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light pimping

g’morning boys and girls. danup was kind enough to put me in the chair this morning to pimp (gently) this year’s Maple Street Press guide. danup and the red baron made big contributions again this year, and we also brought back chuckb (aka houstoncardinal), jeff sackmann, will leitch, and dayn perry. i did a little writing for the book as well; one of my articles (in the history section) goes on for about a zillion pages about a beloved cardinal team of my youth, the 1974 edition. that’s the "apocalypse now" article of the magazine — originally budgeted at 6 or 7 pages, but delivered at 14 or so. the studio suits wanted to cut the length (so predictable), but i threatened to dump all galleys into the mississippi if they touched so much as a word. i guess "apocalypse now" would be the best-case comp; the worst-case would be "heaven’s gate."

anyway, i don’t want to drone on for 14 pages here. the book will be on newsstands early next week, or you can order it online. it’s an above-replacement-level book, i promise; if you have thoughts about how to make it better next year, email me at vivaelbirdos on the yahoo.

the magazine is pretty sanguine about the cardinals. and why not — the team has collected four very good players who are at their career peak, surrounded them w/ several league-average players who are also in their prime, tossed in a grade A prospect and some role players with upside . . . . given where this roster was just two years ago, it’s a pretty striking turnaround. think back to that spring for a second. heading into camp in 2008, the cards were seriously considering juan gonzalez as a bench player. mark mulder was an important part of the plan for the rotation. their best outfielder was chris duncan, who entered the season with 756 career at-bats; rico washington and kelvin jimenez both made the opening day roster. and the most exciting young players on the roster — the guys we all hoped the team could build around in the future — were rick ankiel and brian barton.

that was just a few months into mozeliak’s tenure, and now here we are today. but here’s what is fascinating — mo didn’t get the team to this point by churning the roster. he built it largely out of resources that were on hand in 2008. ludwick, rasmus, schumaker, and ryan were all in the organization two februarys ago, but none had ever held down an everyday position in the big leagues — and only rasmus was considered a future regular on a first-division team. yadi was a no-hit catcher with a career high ops of .708. carp was on the eternal dl. kyle mcclellan, jason motte, blake hawksworth, mitch boggs — just names for the #hpgf to get themselves worked up over. the only key additions from outside the organization have been holliday, lohse, and penny. that’s not nothing, obviously, but it’s a distinctly different approach from the way walt jocketty built his teams — ie, by bringing in guys from other organizations.

mo has built this one by relying heavily on guys like david freese — passed-over prospects who don’t have star potential and are therefore very easy to dismiss. he’s stuck to that program despite a lot of advice from many quarters (including the media, talk-show callers, field manager, and star first baseman) to blow big chunks of money on guys like brian fuentes or torii hunter or miguel tejada. he has changed the organizational culture to the point that there-for-the-taking veterans like felipe lopez and john smoltz don’t generate much interest in cardinal nation anymore. the focus is generally on players like jaime garcia and allen craig. unproven players with upside have found a home in st louis. thank you, mo.

their handling of freese made me ask myself a question: when’s the last time the cardinals placed this type of faith in a rookie? ie, when’s the last time that a player with 31 major-league at-bats was option A for an everyday position heading into a season? it’s the "option A" piece that’ important here. colby rasmus played himself into an everyday role last year, but he wasn’t entrusted with the position right from the get-go. he opened the season as the fourth outfielder, starting nearly as many games in right field (5) as center (6) during the month of april, and didn’t become the regular centerfielder until ankiel’s collision with the outfield wall on may 4 sent him to the dl. likewise, albert pujols was an everyday player as a rookie, but even after he hit his way onto the roster he didn’t have a regular position. he made starts at four different positions (1b, 3b, lf, rf) in april, and his playing time was divided pretty evenly among those four slots all season — 52 starts at third, 30something at the other three stations. the team didn’t insert him into a position; he forced his way into the lineup.

freese is a different case — they’ve got him penciled in for 130 starts at third base. the last time the organization did that with a rookie was . . . ? with j.d. drew back in 1999, per my recollection. they’ve certainly given opportunities to many other young players since then, but most of those guys got their chances in mid-season, after option A (and maybe B, C, and D) washed out. brendan ryan, chris duncan, ryan ludwick, and rick ankiel all fall into that category. and then there are guys like schumaker and yadi, who understudied for a season or three before coming into a season with an everyday job.

likewise, if jaime garcia should win the #5 starter’s job, he’d become the first cardinal rookie to be counted on for 30 starts since rick ankiel in 2000. my heart kind of broke as i looked back over that history. between 1996 and 2000, the cards opened every season with a rookie figuring prominently in their rotation plans. the five rookies were alan benes (1996), matt morris (1997), cliff pollitte (1998), jose jimenez (1999), and rick ankiel (2000). benes ranked #5 on baseball america’s top prospect list heading into 1996; ankiel was #1 heading into 2000. the team seemingly had a built-in rotation slot for rookie pitchers until ankiel’s meltdown. and since then? baby steps with young arms. it’s a pretty stark dividing line.

one other note, and then i gotta run. assuming that freese sticks, all 8 of the cards’ 2010 regulars will be under club control again for 2011. when’s the last time they returned all 8 starters two years in a row? it happened in 2003 with matheny, tino, vina, renteria, rolen, pujols, edmonds, and drew. it also happened in 1994, when they returned pags, jeffereies, alicea, ozzie, zeile, gilkey, lankford, and whiten; and in 1983, when they returned their series-winning lineup of porter, hernandez, herr, ozzie, obie, lonnie, willie, and silent george. it happens about once a decade, in other words — and they’re about due.

thanks danup for the invitation — thanks ev’ybody for reading.