Tag Archive | "Question Mark"

Cardinals Position of Interest: Organizational Second Base

The only position the St. Louis Cardinals and general manager John Mozeliak knew would be unsettled for certain entering spring training was second base. And now nearly a month later, it is a situation that is still sorting itself out. However, it’s not doing so because of injury or lack of options, rather it is doing so because of the positive performance of the three primary players in the picture. Matt Carpenter has made a smooth transition to the position in the field, while incumbent Daniel Descalso has risen to the occasion with at bat to justify his already superb glove work.

102512-matt-carpenter

All the while, top prospect Kolten Wong has put up a consistent effort that has even further solidified the fact that his second baseman of the future tag is legit. Yet there are still questions to be considered, mainly who will see the majority of the play at the position in 2013, as well as what is in the system beyond just Wong.  Is there true depth, or just a few name recognition properties? And how does this project the three-to-five year picture at a position the team has long struggled to have a consistent presence at?

 

St. Louis: The position entered the spring has a question mark, and has quickly turned into a win-win proposition. Both Descalso and Carpenter have performed well at the position, and have made a legitimate time split at the position a strong possibility this year. Carpenter has hit over .400 in the spring, while showing a consistent glove and throwing ability at his new position. Descalso on the other hand has stayed consistent in the field while making some adjustments to his swing that has seen him hit .292 through 16 games thus far in camp.

With both in the fold there is a chance for a variety of dominoes to go into play because of what having one or the other in the everyday lineup means. Carpenter has an impact at third and first base, as well as the outfield. He was the team’s best regular bench bat a year ago, and putting him in the everyday lineup does change both the versatility of the club off the bench, both in the field and at the plate. With Descalso in reserve, it gives the club a viable defensive upgrade in late game situations across the infield.

Yet moving ahead, the distinction of Cardinal second baseman most likely doesn’t involve either in a full-time capacity, as Wong has begun to make it clear his established role as middle infielder solidifier is legit.

High Minors: Wong will open the season at Triple-A Memphis despite a strong effort this spring thus far in Major League camp. He has swung the bat at a .292 clip through 16 spring games, and has displayed the range of talents that could make him factor into the picture by late in the summer. Whether he is pushed through to St. Louis this year before September has as much to do with his play (which has been an even .300 through his first two pro seasons) as it does with how the Carpenter/Descalso split works out. Getting him regular at-bats is an established point of emphasis for the team, as is continuing to evolve his defense.

After Wong, the system gets a bit more questionable at second base. Jose Garcia could factor into the picture every day at Springfield. The 24-year-old hit .260 while splitting time behind Wong and Greg Garcia at Double-A Springfield last summer.

Low Minors: Breyvic Valera reached Springfield last year after playing the majority of the year at Low-A Batavia, where he hit .316 for the year as a 19 year old. He could either play ahead at Springfield again this season, or start at High A Peoria this spring. In addition to him, the presence of Starlin Rodriguez (.315 average at Palm Beach in 2012), Ildemaro Vargas (.314 average across Rookie to High-A a year ago) and 10th round pick Jacob Wilson all will factor into the picture at the lower levels of the organization this season at second.

Prognosis: It’s an interesting situation developing at second base in the organization currently. While the lower minor league rungs of are sorting themselves out now with the ascension of Wong nearly complete, it is a position that definitely has both a secure future plan that is playing out as consistently as could be hoped.

With Carpenter potentially providing an everyday boost to the lineup offensively and Descalso being a plus defender, there is a real chance for Mike Matheny to “ride the hot hand” at second this season. In the immediate, Carpenter has continued to hit at his expected level, and the fact he has taken to the position so quickly in the field may be giving him the edge currently. But the plus that Descalso gives in the field cannot be taken lightly, especially in the light of Rafael Furcal being permanently out of the equation. The insertion of Wong into the St. Louis scene by next spring (at the very latest) assures that the second base role in St. Louis, as well as the domino rally created from it, is far from over.

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The Furcal Fallout

It’s rare that a player under contract can leave a team out to dry by being a no show, but somehow Rafael Furcal has pulled it off. With the announcement Sunday that Furcal has been shutdown from all on-field activities, the Caridinals are placed in a position to scramble for answers at shortstop for the long-term, yet in the moment.

Rafael_Furcal

Furcal, who had his season end last August after tearing an elbow ligament, had not been able to take to the field to perform in the field yet all at, due to not being able to make throws yet. Hitting had been something he was able to undertake lightly until this weekend, when the elbow degraded to a level where ever that was out of the question. That’s when the decision to shutdown Furcal completely was inevitable, and a search for answers hit high alert.

One answer that is out of the question is Furcal himself. With a nearly non-existent free agent market at shortstop was coupled with a high-stakes trade market to upgrade at the position, the team was backed into taking Furcal at his word regarding his progress in regards to his rehab. Furcal twice refused surgery to repair the ligament, both when the injury initially occurred and again shortly after the postseason ended. In December, he stated it was much stronger and he would be ready to play. This eased organizational concerns, and they scaled back efforts to acquire a potential full-time replacement, and instead focused on fortifying the position with role players. However, that decision came back on the club with yesterday’s development, and now the team will be faced with a major question mark in it’s everyday equation.

