There’s a sense in which I was lucky to publish 2013 NL Central previews in alphabetical order (minus the Brewers thus far), instead of projected order of finish or something. For, the transition from winter into spring has brought the St. Louis Cardinals roster numerous surprises. The two greatest surprises are potentially season-ending injuries to starter Chris Carpenter and shortstop Rafael Furcal. These veterans bring great name recognition to the Cardinals, and one might expect their injuries to hurt the Cardinals’ chances to win. However, the 2012 Cardinals proved that they could compete without Carpenter, posting one of the strongest run differentials in the National League while making the playoffs as a wild card club. Now, the continuation of these veteran injuries in 2013 spoil a secret about the Cardinals’ roster: their young core of players might be stronger without these veterans.
In 2012, the Cardinals introduced Joe Kelly and Lance Lynn to their rotation, and also featured a brief appearance by Shelby Miller. Beyond Lynn, Kelly, and Miller, even if it feels Jaime Garcia has been around for some time, he only turned 26 during his 2012 campaign. Adam Wainwright and Jake Westbrook lend a veteran presence to the Cardinals rotation even in the absence of Carpenter, but one wonders whether that presence is necessary to guide this talented group of arms. Rather, it may be the young arms that lead the veterans for 2013. The Cincinnati Reds’ strong rotational performance in 2012 — as well as their ability to do everything right and outplay their run differential — overshadowed the fact that the Cardinals were arguably a better team in 2012 than during their Championship run in 2011. The 2012 St. Louis squad featured a more balanced pitching staff, including a stronger rotation, and an offense that was still solid (if not great). That the Cardinals don’t enter 2013 defending a World Series title is just a detail — certainly, their inability to win the NL Championship Series in 2012 is more an indicator that sometimes you just lose to the wrong club at the wrong time (and, in many ways, the 2012 San Francisco Giants’ all-hit, no-pitch, get hot in the playoffs approach mimicked the 2011 Cardinals).
Given that the 2012 Cardinals emerged with a stronger club after the season, and introduced / developed their young contributors during a contending season, the organization is arguably in a stronger, more certain position entering 2013 than they were after their most recent World Series title.
Stats Sidebar: Pitching Parks in the NL Central
I forgot to feature PNC Park during my Pirates’ preview, but that’s all well and good because that haunted house in Pittsburgh has a lot in common with the latest installment of Busch Stadium in St. Louis. Namely, both the Pirates and the Cardinals own the most consistent pitching parks in the NL Central.
While Great American Ballpark, Miller Park, and Wrigley Field are typically average parks that tend toward hitters during their extreme seasons, PNC Park and Busch Stadium III are the other way ’round. When these parks in St. Louis and Pittsburgh tend toward the extremes, those extremes suppress runs scored.
2003-2012 NL Batting (R/G):
2012: 4.22 (.254 / .318 / .400; 7.64 K, 3.01 BB, 0.94 HR)
2003: 4.61 (.262 / .332 / .417; 6.56 K, 3.35 BB, 1.05 HR)
2012: 98 B / 97 P
2011: 98 B / 97 P
2010: 97 B / 96 P
2009: 98 B / 97 P
2008: 98 B / 98 P
2007: 99 B / 99 P
2006: 99 B / 99 P
2012: 93 B / 94 P
2011: 95 B / 97 P
2010: 98 B / 100 P
2009: 98 B / 99 P
2008: 96 B / 97 P
2007: 97 B / 98 P
2006: 98 B / 99 P
2005: 99 B / 99 P
2004: 99 B / 99 P
2003: 102 B / 102 P
That Busch Stadium consistently suppresses runs scored should place the Cardinals’ offense achievements into perspective. The Cardinals’ offense has scored more than 760 runs in four of seven seasons at their new ballpark, but even their lower runs scored totals of 2009-2010 were notably above average in their environment. At their new ballpark, only their 2007 season featured a below average offense (and, coincidentally, that was the Cardinals’ only losing season at the new yard). So, even though the Cardinals’ ballpark suppresses runs scored against the league, the St. Louis nine are consistently able to score a notable number of runs.
Yadier Molina’s Transformation
If you’ve ever watched a nationalized broadcast of a Cardinals game, you’ve probably heard about how difficult it is to strike out Yadier Molina. While the reliable backstop continues to knock the ball into play at a consistently high rate, Molina has recently traded some strike outs (and walks) for home runs.
