Tag Archive | "Center Stage"

St. Louis Cardinals’ Bullpen Battle Takes Center Stage for Roster Decisions

The St. Louis Cardinals came to spring training with very few roster decisions to make.  Most of those decisions have been reached in the last few days.

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Kolten Wong appears to be the starting second baseman, Jon Jay and Peter Bourjos will share time in center field, Joe Kelly will be the fifth starter, Carlos Martinez will serve as the eighth-inning reliever and Pat Neshek has seemingly made the club.  That leaves only one decision to be made: Which pitcher will join the bullpen as the seventh reliever?

The competition comes down to three young hopefuls: Jorge Rondon, Scott McGregor and Keith Butler.  Those three arms head into the final week of spring training hoping to win a spot on the roster of players heading north to Cincinnati for Opening Day.

Butler is the known commodity of the group, having pitched 20 innings over 16 games for the Cardinals in 2013.  His performance was far from dominant, walking 11 hitters while striking out 16, but it is enough to earn him consideration yet again.

His spring performance does not look that great either, having thrown just over eight innings and surrendering eight runs.  His five walks this spring may raise a flag concerning control.  His minor league stats from 2013 do not seem to suggest it is a long term problem, as he only walked 11 hitters over 41 innings.

Rondon is another in the long line of power arms the Cardinals seem to be able to produce from their farm system.  The difference with him is that he may not have full control over the lively stuff he pushes across the plate.  He has only walked three hitters this spring while striking out seven.

Perhaps most telling is the fact that Rondon has yet to surrender a run.  Rondon did pitch in Memphis last season and did well despite the control issues he faced.  In just under 68 innings, he walked 37 hitters while striking out 42.  He may need a little more time in the minors to prove he has his control settled before making the team.

Manager Mike Matheny shared his thoughts on Rondon with Joe Strauss of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

With Rondon, you’re looking at stuff and someone who has improved.  We gave him a task of pounding the strike zone and simplifying his approach. He’s done well and seen some results.

The long shot of the group is McGregor, who is a non-roster invitee to camp.  His four innings over three games this spring have yielded three runs, two walks and a pair of strikeouts.  McGregor spent 2013 as a starter in the Cardinals’ minor leagues and is seemingly being looked at as a long relief option.

While he struggles for consistency as well as playing time, his placement on the team would also require a subsequent roster move to make room on the 40-man.

Rondon and McGregor may have taken advantage of the situation to get their names in the minds of those in charge.  Unfortunately, it may come down to experience and the product Matheny already knows.

The final relief position likely belongs to Butler unless something goes horribly wrong.

Bill Ivie is the founder of i70baseball.com.

Follow him on Twitter to discuss all things baseball throughout the season.

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Welcome To Kansas City Royals Baseball James Shields

The biggest move of the winter took center stage on Opening Day for the Kansas City Royals.  No longer a team that is rebuilding, David Glass and company took steps this off-season to become contenders.

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The top prospect in the organization was packaged away in order to get the one thing the Royals felt they needed more than anything else: a pitcher that could truly be an ace.  In addition, they got a pitcher who possesses the nickname to define his role with the club.  Welcome to 2013 Royals baseball, let us introduce “Big Game” James Shields.

Opening Day showed the fans exactly what they wanted to see.  Shields took the mound and pitched like the ace that he is.  He got in small bits of trouble, refused to be shook up about it, and fought out of the jams.  He struck out six batters without issuing a single free pass.  He battled, giving up eight hits and still managed to pitch six innings.  He showed Royals fans that he was exactly as advertised.

Aaron Crow and Kelvin Herrera furthered what fans already knew.  The rebuilt rotation would be supported by the strength of the team the last few years: the bullpen.  They were not perfect, but the were close enough.  Three strikeouts, one walk, and two innings later, the Royals pitching staff had put the team in a great position to win a baseball game.  With the exception of one poor pitch from their starter, the Royals were great.  All they needed was two runs to win the game.