So with Furcal headed to Alabama to see Dr. James Andrews instead of St. Louis to see active play, where do the Cardinals turn now? Unfortunately, the despite the depth of the talent pool at virtually every other position within the organization, the team doesn’t have a particularly promising youngster at shortstop or a veteran in need of a place to fit in. There will be a definite step down in caliber at shortstop for the immediate future, and picking the correct player to fill in at shortstop will be a likely ever-changing scene.

The options on the current roster are full of question marks. The clear competition comes down to a call between Pete Kozma and Ronnie Cedeno, who was acquired to be the “in case of emergency” option in case of injury occurring. He has been a marginal full-time player over his career, which plays into the hand of Kozma opening in the capacity he finished 2012, as an everyday starter. The .385 average he’s carrying this spring won’t hurt his candidacy either. Outside of those two, the only other options would be Ryan Jackson or Greg Garcia, but trips back to Memphis and Springfield, respectively, are likely guaranteed. A potential move of Daniel Descalso over to the other side of the infield occasionally could be an option as well. Regardless, as things stand now, it will be a job that requires more than one man’s attention.

That may have to suffice, as the shortstop open market isn’t that thrilling of a vision to look on. The highlights (relatively speaking) of currently homeless middle infielders is highlighted by ex-Cardinal Ryan Theriot and former Ray and Padre Jason Bartlett, making the internal options look that much stronger. The trade waters could prove to be even more difficult for the team to look into. The facts are simple: clubs know the Cardinals are in a vice grip of a situation, and will hold them under the gun with any move they discuss. They know there’s treasure chest of prospects to dip into, and there are not many teams in need of a salvation dump due to an expiring contract on their current shortstop. Basically, the Cardinals hand will be forced if an external option is sought after, which is by far the best option. John Mozeliak, who has stated he is committed to keeping the organization’s prime prospects in house, could be pressed very far to see how dedicated he is to that mission.

 

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Shelby Miller To Test Arm

The first week of spring training games always brings a mix of excitement and trepidation as pitchers take to the mound for the first time in a game atmosphere against real opponents. So far the St. Louis Cardinals have been able to experience the excitement, but more trepidation awaits Saturday.

Shelby Miller is showing up in shape to compete for the opening in the rotation.

The Cardinals got to see their pitchers who came to spring training with the most health concerns, Adam Wainwright and Jaime Garcia, throw in game situations, and neither had any problems.

Wainwright threw 2.2 innings Monday against the Houston Astros, who got four hits off of the Cardinals’ right-handed ace, but he did not give up a run and struck out four.

Sure, Wainwright didn’t come into spring training with any major health concerns, but he is still just two years removed from Tommy John surgery on his elbow, and it is always crucial to get that first start out of the way without any problems.

Garcia pitched two innings in a start Tuesday against the Boston Red Sox. He gave up three hits but no runs and had two strikeouts.

His outing was a bigger concern because it was the first time he had pitched in a game since facing the Washington Nationals in Game 2 of the National League Division Series last year when he had to come out after two innings because of shoulder discomfort, and that was after he missed much of the second half of the regular season with the same problem.

But Garcia looked sharp Tuesday and reported no lingering issues with his shoulder.

That would be a huge relief for the Cardinals because Garcia is a key piece of the starting rotation, especially now that Chris Carpenter won’t be around. Carpenter’s injury effectively moves Garcia or Jake Westbrook up to the No. 2 spot in the rotation.

So, with Wainwright and Garcia off to good starts, the Cardinals move on to their next question mark on the pitching staff: Shelby Miller.

Miller is scheduled to start Saturday against the Nationals after he missed several days with soreness in his right shoulder. That could certainly be a major concern if something truly is messed up in the rookie’s shoulder, but most signs point to his soreness as just a normal part of working back into game shape after the offseason.

The Cardinals will find out for sure in just a few days when Miller takes the mound. So far the team has had all of its injury questions answered the way they would prefer. Wainwright looked sharp, Garcia pitched well and the rest of the pitching staff hasn’t reported any injury problems, which is more important at this time of the year than how they perform on the mound.

This will also be the first in a series of important outings for Miller, regardless of his health. He is competing for the fifth spot in the rotation with Joe Kelly and Trevor Rosenthal, in what figures to be one of the most hotly contested battles of the spring.

Kelly has yet to enter a game, but Rosenthal started the Cardinals spring opener Saturday against the Miami Marlins, and things didn’t go so well. He gave up four runs on five hits and two walks without recording a strikeout.

Granted, the results in the first start of the spring aren’t very important, and he didn’t have any abnormal discomfort after the game. Rosenthal will get his shot to make the rotation. And if he doesn’t, the Cardinals will have his 100 mph fastball as an effective weapon out of the bullpen.

So the Cardinals can relax a bit now that the pitchers recovering for old injuries have surpassed the first hurdle of spring, but Miller will have to get through Saturday’s game without any issues before they can fully exhale.

