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NL Central Preview/Roundtable Part Six: Cardinals

I like to think I'm a rational person, but all day long, ever since I  posted the Astros preview, there's been a little man perched at the back of my hindbrain whispering, "they could've won, if you'd just picked 'em."  

And the logical part of myself has to smack that sumbitch down yet again, screaming, "MY PICKS DO NOT AFFECT EVENTUAL REALITY!"

And the little man says, "but . . . ."

Anyway, I pick the Cards because I think they have the best talent, but I surely do not find myself overwhelmed as others do.  Check it out. . . .

Thanks again to Marc, Al, Larry, Charlie and Jeff.  The talent displayed here wasn't mine.

St. Louis Cardinals

1. The Cardinals lost a few key position players from their 2004-2005 stretch of dominance in the NL Central. How will their replacements fare in 2006, and could the Cardinals have done a better job bringing in new guys?

Brew Crew Ball:  They did?  I wish I were more comfortable that those key losses added up to enough to bring the Cardinals down.  Of course the main issue with the Cardinals this year is the outfield corners, which--as presently staffed, anyway--have no chance of matching last year's production.  I'm convinced, though, that the odds of Larry Bigbie being one of the four main OFs after the all-star break is next to nil.  Jocketty will find somebody, no worse than a Kevin Mench type, to at least give the Cards a Reggie Sanders lookalike in the #6 spot.  

The bigger question to me is how the returning crew will fare.  Will Rolen stay healthy?  Will Edmonds stay healthy?  Will Eckstein keep doing his "solid big-league regular" impression?  If the answer to all three of those questions is "yes," it doesn't matter if they start me in leftfield three times a week.  Nobody's catching these guys.

The Crawfish Boxes:  Of course Jocketty could do anything, and so could the Cubs or the Astros for that matter.  I'll treat with the Cards as they look right now, and sure, they could very well win the divison--I'll probably even pick them--but I'm not nearly so sold.

Just for the hell of it I took a look at the RC's that had departed  in Grudzielanek and Nunez and Sanders and Walker and Mabry and when I was done cyphering, it came to 263 of their collective 820 last year.  And when I added up what was incoming--Bigbie, Encarnacion, Spivey, Deivi Cruz--it added up to 179.  Of course Rolen's return--assuming no setbacks--will make up some of the difference.

But not I think, all of it.  And with Edmonds' mysterious numbness, the assumption that he contributes 99 RC as last year may end up being overly optimistic as well.  The 2004 club scored 855 runs, and the 2005 club scored 50 less than that.  I really wouldn't be surprised if that trend continued.  

And the Cardinals may very well lead the league in ERA again, but if so, it won't be because Sidney "Party Animal" Ponson and his 1.75 WHIP helped at all.  They say that kid Reyes is good; we'll certainly see.

Listen, I'm comfortable thinking of universes where Brandon Backe wins 15 games this year, so conjecture's not a problem for me.  And I just see a lot of possible outcomes where the Cardinals are something less than a steamroller.

Bleed Cubbie Blue: I was puzzled at some of the Cardinals acquisitions. Larry Walker retired, so I guess the Cardinals figured they ought to just get another guy named Larry to fill that slot. Unfortunately, that's about the only comparison you can make. Bigbie and Juan Encarnacion, well, they're just not very good players. They are the sort of players that Tony LaRussa would have turned his nose up at (up at? Can I say that?) a few years back. I don't think Junior Spivey is LaRussa's type of player, either. Sure, Rolen and Pujols are fabulous, but I wonder about the rest of their offense.

Their pitching staff is minus Matt Morris. For the Cubs, that's not good news, as they beat Morris like a drum last year. In fact, the Cubs won the season series from St. Louis in 2005, one of the few bright spots in a dismal Cub season. If they can keep up this sort of domination, it's possible the Cubs could make a run at the Cardinals, especially if the Cardinal starting rotation appears as weak as it does to me (I don't see Sidney Ponson as anything more than trouble for them).

Viva El Birdos: I'm not wringing my hands over most of the departures; the only player I wish the Cardinals had kept is Reggie Sanders, and given what Kansas City spent on him perhaps he wasn't in their price range. And while I'm not enthusiastic about most of the signees, they'll probably serve -- that is, they'll probably be good enough to return the Cardinals to the postseason. But the Cards did not get appreciably younger with their acquisitions, nor less top-heavy payroll-wise. And the real disappointment is that they seem not to be "seizing the moment" -- a weak league, Pujols and Carpenter both at their peak -- and going all-out for a world championship. They seem content to return to the postseason and take their chances, rather than aggressively going after the missing pieces (a power arm, a power bat) that might increase their chances of winning a World Series.

