The Cards are poised to surprise

Making projections for any baseball season is risky, even if quantitative analysis (stats) and qualitative analysis (scouting reports) are combined.  Even the most scientific, comprehensive statistical analysis, by itself, takes into account only the variables that can be quantified.  This leaves a lot of variance in the projected performance unaccounted for.  So, for example, as scientific and comprehensive a method as the Diamond Mind projections can miss the mark by a significant margin in projecting overall team performance or performance for individual players.

Case in point: Diamond Mind's projections for 2007 had these notable misses:

  • Three of the 8 playoff teams in 2007 were underestimated by 10 games or more, including both World Series opponents.
  • Colorado - last place, 77-85 projected record vs. actual 90-73 record
  • Arizona - third place, 79-83 projected record vs. actual 90-72
  • Boston - third place, 86-76 record vs. 96-66
  • Two other notable teams were overestimated by 7 games or more:

  • St. Louis - first place, 85-77 record vs. 78-84
  • Dodgers - first place, 91-71 record vs. 82-80
  • Despite the risk of embarrassment, I will venture to make the case for what the great majority would regard as a very optimistic projection of the Cardinal win total this season.

    Rather than going into a recital of the statistical evidence, which has been discussed in so much detail already that your eyes would glaze over if I repeated any of it, I'll look at the broader picture for the Cardinals, using as the primary reference point the Cubs, since Chicago is the consensus team to beat this year in the NL Central. 

    Bold prediction: The Cardinals will score more runs and give up a lot fewer runs than last year, enough to more than erase their negative 104-run differential in 2007 (just replacing the 32 starts by Kip Wells and Mike Maroth in 2007 with league-average starts would, alone, eliminate the entire differential, even if the Cardinal offense didn't improve).  Here's the rationale:


    This is considered by almost everyone to be the Achilles heal that will do in the Cardinals this season.  The doubts are easily understandable.  But I believe they are grossly overblown.  

    The starting pitching is the looming concern, of course.  Two notes first:

    The defense will be somewhat improved from last year (probably better in LF, SS, backup C, and RF, but significantly weaker, though still solid, at 3B).

    The relief pitching should be better than last year, when the starters melted down and overtaxed the bullpen, finally wearing them out by September.  There will be much better reinforcements this year, if needed, including the return of Josh Kinney by June, and from AAA, if needed, Motte and Perez.

    As for the starters, they will leave the team very vulnerable in April.  But first the good news: Wainwright's pattern last year indicates that he will offer top tier performance (as he did last year the last two thirds of the season) and I predict that Lohse, with Duncan's guidance on pitch selection and preparation, will offer legitimate #2 performance rather than his historic #3 level.  The bad news is that Thompson and Wellemeyer are #4 or #5 performers as starters, and Looper is a #6 performer (after mid-May last year his performance was very weak the rest of the season).  If that mediocre rotation, on balance, was slated for the Cardinals for the entire season, I'd join the chorus of those who pick the Cards for fourth place, behind the Cubs, Brewers, and Reds. 

    But, wait, there's hope, for two reasons. 

    First, the schedule of 28 games for the month of April includes 21 games against teams that finished under .500 last year.  That could allow the Cards to hold the fort (or keep their heads above water, if you prefer that image, in view of the recent floods).  

    The biggest reason for hope in the rotation is the depth of starting pitching in the Cardinal supply chain, unlike last year when the team kept throwing Kip Wells out there almost all year and resorted to disastrously failed reinforcements such as Mike Maroth and a prematurely returned, still very weak Mark Mulder, and a not-ready-for-prime-time Anthony Reyes.  In stark contrast this year, a series of very probable, solid improvements will be added to the rotation, in late April (Pineiro), mid-May (Mulder), June (Clement, perhaps), and July (Carpenter).  Pineiro's #3 level of pitching, or better, will be an improvement over Thompson or Wellemeyer's #4 level, whichever he replaces; Joel thrived under Duncan's coaching last year with the Cards, who corrected a flaw in his delivery that had been tipping his pitches.  Mulder has regained his strength, by all reports, and just needs to finish reestablishing his arm slot and mechanics; he projects to perform at a #3 level at least, possibly #2; either would be better than Thompson or Wellemeyer, whichever is left in the rotation by May.  Clement is a big question mark, obviously; he might build his strength enough to provide #3 level performance, which would be a huge improvement over Looper, or Clement might not pitch one effective inning for the Cards; even if Clement fails, it looks as if McClellan could improve the rotation by stepping into a starting role (or Mortenson or Garcia temporarily) until Carpenter returns, finally, in July.  Again, all reports indicate that Carp is right on track; the history of recovery from his kind of surgery indicates he should perform this year a notch below his strongest previous level as he continues to build strength; that would put him at the #2 level of performance.

    One more bit of hope for the Cards comes from the fact that 12 of the 15 games the Cardinals play vs. the Cubs will come in July or later in the season.  Those 15 games will be the most important games of the regular season, since each game provides a 2-game difference in the standings: the Cards will either gain a full game (+1) in the standings, compared with the Cubs, or lose a full game (-1) at the end of each contest.  The good news is that in 12 of the 15 games vs. the Cubs the Cards will have their best rotation in place:

    Lohse or Clement

    That could be as strong and deep as any rotation in the NL by the end of this season.  Or it could fail to materialize if some of the four starters on the DL as the season begins do not regain good health and strength.  Chances are that Pineiro will join the rotation, since the tightness in his shoulder is not serious.  And the reports on Carpenter and Mulder indicate they are both right on track to return.  Even if only one of them returns, it would make the Cardinal rotation above average on balance, at least (a healthy Carpenter last year, alone, instead of Reyes or Wells, would have probably put the Cardinals in first place by the end of the season).. 


    The Sabermatricians, using a variety of formulas, predict the Cardinals will score more runs this year than last.  I concur, based on the method of pattern analysis I use for offensive (and defensive) projections, reliable enough to have led me to predict the 100-win season in 2004 when the consensus among sportswriters was that the Cards would not even win a wild card berth.

    The pattern of previous performance for the key Cardinal players indicates that they will contribute more on offense than the Cardinals got last year from the same positions:

    Pujols - Will get better pitches to hit, with Glaus and Ankiel batting behind him, both of whom could hit 30 HR.

    Kennedy (Backed up by Miles) - Will hit much better this year (by positive regression to the mean after his aberrant season in 2007) and Adam will be backed up vs. LHP by Miles, who does have a solid OBP vs. them. (despite all his other shortcomings).

    Glaus - Will have a much higher OPS than Rolen did last year and add 20-25 more HR's to the offense.

    Ankiel - Great tools, still moving up the learning curve, very motivated and focused (in effect, replaces Encarnacion, who had much less power)

    Duncan (backed up by Barton) - Recovered from hernia, getting his batting stroke back (and has become a competent left fielder)

    Schumaker (backed up by Ludwick) - Will perform better this year than Edmonds did last year (Schu, Ludwick, and Ankiel all outperformed Edmonds in OPS last year by a good margin). By July an even better replacement will arrive, Colby Rasmus.

    From the other two positions, C (Molina backed up by LaRue) and SS (Izturis backed up vs. LHP by Ryan), the Cardinals will probably have less offense than last year.  Still, that leaves six spots in the batting order improved and only two diminished.  The net effect will be significantly more runs scored, especially more HR's from the outfield and 3B.

    On balance all of these probable improvements indicate that the Cardinals' total runs scored will be within 20 of the total for the Cubs this year, at least (even with Soto and Fukedome joining Chicago).  I predict the Cardinals will outscore Chicago.


    Aside from the promotion of Colby Rasmus by mid-July, if not before, the Cards will probably have a great opportunity to improve by then, by trading surplus pitching (especially Lohse and maybe Looper, who will be free agents at the end of the season, and probably Reyes) and a surplus lefthanded outfielder (Duncan or Schumaker?).


    I predict the Cards will win at least 85-88 games this season, probably not enough to win the wild card, much less the NL Central.  But as Joaquin Andujar used to say, "Ya nevah know". 

    The Cardinals aren't the only team with questions and vulnerabilities. Gagne could flop as the Brewer closer, considering his awful record with Boston last year, and/or Sheets could get hurt again; and Zambrano could melt down longer than he did last season and/or Kerry Wood's arm could fail and/or Fukedome could struggle to adjust to the NL and/or Soto and Pie and other young Cub players could have their own difficult adjustments, etc.  

    The Cardinals have the most questions, yes, where it matters most, in the rotation.  But the Cardinals also have a good supply of potential answers, far better than those they tried last year (Maroth, Keisler, a weak Mulder, etc.)

    Even if the Cardinals end up only hovering around .500 by the end of this season, it will be fascinating and fun to watch the team develop and add exciting new players (Barton, Rasmus, Perez, McClellan, Mortenson, Garcia, etc.), reloading and shaping the team into a new blend, on the run, near-term and long-term, with a very strong new core (Pujols and Rasmus, Carpenter and Wainwright, perhaps Duncan, Barton and Ankiel, etc.).  

    This Cardinals team seems to be set up to sneak up on the competition and surprise them, maybe not as much this year as they did at the end of the season in 1964 or after their miserable September in 2006, but considering how low the expectations are for this team, it looks like an excellent bet that the vast majority of Cardinal fans will be very pleasantly surprised by the end of this season.

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