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Spring stats: starters scuffle in the desert

2011 saw the Royals’ top hitting prospects take a step forward, while many of their pitching prospects took a step sideways, down or out.

Spring training saw a similar result, as many of the position players the Royals are banking on flourished, while pitching remained the big question mark.

As of Friday, the games count. But the results from spring training are worth some analysis as the Royals head north with high aspirations.

The Royals’ opening day starter, Bruce Chen, probably deserves a pass this spring. He’s been through this countless times, and he wasn’t pitching to win a spot in the rotation. He was doing what he needs to do to be ready for the season.

Courtesy of Minda Haas

That said, Chen was not good in Arizona. He surrendered 37 hits in 22 innings, including an alarming six homers. Opponents batted .378 against him, and his ERA was an unsightly 9.41.

Another lock to start, Luke Hochevar hopes to put his roller-coaster highs and lows behind him. He was very solid in spring, surrendering just a 2.84 ERA and 1.21 WHIP. Best of all, he allowed just one homer in 19 innings pitched.

The stud of the spring was undoubtedly Luis Mendoza. I predicted back in late February that Mendoza could provide the surprise boost the Royals pitching staff needs. The 28-year-old righty got credit for four wins in the spring. Opponents could barely scratch out a hit against him – 11 in 16 innings. His ERA was just 0.54 and his WHIP was 0.84.

If Mendoza was the stud of the spring, then Mike Montgomery was the dud. While KC had a list of about 8 guys who were seriously in contention for rotation slots, the door would certainly have been held open for the 22-year-old Montgomery. But Montgomery flubbed the opportunity and manager Ned Yost was noticeably disappointed in the big lefty. I wrote last week about why Montgomery might be headed in the wrong direction (link).

Not far behind Montgomery was second-year candidate Danny Duffy. The Royals stood by Duffy during his painful learning experience in year one. But this spring, he looked no less lost than in 2011. He struggled his way to an 8.31 ERA and a 1.92 WHIP.

Duffy was terrible, and his main competition, Felipe Paulino, was equally bad. Paulino will start the season rehabbing an injury, most likely in Omaha, and he’ll have to earn a return to KC after posting a 7.71 spring ERA.

Horrifyingly, Duffy and Paulino were not the worst pitchers in Surprise (aside from Chen). That honor goes to Jonathan Sanchez, who got bombed this spring after coming over from San Francisco, supposedly to give the Royals an “ace.”

Sanchez gave up 17 hits and 13 runs in just 11.1 innings. His 2.03 WHIP led all Royals with more than 10 innings pitched. He was even worse in the exhibition game in San Diego, where he allowed two home runs in just two innings.

Last year’s All Star rep Aaron Crow made the switch to the rotation, made one start, then switched back after Joakim Soria blew out his arm. Crow was solid, allowing opponents to bat just .238 in the split role. He looks comfortable back in the bullpen and will look to put to rest fears that he was a half-season wonder.

Crow’s fellow closers, Jonathan Broxton and Greg Holland were equally solid in Arizona. Likely bullpen mates Tim Collins, Louis Coleman were ok as well.

Two other pleasant revelations were relievers Kelvin Herrera and Jose Mijares. Herrera has been lights-out at every level, and he was no less dominant in Surprise. He struck out 15 hitters in 13 innings, and his ERA was just 1.38. He gave up just five walks and no homers. I expected him to start the season in Omaha, but the Royals found they just couldn’t leave him behind.

Mijares also will start the year in KC after posting a 0.82 ERA and 1.36 WHIP in Arizona. He struck out just six in 11 innings, but hopefully will continue to lock down left-handed hitters in the big leagues.

One guy KC appeared ready to give up on made a solid case for himself in Arizona – Sean O’Sullivan. The big righty allowed opponents to bat just .268 against him, and his WHIP was a an impressive 1.13. He’ll start the season in Omaha, but hopefully will prove a reliable insurance plan as both a starter and reliever if needed in KC.

The relievers performed about as well as expected in Arizona. Crow shifted to the pen when Soria was lost, and Herrera and Mijares should make the bullpen collection dynamite.

But the rotation candidates, other than Hochevar, performed worse than was imaginable. Were it not for the incredible work by Mendoza, the spring would be a complete failure for the starters.

Only time will tell if Mendoza is as good, and Sanchez is as bad, as the numbers from Surprise would say they are.

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The 2012 Kansas City Royals starting rotation: How big of a question mark is it?

Despite all of the attention the Kansas City Royals are receiving for their young offensive stars, most analysts still say that the starting pitching will be what holds the Royals back this year.  But is this group getting the credit it deserves?

