Cardinals at the 3/4ths Mark
Since last we looked in on current Cardinals, things have been a little hectic. Molina hurt his wrist, so the Cardinals signed George Kottaras to be Tony Cruz' back-up. After just 11 innings, Kottaras was jettisoned, and they signed A.J. Pierzynski. I don't know whether they just soured on Kottaras really quickly, or Cruz swiftly convinced them he was best left backing up, rather than being the primary starter. I lean towards the latter, because I can't imagine what the Cardinals saw in Kottaras in that brief span they didn't already know about from his 8+ year career. Then again, some of these guys are part of the same brain trust that thought Ryan Theriot could shortstop after watching him try for the Cubs for years, so perhaps I'm giving too much credit.
The team also traded James Ramsey to Cleveland for Justin Masterson, and then Joe Kelly and Allen Craig to Boston for John Lackey. Masterson's a buy low candidate, since he was coming off the DL, and hadn't pitched well this year when he did pitch. So far, it's not looking like a good buy. 3 starts, 15 innings, 10 runs allowed, 2 HRs, and 6 BBs. It's not really all that much worse than Shelby Miller, but if the team has decided their best strategy was to shore up the pitching staff, and hope the offense can string some hits together, then two Shelby's hardly helps. As for Lackey, well, 3 starts, 19 innings, 13 runs, 4 HRs, 5 BBs. So now they have 3 Shelbys. Well done, excellent work, but I kind of suspected Mozeliak made that trade to try and force Matheny to play Oscar Taveras. Much like in 2009 when he traded Chris Duncan to Boston so LaRussa couldn't keep putting him in the lineup everyday. Difference being, Mozeliak went out the next week and acquired Matt Holliday to fill LF, and Holliday hit a ton the rest of the season. Oscar thus far hasn't managed to get his OPS over .600, and since he went 0-4 today, I'm afraid Matheny will probably bench him for Shane Robinson tomorrow.
Anyway, with all this player movement, the Cardinals went 21-20 over the previous 41 games. So clearly shaking up the club house has gotten things back on track. After Saturday's loss, they're on pace for 86-88 wins, which puts them at the front of the pack of mediocre teams fumbling about for a wild card. The Cardinals did manage to win today, taking 3 of 4 from San Diego. They did it despite Wainwright somehow surrendering 4 runs to the Padres, and Trevor Rosenthal pitching so badly Matheny called in Seth Maness to bail him out in the 9th.
Wainwright's struggled a bit in general lately, though Lynn has continued to be solid. Carlos Martinez got sent to the minors, allegedly to stretch him out for a return to the rotation, but was called up this morning to replace Siegrist in the bullpen, after the latter crapped the bed against the Padres Saturday. I got to see that performance. Siegrist isn't just bad, he's slow bad, taking forever to actually throw the ball like he thinks that's going to make him a better pitcher. He's walked the same number of guys (10) as Maness is less than half the innings, and Maness has 2 intentional walks in there, so those are Matheny's fault. I watched him make Shelby walk the Padres #8 hitter last night twice, even though the guy's OPS+ was 68, so I'm confident that any intentional walks are not the pitcher's idea. Neshek's still the best guy on the staff, and Choate's doing OK, I guess, though he's walked more guys than Siegrist (though not if you remove intentional walks). Sam Freeman's doing all right so far, though he's walked more guys (13) than any of the other relievers I mentioned.
The Cardinals just seem to have a lot of guys who are wild, but not effectively wild. They miss the strike zone, but not closely enough to make hitters chase. I don't know if that's a young pitcher thing (though that hardly applies to Choate), or just a fluke. Rosenthal, Martinez, and Freeman are all walking more than 4 batters per 9 innings, and Choate and Siegrist are both above 3. Which kind of confirms my general feeling that Neshek and Maness are the only reliable guys in the 'pen right now (with Freeman standing 3rd). Rosenthal's turned into Isringhausen, the Sequel (or Bruce Sutter the Sequel if you're my dad) in his propensity for loading up the bases, which makes me worried he's going to become the bad Izzy of 2006 or 2008 at any moment.
As for the offense, even after scoring 12 runs over the weekend (while allowing 15, cough, cough), the Cardinals have still scored only 461 runs, which puts them on pace for 607 runs by the end of the season. The last time the team scored less than 700 runs in a season was 1997, when they scored 689. They scored 563 in the shortened '95 season, which would have come out to 638 over a full 162 games. The '94 team scored 535 in 115 games before the strike, on pace for 754 runs. The last time they slipped under 600 runs in a full season was 1990, 599 runs. That team was much worse at run prevention (though the Cardinals are back down to 7th in runs allowed and 8th in ERA), which is why they lost 90 games. This team is more like the 1986 group that was 3rd in runs allowed (611), but dead last in runs scored (601). They finished 79-82, exactly what their Pythagorean predicted, and pretty much what the 2014 team's Pythagorean predicted after Saturday night's game.