2. State your case for Sidney Ponson over Anthony Reyes for the last spot in the rotation, or vice versa. Do you think we will see Reyes take over midseason?

Brew Crew Ball: I don't think it matters much right now.  The one major shift I've noticed in the way "smart" fans talk about the game this offseason is the discussion of #6 and #7 starters.  Even Jim Bowden said you have to go into a season with seven guys.  (Though he was talking about leftfielders--just kidding.)  I was under the impression Ponson came in as the #6 guy, but I'd say there's at least a 50/50 shot that Reyes still makes 15-20 starts this year, even if he doesn't boot Ponson from the rotation.  None of the guys in the rotation are particularly fragile, but the odds of the top four guys each making 32 starts is pretty low.  And if Sir Sidney pitches so poorly to make TLR's decision look stupid, he'll go back to Aruba and Reyes will get 25+ starts instead.  

3. What do you think about Jim Edmonds' chances at Cooperstown? State both whether you think he will make it, and if you think he is worthy of inclusion.

Brew Crew Ball: Like so many players at this stage of their careers, it all depends on how he finishes it off.  He got started too late to rack up the mega counting stats he'll need, so he'll need to put together a couple more 2004's to get in.  Right now, his #1 and #2 similarity score comps are Chipper Jones and Tim Salmon.  Salmon represents the path I'd expect Edmonds to take: a relatively quick decline riddled with injuries.  Chipper might not be a much better player, but Edmonds doesn't have the "peerless leader" reputation Jones does.  That's my long way of saying: "I don't have a clue."

The Crawfish Boxes:  Certainly given his style of play, the way he obviously respects the game, and his offensive talents, the Hall could do worse than have someone like Jim Edmonds represent them.
But I just don't think he gets there.  I know I spend some time down the page telling you why numbers aren't everything with Bagwell and his chances, but you gotta get closer than Edmonds will.  Three or four good years could get him to where Bagwell is now, but I don't think he's got three or four good years left.   A sort of Pete Reiser for those who like happy endings, Edmonds no longer throws his body around like the maniac he once was.  But when he did, it took it's toll, and my thinking is that the end comes quickly for such players.   Did the ESPN people invent the Web Gem segment because of Jim Edmonds?  It certainly seems so, and I have little doubt that we will remember him after his career is over, even if he doesn't get to make the speech at Cooperstown.

4. The cards received stellar work from their injury replacements last year (John Rodriguez, Abraham Nunez, etc.) that helped them win 100 games despite losing some of their big names.  If the Cards are again beset by injury, can they expect the depth on their roster to do the same this year?

Brew Crew Ball: Great question!  To me, this is the difference between projecting the Cards as a 98-win team and a 93-win team.  Last year, I wouldn't have expected the backups to do what they did--maybe it's TLR mojo, or MGL did an especially good job projecting Abe Nunez.  This year, I don't see the equivalent of Nunez and J-Rod stepping in, though.  It's always posssible they won't be needed to do much, either, but if the Cardinals have an achilles heel (outside of LF) it's the uncertainty of their bench.  Now, if Jocketty does make another move or two that all could change.  And sad as it is to say this as a Brewers fan, it wouldn't surprise me one bit to see him make that move.

Bucs Dugout: I'm going to say no, mostly because I haven't seen many indications that Walt Jocketty and Tony LaRussa are especially good at constructing benches. They mostly seem to fill them with guys who are versatile, speedy or gritty rather than guys who can actually play. Sometimes they do wind up with a decent bench player - So Taguchi is a good example, and Rodriguez might end up being another one - but just as often they wind up with Roger Cedeno. Last year, Nunez was suddenly good after several uninspiring years with the Pirates; Hector Luna played well despite being horrible at Class AAA the same year. So the success of those players doesn't look like great team-building to me; it looks like luck. This offseason, they addressed their need for depth by acquiring Gary Bennett and Aaron Miles; I don't see those players working out the way Nunez and Luna did last year. The Cardinals are a great organization in lots of ways, but I don't think the filling of bench spots is one of them. The Cardinals won't need to rely as much on bench players this year as they did last year, though.