There is an immense amount of optimism surrounding the 2012 Kansas City Royals.  For any fan under the age of 20, this sort of optimism is unprecedented in their lifetime.  For the rest of us, it is hard to remember the last time there was this much excitement around the club.   However, there is one part of aspect of this year’s Royals edition that most consider to be a huge question mark, and that is the starting pitching.  People outside the organization look at the Royals pitching staff and don’t see a proven Ace. This is a valid point.  But the Royals, for the first time in a good number of years, should have 5 guys (or more) that they can throw out there that can not only miss bats, but give them a chance to win every time out.  Here’s a look at the projected Royals starting rotation and what we might expect from this group in 2012:

Projected Opening Day Starter-Luke Hochevar:

Last season was a mixed bag for Hochevar.  The first half was mostly the usual erratic Luke Hochevar that Royals fans had become used to seeing pitch for the previous 3 years.  He would start a game strong, sometimes even dominant.  Then he would get himself into a jam and things would completely unravel from there.  It was maddening.  Was it in his head?  Could he not pitch effectively out of the stretch?  It wasn’t until Ned Yost began forcing Hochevar to pitch out of these situations that a change became evident.  The results in the 2nd half demonstrated that change.

First the good:

-Hochevar was 2 innings away from pitching 200 innings, finishing with 198, the most of his career to this point

-At 4.68, Hochevar finished with his lowest ERA as a full-time pitcher in the majors

-His 1.283 WHIP was down significantly from 2010, and was the best he has posted as a full-time starter

Now, the better:

-In his 12 starts after the All-Star Break, Hochevar’s ERA was 3.91

-His strikeout rate was also way up.  For the year, Hoch had a 5.8k/9 SO rate. However, after the break, it was 7.7

-His WHIP after the All-Star Break was a stellar 1.12

-After the break, Hochevar averaged 6.11 innings per start

If we assume Hochever picks up where he left off in the 2nd half of the season, we should expect something along these lines:

Innings: 201

ERA: 3.90

WHIP: 1.15

K: 172

Those numbers might not be Ace type of numbers, but that is a damn good #2 starter on a championship team, which is what Hochevar’s potential was always thought to be.  He is also 28 years old, in what should be the prime of his career.

Projected #2 starter-Jonathan Sanchez:

Sanchez is probably the most electrifying pitcher to wear a Royals uniform since Zack Greinke.  If anyone in the 2012 Royals rotation has the potential, when at his best, to become the ace of the staff, it is likely Sanchez.  However, he has always struggled with control, and last year battled injuries.  He will be 29 years old for the duration of the season and is probably the biggest wild-card in the rotation.  When at his best, he is a high strikeout, low hit-rate, high walk-rate pitcher.  If we split the difference between what would be a successful season, or a disappointing season for Sanchez, it might look something like this:

Innings: 175

ERA: 4.10

WHIP: 1.35

K: 185

To put it into perspective, in 2010, Zack Greinke’s last season with the Royals, he posted these numbers:

Innings: 220

ERA: 4.17

WHIP: 1.245

K: 181

Sanchez has the potential to do much more than the numbers listed above.  But if he gives the Royals something along those lines, that will make him a solid contributor to the rotation.

Projected #3 starter-Bruce Chen:

Chen would probably be the biggest candidate for regression out of this group, mainly due to his age.  He will turn 35 midway through the season.    He has also spent a significant amount of time on the Disabled List the last two seasons, which has cut into his Innings Pitched #’s and is definite cause for concern. I have a feeling that Dayton Moore might like a mulligan on the decision to give Chen a 2 year deal for $9,000,000.  If you assume Chen hits the DL for his normal stint in 2012, with a bit of regression, it is reasonable to expect his 2012 numbers to look like this:

Innings: 145

ERA: 3.97

WHIP: 1.40

K: 95

If Chen can make it 145 innings, and put up these type of numbers, he probably slots as more of a #5 starter on a playoff team.  If we ever again have to say that Bruce Chen was the best pitcher on the staff, that will mean things have gone terribly wrong.

Projected #4 starter-Felipe Paulino:

Why the Royals were trying to act as if there was any question as to whether Paulino would be in the rotation at the beginning of the season, is still a mystery.  At least Ned Yost is now conceding that Paulino has a “leg up” in the competition for the rotation spot.  What Paulino did last year is likely the most under-appreciated part of the Royals 2011 campaign.  Paulino will be 29 in October, so he is another who is in what should be the prime of his career.  Despite a paltry win total, he posted an excellent 8.6K/9 innings.  His 4.11 ERA and his 1.372 WHIP should both come down in 2012, as the BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) stats show that an abnormal # of balls dropped for hits last year.  Paulino started 20 games last year, and averaged just over 6 innings per start.  If he is able to start 32 games, that should put him right around 200 innings for the season.  Call me optimistic, but this is what I expect from Paulino this season, with the potential for more:

Innings: 198

ERA: 3.80

WHIP: 1.25

K: 190

This would make Paulino another solid #2-like starter for a championship team, which he is certainly capable of becoming.  If only the Royals could find a #1 starter (hint, hint)

