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Where They're At: Your Second-Half-of-2009 Cardinals

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Things seem to have reset over the weekend: the Cardinals traded for Julio Lugo and Matt Holliday, did well just long enough to begin a new ugly losing streak, and now sit in what I will charitably describe as a near-tie in the NL Central. Todd Wellemeyer's status, while still nebulous, seems less assured than it did in his last several bad starts.

So let's assume this homecoming is a clean slate, the Cardinals having spotted the Chicago a half game out of the goodness of their heart. The prospects are gone; the new guys are no longer new. That conceit in mind, where are we now?

STARTING PITCHING

That has to be it for Wellemeyer, it has to be. The team can't take any more of it, La Russa can't afford to continue along this particular line, and Wellemeyer simply doesn't deserve the abuse that each successive pitch is going to bring him in a Cardinals uniform. I was hoping to see him build on his first start of July—you know the one, where he didn't give up a run an inning—but he's had an ERA of at least 9.00 in five starts of his last six, a game score below 50 in eight starts out of ten. Do you remember when he was pitching well, last year? I honestly have trouble conjuring that pitcher up in my mind right now. I'm sure he does, too.

There were two stretches; he began the year resembling the pitcher he'd shown himself to be in his brief 2007 tryout, a guy who Just Won by making sure, I guess, to start on the days when the Cardinals were going to score more than the four runs he allowed in his sloppy five innings. But after the first month of the season his ERA was still around four, solidly in Jeff Suppan territory, and after a hot May he looked like this:

 

GS IP H ER SO BB HR ERA K/9 BB/9 HR/9 FIP
13 80.0 65 25 62 25 8 2.92 7.0 2.8 0.9 3.89

 

There's certainly some ball-in-play luck here, but as Duncan Reclamation Projects go this is a shining moment in the Woody Williams echelon. But my endpoint is less arbitrary than usual—after this stretch his elbow took the first step in that most dreaded of St. Louis sequences: it started barking. He came back early, got shelled (eight runs in three innings), and then didn't pitch again until a scoreless five innings at the end of June. For the rest of the season he did this:

 

GS IP H ER SO BB HR ERA K/9 BB/9 HR/9 FIP
18 108.1 105 45 69 34 14 3.74 5.7 2.8 1.2 4.55

 

For what it's worth, the strikeouts and home runs in this stretch—where he was pitching, if nothing else, like a solid fifth starter, a typical Duncan stop-gap—are the same as they are in 2009, up to today's start. I've spoken a few times about Wellemeyer's tendency to frame his performances in terms of perceived velocity, something he does more often and more specifically than any pitcher I've ever watched before. Some days he'll say he was topping out in the mid-nineties (he usually isn't, but like network TV radar guns a certain adjustment needs to be made) and that's just his way of saying he felt good, things felt easy. Other days he'll say it's not there.

I wonder if the halcyon velocity days he refers back to, as either something he's on his way toward or something he can't quite reach, are those first thirteen starts. That kind of command, that kind of control—it's second starter material, and he did it free and easy, throwing fastball/slider like he was an overpowering high school pitcher. But last season, even after his dead arm, he was able to find a way to hit the strike zone, and in the right places. I've only seen that once this season; every other start he's either nibbled, been certain he was about to get crushed, or thrown it in the strikezone with complete abandon, and gotten crushed.

I don't know what the problem is—maybe the elbow's worse, maybe the head is. But he can't figure that out in a major league rotation, at least not this one.

INFIELD

Albert Pujols: Pass. He's slumping right now, but if it's symptomatic of anything worse than a slump there's no point in me writing the rest of this entry. And I'd like to think that the next fifteen hundred words (sorry!) have not died in vain.

Second base: Have I mentioned, before, how much I dislike Skip Schumaker appearing in games against a left-handed starter? If the Julio Lugo trade accomplishes one thing, it assures that the poor-fielding second baseman who starts against the J.A. Happs and Johan Santanas of the world alike will at least have the platoon advantage.

The Cardinals face a left-handed pitcher about eight times a month, or at least they have up to this point; if Schumaker maintains his .547 OPS against lefties, and Julio Lugo continues to slug 1.000, I predict that the Cardinals will win an extra sixteen games in August and September. But we'll see how the sample sizes hold up.

