For starters, I cannot tell you how badly I wanted to write an article about who was a worse closer: Ryan Franklin or LeBron James. But considering this is a baseball site and we’ve beaten the Franklin (no longer an) issue to death, I exercised a bit of self-control. You’re welcome.
What I do want to talk about is the Brewers sweep of the Cardinals in Milwaukee this past weekend and why it’s actually a good thing for the Red Birds. Think back to last season when the Cardinals went into Cincinnati in mid-August, snatched first place from the Reds, then immediately tanked… winning just 11 of their next 31 ballgames. The Reds simultaneously got hot, and it was game over. Now recall what happened when the Reds paid them back with a sweep of their own last month. The Cardinals won 16 of their next 23 while the Reds won just 11 of 27. Now why is that? Well…
The 2010 Cardinals and 2011 Reds have a couple things in common: huge egos, and a sense of entitlement. After winning the NL Central back in 2009, last year’s Cardinal team went into Cincy, beat down the “little brother” of the division, took first place and assumed it would be smooth sailing into the playoffs. They took everything for granted and suddenly couldn’t buy a win. Likewise with the Reds this year, they too felt some entitlement after winning the division, then sweeping 1st place away from the Cardinals in May. At just a game over .500 on June 13, I think the Reds are what they are: a .500 team. Cardinal fans should not have to worry about the Reds making a serious run at the division title again this September.
The Cardinals and Brewers have some things in common as well: ridiculous offenses, and a big chip on their shoulders. The Cardinals got the proverbial “punch in the mouth” last summer when the Reds took the NL Central from them. Then in spring training, everyone (and I mean everyone) counted them out of the 2011 playoff race when they lost ace, Adam Wainwright, for the season to an elbow injury. The Brewers were the forgotten child, lost in the shuffle of the Cards-Reds hype. But after a slow start, they’ve heated up FAST (24-8 record since Mother’s Day). That should make the NL Central race should be a very hard-fought, TWO-horse race deep into September.
So why is the weekend sweep and expected strong challenge from the Brewers a good thing for the Cardinals? Well, the reason is two-fold. First, there’s the natural tendency to push yourself harder when there’s someone right there with you, neck and neck, running for the finish line. An example: It’s hard to imagine Mark McGwire would’ve tacked on 8 more home runs in 3 weeks in the summer of ’98 without Sammy Sosa right there with him. The benchmark had been set at 62, McGwire’s own son said he wanted to see him get to 65…but 70? Oh no… not without Sammy pushing him by hitting 66. No chance. So with the Brewers making a serious run at the division title (a run that could very well see win totals climb into the mid to upper 90s) will keep the Cardinals focused all year, and will likely help BOTH ball clubs distance themselves from the rest of the field in the wildcard race. The second reason is more of a long-term one, but the Brewers being in the thick of the race right now means they are going to take a major hit when Prince Fielder walks at the end of the season. The Brewers’ plan from Day 1 of this season has been simple: If we have a shot, we’re going “all-in” this year, and if we don’t, we’re going to unload Prince. Right now, it’s safe to say the Brew Crew will be shoving all their chips into the middle of the table come July 31st, baseball’s trade deadline. Not only will they fail to receive any value for Fielder when he walks at year’s end, but they’ll probably end up overpaying for outside help. Can you say depleted farm system?
There’s a couple reasons why the Brewers have only been to the playoffs once in the past 30 years while the Cardinals have made it 10 times: Market size and management savvy. One of those things will certainly not be changing for Milwaukee, while the Cardinals continue to have the edge in both categories.
Let’s play worst case scenario and say the Brewers win the NL Central. A) That means they still have Prince Fielder and will therefore lose him for nothing in free agency. Advantage: Cardinals in the long term. B) The Cardinals could still very well earn the wild card spot in their efforts to catch and surpass Milwaukee. Aside from possibly having one less home playoff game, that’s still a good thing for the Cardinals.
As for the best case scenario, the Brewers could fall off the pace and miss the playoffs, but that drop-off likely won’t happen before the trade deadline. So they could lose the division race and get no value back in exchange for Prince Fielder. Advantage: Cardinals (in the short AND long term).
So while the weekend sweep at the hands of the Brewers might still sting a like that breakup with your high school girlfriend, it’s actually a good thing in the long run. You just might not realize it yet.