Projected #5 starter-Danny Duffy

It is looking more and more likely that the #5 spot in the rotation will end up going to Duffy, though this is not a certainty yet. Duffy just turned 23 in December, so he has youth on his side.  As a rookie in 2011, he showed promise, but also struggled to go deep into ballgames and pitch his way out of jams.  There was one game though, last year, in which Duffy gave Royals fans a taste of what he could become.  That was on June 19 against the St. Louis Cardinals, when Duffy struck out 9 batters in 3 2/3 innings.  This game showed the reasons both why Duffy has such promise, and why he still had a little ways to go.  While he only walked 1 batter, he gave up 6 hits and let his pitch count get all the way up to 90 before being pulled with 2 outs in the 4th.  If Duffy can adjust his approach this year to not always pitching for the strikeout, learning how to finish a batters off, and pitching more efficiently, he is the guy who could step up and be the ace of this staff.  I expect Duffy to take a huge step forward this year, and for his numbers to look something like this:

Innings: 170

ERA: 3.65

WHIP: 1.35

K: 132

It would make sense that the Royals would continue to be careful with Duffy.  If “The Process” is to come to fruition, Danny Duffy is going to need to be a big part of that.  If he can put up numbers close to those above, that will put him in great position for a true “breakout” campaign in 2013.

While this Royals team is missing the true “ace” starter that they had in Zack Greinke, one could argue that top to bottom, this is the best rotation the Royals have had in over a decade.  While injuries could play a role in this, there is also more starting pitching depth in the organization than at any other time in recent history.  Whether it’s Luis Mendoza, Aaron Crow, Mike Montgomery, Nate Adcock, or someone else, the Royals should be able to keep things afloat should one or more of these guys go down.   This group of starting pitchers will be one of the more interesting things to monitor as we get rolling in 2012.

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The Wizard’s finest year

St Louis Cardinals fans rejoice in Ozzie Smith’s return to the spring training fold.  Seeing the older but still fit Wizard in uniform brings back fond memories of his 15 seasons in the St Louis infield.  Twenty-five years ago, during the last of Whitey Herzog’s runs to the World Series, Ozzie enjoyed his finest season along the banks of the Mississippi.

The Cardinals entered the 1987 season as a question mark.  For the second time in the decade they had followed up a World Series appearance with a sub-.500 season.  No one expected them to challenge the New York Mets for NL East supremancy; the 1986 World Champs were coming off an 108-win season and looked like a budding dynasty.  Over the first week of the 1987 season, that future appeared to be today, as the Mets won six of their first 8 while St Louis stumbled out of the blocks.  The Cardinals were two games back of New York when the Mets came to town for an early 3-game series.

New York did not roll over the Cardinals on their way to the post-season.  Instead, St Louis swept the Mets, and rarely looked back.  They never trailed by more than a game in April and early May, took sole possession of first place permanently on 22 May, led by 9 games at the All-Star Break, and won their third NL East title in 6 years.

In the middle of this Cardinal resurrection was Ozzie, who had the best offensive year of his career.  It was the only year he hit over .300 (.303).  He set career highs in OBP (.392), hits (182), doubles (40), RBI (75), runs scored (104), stolen bases (43), walks (89), and total bases (230).

Those career highs compared favorably with the rest of the league.  He finished eighth in batting average, eighth in runs, third in hits, second in doubles, sixth in walks, seventh in stolen bases, and was fourth in at bats per strikeout. He was the only player in the top 10 of all those categories.   By Baseball Reference’s calculations, his WAR of 7.1 was fifth-best in the NL, behind Tony Gwynn, Eric Davis, Dale Murphy, and Orel Hershiser.  Broken into categories, his offensive WAR was seventh, his defensive WAR third.

As seemed to be the trend with those 1980s Cardinals teams, they quit hitting in the post-season.  In years past Smith had hit in the NLCS but struggled in the World Series, but in 1987 he struggled in both.  Ozzie hit only .207  combined (11 for 53) that October, and although St Louis rode home-field advantage and superior starting pitching to the NL pennant, they were bested by Minnesota in the Fall Classic.

Ozzie had some good years after that, and some years with better power numbers, but he never quite reached the heights he had in 1987.

It’s a shame he and Tony LaRussa could never find common ground, and that LaRussa had to retire before Ozzie was willing to come back to Spring Training.  Although it’s not the same without Don Tony, the team is better with Ozzie teaching the finer points of middle infield defense to a new generation of Cardinal players.

Welcome back, Ozzie.

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Infield Depth Is A Big Question Mark For The Cardinals Heading Into Spring Training

Much like last season, the St. Louis Cardinals will enter spring training with a little bit of uncertainty, but for the most part the team should feel comfortable and confident. The Cardinals are, after all, the World Series champions. They currently have seven viable options for the starting rotation (if you include Kyle McClellan and Marc Rzepczynski) and could still land Roy Oswalt on top of that. They have four legitimate outfielders in Jon Jay, Allen Craig, Matt Holliday, and Carlos Beltran. The bullpen is stacked with young arms and just enough crafty veterans. Behind the plate, there’s a Gold Glove catcher anchoring the team.

That just leaves the infield.

At first glance, the infield seems to blend in with the other strengths of the Cardinals. You have Comeback Player of the Year Lance Berkman at 1st base, World Series MVP David Freese over at 3rd, a decent hitting shortstop with a solid glove at short, and a bit carousel over a 2nd base, but a couple of good ball players nonetheless in Skip Schumaker and Daniel Descalso.