That, on the other hand, proved to be difficult.  White Sox starter Chris Sale was Shields-like in his own right.  He scattered hits, kept guys off the bases, and stayed out of trouble.  He went deep into the game and then allowed his bullpen to close the door.  The Royals had their chances, but simply could not deliver.  Ultimately, it came down to the top of the ninth inning with the potential game-tying run sitting in scoring position at second base.  Eric Hosmer had drawn a walk and stole second, trying to ignite something to happen.

Jeff Francoeur grounded out weakly to the shortstop, unable to beat out a possible infield single and drawing the curtain on the first game of the season.

Do not fret, Royals fans, this offense will not sputter like this frequently.  If Shields continues to give up one run per outing, he will find himself winning a lot of games in Royals blue.

But for one day, at the beginning of the 2013 campaign, it sure felt a lot like deja vu.

Bill Ivie is the editor here at i70baseball.
You can follow him on Twitter by 
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MLB Fan Fest: 30 Minutes With Lou Brock

I am not sure I have encountered a Major League Hall Of Famer that can work a crowd and a room better than Lou Brock.

Over All Star Weekend, I took the opportunity Sunday morning to attend FanFest at Bartle Hall in Kansas City.  The highlight of the schedule, for me, was question and answer sessions with two Hall Of Famers, Andre Dawson and Lou Brock.  The sessions were each 30 minutes long and open to anyone in attendance that wanted to come in and listen.

Dawson was one of my father’s favorite players and a Hall Of Famer that I can attest to having seen play myself.  “The Hawk” was frank, answered many questions, and was straight forward and candid with his responses.  It was a legitimate look at baseball north of the border, on astroturf, and throughout baseball.  It was not until after Dawson spoke and Brock took center stage that I realized the stark differences.

Lou came into the room to the obvious chants of “Lou” that resounded like boos from the crowd.  He smiled and waved, took his seat and handled questions from the interviewer and then from the crowd.  One fan preceded his question by telling Brock that his son was named Lou after the great basestealer.  The fan’s young son, who was maybe twelve, was with him and Brock invited his namesake to come stand next to him while he answered the young man’s father’s question.  He talked with the young man like he was answering the question just for him, played him up to the crowd for another loud “Lou” response, and sent a family home with a memory they will never forget.

Lou told stories and gave technical advice on base running.  He explained how he got jumps off of pitchers and how he taught young ball players to square up quickly.

He was asked near the end of his interview to compare current Cardinal catcher Yadier Molina to someone from his era.

“Johnny Bench.  The way that Yadi has learned to hit the ball at this point in his career, Johnny Bench is a completely fair comparison.”

One fan asked about Lou’s first All Star Game, his thoughts and memories from that game.  Lou responded (paraphrased):

I arrived early because I did not want to be seen as “big time”.  The last thing I wanted was to arrive when Willie Mays was arriving, I was young and did not want to show disrespect.  The game started at 3:00 p.m., so I got to the stadium at about 9 a.m. that morning.  I was the only one in the clubhouse except the young man clubhouse attendant they had there.  I decided, being an All Star, that I could be a little “big time” and I beckoned the kid over and asked him if he would go get me a Coca-Cola.  The young man returned with my Coca-Cola and then introduced himself, “Hi, I’m Tom Seaver”.  He made me pay for that Coke for about 14 seasons.

The crowd, of course, was eating out of Brock’s hands by this point and Brock went on to share personal stories of his friend, mentor, roommate and father figure, Buck O’Neil.  The stories showed a personal side to a relationship that started between a scout and player.  They showed an emotion that I was unaware of.  The demonstrated a bond that was stronger than most knew.  It was touching, funny and engaging.

Another fan marveled at Brock’s base stealing ability and remembered a game that he was in attendance for that Lou Brock stole home.  He asked Lou if he could recall how many times he achieved the feat of stealing home in his career.  Lou’s response did not disappoint.

