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The October Team

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Good to see He Who Shall Not Be Named Correctly hitting the baseball hard, walk-off or no walk-off. (But walk-off, if I have a choice.) Now that he's begun to hit again—.346/.393/.500 in his last seven games—we can try out the new narrative: he didn't hit anything for a while, then he began to pull the ball, in the accepted Smooth Home Run fashion, for a week or so, to no effect. It's too easy to attribute the lack of lift on his fly balls to his much-reported weight loss, because it is basically attribution by connecting the only two things we know about him... which is to say that my head said no, but my Scout's Gut said yes. And now, having begun the slow march back to playing weight, voila: his good swings become enough to make even Jay Randolph alert and excited. 

It's so easy, which is why it probably doesn't mean anything. But there you are. 

Anyway, Rasmus's bizarre splits, which almost explicitly defy foolhardy bloggers to see a pattern—two bad months to start the season that are almost identically valuable but do it in completely different ways, one great month with no walks, and now a July that follows the May pattern (low OBP/high power) and an August that follows April (high OBP/no power)—got me thinking about one of the best arguments put forth during the Tigers-in-Three moment of 2006: the team that won 83 games in the regular season was not the one that won 11 in October. 

The team that, GOB willing, gets to the NLDS this October will—more obviously this time—not be the one that went 25-31 in May and June. But what does that mean? 

THE GOOD

1. Matt Holliday >> Chrick Dunkiel

This, of course, is the big one: Matt Holliday replaces two guys who, luckily for this baseball writer, have sucked almost identically hard over the course of the season. What's he do in a short series that the Platoon of Despond wouldn't? For one thing, he gets them there; his extraordinary performance over the first 20 games of this deal has been worth an incredible 1.5 wins over a replacement player. One example of a replacement player is... Rick Ankiel, whose performance to this point in the season has put him exactly at 0.0.

Even in a brief series, and even accounting for Holliday's inevitable descent from Mount Olympus, that kind of boost is difficult to overestimate. Ankiel's MLVr—the fraction of a run, per game, that a team would gain from plugging him into a lineup of average hitters—is -.118. Holliday's number last season (with the Cardinals this year it's 1.1) was .320.

That's the difference between, say, Albert Pujols and, uh, Matt Holliday. If a series were to go seven games that difference would be theoretically worth three runs. Losing Brett Wallace is going to hurt, and it's going to hurt for quite a while. But the difference between the absurdity that was the off-season Matt Holliday discussion and the trade that actually happened last month is that Rick Ankiel's collapse has made what would have been worth less than a run per playoff series into something that could influence the outcome of the postseason. 

2. The Infield Shuffle >> The Old Infield Shuffle

Over the first two months of the season it would be charitable to say that Skip Schumaker played second base badly—if the resounding agreement of UZR and Dewan's fielding runs was any indication, he played second base like no one who has been allowed to play second every day has done in the last five years. He played it like an outfielder, and not a good outfielder—Tris Speaker, the Gray Eagle, was said to play center field from just behind second base, so close that he was a factor on double play balls. Skip Schumaker just stood behind second base. 

Around June, Joe Thurston found himself in a similar situation. After his surprise April, and his surprisingly decent May, he became the de facto starter and found himself hitting like Skip Schumaker played second base. He managed four extra base hits in two months of full-time starts, during which he hit .220. His OPS hung around .570 (but it's OBP heavy!) 

As if that weren't enough, the Cardinals, through May, had committed themselves pretty thoroughly to Khalil Greene, who had seemed like a pretty thrifty upgrade in March. I don't know if you've heard about this, but he struggled with anxiety problems, and also the bat, hitting .171/.213/.220 in May before leaving the team. The My Name is Brendan, this is My Brother Greene, and This is My Other Brother Greene platoon split starts at the position for a few weeks until both Greenes fell out of the picture, and everyone realized suddenly that Brendan Ryan had used his time in Memphis to become Ozzie Smith. 

Unfortunately, he's not an era-adjusted Ozzie Smith—shortstops can hit now, due to a 1992 Supreme Court decision on the subject (People v. Ordoñez), so .284/.324/.377 is not quite so impressive as it was in 1989. But the combination makes him an above average player, the likes of which the Cardinals thought they'd signed up for when they traded two bottom cards off their Inexhaustible Supply of righty relievers. 

