Vina and shortstop Edgar Renteria both have solid on base skills and decent speed to turn a walk or a single into a man in scoring position. However, neither player has shown the necessary success rate (Renteria has a 71% success rate when stealing; Vina, 63%) to warrant risking an out in front of guys like McGwire, Jim Edmonds, Ray Lankford and JD Drew.
The Cardinals' outfield is one of the most athletic in baseball. Edmonds, Lankford and Drew each have 30 home run power and can steal 20 bases. Each also possesses above average on base skills. The only strike against them is that they are susceptible to strikeouts. But couched around McGwire in the batting order, they are good for 300 runs scored and as many driven in.
McGwire is simply an amazing hitter. Most people marvel at his home run totals, as they should. He hits them with greater frequency than Babe Ruth and hits them as far as anyone in the game ever has. What goes unnoticed is how often he gets on base. Since he came to the Cardinals three and a half years ago, he has reached base in nearly 45% of his plate appearances. When he's healthy, not only is he possibly the most dangerous hitter in the game, but he's as tough an out as there is. His problem has been staying healthy. Last year, he was sidelined by a knee injury. The knee continues to bother him this year. Also working against him is the new strikezone. He's one the taller hitters in the league so his strikezone will naturally be larger. He was around the last time the strikezone was effectively called in 1988 and his results were telling: his slugging dropped 140 points and his on base dropped nearly 20 points.
Taking over at third base for the departed Fernando Tatis will be some combination of Craig Paquette, Placido Polanco and uber-prospect Albert Pujols. Pujols, who was the surprise of the Arizona Fall League, has more talent that the other two combined. However, he has two things working against him: manager Tony LaRussa is as reluctant to play young players as any manager in the past 20 years, and Pujols has never gotten more than 20 at bats above A ball. Even with the growing pains of making such a jump, Pujols would likely produce more than either Paquette or Polanco. If LaRussa goes with the veterans instead, the Cards will get a little below average production out of their third base platoon.
Mike Matheny and Eli Marrero will catch for the Cards. Matheny is viewed as a defensive specialist, but the Cards got a surprisingly below average year out of him offensively in 2000. He hit .261 and posted a career best OPS of .679. This is substantially better than his career OPS before last year of .608. Marrero does have some offensive ability, posting a .724 OPS last year, but apparently not enough in LaRussa's book to warrant displacing Matheny.
The new strikezone could be troublesome for the Cardinals. Only Vina and Renteria make contact with more than 85% of their swings and just about everyone in the lineup strikes out at a fairly high rate. What could be a boon for their pitching staff could be a serious bane to their hitting: RATING: 55
The story goes that the Cardinals have an exceptional defense. That may be true or that may be perception. Edgar Renteria is viewed by many onlookers as the best young defensive shortstop in the game. However, his marks for range for the past few years ranks near the bottom of the list for major league regulars. Jim Edmonds has made some spectacular catches in his career and is a perennial Gold Glove candidate. But he too ranks near the bottom of the list when it comes to range. Lankford has the same story: all highlight, no range. Drew actually performs up to perception and will become one of the top right fielders in the game over the next several years. Fernando Vina has above average range, but his calling card is the double play. Given a groundball with a runner on first, he turns two 74% of the time, by far the best percentage in baseball. McGwire is above average at first at digging throws out of the dirt but his range is suspect. Matheny gained notoriety last year as a great defensive catcher, largely on the strength of throwing out over 50% of attempted base stealers. However, his career rate is closer to ML average of 30%. Paquette, Polanco and Pujols are each plus players patrolling the hot corner. RATING: 55
Darryl Kile still had doubters that he was a good pitcher after two years of getting bombed at Coors. Even as late as May, when his ERA still hovered over 5, people thought Jocketty had made a big mistake in trading for him. But Kile caught fire in June and finished the year with his first 20-win season and a respectable 3.91 ERA. While Kile isn't quite in the class of Schilling or Maddux or Johnson, he's still one of the better starters in the NL.
Andy Benes was once in that category when he led the league in strikeouts in 1994, but has since settled into the role as innings eater. Dustin Hermanson was the ace of the Expos staff but seems to have lost his way, experiencing a significant decline in performance in each of the past 2 years. The Cards are hoping pitching guru Dave Duncan can again work his magic with a veteran pitcher and help him find the path back to prominence. His track record is impressive, resurrecting the careers of Dave Stewart, Mike Moore, Storm Davis, Andy Benes and Darryl Kile.
His record with young pitchers, however, isn't so great, as the A's never developed any significant young pitchers when he was there. His record with the Cardinals is even worse. Alan Benes and Matt Morris, two of the most promising pitching prospects in the last 10 years, both missed significant time from arm surgeries after enduring heavy workloads. Morris looks like he'll make it back; Benes' prognosis isn't so promising. Speaking of Morris, the Cards are counting on big things from him. Before the surgery, he had posted the 3rd lowest career ERA of any active pitcher with more than 350 innings. The surgery may have actually helped him as he's experienced an increase in velocity. If he can regain his pinpoint control, he could be dominating. Lefty Rick Ankiel entered last year as the most heralded pitching prospect since Doc Gooden. Although he didn't blow the league away, he did little to disappoint. Until the playoffs. There, for all the world to see, he set several records for most wild pitches. This spring, he's been under intense scrutiny and seems to have weathered the storm with a solid outing in his first regular season start. More of a concern than his wildness, are the deep counts he struggles with in almost every at bat. If the Cardinals expect him to go deep into games, the health of his arm will become a serious concern. RATING: 60 (65 if Morris is 100% back)
The Cardinals bullpen isn't particularly formidable. Just effective. No one throws in the mid-to-upper 90s. No one has a devastating trick pitch. However, all of them are pretty good pitchers. Closer Dave Veres, set-up men Mike Timlin, Mike James and lefty Steve Kline have all served effectively as their team's closer at one point in their careers. Gene Stechschulte was a closer in the minors. Jeff Tabaka will offer LaRussa another option from the left side. RATING: 55
For a long time, Tony LaRussa has been hailed as the genius of baseball. However, the sheen is coming off the title as his teams have failed to capture the big prize, suffering from some pretty ignominious ends in the playoffs. Still, he's a smart guy, he's willing to experiment - like his pitcher hitting 8th foray a couple of years ago - and there aren't many better at maneuvering in the later innings. His biggest flaw appears to be in handling young players, either in letting the position players play regularly and, ironically, in keeping a tighter leash on the pitchers. Until last years' master stroke, Walt Jocketty was perceived as a good GM, but not much better than average. After last year, though, he's got a tall order to prove that he isn't a one year wonder. RATING: 55
Many times in life, one is afforded only one chance at the brass ring and last year might have been it for the Cardinals. It's unlikely that they will get as many career years out of as many players as they did and the Astros are sure to be better than they were last year. On the plus side, their starting pitching has a chance to be better with a healthy Matt Morris replacing Pat Hentgen and Rick Ankiel a year older and wiser. They should be able to challenge for the division again, but this time it will be much, much tougher.