2012 Preview: St. Louis Cardinals | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

The 2011 St. Louis Cardinals could have served as mascots for the MLB’s campaign to expand the playoffs in 2012. After winning the World Series as a low-win total division champion in 2006, the Cardinals returned to the Fall Classic a handful of years later to add another notch in their belt full of strange championship seasons. If they weren’t already a perfect case for why getting hot at the right time is all that matters in the MLB playoffs after knocking the Philadelphia Phillies out of the playoffs, they ousted the previously red-hot Milwaukee Brewers in the League Championship Series. A strong study in contrasts, the division champion Brewers could not overcome the Cardinals’ in the bright lights.

Let’s not fall all over ourselves to overstate the Cardinals’ luck and hot streak at the close of the 2011 season. Not only did the Cardinals overcome an injury to one of the very best pitchers in the National League (if not baseball), but they scored more runs than anyone on the Senior Circuit. That the Cardinals scored more runs than anyone in the 2011 NL is impressive given that they were the only NL Central club to play in a ballpark that suppressed runs below 4.00 R/G. In terms of context, the Cardinals posted an exceptional offensive performance in 2011, offsetting their below average pitching staff.

During the 2011-2012 offseason, the Cardinals suffered one of the loudest roster losses in all of baseball, as career Cardinal Albert Pujols betrayed the entire state of Missouri, the Cardinals’ organization, and the History of the National League (okay, he did none of that, I just thought I’d write that to mimic some of the most ridiculous posturing about loyalty that I’ve ever seen. One could make better arguments that God exists in the universe than Loyalty exists in professional sports, and yet Americans held Pujols to a standard that they would have violated themselves in EVERY case). The Cardinals duly protested, publicly noting that they tried to campaign for Pujols’ services on the merits of their tradition, but if Pujols ain’t Stan Musial, that’s because Musial didn’t have a chance to shop his bat and character on the open market (I’d imagine Musial woulda looked “Wunnerful” in pinstripes, and he’d have been just as good a guy, had free agency existed).

The Cardinals, in failing to sign Pujols, made one of the smartest moves of the offseason. Instead of tying their club to a first baseman on the wrong side of 30, they provided their organization financial flexibility to accompany their surprisingly strong core of contracts. The Cardinals immediately put that flexibility to work, moving aging-but-elite bat Lance Berkman to first base, adding Carlos Beltran to an extremely favorable short-term deal. Alongside long-term deals to Yadier Molina and Matt Holliday, the Cardinals have a young, controllable bullpen and Jaime Garcia under contract for several seasons.

If you thought that the Cardinals’ 2011 campaign was luck, you’re going to be sorely disappointed in their 2012 roster, which has as strong a chance of competing for the NL Central crown as the 2011 club.

ADAM WAINWRIGHT
If you had asked me several months ago about the prospect of Adam Wainwright returning to the Cardinals as an ace, I would have said, “that’s crazy. He’s returning from Tommy John surgery. Everyone knows that spells trouble for his career.” However, upon further review, the history of pitchers that had mid-career surgery to repair their elbow ligaments is not only robust, it’s successful. This includes late career surgeries that allowed pitchers to effectively work for a few more years (Billy Wagner); early career surgeries that resulted in successful careers (Kerry Wood); young starters building strong reputations (Jordan Zimmermann, Josh Johnson); good pitchers that remained effective (Chris Carpenter, Tim Hudson, John Smoltz, and of course, Tommy John); and less-flashy pitchers that nevertheless maintained effectiveness after the surgery (Shaun Marcum, Jose Arredondo, Bill Bray).

Method: It should be noted that there were many pitchers I did not include in this table. First, pitchers that elected Tommy John surgery in the minor leagues, and then pitched in the MLB, were not included in this table because their statistical comparisons would have been of a completely different nature.

Secondly, there are a number of pitchers that may have had Tommy John surgery, but I was unable to find specific information or dates about the surgery. This includes a number of former pitchers, such as Jose Rijo.