Once.  I stole home exactly one time in my career.  The lineup that we had was full of guys that were paid to drive in runs.  Once I stole a base and put myself into scoring position, they would yell out at me “STAY THERE”.  While it was a joke sometimes, the one hard fast rule I was given was not to steal home so the guys behind me could continue to drive in runs.

Finally, Brock was asked about pitchers he once faced and what he thought of all of them.  The key to the question was the wording which contained “who did you see the ball well against.”  Brock, deliberate in his delivery, dropped a few names and then gave us a great quote:

“I saw the ball out of Koufax’s hand very well.  Never hit it, though.”

Listening to a player of Brock’s caliber talk about life and baseball made 30 minutes seem like mere seconds.  It was the highlight of a very full Sunday for me and an opportunity I suggest no one ever pass up on.  FanFest gave us all the opportunity to make a personal connection with larger than life figures, and it’s an opportunity I will never forget.

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Adcock and Smith highlight failure to develop pitchers

The greatest indictment of “the process” stood center stage on Monday and Tuesday in Cleveland. When the Royals took on the top team in their division, with a chance to gain some ground and cut into the Indians’ lead, the turned to the aces of their pitching staff… Nate Adcock and Will Smith.

You can hate Adcock and Smith for not being Tom Seaver if you want to, but they are what they are. They are second-tier prospects who are trying to learn under extreme pressure to get big league hitters out.

The problem lies deeper than Adcock and Smith. If you want to point fingers, you can start with the draft class of 2008, then 2009, and finally one curious Latin American signing.

About a year and a half ago, I interviewed player-turned-broadcaster Jeff Montgomery on the topic of Royals pitching prospects. This was just after the team’s farm system had been decorated tops in baseball.

Montgomery admitted that not all blue-chip prospects pan out. But he said at the time that the Royals had so many top arms stockpiled that he didn’t see how at least some wouldn’t reach their potential. The percentages were in KC’s favor.

Much of that stockpiling took place in June of 2008. After nabbing Eric Hosmer in the first round of the draft, the Royals used four of their next five selections on pitchers. They were heralded for using those picks on pitchers with “signability issues” – guys who would have gone much higher, but who demanded an unusual amount of cash to sign – particularly Mike Montgomery and Tim Melville.

This was a watershed moment, if you believed some draft analysts. KC was finally willing to open up the wallet to get top prospects. To Montgomery and Melville, the Royals added Tyler Sample and John Lamb.

A year later, KC risked taking a pitcher who refused to sign a big-league deal the year before – Aaron Crow. Then they took Chris Dwyer a few rounds later.

And finally in that off-season came another watershed moment. KC dug even deeper into its pocket to sign a Cuban prospect, outbidding the usual big spenders for Noel Arguelles.

By January of 2010 they looked like geniuses. The prospect rankings came out, with Montgomery, Lamb, Dwyer and Danny Duffy all in the top 100 of baseball’s prospects.

Jeff Montgomery said there was no way they could all miss.

Yet here we are, running Adcock and Smith to the mound in a crucial series, and cussing them for not succeeding.

If you want to place blame, some can be directed at health issues. Hardly underachievers, Lamb and Duffy had their success curtailed by injury.

But that leaves plenty of room for criticism.

The biggest disappointment would have to be Montgomery. A year ago he was one managerial decision away from a spot in the Royals’ rotation. Now he’s following up a miserable 2010 with a 5.17 ERA and 1.617 WHIP thus far in 2012 at Omaha.

Not far behind, however, would be Arguelles. Mysterious arm-troubles kept the Cuban in the shadows for more than a year, making his signing look like a huge mistake. With a $6.9 million signing bonus in his pocket, Arguelles sits on 7.27 ERA and a 2-5 record in Double-A.

And then there’s Melville. Heralded coming out of high school as a first-round talent, KC took a risk by offering him top dollar as a fourth rounder. It took him two years to get out Wilmington, and now he’s showing Arguelles new ways to get shelled in Double-A. His ERA is a robust 7.71 and his WHIP is 1.800.

