I've spent the better portion of this road trip thinking about how much I simply enjoy this team. Winning is almost certainly a part of that but the atmosphere the team generates is immensely fun too. Even the players that I don't care much about don't engender the same response as guys like Sidney Ponson (ya, he played for us) or Juan Encarnacion (who was over-hyped by the front office effectively sabotaging any chance he had with me). The last time a Cardinals team was this likable was 2004-2005. The combination of incredible performances and players that I liked in excess of their talent (I'm looking at you Larry Walker and Reggie Sanders) was a blast. The more I thought about my feelings both past and present, the more I wondered how 2010 compares to the last 100 win seasons the Cardinals produced.
The Cardinals in 2004 were built on the back of the MV3. Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen all produced 8+ WAR seasons. The last time that happened was, well, I can't find another club that did that for three position players. The obvious culprits like the Yankees and Red Sox have some monster seasons from individual players (A-Rod posted some 9 WAR seasons) but never have they combined to create the same kind of offensive chimera as what the Cardinals experienced in 2004.
As has seemingly been the case in much of recent Cardinal history, the Cardinals were blessed with good pitching that was, above all else, stable. The club in 2004 had all five starting pitchers toss 180+ innings. Those pitchers only contributed about 10.5 WAR, which would be about half a win less than what Wainwright and Carpenter produced in 2009.
2005 was a tremendous season but so swiftly on the heels of the 105 win club it seems the season is under appreciated in my recollection. The Cardinals offense was diminished by regression and a Scott Rolen injury. Albert Pujols as his usual tremendous self and the position players were a motley collection of aging veterans who were still average players. Jim Edmonds tossed in his final peak season before the deterioration of time caught up with him.
Chris Carpenter in 2005 made a tremendous resurgence after being laid up for the 2004 playoffs (of which we shall mention no further). My dim memory of 2005 failed to recall that Carpenter managed a 240 inning season. The starting staff was once again Gibraltian with every starter topping 190 innings.
So where does that leave us?
Even before looking at the rates, the 2010 iteration of the Cardinals reminded me a lot of the 2005 one. (Please don't be fooled by the 2010 FIP; it's headed up.) The common reverberation throughout all these seasons is the tremendous Albert Pujols. In 2005, he had Jim Edmonds has his primary sidekick. Now, it is Matt Holliday. In 2005, Chris Carpenter led a good pitching staff of Morris, Mulder, Suppan and Marquis. Now, the staff seems much improved relative to that club with a dominant Wainwright following Carpenter, an emerging Garcia and pitchers in Penny and Lohse who should be stable stalwarts. It's ignorant to predict a 240 inning season from Carpenter but the overall quality of the staffs seem comparable.
The wild card between those two teams would seem to be the collection of rookies the Cardinals have. Players with a limited track record have a higher degree of variance in their projections and the Cardinals have two rookies in 2010 who would seem to have the talent to be significant contributors.
Jaime Garcia has far exceeded my expectations thus far though I'd contend we've seen the best of what he has to offer and likely not the norm. He's shown excellent command of his pitches snapping off sharp breaking balls and featuring an advanced feel for his changeup. His control has been a little better than expected (ignore the walk rate, it will come down; look at the strike%) and his ability to generate groundouts while not unexpected has been superb. Garcia showed the ability to strikeout batters in the minors and the preseason projection systems (more predictive than what he's done thus far) indicate that the strikeouts should come. Really any pitcher with his collection of above average breaking pitches is going to generate strikeouts. Garcia features all the tools to be a very good pitcher and his emergence has been a revelation -- that was a short lived Rich Hill experiment, no?
The other player is, of course, Colby Rasmus. While unlikely to match Matt Holliday's offense, the re-invigorated plate discipline last seen in the minors and the outfield defense make him a respectable bet to be the second most valuable player on the team. (Prior to Saturday's game, he led the position players in WAR.) An underdog in Vegas odds? Sure, but not unreasonable. I've written more words about Colby Rasmus than any player in the system and my affection for him is no secret but his skillset lends itself to being a tremendous player who can field well above average, get on base and drive the ball really freaking far.
So when I watch the Cardinals this year and am reminded of seasons when everything went right, maybe it shouldn't be surprising that I think back to tremendous seasons in recent history. There's a ton that could go wrong (avert your eyes if you want to stay optimistic - Albert's elbow, Lohse's command, Carpenter's right arm, 3rd base, the bullpen) but, on balance, John Mozeliak and company have assembled a tremendous amount of talent. Having followed Garcia and Rasmus since their draft in 2005 makes this team a little extra special for me but the reality is that this team looks superb with some top heavy talent to bore it's way through a weak NL Central.
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