I'm just kidding-but-seriously—the makeover the Cardinals have performed on the left-of-Albert side of the infield is nothing short of miraculous. Prior to DeRosa not missing the season with a wrist problem, like a deadline deal only you don't even have to make it at the deadline, the Cardinals had three assets spread out over four positions: Albert Pujols at first, Ryan's slumping bat and hot glove at short, and Schumaker against right-handed pitching. Here's the Thurston/Greene/Greene/Barden post-mortem:

 

G PA AB H 2B 3B HR AVG OBP SLG BRAA VORP MLVr
Thurston 89 268 230 53 15 4 1 .230 .328 .343 -6.1 -0.7 -.096
K. Greene 47 151 130 26 5 0 5 .200 .282 .354 -6.0 -1.7 -.181
Barden 51 114 103 24 3 0 4 .233 .286 .379 -4.0 -0.7 -.122
T. Greene 41 112 105 23 5 0 2 .219 .261 .324 -7.1 -2.2 -.244

I brought the Baseball Prospectus stats not because I am nostalgic for the pre-Fangraphs world—although, seriously, how useful would these BP stats be if their website weren't designed and hosted in some wormhole that connects 1998 to 2009?—but because they're uniquely informative when players are being replaced. VORP shows what you expected: these guys are, when it comes to replacement level, the rule that proves the rule. Khalil aside, the Cardinals dredged these guys out of the minor leagues, and they played exactly as well as the last ten years of baseball thought have suggested they would. No diamonds, lots of rough.

MLVr, one of my favorite stats lost behind Prospectus's bad technology de facto firewall—this table took me twenty minutes to make—is especially fun here. It attempts to measure the runs per game the player in question would add to an average team. El Hombre leads the league with .626, which sounds about right. Before today's action Julio Lugo's, with the Cardinals, was 2.44, which also sounds about right.

We're not allowed those runs back, which is too bad—that would definitely sweeten the pot on these rentals. But in two moves the Cardinals have plugged the leaky spots in the lineup, and even assuming that DeRosa (.056) will replace Thurston alone in the lineup is worth ten runs on offense over the last sixty games.

Lugo (-.05) replacing Schumaker vs. lefties (a charitable MLVr for that character would be -.250), meanwhile, is worth another three runs, assuming Skip would only play half the time anyway. And that's on top of the most valuable service he renders: keeping the replacement replacements, Barden and company, off the roster. 

BULLPEN

It looks like I've been vindicated backwards again—I was mad about the Haren/Barton/Calero trade because I had the mother of all prospect crushes on Daric Barton, and when I posted my I-have-reservations-about-DeRosa news break it was without knowing that there was a PTBNL, let alone that it would be Jess Todd, the last scrap of bullpen depth floating around Memphis. Had I been alive I probably would have thought the Sam Bowie draft choice ridiculous because Sam Perkins was still on the board. (I'll be whitewashing these and other caveats from my memoirs, tentatively titled I Was Always Right, and Always for the Right Reasons.) That said, DeRosa, like Holliday, is a major improvement to this team, and we're looking at the team as it exists right now, not as it will next year.

 With Wellemeyer an open question, I'm convinced that right-handed relief, where the Cardinals were stacked about fifteen deep in February, is the biggest problem on this team. I'm going to do the old Rob Neyer hidden-name trick here in Hard Mode—no ERA, either, not that it's very tough anyway. Name these right-handed relievers, and rank them in order of effectiveness:

NAME G IP H SO BB HR K/9 BB/9 HR/9 FIP
Pitcher A 40 43.0 33 32 22 3 6.7 4.6 0.6 4.15
Pitcher B 45 36.1 36 31 16 7 7.7 4.0 1.7 5.32
Pitcher C 36 36.0 24 28 8 2 7.0 2.0 0.5 3.03
Pitcher D 42 42.2 48 36 22 5 7.6 4.6 1.1 4.58
Pitcher E 37 31.0 23 38 17 4 11.0 4.9 1.2 4.07

Of course you know Pitcher C, New and Improved Ryan Franklin. Back in April I suggested he was irrelevant to the Cardinals this year. I was wrong about that. And Pitcher B probably rings a bell, too. I don't know what to make of Jason Motte's first extensive time in the majors. If he had performed more or less how he's performing now except with a higher strikeout rate it would make sense—AAA hitters are bad, but they're not bad enough that they strike out literally twice as often (Sauce struck out an extraordinary 14.8 batters per nine innings last year) as MLB hitters. The massively inflated home run rate seems like penance enough for a guy whose one pitch is nevertheless Some Pitch. 

