mushy middle

the last cardinal team to compile two 7-game losing streaks in one year was the 1986 edition. they got the 1st one over with early, losing 7 straight in late april to ruin a 7-1 start; the last 4 of those losses, at home vs the despicable mets, crushed the cards' morale and more or less ended their hopes of defending their '85 division title. after eking out a 12-inning win at san francisco to break that losing streak, they lost another 5 in a row and found themselves in last place; a week later, in mid-may, they tore off 6 consecutive losses. and, in late june / early july, they dropped 8 straight, including another humiliating sweep at home vs the mets. that team staged a 2d-half surge and nearly got back to .500, finishing third at 79-82.

in the la russa era, the 1997 team sustained 6- and 7-game freefalls. they, too, got the first one over with early, opening the season with 6 straight losses; they sleepwalked through spring and summer, got to late september with nothing to play for, and dropped 7 in a row before closing the season with two meaningless wins.

meaningless trivia; just thought you might like to know.

tony and dave talked at length with joe strauss about the possibility of using wainwright in the rotation. the skinny: don't hold yer breath. they state the same reasons --- a, he's not conditioned to start; and b, there's nobody to take his place in the 'pen --- we have been hearing since june; of course, if they'd made the change back then, wainwright would be conditioned by now, and the cards could have acquired one or two of the 173 middle relievers that changed teams during the july swap meet. tony and duncan also admit they're trying to manage expectations; they don't want the discussion of a possible change to cause wainwright to lose focus. la russa states at the end of the article, "We're open to being creative," but utter lack of creativity has marked his/dunc's management of the rotation since spring training. it has, indeed, marked the whole management of the roster since november. the cardinals came into the off-season with a fat lead in overall talent over the other 5 nl central teams, and they have basically sat on it --- made no moves that might've run the risk of making the team worse, nor any that might've risked making it better.

the result: a team that is the very picture of mediocrity. the cardinals this year have scored 524 runs and allowed 523 --- a total wash. they're nearly dead-center both in runs scored (7th place) and runs allowed (8th). for a team that features a bunch of all-stars, three  potential hall-of-famers, and the reigning mvp and cy young winners, that is not very impressive.

don't blame the players; blame the management team that assembled them. most of the cardinals are meeting or beating their career norms:

  • pujols is on pace for career highs in homers, rbis, slugging, and ops
  • rolen is above his career norms in avg, obp, and slg
  • encarnacion is headed for a career high in slg and is near his career highs in avg, hr, rbi, and ops
  • duncan, zpiezio, and luna are / were all playing over their heads
  • eckstein, j-rod, gooch, and miles are all right in line with career norms

only molina and edmonds can be said to be having off years -- and yet st louis is middle-of-pack in runs scored. the players are doing what they're supposed to do; the roster just isn't very good.

there was a very thoughtful post yesterday from a reader named Leo that argued the cards' collapse boils down to this: marquis supps and mulder all went to seed at the same time. in a nutshell, yes -- couldn't agree more. the question is whether or not this was a foreseeable, preventable development. it was definitely foreseeable -- the red flags were there in their declining peripherals, and in the tepid forecasts by PECOTA and ZIPS. and the cards obviously foresaw it themselves, making starting pitching their #1 priority in the off-season. they chased burnett and vazquez and a few other guys, even made a late bid for matt morris, with the intent of flipping marquis for an outfielder after the acquisition. it was the right idea --- convert part of the surplus of mushy-middle starters into one young, economical position player -- but the execution faltered; couldn't acquire the right pitcher at the right price. when that initiative failed, the cardinals still had the resources to improve from within -- ie, reyes and wainwright. they could have traded marquis anyway. but they made what they felt was the safe bet and stuck with their veterans.

four months into the season, they're very stubbornly and unimaginatively sticking with that failed decision, sitting on their ever-dwindling lead over their awful divisional rivals and getting booed by their fans. the team insists --- and some fans agree --- that there was nothing else they could have done; they chose the best of a bad bunch of alternatives. i don't think so; i think they chose the easiest alternative, the tried-and-true formula -- value-priced veterans -- that had worked before. but they had other options, and still do.

if the cardinals really are open to being creative, as la russa says, they'd better show it pretty soon -- or those boos are only going to get louder.

Update [2006-8-4 9:24:56 by lboros]: p.s. --- i highly recommend danup's entry today, re navigating the fickle pitch-to-contact waters.

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