Meanwhile, at second base, Schumaker's UZR/150 began its slow ascent from the Mariano Duncan Trench. In April and May it hovered around -30; in June, -19; now, as of the most recent Fangraphs update, it's -11. All the while his raw UZR has stuck between -8 and -9. I don't know if this makes him average, but even mediocre is a major improvement. The trade for Julio Lugo, and the return of Khalil Greene, also means that he never has to face a left-handed pitcher again. 

Finally, at third base, the Cardinals replaced Joe Thurston with Mark DeRosa, who managed to avoid Cardinals infamy by not missing the second half of the season with a wrist injury. The Lugo and Holliday acquisitions mean that DeRosa's versatility (he was originally cast as a solution in the outfield, too) no longer makes him uniquely suited for the Cardinals, and his fielding at third is erratic as advertised, but the combined acquisitions have meant that Thurston's done little but replace Schumaker at second base, something his above average glove there warrants. 

This total recasting of the infield is Mozeliak's secret coup of the year; he came into June with a catastrophic loss of third base depth and a bizarre experiment at second. In two moves he managed to fill third base, provide some insurance at short, and hedge against Schumaker's poor defense and complete inability to hit left-handed pitchers. That makes a huge difference now, and it will in Hypothetical October, too. 

3. Fifth Starter Question Mark

Yes: a question mark for the fifth starter is good news. Todd Wellemeyer has spent most of the season being an emphatic exclamation point. Q: Will the Cardinals starter give up as many runs as innings pitched? A: Wellemeyer! 

But his eclipse means a few things. For one thing, the Cardinals might get better-than-replacement-level performance out of his replacements down the stretch, which could make a difference in the still-tight standings. For another, having no set fifth starter means that La Russa won't be tempted to tinker with what are obviously the best four pitchers in his playoff rotation. 

THE QUESTIONS

1. The right-handers

Watching Jason Motte pitch has become a terrifying proposition to me. It's not that I don't have faith in him, though I don't, at this point—it's that I'm sure there's still an excellent reliever lost somewhere in his career, and with every stomping mop-up outing I'm watching him on eggshells, hoping that he shows that 2008 form for one inning at a time. 

His bad mop-up inning and his excellent partial inning over the weekend did a little rationalizing of his days-of-rest splits, which have, to this point, been held up as a beacon of hope. Unfortunately, when each is moving, even in a different direction, toward 6.00, that's not a good thing; after those mediating innings he's at 11.42 with no rest and 4.55 with. He's been bad on no days rest, not very good with it; he's sucked in a box, and with a fox, etc. etc. 

But if it were just Motte struggling, the Cardinals would be in fine shape. But over the course of the season they've traded Chris Perez and Jess Todd and found out that Kyle McClellan has a serious control problem, one he simply does not strike out enough batters to overcome. If Ryan Franklin were to begin sucking (that is, more than he does now) any start that does not go past six innings will become Chinese-curse interesting in a hurry. 

With Smoltz and Eduardo Sanchez both in the dismissive-response stage of the Elusive Mozeliak Answers continuum, the only hope for the right-handers is that Blake Hawksworth continues to pitch well—so far, so good—or that Jason Motte starts to. After all the activity it's a little difficult to watch a question be answered so passively, but the Cardinals are fresh out of excess faberge. 

2. Kyle Lohse

I don't know what's wrong with Kyle Lohse, and westcoastbirdwatcher being banned and all I can only speculate, but since his lost June he's been occasionally effective but noticeably dull, in the opposite-of-sharp sense; his command is gone, his fastball is lost, and after his told-you-so April has come a told-you-so May, July, and August, as his season-making walk rate from 2008 has fallen almost perfectly to his career numbers. 

Even if he continues to struggle, or just continues to be Kyle Lohse, this isn't a season-ender. In the playoffs, the Cardinals need either Pineiro or Lohse to look like a third starter. Joel appears to have that covered. 

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Unrelated, underreported note: those of you who join me in checking Gulf Coast League scores every so often will have noticed that one Joe Mather doubled in Quicksilver Jr. in their afternoon beatdown at the hands of the GCL Astros.

The GCL is just barely a minor league; nobody cares about the score, nobody watches the game, and were it not for the other group of differently-affiliated teenagers at the other end of the field there would be no stats kept at all. But it's good to see Mighty Joe/Joey Bombs/Bizarro Duncan taking some swings on his way back to earning those nicknames. This is step one to making the roster in 2010, though probably not as a third baseman.