Third, perhaps for obvious reasons, I did not include eight MLB starters that had the surgery around or during the 2011 season and are currently returning in some way or another. This includes Wainwright, Stephen Strasburg, Jorge de la Rosa, Rubby de la Rosa, Manny Corpas, David Aardsma, Jamie Moyer, and Joba Chamberlain.

Remarkably, a sizable portion of pitchers that received mid-career surgery to repair their elbow ligaments remained just as good as their previous performances. Now, this does not necessarily mean that Adam Wainwright is going to return to the MLB without any trouble whatsoever, and every case is going to depend on the pitcher’s ability to properly rehabilitate his arm. Furthermore, even some of the successful pitchers continued to have arm trouble in different places. However, the simple fact is that Tommy John surgery is not a death-blow to career longevity or career success, and that fact helps to explain why the surgery was so radical in the first place.

Wainwright’s case is unprecedented. He’s arguably the greatest starting pitcher ever to receive the surgery. His total innings pitched prior to his surgery do not compare to John, Hudson, Smoltz, or even rotation-mate Jake Westbrook, but the strength of his aggregate performance prior to surgery compares favorably to each of those pitchers (if not surpassing them). Ranked by runs prevented, Wainwright was one of seven National League pitchers to rank in the Top 20 (in the NL) for three seasons during 2008-2011. Compared to potential NL aces that had injury trouble (or had special circumstances moving them between leagues), Wainwright compares favorably to Johan Santana, Carpenter, Tim Hudson, Josh Johnson, Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson, Shaun Marcum, R.A. Dickey, and Johnny Cueto.

So, one might not be able to argue that Wainwright was an ace at the level of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Clayton Kershaw, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, or Cole Hamels during the last four seasons. However, one can certainly argue that Wainwright solidly deserves consideration as a potential NL ace for the 2012 season, even considering his injury and surgery.

Time will tell if his arm recovered from his rehabilitation, and whether he is one of the few cases of a strong pitcher unable to regain effectiveness after Tommy John surgery. Time will tell if he is able to escape other residual injuries. However, no one can legitimately hold his injury against him on its own terms; even if there are unknown circumstances or potential trouble following the surgery, one cannot say that those potential circumstances significantly derail his potential to return as an ace.

ROLE PLAYERS
If you’re like me, one of the things that drives you crazy about the Cardinals is their ability to take seemingly marginal MLB players and plug them into extremely useful roles. No doubt that Tony LaRussa was masterful at using his players in exactly the right way, yielding performances that played to their strengths (even if they had other weaknesses or shortcomings). One might question whether Mike Matheny can utilize the depth of his roster as adroitly as LaRussa, but that doesn’t mean that the depth isn’t there.

The Cardinals appear to have set starters for at least six of eight positions on the diamond. Jon Jay is probably likely to serve as the club’s opening day centerfielder, but he remains part of the club’s deep, flexible roster. Tyler Greene and Daniel Descalco can work at a couple of infield positions; Skip Schumaker can serve in the infield and outfield; Lance Berkman can jump between first base and right field; Carlos Beltran can serve a couple of outfield spots (if not all of them); Allen Craig can serve the corner outfield spots.

Jon Jay
2010: .155 K / .074 BB / .012 HR
2011: .161 K / .056 BB / .020 HR

Daniel Descalco
2010: .162 K / .054 BB / .000 HR
2011: .173 K / .088 BB / .003 HR

Allen Craig
2010: .210 K / .073 BB / .032 HR
2011: .183 K / .068 BB / .050 HR

Tyler Greene
2009: .276 K / .034 BB / .017 HR
2010: .197 K / .107 BB / .016 HR
2011: .256 K / .107 BB / .008 HR

Skip Schumaker
2009: .118 K / .089 BB / .007 HR
2010: .121 K / .081 BB / .009 HR
2011: .125 K / .068 BB / .005 HR

One might not mistake these players for exceptional MLB bats, or even exceptional MLB gloves. In general, however, these players can serve the Cardinals’ ability to (a) produce a flexible roster each day of the season, and (b) maintain a generally contact-oriented approach at the plate. In general, these players will forgo the long ball to get the ball in play, and although they do not always maintain average-or-better walk rates, their contact profiles generally feature strike out rates that accommodate low walk and home run rates.