The cautionary tale is Chad Harville, another stocky guy with a blistering fastball who could never get established in the majors. But Motte was better last year than Harville ever was and has shown a movement on his fastball this season that nobody could have anticipated. I think, deployed correctly, he'll be better than he has been, now and in the future—but for a set-up reliever on a contender he leaves a little certainty to be desired.

Pitcher A is the guy I'm worried about. That's Kyle McClellan, he of the 2.93 ERA. His control was plain average last year; this year it's positively bad. If you can strike batters out like Pitcher E (that's Chris Perez, who was shipped out because of his command problems) it's okay to walk four and a half batters per nine innings. If you strike out fewer batters than Ryan Franklin, it's a bad way to keep your ERA under four. That's the Cardinals' set-up man—that's why I'm worried.

Pitcher D is Jason Isringhausen, last year. It's a rough group. 

As far as the minors go, pickings are slim here in July. Of the current starters-in-waiting, Mitchell Boggs, throwing 75% fastballs already, seems best suited to have a Wainwright Moment, but he also might be the best fit in the rotation. On the farm, Memphis is down to Matt Scherer, located inexplicably on the darkest corner of the 40 man roster. Scherer was the sixteenth round pick in the Chris Lambert Draft, and left half his strikeouts in the Texas League. Since coming to Memphis he's kept his ERA low by avoiding walks and, uh, having a really low rate of home runs per fly ball, which is not a great recipe for success as an MLB reliever. 

Past him there's Tyler Norrick, who's struggled with control but poured on the strikeouts as a newly christened lefty specialist, and Francisco Samuel, the Really Poor Man's Chris Perez, who walks a batter an inning and would probably be no worse control-wise if he just stood on the mound in AA Springfield and threw toward St. Louis. In the low minors there's former catcher Casey Mulligan, who's got a 69:17 K:BB ratio in 46 innings between low and high A but is apparently doing it without any projectability whatsoever, and Blake King, who looks longingly at Francisco Samuel's control problems. 

It's not a promising group. Out of all of them I'd almost rather the Cardinals throw Mulligan into the high minors fire and see if he has what it takes to be Brendan Donnelly for a month; he's just as likely to be Mike Sillman, but the Cardinals are running so low on options that I would not be at all surprised to see them try this guy in the middle innings. 

PROSPECTS

The Cardinals system has been worse than it is right now. Wagner Mateo, Daryl Jones, and (presumably) Shelby Miller are all more interesting prospects than could be found in the later Jocketty years, where luminaries like Jim Journell, damaged goods Blake Hawksworth, and Shaun Boyd were bringing the upside. Beyond that there are some interesting guys, the Daniel Descalsos and Pete Kozmas and Robert Stocks, and what remains of the Cardinals' once-formidable crowd of future role players and fourth starters—Lance Lynn, David Kopp, Scott Gorgen, et al. 

But as we've already seen, the relief corps is now more or less eagerly awaiting Joe Kelly, and the next impact bat is sixteen years old. The farm system could provide a starter, maybe Jaime Garcia, in 2010, and in 2011 Descalso and another of the Lance Lynn set might be ready to provide payroll relief. It's a system that needs to rebuild, and has some pieces with which to start doing it. 

PROSPECTS

This team looks pretty good for 2009, this last series aside. The offense is watertight, with only the starting shortstop a long bet for league average, and the starters are hamstrung by one sub-replacement-level hole, which is the easiest kind to push a little dirt into. (To use this trade deadline's vocabulary, it doesn't need Roy Halladay, it needs J.A. Happ. Or P.J. Walters.) The bullpen needs some attention; Jason Motte probably won't be Pitcher B forever, but even if he recovers it's shallow from the right side. If there's one more trade to be made it's probably Troy Glaus and a pile of money for a B- prospect or a Dave Weathers type; that's the last bullet in the gun. 

I think it'll be fun to watch. It's been some time since they've hit like this, and with Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright fronting the rotation there'll be some impressive wins mixed in with these frustrating losses. 

Chris Lambert's ghost just sent me an instant message auditioning for the five spot—that means I've been at this too long. I'm excited about this team this season. That's what I know.