Compared to his Northwest Arkansas mates, Dwyer looks like Cy Young. At least he has a sub-7 ERA of 5.51. But he’s now 24 years old and looks less like a top-100 prospect all the time.

And in case you are wondering about Sample, consider this “Sample-size:” 1-6 record, 5.29 ERA at Wilmington.

Crow is the only one left, and he’s not yet been turned into a starter at the big-league level, making him a pretty pricey middle reliever.

Every time Nate Adcock and Will Smith take the hill in a KC uniform, fate proves Jeff Montgomery wrong. The Royals played the percentages, believing even with their luck that not ALL their pitching prospects could turn into busts. But thus far, Adcock and Smith are the best they can come up with.

 

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It’s Different When It’s Your Guy

Last week I wrote about playing with numbers, and looked at statistical reasons to support one side of an argument. This week, I’m going to shift gears and write from the other side of my brain, minimizing the role of numbers in this piece. It’s a rare attempt for me to extract the raw-ness and cold, hard factual side, and allow the emotion and romance that can come with being a fan of our game, to take center stage.
The Cardinals owe a great deal of their 2011 success to Lance Berkman. Though (and it’s almost silly to even type this), Mr. Berkman hasn’t always been a St. Louis Cardinal. In fact, outside of a coupe of months that nearly everyone would like to forget with the Yankees, Lance Berkman spent his entire 12 season career with one club before coming to the Cardinals.

Twelve entire seasons.

And when he left, it wasn’t because another team made him a better offer in free agency. It’s because he was TRADED away! You want to talk about being upset?

This kind of thing happens in baseball, as well as other professional sports, all the time. Every year there’s competition for a top free agent or draft pick, there’s jockeying for position at the trade deadline for difference-makers and players-to-be-named-later. But every once-in-a-while, a player’s move from one team to another shakes a fan base to the core.

This was one of those times.

Last year, there was a lot of talk last year during the off-season about whether or not Derek Jeter was going to return to the Yankees. Negotiations went back-and-forth (goodness, what is it with me using all these hyphenated phrases this week?!), but in the end, the captain ended up in pinstripes like he was supposed to. The Yankees are the only team Jeter can play for, right? Like some kind of baseball code that keeps the universe from imploding, it just had to work out that way. Well, it did.

But, it doesn’t work that way every time.

After all, Roy Oswalt left the Astros in 2010 after being with them since they drafted him in 1996. I’ve already mentioned Berkman’s history. Chipper Jones was drafted by the Braves more than 20 years ago, in the 1990 draft, and has never spent a single day with another organization. Imagine how Atlanta fans would feel if he ever left. Also drafted in 1990, Jorge Posada. The Yankees made Posada their 24th round pick that year, and he’s been in their system ever since. Of course, that may change relatively soon, but possibly due to retirement rather than joining another ballclub. It’s hard to imagine these players in any other uniform, but doing so doesn’t completely unnerve you. Does it? You probably think about those scenarios a little bit differently than you did when you went to bed Wednesday night.

Here’s a portion of one of the text messages I got received during a “text conversation” on Thursday, from someone with whom I’m very close. He said, “I’m sitting here letting this soak in, and – [not fit to print]! Do you realize we just lost our Musial? No legend to tell our grandkids “these guys today aren’t like Pujols was…” makes it deeper to me, didn’t realize how [badly] I wanted that I guess…”

For years, even when I was a kid, people have made reference to how there aren’t any Cal Ripken Jrs left, the Tony Gywnns of the world are a dying breed. We’ve all been hearing that for years, and have seen it proven time and again, when a player leaves the team they’ve been with for years to join a new club.

I think about Jonah Keri, and losing your favorite TEAM altogether aside, how he must feel when he sees former Expos players go into the Hall of Fame wearing another team’s cap. Unfortunately for him, it’s a feeling that he has to endure over and over and over again. From Pete Rose to Pedro Martinez to Andre Dawson, Tim Raines (?), Larry Walker (?)…etc, Jonah’s personal hell is revived every January and July. I used to consider that, and think, “Bummer.”, then move on.

But, it’s different when it’s your guy.

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Prime Time Playing

Our generation of sports fan has been influenced immensely by the players that can dial it up another notch and perform at a higher level when the spotlight falls directly on their shoulders. Football great Deion Sanders made a career out of it and introduced a nation of sports fans to the term “primetime” in a whole new way.

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The St. Louis Cardinals will play tonight against the Colorado Rockies in St. Louis. The game will mark the eleventh time this season that the Cardinals will find themselves aired on ESPN as a featured game. The spotlight has burned bright on the team with only the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, and Philadelphia Phillies having appeared more times on the national stage. Their Rockies will make their second appearance on the network this season, having lost in Philadelphia on May 18th.

The bright lights of center stage have not treated the Cardinals well, dealing them losses at home against the Padres on March 31, the Giants on June 1, the Phillies on June 22, and the rival Cubs on July 31. They have also lost road games in Chicago to the Cubs on May 11 and New York to the Mets on July 20. They have only managed to win four of the ten games broadcast by the sports network, all of which occurred at home, defeating the Reds on April 24, the Phillies on May 16, the Giants on May 31 and the Reds on July 5. Overall, the Cardinals are 4-6 when featured on the network with all four wins coming at home. Over the course of ten games, while it is a small sample size, we find much of the same story lines that have made up the Cardinals season.

Five different starters have taken the mound this season for the Cardinals in these situations with Jake Westbrook starting in half of them himself. Westbrook’s five starts have resulted in a 2-2 record with one no decision. To his credit, he has one start that lasted six innings of shutout ball and another that was seven innings with only one run crossing the plate for his wins. However, consistency has not been the Cardinals strong point this season and Westbrook has also put up a six inning-four run outing and a two and one third inning-six run debacle in his losses. In his no decision, he would give up three runs over five and a third innings.

Jaime Garcia holds the only other Cardinal victory for the starting rotation, having pitched well in the July 5 game against the Reds. Jaime would only go six innings in that game but would also only surrender one run, strike out four, and walk three gaining his eighth win of the season.

Kyle Lohse is the only other starter that has taken a decision, having taken a heart breaking loss to the Phillies on June 22. Lohse, who holds the best earned run average and longest start of any Cardinals pitcher this year during ESPN games, would go eight innings and surrender three runs and be saddled with his fourth loss of the season as the Cardinals would get shut out 4-0.

The remaining three games would be split between the team’s ace, Chris Carpenter, who started in two of them and the man that has been relocated to the bullpen, Kyle McClellan, who has appeared as a starter and a reliever. Carpenter has pitched well, giving up two runs in each game, one over five innings and the other over seven. While he has not been lights out on national broadcasts, he has been very impressive for a guy that does not get a win in either game. McClellan’s start looks very similar to the majority of his starts this season having lasted six innings and allowing four runs while walking two and striking out two.

A look at the starting pitching stats for ESPN games this season
Pitcher G IP H R ER BB SO HR ERA
Chris Carpenter 2 12 9 4 4 4 12 0 3.00
Jaime Garcia 1 6 2 1 1 3 4 0 3.23
Jake Westbrook 5 27 25 13 13 12 13 0 4.33
Kyle Lohse 1 8 7 3 3 0 0 2 2.91
Kyle McClellan 1 6 6 4 4 2 2 1 4.34

The bullpen has not been overly impressive but the also have not been overly disappointing in prime time games on ESPN. Due largely in part to solid performances from closer Fernando Salas and setup man Jason Motte, the bullpen has maintained a good presence when being showcased to the nation.