On paper, that’s an infield that can help get the Cardinals back to the playoffs. But can that group actually stay on the field? And if not, who’s ready to step up and take their place?

Durability

The Cardinals’ projected starting infielders haven’t exactly had the best run of luck when it comes to injuries. David Freese missed 65 games last season, and 92 the year before that. Lance Berkman only missed a couple of weeks last season, but missed 66 in the two years prior and turns 36 this month. Rafael Furcal, 34, had missed an average of 70 games per season dating back to 2008, and missed 75 games last season alone. Skip Schumaker, 32, missed more than a month last season due to injury, not including the injury he suffered during the playoffs.

Do the math, and you’ll find that on average, the Cardinals’ four projected starting infielders have missed a total of 424 games over the past two seasons, an average of 53 games per player, or roughly one-third of the season. Yikes.

Backup Infielders

If the worst should happen, who will fill in over the course of the season?

We’ve already mentioned Daniel Descalso, who may very well be ready to snag a starting position this year similar to the way Jon Jay did in the outfield. Descalso hit .264 in mostly part-time duty, with 24 extra-base hits and 28 RBIs in 326 ABs. Those aren’t exactly Earth-shattering numbers, but Descalso has a steady glove, can play 2nd or 3rd, and every Cardinals fan will tell you that it felt like each of his 28 RBIs were driven in the latter innings of close games. The guy is clutch.

I suppose we could list Allen Craig as an infield reserve, and the whole world found out just how great he can be last October. But… Craig also spent his fair share of time on the disabled list last season, appearing in only 75 regular season games. He’ll also miss at least the first month of the upcoming season due to knee surgery, and might not return until June.

Beyond that, the team has a trio of prospects in Pete Kozma, Mark Hamilton, and Tyler Greene (though Greene doesn’t really qualify as a prospect anymore). Living in Springfield, Missouri, I’ve had the chance to watch all three of these players perform at the Double-A level, and none of them came across as players with great Major League upside.

Pete Kozma is a career .237 hitter in the minor leagues, and had consecutive 34-error seasons in 2009 and 2010. Last year, Kozma cut that number to 14, but hit just .214.

Mark Hamilton is an interesting little case study. A career .285 hitter with average power, Hamilton hit .298 with 20 HRs in 2010, then saw his average jump to .345 while his power dropped to just 2 HRs in 2011. Hamilton played both of those seasons at Triple-A Memphis, making the numbers all the more puzzling. In 61 career at-bats in the majors, Hamilton has been overmatched, hitting just .197 with no home runs.

And then there’s Tyler Greene. What are we to make of the Cardinals’ former 1st round pick? He tears the cover off the ball in the minors, but just cannot seem to rise to the occasion in St. Louis. Greene has hit .295 in nearly one-thousand minor league at-bats over the past three seasons, so that’s no fluke. But in the big leagues, he’s a career .218 hitter. Then there are the brutal errors, including two game-changing dropped pop-ups last season alone. Is he the only big leaguer to drop pop ups? Of course not. Off the top of my head, I can think of two pretty crucial dropped pop ups in Game 6 of last year’s World Series. But Matt Holliday and David Freese can get away with that because they are solid hitters. Tyler Greene? Not so much.

What’s It All Mean?

The Cardinals said goodbye to two pretty solid infield reserves this offseason in Nick Punto and Ryan Theriot. Both brought a good veteran presence to the clubhouse and the plate, and could come up with key hits when called upon.

For the first two months of the season, the Cardinals will have one such reserve with a relatively solid track record in the big leagues, Daniel Descalso. The rest are all question marks. What will happen if one or more of the starting infielders go down to another injury? Who will fill in? Will they step up? Or will the team be forced to make a mid-season trade to fill the gaps?

Right now only one thing is certain: after last year’s injury-plagued season, the Cardinals know how to make it work and get it done, no matter who’s out with injuries. But it would sure be nice to have a little insurance in the infield.

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Royals Gallimaufry

• Your vocab word of the day: gallimaufry.

From Dictionary.com:

gal·li·mau·fry
[gal-uh-maw-free]

–noun, plural -fries. Chiefly Literary.

1. a hodgepodge; jumble; confused medley.
2. a ragout or hash.

Used in a sentence: I hope you will enjoy my below gallimaufry of Royals thoughts.

tasty

• I pay no mind to a pitcher’s win-loss record anymore, but I have lately been thinking how it is kind of nice to put every start into a “good” and “bad” bucket. We just need a better measure. A modern day pitcher’s record if you will. I am not all the way on board with quality start as a measuring stick, but it has some merit. A couple of other measures I like are win probability added (WPA) and game score. If the idea of a “good” start is to give your team a shot at winning, WPA seems like the best measure since it literally reflects if the starter gave his team a better or worse chance. A WPA “win” would be a positive WPA in a start. Game score is from Bill James and applies a rating to every start based on innings, hits, strikeouts, walks and runs allowed. 50 is an average start, so a game score “win” would be any score greater than 50. Here is how every Royals starter looks with these different records, and the three records combined into an average on the right:

talk about a confused medley

If you can work through that mess of numbers, you might notice that the records do not look very good. However, before getting hurt, Bruce Chen continued to somehow find ways to be effective. He is wily I tell ya.
• Pitching continues to be the huge question mark in Dayton Moore‘s process. Rob Neyer wrote about that recently, saying “The Process will work only if the organization’s homegrown hitters are accompanied by homegrown starting pitchers. And in that regard the jury is still very, very much out.” Danny Duffy and Mike Montgomery are both struggling with their control and John Lamb just underwent Tommy John surgery. Relying only on homegrown starters is a tough hill to climb. The Royals may have to hit big on an impact starting pitcher through trade or free agency before they are ready to win the AL Central.