2008 (485 PA): .060 K / .066 BB / .014 HR
2009 (544 PA): .072 K / .092 BB / .011 HR
2010 (521 PA): .099 K / .081 BB / .012 HR
2011 (518 PA): .085 K / .064 BB / .027 HR
2012 (563 PA): .098 K / .080 BB / .039 HR
Of course, it’s not as easy as striking out a touch more and thus hitting more home runs. Rather, Molina’s approach is focused less on groundballs in recent years. Specifically, Molina is knocking more line drives, and although his flyball rate is not as high as his early career figures, his rate of flyballs increased over the last few seasons. The result is a marked transformation, from a contact-hitter to a legitimate contact/power threat.
Over the last few seasons, the Cardinals have employed a number of new faces in the field. These new faces have played numerous positions, showcasing the flexibility of the Cardinals’ approach to fielding talent (or, simply stated, the willingness of the Cardinals to shuffle their fielders in unorthodox combinations). Notably, the Cardinals moved Skip Schumaker from the outfield to second-base a few years ago, despite 6 professional games in the infield during his professional career (and that was at 3B in the minors). Meanwhile, Daniel Descalso moves around the infield (most recently, 3B in 2011 to 2B in 2012), and Allen Craig switched from a primary outfielder to a primary first baseman; Jon Jay had his role as centerfielder solidified, as did David Freese at the hot corner.
Notably, the Cardinals’ defense was inefficient in both 2011 and 2012. During the 2011 to 2012 seasons, the Cardinals defensive efficiency shifted from .687 to .686, although the league efficiency also declined from .694 to .689 during that time.
2011: -1 DRS, 1.0 UZR/150
2012: -6 DRS, -4.3 UZR/150
2011 (CF, RF, LF): 9 DRS, -0.7 UZR/150
2012 (CF): 2 DRS, 5.2 UZR/150
2012 (RF, CF): 4 DRS, 0.5 UZR/150
2011 (2B): -3 DRS, -10.0 UZR/150
2012 (2B): -1 DRS, -0.9 UZR/150
2011 (RF, LF, CF): 2 DRS, 35.1 UZR/150
2012 (CF, RF, LF): 1 DRS, -5.3 UZR/150
2011 (LF, RF, CF / 2B, 3B, 1B): 3 DRS, 9.9 UZR/150 / -1 DRS on the infield
2012 (1B / RF, LF): -3 DRS, -3.4 UZR/150 / -4 DRS in the outfield
2011 (3B): -1 DRS, 3.9 UZR/150
2012 (3B): 2 DRS, -0.5 UZR/150
2011 (3B / SS): -6 DRS, -6.6 UZR/150
2012 (2B / SS, 3B, 1B): 0 DRS, -1.9 UZR/150; -7 DRS at other infield positions
2012 (SS): -4 DRS, -10.1 UZR/150
It’s difficult to look at a potentially-season-ending injury and say that a club could be better without that player. However, in the case of the Cardinals infield and Rafael Furcal, the Cardinals could boast better defense at shortstop with Pete Kozma (2 DRS in limited time in 2012) and the back-and-forth Ronny Cedeno (Cedeno almost evenly splits his below and above average SS campaigns). Meanwhile, with Freese and Craig arguably settled into their solid infield positions, Descalso could also settle in as the club’s everyday second baseman. While these changes might not necessarily result in a notably above average defense, a solidified defensive core could bring the Cardinals’ defense back to average efficiency.
One can say what they like about Furcal’s defense, but the shortstop produced an above average season for the Cardinals in 2012. Fortunately for the Cardinals, shortstop is one of the least productive positions in the National League, which means that Furcal’s loss cuts both ways: first, having a bat at shortstop that can produce more runs than expected from the position is important to a strong batting order; but, given the dearth of quality shortstop bats in the Senior Circuit, the club should not necessarily be concerned about their replacements’ abilities to match their competition.
