Chris Carpenter and the hypothetical Boring Cardinals

I liked it better when Carpenter was just getting slammed with no decisions. Over his last four starts the last player standing on the Maple Street Press cover (rejected taglines: "The Machine: Why Albert Pujols Will Never, Ever Slump For Two Consecutive Months"; "Hey, Jerk: Jose Bautista Is A Fluke And A Stupid Jerk" ) has struck out 20 batters, walked four, and seen his ERA rise from 4.32 to 4.58 in the process. ESPN has him on pace to pitch 222 innings, strike out 168 and walk 54, and go 3-16 with a sub-replacement-level ERA. It's as if Albert Pujols had finally started hitting home runs, one after the other, and come out of it with a slugging percentage inexplicably under .400. 

Which is why I hate talking about pitchers. Carpenter's looked terrible on the surface and in the narrative stats—he's allowed a ton of hard contact and lost a lot of games in which he's been narrowly but decisively outdueled, usually by someone younger. But just one step deeper into the pitcher-analysis swamp and he looks great, or at least as good as he did in 2010; his strikeout-to-walk ratio and fastball velocity are both up. He's looked bad, but he's looked good doing it.

If anything else, yesterday's loss is still more reason to not take this as the end of Carpenter's run as a front-of-the-rotation starting pitcher. He isn't likely to compete for any more Cy Youngs, but he's not yet Jeff Suppan—which is why it's so difficult to understand why he's been getting results, this year, that would get Jeff Suppan released. 

As for getting outdueled—as fun as this team is to watch, they remain a team that started Jon Jay, Daniel Descalso, and Tyler Greene at the same time, and a team like that could really have used the above-average version of Albert Pujols, or the slugging-.300 version of Tyler Greene. 

It was exciting—and fun to watch—to see that the Allen Craig experiment will continue even with Skip Schumaker back on the roster. (Is it strange to hope that one tweener outfielder with no experience at second base will displace another briefly celebrated tweener outfielder with no experience at second base? Yes. Will I do it? Yes.)

I remain heartened by the flexibility with which La Russa has utilized this flawed roster; I think that's why this season has been so much more fun—so much more, as Derrick Goold tweeted a few days back, "fascinating, entertaining, maddening, character-driven, confounding" than the other successful teams before it. 

Imagine a slightly different team on which Chris Carpenter just fell to 1-5. Albert Pujols has slumped the entire season, Matt Holliday is still out for a few days, but Daniel Descalso always plays third base, because that's his job; Skip Schumaker always plays second base, because that's his job, although Nick Punto and then Tyler Greene played it while he was out. Ryan Franklin got blitzed out of the closer's role but he was replaced immediately by Miguel Batista, who's managed to do a perfectly reasonable impression of the Ryan Franklin who neither makes an All-Star Game nor inspires existential horror when he comes in to pitch with a 9-3 lead. 

I'm not sure this hypothetical team is much worse, on May 26, than the one we've been watching instead. But I'm definitely fascinated and entertained by it, and more importantly (for the Cardinals, if not me,) I think these role players and relief pitchers who've been put through different paces all season will benefit from it.

Daniel Descalso, who looked like a terribly overmatched second baseman early in the year, looks now like a utility infielder with surprisingly outstanding reflexes at third and a bat that continues to stalk adequacy; Allen Craig, who didn't really have a role on a team with Lance Berkman and David Freese, let alone this newly adept Descalso, has without warning acquired a new, extremely idiosyncratic role that is useful primarily because of the very specific makeup of this roster. Fernando Salas and Eduardo Sanchez have secured their spots near the top of the bullpen despite missing the Opening Day roster. 

I don't know where all this flexibility is coming from, but it's meant a team that's easier to root for in 2011, and I think it might mean a team that's better than it would have been otherwise as early as 2012.  

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