St. Louis Cardinals: 2008 Season Forecast

St. Louis Cardinals

2007: 78-84 (3rd NL Central)

 

Is it me, or if you look at the record of the Cards in 2007, are you surprised that they won 78 games?  I thought they were 68-94.  This team really struggled – 11th in runs scored, and 14th in runs allowed (725/829) – a combination that usually struggles to win 70 games.  At the beginning of the season, many figured the Cards would contend in a weak division, and they only missed by a handful of games.  My memory of that part is fuzzy.

 

Looking Back on 2007

 

It went downhill on opening day when Chris Carpenter started, left, and went on the DL only to need Tommy John surgery.  Carpenter was out for the season, and will miss half of 2008.

 

Their season was actually a see-saw – lose four, win three.  Lose four more, win five.  Lose three more, win a couple, lose a couple – and they never seemed to make any progress toward getting over .500.  Then, a late August hot streak followed by a streak of games against the bottom of the division (Cincy and Houston) moved the Cardinals to 69 – 68 early in September – right in the thick of the race.  And – just that fast, they lost 12 of 13 and it was over.

 

The Carpenter injury was huge.  If St. Louis was starting their ace and not, say the 2 – 12 Anthony Reyes, perhaps they make up 6 games in the standings.  However, Carpenter wasn’t the only casualty.  Only Albert Pujols played more than 130 games among position players – everybody missed at least a month.  Kip Wells, who looked pretty good in spring training, was awful, and a few other options were equally poor.  However, this has to be balanced against the surprising performances of players like Braden Looper, Adam Wainwright and Rick Ankiel.  So, maybe that balance – the fact that the losses equaled the surprises – equates to a season that nearly was half wins and half losses.

 

Tell me about that offense

 

Albert Pujols, injured elbow and all, remains the great force of the National League.  Only David Wright and Matt Holliday produced more runs than Pujols (32 – 103 – .327 – 99 walks), and Pujols had nobody around him who helped out.  Consider that Pujols himself was responsible for 143 runs of offense and that’s nearly 20% of the team’s output.

 

Chris Duncan can hit, but his glove is erratic (he looks very uncomfortable in the field), and he’s platooned.  David Eckstein batted okay – he batted .309 with little power, few walks (and a dozen beanings).  Jim Edmonds finally showed signs of aging – .252 and slugging .402.  When Juan Encarnacion went down with an injury, it gave opportunities to Ryan Ludwick, Skip Schumacher, and Rick Ankiel – all who can hit better than the men they replaced (or, in the case of Edmonds, will replace in 2008).  Except for Duncan, the entire outfield will be overhauled – and that will be a good thing.

 

Unfortunately, the rest of the lineup hits like Eckstein.  Aaron Miles batted .290 but with just 19 extra-base hits in 400+ at bats – but he was better than the injured Adam Kennedy, who struggled to hit .220.  Scott Spiezio can play a lot of positions, but – like Yadier Molina, Aaron Miles, and the departed Scott Rolen, none of them slugged .400.  No wonder people talk about Ankiel, the former pitcher, batting clean up behind Pujols.  Nobody else, save the platooned Duncan against righties, would qualify as a legitimate run producer.

 

Defensively:

 

The Cards were an average defensive team, forced to make a lot of plays because the pitchers were near the bottom of the league in both walks and strikeouts.  In terms of turning balls in play into outs, they were slightly above average (.687 to .686), but in terms of turning two, they were slightly below average (6.49% to 6.54% baserunners removed).