The '86 team only had 5 players with an OPS better than .700 (Mike Laga, Andy van Slyke, Jack Clark, Ozzie Smith, Jose Oquendo), only three with an OPS+ over 100 (Laga, van Slyke, Clark). Ozzie (.709, 98) was the only one with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. Laga (.808, 120) had 52 PAs, Oquendo (.700, 95) just 158. Clark (.784, 116) and van Slyke (.795, 118) had 280 and 470, respectively. Of the starters, only Clark, van Slyke, and Ozzie had an OPS+ above 90, only Willie McGee and Tom Herr were better than 80. Terry Pendleton and Vince Coleman each had a 62. Among bench players with at least 100 PAs, Tito Landrum (88) was the only one other than Oquendo to have an OPS+ better than 70. It was a miserable offensive bunch. Dead last in runs, hits, doubles, HRs, batting average, OBP, SLG, OPS. The only things they were good at were stolen bases (1st), triples (2nd), not striking out (2nd), and walking (5th).
By all rights, the 2014 team ought to be better. They have 7 guys with an OPS better than .700, though one is Greg Garcia (14 PAs), and another is the currently injured Molina. But Jon Jay, Matt Holliday, Matt Carpenter, and Jhonny Peralta all have an OPS+ between 116 and 120, and Matt Adams is at 126. And all of them have at least 300 PAs so far this year, with Carpenter and Holliday already above 500. Wong's OPS+ is 91 now (after his early July power surge), and Pierzynski, in the limited sample of 54 PAs, has an OPS+ of 88. The one massive hole in the lineup is RF, whether it was the departed Craig (79), Taveras (57), or lately, Shane Robinson (10). Descalso and Ellis are still useless, and Bourjos' OPS+ just hover a little above or below 80, but it feels like this lineup, if not a run-scoring machine, should at least be closer to middle of the pack, rather than sitting at the bottom. But there they are, 14th in runs scored, dead last in HRs, 12th in triples and stolen bases, 11th in slugging, 9th in hits, 8th in walks. The things the Cardinals rank better than average in are batting average (6th), OBP and doubles (4th), not getting caught stealing (3rd), and not striking out (1st). That feels more scattershot than the '86 club, which might make sense, as I'm not sure what this team's offensive identity is right now. Other than "bad", obviously.
I'm in kind of a strange head space with this team. They have a winning record, 66-57 with today's win, and this is good. But they're run differential is -8, which suggests they should be at least a couple of games under .500. That's bad. I'd like to see them make the playoffs, because once there, anything might happen. Plus, by then the Cardinals would theoretically have both Yadier Molina and Michael Wacha back. Maybe. Molina would be a certain upgrade over Tony Cruz or A.J. Pierzynski, Wacha would hopefully return to pitching well, which would put him ahead of everyone in the rotation other than Wainwright and Lynn. Hard to believe I'm including Lynn in that group, but he's impressed me this year. Maybe it's just luck, but I do have more confidence in him to at least keep things close even if he isn't going to be lights out every time. It's probably telling that Wacha is 4th among their pitchers in bWAR (behind Waino, Neshek, and Lynn), despite not pitching since June, and Molina is still 4th in WAR among position players (behind Peralta, Carpenter, and Adams), despite not playing since early July. They're good players obviously, but nobody else is stepping up in their absence. Jon Jay is the only other player on the team counted as being worth 2 WAR up to this point in the season.
Back to my mixed feelings about this season. The more I see of Matheny, the more I worry that he has "his guys", and he is ride or die with them no matter how bad they are. It isn't strictly a case of someone being a veteran, because he pretty quickly stopped using Wigginton last year before his release, and seems to have accepted Mark Ellis is not going to be useful this year. But among guys who have been on the team previously, they get a long leash, especially if the option is someone who hasn't. And Matheny seems all too willing to run down the new guys for things he lets pass from the old guard. Oscar Taveras makes a baserunning error, Matheny comments on it, but ignores similar poor decisions out of "proven guy" Shane Robinson. Kolten Wong doesn't hit and gets sent to the minors under excuses that the lineup needs a boost, even though the two players who will replace him at second - Ellis and especially "proven" Descalso - are both hitting worse. Not to mention how poorly Craig and basically everyone other than Peralta and Molina were hitting at that point. It is very reminiscent to me of the disparity in how LaRussa would treat certain players (say Brendan Ryan versus Skip Schumaker) for similar transgressions (ignoring a sign). Ryan would get pulled from a game in the 2nd innings, Schumaker would be allowed to continue on as before.
If the Cardinals are in contention, Matheny can continue to crap like that, under the auspice of his "I'm here to win games, not develop players" line. Which is interesting, because I had figured Matheny was hired, despite his complete lack of any coaching or managerial experience at the major league or minor league levels, because he understood the Cardinals were going to frequently promote from within, and it was his job to help those players develop. Instead, you see players who don't immediately excel get exiled to the bench (see Peter Bourjos) with some pap about needing to learn to struggle through adversity. Which sounds to me like something you do by continuing to play until you set things right, but in Matheny's world means "sit your ass on the bench and watch this veteran play, even if he's noticeably worse than you are". If they fall out of contention, he has no excuse for not playing the younger guys all the time.
I want them to win, but I'd prefer it happened in a way, and with players, that I actually liked or approved of. I don't dislike Shane Robinson - in certain circumstances I think he's quite useful - I just want Taveras to play more, because if he gets it figured out he is so much better than Robinson can ever hope to be. Shane Robinson's ceiling is some lesser hybrid of Jay and Bourjos, with less power and speed, but more walks. Taveras could be Ray Lankford, at minimum. That's no contest.