A look at the relief pitching stats for ESPN games this season
Pitcher G IP H R ER BB SO HR ERA
Fernando Salas 5 5.1 5 2 2 1 4 1 3.53
Jason Motte 4 4.1 4 2 1 1 4 0 2.20
Kyle McClellan 1 2 4 2 2 0 2 1 4.30
Mitchell Boggs 4 4 4 2 2 3 7 2 4.50

The offense has not exactly taken to the spotlight for a reason to break out of the funk fans have found it in all season long. Struggling superstars, surprising production elsewhere and mediocre numbers have littered the season and nationally broadcast ESPN games would be no different.

When you are on the big stage, you turn to your big stars to produce. There is little doubt who the big offensive stars of the St. Louis Cardinals are, the combination of Lance Berkman, Matt Holliday and Albert Pujols have had people talking off and on all season long. The biggest surprise of the season has been Lance Berkman. While his numbers on ESPN games are nothing to be laughed at, they are not quite as dominant as his season would suggest. He has managed a pair of home runs, five runs, five runs batted in, and a .265 batting average to go along with a disappointing 12 strikeouts. Albert Pujols has continued his frustrations in big spots this year and the national spotlight will show no difference. The best hitter in the game has only two extra base hits, both doubles, two runs scored, three runs batted in and an abysmal .207 batting average. The one stat that has seemed to haunt the big slugger this year rears its ugly head here as well, Albert has grounded into four double plays over the ten games in front of the world. Matt Holliday is the saving grace for the powerful trio, having hit .310 with a double, three home runs, seven runs, and eight runs batted in. Holliday went deep twice in the July 5 game with the Cincinnati Reds, driving in four runs in that game alone.

Sometimes, when faced with the big stage, players that are sometimes overlooked due to the stars on the team start to produce at a higher level. Sometimes they follow suit and under-perform themselves. David Freese, who was injured for much of the season during these games, has not been able to seize the opportunity to step out from the shadows a bit and show that he can be the clutch performer the Cardinals expect him to be. In seventeen at bats on ESPN this season, Freese has yet to notch a run batted in or a run scored and is hitting just .235. Yadier Molina has shown a consistent bat throughout this season and has managed to post a .344 batting average in front of the world this season. Add in three runs scored and four runs batted in to go with a home run and Molina seems to be enjoying the attention.

Delving deeper past the players considered to be stars and looking at the supporting staff finds a few guys that are performing well in the spotlight, namely, Ryan Theriot. Theriot has been very impressive on ESPN games this year, posting a .367 batting average while driving in five runs and scoring two more of his own. Meanwhile, his frequent partner in the middle infield Skip Schumaker has shown that he is not afraid of a little attention himself. Skip is hitting .304 during these games with a pair of doubles, three runs batted in and two runs scored. Finally, Jon Jay continues to try to break out of his shell and does well with a .286 batting average and three runs batted in of his own.

A look at the offensive stats for ESPN games this season
Player AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO Avg
Albert Pujols 29 2 6 2 0 0 3 3 2 .207
Allen Craig 14 2 3 1 1 0 3 0 2 .214
Daniel Descalso 21 2 5 0 1 0 0 4 6 .238
David Freese 17 0 4 1 0 0 0 2 3 .235
Gerald Laird 9 1 3 1 0 0 1 0 4 .333
Jon Jay 28 3 8 1 0 0 3 0 4 .286
Lance Berkman 34 5 9 2 0 2 5 5 12 .265
Matt Holiday 29 7 9 2 0 3 8 3 9 .310
Ryan Theriot 30 2 11 1 0 0 5 5 2 .367
Skip Schumaker 23 3 7 2 0 0 2 0 3 .304
Yadier Molina 32 3 11 0 0 1 4 2 3 .344

Overall, it is time for someone to step into the spotlight and claim their rightful spot in “Primetime” for the St. Louis Cardinals.

Bill Ivie is the editor here at I-70 Baseball as well as the Assignment Editor for BaseballDigest.com.
He is the host of I-70 Radio, hosted every week on BlogTalkRadio.com.
Follow him on Twitter here.

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