 

Albert Pujols is a fantastic fielding first baseman.  He has range, makes a few good throws more than normal (even with an injured throwing arm), and fewer errors than the average first sacker.  Across the diamond, Scott Rolen was slightly above average, and had a good ratio of double plays to errors – which means he likely saved his team six runs.  Rolen just can’t stay healthy, with a balky shoulder he missed 50 games (and a full season’s worth over the last three years).  Oddly, the guys who played in his place showed even better range.  (I don’t know much about Brendan Ryan, but in the 50 games he was with the team, he was a better hitter and better fielder than both Eckstein at short as well as Rolen at third.  He’s not really a power hitter, but he’s quick and a better defensive option, anyway.)  The middle infielders were a bit weak.  Eckstein has below average range, a weak arm, and made 20 errors in fewer than 1000 innings at short.  Kennedy was average but missed half the season.  Miles was lousy at second (he was great at short – so it’s hard to call him bad, though).  At this rate, you’d have to let at least one of them go, give Miles another shot at second, and let Ryan take over at shortstop.  Eckstein was allowed to leave, so the Cardinals will likely give Ryan a full shot as soon as he gets over a rib injury suffered in the spring.

 

The outfield was weak until the kids arrived.  Edmonds is no longer a gold glove candidate (though still slightly above average), but Encarnacion was slow BEFORE the eye injury that may have ended his career.  (He was hit by a foul ball while in the on deck circle, shattering his eye socket.)  With a -8.2 range, he was actually far worse than the young but statuesque Duncan.  With less than full seasons, Ludwick looked decent in center and solid in left, Ankiel was great in right (but weak in center), and Schmacher showed range in center (though nobody hit the ball to him when he played left or right).  So Taguchi was a serviceable utility outfielder, but doesn’t hit enough to make up for his glove, and with the young outfielders in the wings, is heading elsewhere.

 

Yadier Molina cuts down the running game (only 50 attempts, and he gunned down 27 of those who took a shot; and two more with pickoff throws) – he’s definitely a huge boost to the defense, and helped keep the double play in order.  In terms of runs saved, he’s got to be worth an extra ten runs to his defense just for his ability to squash the running game.  However, the backups aren’t that good.  Kelly Stinnett and Gary Bennett allowed 35 successful stolen bases and got just seven baserunners, and once you combine their stats with Molina’s, the team’s overall catching is barely above average.  The team’s ERA was above the league average, they make a league average number of plays that are not tied to stolen bases, and they are slightly below average in terms of the number of errors made on plays that are not tied to strikeouts.

 

On the whole, though, there is room for defensive improvement.

 

Now Pitching…

 

The leading pitchers were all relievers – Jason Isringhausen, Ryan Franklin, Russ Springer, and Troy Percival – whose comeback got him a role as the closer for the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays.  Isringhausen remains a solid closer, with a decent strikeout rate, few homers allowed, but a slightly high walk rate.  To have so many good relievers helps – but these guys were used a lot with a rotation that had only one pitcher with more than 20 starts allowing a better than league average number of runs.

 

Adam Wainwright, moved to the rotation, was more than ten runs better than the average pitcher and pitched more than 200 innings.  If the increased load on his arm doesn’t take a toll, he looks like a solid rotation anchor, if not a number one ace.  Braden Looper was moved into the rotation, pitched more than 180 innings, and wasn’t horrible, though he allowed ten runs more than the average pitcher might in comparable number of innings.  Todd Wellemeyer came up to make eleven starts and was pretty good, though you’d like to see fewer than 29 walks in 62 innings.  The only other decent starter was a scrap heap pickup in Joel Pineiro, winning six of eleven starts.

 

After that, however, were some serious holes.  Kip Wells went 7–17 and allowed nearly 34 more runs than the average pitcher would in his 162-2/3 innings.  Anthony Reyes went 2-12, gave up a ton of homers despite other decent numbers, and was 22 runs over average in 100+ innings.  Nobody expects to see Mike Maroth again after an 0-5 and 10.70 ERA stint.  He hurt the team to the tune of 38 unnecessary runs in 38 innings.

 

Getting back Carpenter and Mulder (who hasn’t been anything since 2005 anyway), and possibly getting something out of a recovering Matt Clement, will help the Cards immensely.

 

Forecasting 2008:

 

Admittedly, when I started this, I was far less optimistic about this team than I am in writing these final paragraphs.

 

We’re talking about making up 100 runs just to be a .500 team.  Can you see 100 runs to the good?  Actually, they might come close.