Furcal (529 PA): 69 R, 49 RBI; .265/.326/.347(.108 R/PA)
Descalso (86 PA): 7 R, 4 RBI; .237/.298/.263
Kozma (81 PA): 11 R, 14 RBI; .338/.388/.577
In limited plate appearances, the combination of Kozma and Descalso (the Cardinals’ primary SS replacements) matched Furcal’s run production. One might ask whether Kozma and Cedeno are likely to match Furcal’s production over the course of an entire season. Over nearly 2000 PA between AA and AAA on the Cardinals’ farm, Kozma’s plate approach mellowed, moving from somewhat-high strike out and walk totals to fewer strike outs and walks (and, fewer home runs). Kozma’s minor league shift shows a moderate contact approach, where he won’t rely heavily on walks and home runs, but he won’t necessarily strike out a lot.
2009-2010 (AA, 1029 PA): .193 K / .095 BB / .019 HR
2011-2012 (AAA, 948 PA): .174 K / .081 BB / .015 HR
2011-2012 (NL, 104 PA): .221 K / .106 BB / .019 HR
While Kozma’s brief stint in the majors shows a different contact approach than his minor league results, one might expect Kozma’s strike outs and walks to mellow once again. As Kozma becomes familiar with NL pitching and gets his routine going, he presents a modest contact hitting approach to the Cardinals’ batting order.
Not too long ago, I featured some of the NL Central’s young arms, including Shelby Miller. While only limited to one emergency start in 2012, Miller has the potential to contribute to the 2013 Cardinals in a greater capacity. The young hurler is the youngest of a group of up-and-coming pitchers for the Cardinals, and perhaps the most talented and highly-regarded.
After spending portions of 2009, 2010, and 2011 in the Pacific Coast League, the Cardinals worked Lance Lynn into their big league operation. Over two seasons of work between the bullpen and rotation, Lynn boasts more than 50 appearances and 31 starts. Even though his strike out rate declined and walk rate increased in 2012, he was able to limit the damage, preventing 6 runs against his league/park in 176 innings.
2010 (695 BF): .190 K / .092 BB / .012 HR
2011 (826 BF): .189 K / .061 BB / .018 HR
2012 (515 BF): .190 K / .058 BB / .014 HR
Meanwhile, southpaw Jaime Garcia returns to the Cardinals’ rotation in order to continue his consistent string of successful fielding-independent seasons — even if his runs allowed totals do not reflect that performance. In 2012, despite maintaining strong strike out totals and improving his walks and home runs, Garcia allowed approximately 12 more runs than expected in his injury-shortened-campaign. This is nothing new for Garcia, who allowed 23 unearned runs in 2011, and another 15 unearned runs in 2010. His luck is almost as extreme as Zack Greinke, as his fielding independent campaign suggests a completely different pitcher than his actual runs allowed totals.
Joe Kelly is another strong bullpen-to-rotation candidate for the Cardinals. Although his K / BB / HR ratios were not as strong as some of his young rotation mates, he produced more than 100 innings of average pitching while filling in for injured Cardinals starters. Kelly might be the least experienced of the young gang, too, with 560 batters faced in the high minors, aside from his 457 batters faced in the big leagues during 2012.
Overall, this group of young pitchers fits the Cardinals’ staff profile of filling in roles, and perhaps building a faceless staff that does whatever it needs to win. Of course, the secret is that as these talented young arms receive more opportunities to produce, the Cardinals’ pitching staff might be better in 2013 than it was during either of the last two seasons.
How do you write a best-case scenario for an organization that consistently wins World Series championships (even when they don’t have the greatest club in baseball)? Clearly, the Cardinals’ mode of operation will be to compete for a playoff spot in 2013, even given their veteran injuries. In this regard, they have a strong opportunity to compete with their offense as their pitching staff takes shape. While their short-term goals involve contending in the NL Central, the Cincinnati Reds are probably the club’s greatest foe in the long-term department, too. Perhaps the most successful 2013 campaign for the Cardinals will be one in which they compete for the division while also proving that they have a future that is the brightest in the Central.
BaseballAmerica. BaseballAmerica, Inc., 1999-2013.
Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC. 2000-2013.
MLB Advanced Media, 2001-2013.
John Dewan & Ben Jedlovec. The Fielding Bible III. Chicago: Acta Sports, 2012.
Bill James. The Bill James Handbook. 2010, 2013 consulted. Chicago: Acta Sports; 2009, 2012.
Image (AP): http://aol.sportingnews.com/mlb/story/2012-05-27/Yadier-Molina-leaves-game-dehydrated-st-louis-cardinals