• There is a bizarre strain of under-appreciation of Billy Butler from some Royals fans. Sam Mellinger took a look at these weirdos in a recent column. I suppose Billy is a nice litmus test for how fans see the game. If you judge Billy only by your eyes, you might see a slow guy who does not hit as many homers as you would hope. If you like old-school numbers, you might think he does not get enough RBIs. If you blend your eye with more telling numbers, there seems to be no denying that the Royals have one of the best DHs around. My fellow I-70 writer Troy Olsen, aka KCRoyalMan, is quoted in Mellinger’s column saying, “Need more doubles and HRs. Too many singles worthless singles. Clogs bases.” First of all, “clogging the bases” is the idea of batting. It means you did not make an out. Second of all, asking Billy to hit more doubles is sort of like asking Babe Ruth to hit more home runs. Here are the MLB leaders in doubles from 2009 to present:

1. Billy Freaking Butler 112
2. Robinson Cano 102
3. Evan Longoria 100
4. Ryan Braun 99
5. Miguel Cabrera 97
5. Matt Holliday 97
When you think of doubles, think of Billy Butler. When you think of Billy Butler, think of doubles. When you think of the best DH so far in 2011, think of David Ortiz. When you think of the second best DH so far in 2011, think of Billy Butler. When you think of what is wrong with the Royals, think of just about anything else before Billy Butler.

• It is only seven games, but I am borderline giddy about Alcides Escobar‘s recent hot streak with the bat. Eyeballs and defensive metrics agree that he is ridiculously good in the field. Some fans think that excuses him from having to hit at all. I am not one of those fans. For me, it means he only has to hit a tiny bit. Which he was not doing. He was hurting the team with his bat more than he was helping with the glove. But this hot stretch shows he at least has a few hits in him. And that is all the Royals need from him in order to have one of the best shortstops around.

• The specter of Jason Kendall‘s return continues to loom over the season. When the Royals make room for him by moving Brayan Pena or Matt Treanor, this team will immediately become worse. Pena and Treanor have been a surprisingly decent duo behind the dish, hitting a little bit (or in Treanor’s case, walking a lot) and playing fine defensively. With one glaring exception from Pena, they have done a great job blocking the plate on plays at home, and both seem to have a strong throw to second. I cannot imagine Kendall has anything left in his bat or throwing arm after decimating his shoulder last season, and I cringe at the idea of having to watch him try to hit on a regular basis again. I do not deny that having his experience around may have some benefit. If the Royals want to draw on his knowledge, then great—hire him as a coach. Just please do not let him actually play as a Royal anymore.

• The Royals have not played up this aspect of Tuesday’s “Retro Night” promotion, but according to ballpark emcee Tim Scott, the game will be presented with “No music, no KCrew, no emcee, no contests, (and) retro video board.” How great does that sound? If that is not enough, it will also be Mike Moustakas‘s home debut.

• After his customary hot start, Jeff Francoeur is staying true to himself by falling apart at the plate. wOBA by month:

March/April: .402
May: .305
June: .288
It is past time for him to move down in the lineup.

Aaron Stilley also writes about Kansas City baseball here and on the Twitters.

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Where Does Soria Go From Here?

Joakim Soria has been the Royals lone, rock-solid, star presence over the past three seasons, and no one had any doubt he would continue dominating from the mound in save situations this season. The closer role was about the only thing on this year’s Royals team that did not have a question mark by it. Unfortunately, Soria has been downright awful through the first third of the season, and has lost the closer role to Aaron Crow for the time being. Now the crucial question becomes if this is a temporary slump or injury that Soria will come back from, or if he is done as an elite reliever. In the hopes of shedding some light on the answer, I will take a look at other closers in history who have racked up a large amount of saves at a young age. The following list shows all 11 players with over 100 saves before their age 27 season (which Soria is in now):

Rk Player SV From To Age G IP ERA+
1 Francisco Rodriguez 208 2002 2008 20-26 408 451.2 190
2 Gregg Olson 160 1988 1993 21-26 320 350.1 176
3 Huston Street 149 2005 2010 21-26 355 378.0 148
4 Bobby Thigpen 148 1986 1990 22-26 277 382.1 148
5 Joakim Soria 132 2007 2010 23-26 238 255.0 219
6 Chad Cordero 128 2003 2008 21-26 305 320.2 155
7 Rod Beck 127 1991 1995 22-26 280 331.0 134
8 Mitch Williams 114 1986 1991 21-26 436 511.0 123
9 Ugueth Urbina 110 1995 2000 21-26 251 360.0 127
10 Matt Capps 109 2005 2010 21-26 345 344.2 127
11 Bruce Sutter 105 1976 1979 23-26 240 390.2 177

photo by Minda Haas

Rodriguez, Street and Capps are all still young and active, so the second part of their careers are still unfolding just like Soria’s is. I will take a brief look at the careers of the remaining seven pitchers from the list to see how some closers who racked up saves at an early age fared from age 27 on. The first number after their name is number of saves before age 27 season, and the second number is saves from age 27 to the end of their career.