These players will serve as the keys to the Cardinals maintaining an above average offensive team, behind Holliday, Berkman, Beltran, Freese, and Molina.

FACELESS RELIEF
While comparing the Cardinals’ bullpen to that of the Brewers and Cincinnati Reds, it’s easy to dismiss the Cardinals’ bullpen as a bunch of nobodies or unrecognizable names. However, the Cardinals changed around their bullpen roles during the 2011 season, resulting in a bullpen that improved by approximately 16 runs during the second half.

The Cardinals’ bullpen is anchored by general postseason hero Jason Motte, who pitched 8 scoreless innings during the Cardinals’ run through the National League playoffs. His World Series hiccups do not take away from his importance to the Cardinals’ bullpen throughout their improbable playoff performance (perhaps not as much for their runs allowed, as for LaRussa’s sheer reliance on them). Previous closer Fernando Salas rounds out the bullpen along with Lance Lynn, J.C. Romero, Marc Rzepczynski, Mitchell Boggs, and swingman Kyle McClellan.

The best thing one can typically say about a bullpen is that it has several warm bodies, and those bodies have pulses. The 2012 Cardinals’ bullpen should be no different, and many of those warm bodies have proven to be effective relievers.

BREAKOUT: JAIME GARCIA
This is probably going to lead to expectations that Zack Greinke is my 2012 Brewers breakout starter. Jaime Garcia was the Cardinals’ version of Greinke in 2011. Although a lot of people thought that Garcia was a fluke in 2010, and expected him to regress in 2011, he actually improved his fielding independent ratios by notably improving his walk ratio. The Cardinals featured a generally porous defense, but Garcia received more than his fair share. The lefty allowed between 18 and 22 more runs than expected, depending on how you account for the defensive expectations behind him.

Despite any perception that Garcia is a junkballer because of his lack of a hard fastball, he’s more of a moving fastball specialist than a true lefty garbage pitcher. In 2011, nearly 2 of 3 deliveries were fastballs of some sort for Garcia. Garcia will throw a full assortment of pitches, from three moving fastballs to three off-speed deliveries. His change up and slider gently stagger his velocity to his slow curveball, giving Garcia several different speeds to use.

Beyond the extent that you can say this about any pitcher, if Garcia continues to maintain his strike out / walk ratio and limit the damage with home runs, he should be able to improve in 2012 if he receives his fair share of defensive support.

BEST CASE SCENARIO
There’s no need to hold back. The Cardinals are defending their World Series victory, and they boast one of the strongest clubs in the division. Not only do they feature a good core of veteran starters, but they also include a characteristic gang of Cardinals role players and faceless relievers that always seem to inexplicably get the job done. Furthermore, they return one of the very best starters in the National League to a rotation that desperately missed his production in 2011.

It’s difficult to see a scenario in which the Cardinals fail to compete for a divisional title or playoff spot a success for the organization. Certainly, one might argue that the organization is in transition, working to reconfigure their identity now that Albert Pujols is gone. However, one player does not make a Championship squad, even if he is the greatest player of his generation. What the Cardinals lose in Pujols’ production, they gain in roster flexibility, and they have a set of veterans that can supply steady bats to the Cardinals’ order.

REFERENCES
Baseball-Reference.com. Sports Reference, LLC.
FanGraphs.com.
MLB.com. MLB Advanced Media, 2001-2012.
“Tommy John Surgery.” Wikipedia.org. Wikipedia Foundation, Inc.
Zettel. “How many aces pitch in the National League?” 5 January 2012, JSOnline.com. Journal Sentinel Inc., 2012.

Image: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:St_Louis_Cardinals_1956-1966_logo.png

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