 

Ankiel in right could save the team10 runs on defense and add 15 runs to the offense.  Ludwick, for a full season, could be the equal of a solid Jim Edmonds season and certainly an improvement on last year.  Duncan could improve some as a hitter.  Ryan for Eckstein at short and a return to form of Adam Kennedy could help restore 25 runs to the offense, and maybe help save 15 runs defensively.  I like Ludwick to be an improvement over Encarnacion, which could be worth 20 runs.  Troy Glaus is an improvement on Rolen offensively, but gives back the gains defensively – and is equally likely to land on the DL – we’ll call it a wash.  I fear for a slight slip from Pujols, who is waiting as long as possible to have surgery to repair his elbow (like Nolan Ryan before him), but let’s say he holds on in his year 27 season to remain equally productive.  That’s 80 – 85 runs.

 

Then, you have the pitchers.  More Wellemeyer and no Maroth is a gain of 35 runs.  Looper might get a little better with his second season as a starter.  Wainwright could improve a little.  If Carpenter makes 15 decent starts, that’s going to help.  Getting Wells out and finding a better fifth starter – I’m not a huge Kyle Lohse fan, but he’s at least league average, which is 30 runs better than Wells last year.  That’s the most optimistic view, of course – another improvement of 75 runs, which would mean that the Cardinals could outscore their opponents on the season and might win 85 games or more.  I don’t think Pineiro will be as good as last year, but if he’s average, he’s a good spot starter and long reliever.  You still have Isringhausen, but the bullpen, as good as it was, was a bit long in the tooth.  And, Ryan, Ankiel, and Ludwick haven’t had 500 at bat seasons, so they might have to deal with a struggle or two.  You have the possibility of disabling injuries to key players – like Carpenter last year, or Pujols losing his fight with his elbow.

 

However, optimism reigns supreme in April.  I don’t think all of these things can happen, but if more good things happen, it’s at least going to be a good season.  I’ll play the optimist and pencil the team in for 85 wins.  I don’t think that will win the division, but it will make for an interesting season in a great baseball city.

 

Down on the Farm:  The AAA team is here – Ankiel (32 homers at Memphis), Schumacher, Ryan made it in 2007.  Edgar Gonzales, who has been in the minors long enough to be drafted twice as a rule 5 minor leaguer, had a solid year but has no place to play (he’s in San Diego, I think).  Tagg Boziad hit for power, but isn’t going to find a job playing first base here with Pujols and Duncan hanging around.  The pitchers are a motley crue, with the top six guys in innings all having losing records.  Mark Worrell looks like a future closer, though – at 24, he fanned 66 in 67 innings, even though he was the eighth inning guy.  The real closer, Brian Falkenborg had better numbers, but is 29 and has a dozen years (and four MLB shots with four different teams) of experience.

 

AA Springfield features Colby Rasmus, who will be the centerfielder SOON.  Rasmus was just 20, and hit 29 – 72 – .279 with 70 walks and 18 stolen bases in just 21 tries.  Catcher Bryan Anderson hit .298 and awaits his 22nd birthday in December.  With Molina, he might be a backup, but he can hit.  SS Jose Martinez looks like he might contribute power – he hit better in AA than at A+ Palm Beach – so it’s hard to say where he’ll finish as a hitter.  And there is Jarrett Hoffpauir, who hit .345 with plate discipline, got a promotion to AAA and hit .300 there with a .390+ OBA.  He could be the new leadoff hitter and second baseman in 2009.  None of the AA pitchers looked overwhelming, but you never know.  Mitchell Boggs has some promise – but not enough strikeouts.

 

Cal’s Allen Craig hit 21 homers for the Palm Beach Cardinals (A+) and could replace Troy Glaus in 2010.  He’s got power and discipline – if he can field, he’s got a future.  Luke Gregerson came out of St. Xavier college as a 28th round pick and tore up A+ ball, with a 69/20 K/W ratio in 64 innings – only 42 hits and no homers allowed.  Tyler Norrick and Adam Ottavino were both solid starters and need to refine their control.

 

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