Gregg Olson: 160 • 57
Olson suffered a torn elbow ligament at the age of 26 and was never the same. He bounced around in 10 transactions between 1994-2000, including two stops with the Royals. He managed one more big year as a closer after the injury, racking up 30 saves for Arizona in 1998.
Bobby Thigpen: 148 • 53
Thigpen started battling injuries at 26 also. After recording 30 and 22 saves at ages 27 and 28, he only posted one more save and was out of the majors at 30.
Chad Cordero: 128 • 0
Here is the worst case. Cordero posted all of his career saves before his age 26 season, then suffered a labrum tear. He has had a couple of failed comeback attempts but has been unable to stick in the majors since.
Rod Beck: 127 • 159
Here is a better looking career path. Beck continued to be a dominant closer at 28 and 29, and had a one year renaissance at age 34 when he converted all 20 of his save opportunities.
Mitch Williams: 114 • 78
Wild Thing stayed fantastic at 27 and 28 but was done after that, throwing less than 40 innings the rest of his career (including 6.2 with the 1997 Royals).
Ugueth Urbina: 110 • 127
Urbina remained fantastically effective until his career ended at age 31 with an arrest (and subsequent conviction and 14 year prison sentence) for a machete attack/gasoline dousing incident. Hopefully Soria can avoid that.
Bruce Sutter: 105 • 195
This I suppose would be the best case scenario, particularly with that Hall of Fame induction capping things off.

So we have four pitchers who recorded fewer saves after age 26 and three pitchers who piled up a greater number after that age. It is almost like we cannot predict the future. But this graph of the average number of saves the above pitchers posted by age does show how difficult it is to continue the level of performance Soria has held up in the last three years:

That looks pretty dramatic, but that is not surprising since I cherry picked guys who all were fantastic before turning 27. Some of them are going to flame out and tank the averages. In Beck, Urbina and Sutter, there are precedents for Soria carrying on as an elite closer. Only one of the above examples completely disappeared after turning 27 (Cordero). With a little time and luck, hopefully the Royals can fix whatever is ailing Soria, and he can get back to locking down Royals wins again soon.

Aaron Stilley also writes about Kansas City baseball at his blog here and on the tweeties.

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Early Struggles At The Plate Are Big Concern For Cardinals

From the first week of Spring Training, it was pretty clear the Cardinals’ offense was going to have to carry this team and win some high scoring games. Adam Wainwright went down, Jaime Garcia and Jake Westbrook struggled, and Kyle Lohse was a huge question mark. The bullpen essentially lost two horses from last year’s stable: Kyle McClellan to the bullpen and Blake Hawksworth to the Dodgers via trade. Two of the team’s anchors on the pitching staff, Chris Carpenter and Ryan Franklin, are in their late 30s. Yet so far, the bats have come up noticeable short in the Cardinals’ 1-3 start to the 2011 campaign.

The problems begin with the person you’d least expect them. For a decade, he was a beast, but by the time you’re done reading this article, Albert Pujols may very well have hit into another double-play. I don’t think 2 for 16 with 1 RBI was the start Pujols was looking for to cash-in that $300 million dollar deal. Another few weeks of this production and Albert will be changing his tune on his “I don’t discuss contracts during the season” policy.

It’s hard to pinpoint why the rest of the team can’t put together some runs. It’s just one rally-killing at-bat after another for these guys. The club’s $107 million dollar payroll through 4 games has yet to put up a crooked number in any of its 37 innings, scoring just 11 runs in the process. The team hasn’t plated more than 3 runs in a game, and ironically the Cardinals’ only win came when they put up their least amount of runs (2). And much like last year, the Cardinals are getting shutdown by no-name pitchers. Be honest, who could name the 4th starter for the Pittsburgh Pirates before tonight’s shut-down performance? He’s about as anonymous as Mizzou’s new head basketball coach. Yet that starter, Charlie Morton, who went 2-12 last season with a 7.57 ERA, shut the Cardinals down.

One run. Three hits. 6 innings. Countless wasted opportunities.

The sky, of course, is not falling just yet. Matt Holliday is a big part of the offense and will be missed for likely another 5-10 days. But clouds are moving in, and the other guys need to pick it up. There’s no way a lineup featuring Albert Pujols, Lance Berkman, and Colby Rasmus can’t get some big hits at home against the tail end of the Pirates’ rotation. Here’s hoping the Cardinals take advantage of James McDonald (who?) and get back on track before hitting the road for the first time in the young season.

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