a few more musings about wishful thinking:
the cardinals' current record, 12-17, matches the mark with which they closed the 2006 regular season --- heading into their championship run. nobody expected them to turn it around last year; could it happen again? let's compare those two 29-game segments side by side. "close games" are defined as any decided by 2 runs or fewer, while "blowouts" are those decided by 5 or more:
although the records are identical, these are not comparable stretches of play. during last year's 12-17 finish, the cardinals actually outscored their opponents by a few runs and outhomered them by a wide margin. they lost a bunch of close games while trying to sort out the mess at the back of the bullpen, which made it seem as if they were playing much worse than they actually were. this year, by contrast, the bullpen's the only thing keeping st louis within ICBM range of .500; the cards' opponents are outscoring them by almost 2 runs a game and outslugging them by an appalling 63 points. to put this into perspective, last year's worst mlb team, the royals, were outslugged by 65 points.
alright then; are there any hopeful precedents?
last season two playoff teams, the dodgers and twins, both got off to starts at least as poor as the 2007 cards (12-17 and 11-18, respectively). however, the dodgers' 12-17 resembled that of the cards in late 2006 --- los angeles outscored its opponents 137-135 and obviously was better than its record showed. but the twins were every bit as awful last spring as st louis is this spring, getting outscored 116-168 and going 3-9 in blowout games. like the 2007 cards, the 2006 twins were coming off a sluggish 83-win season that seemed to mark the end of their dominance over a weak central division. their first 29 games looked for all the world like the continuation of a downward trend --- the steepening of the twins' decline phase. but they just kept playing, fiddled around with their roster at the margins, and lo and behold they won their division. the twins made a lineup change after game 29 --- michael cuddyer, who had started only 11 times in that opening stretch, became the everyday right-fielder --- and a couple more changes at about game 65, replacing tony batista at 3b with nick punto and dumping lew ford for jason tyner. some of their core players overcame slow starts; torii hunter raised his ops from .720 in the first 29 games to .850 thereafter, while joe mauer and justin morneau started slugging (.395 and .424, respectively, through game 29, versus .529 and .584, respectively, over the last 133 games). overall, the twins' output improved from 4.0 runs/game through game 29 to 5.15 runs/game over the rest of the schedule. on the pitching side, minnesota dumped kyle lohse and his 8.92 era from the rotation after game 39 and scott baker (6.06 era) after game 51; three kids from triple A (francisco liriano, matt garza, and boof bonser) soaked up those starts moving forward.
but here's the rub: the twins had the services of a healthy ace pitcher (j santana) as they came back from their early struggles. their slow-starting hitters were all 30 or younger, not 32 (rolen and eckstein) or 36 (edmonds). so even this hopeful precedent from just last season doesn't really apply to the cardinals.
one team the cards can hope to emulate are the 2004 giants. after contending for 7 straight seasons (4 playoff appearances, 1 nl pennant), san francisco got off to a 12-17 start in 2004 --- just like this year's cards. they were outscored 122-167 during that stretch. they were old --- only one starter was younger than 30. they were mediocre --- marquis grissom, michael tucker, deivi cruz, and pedro feliz all started for that team; neifi perez got 300+ at-bats. it was such a pathetic lineup that bonds drew 232 walks, shattering the all-time record. the giants' rotation included dustin hermanson, brett tomko, and jerome williams; the closer, matt herges, had a 5.23 era. yet that old, patched-over club somehow rallied from its appalling start to finish with the nl's 5th-best record, at 91-71 --- this in a very good league where half the teams finished with at least 86 wins. the giants were in contention until the 9th inning of the 161st game of the season.
wishful thinking? oh, you betcha. but it's all we have at the moment.
hey, here's BP prospect maven kevin goldstein on rick ankiel: