As far as artificially created division points go, an off day in the middle of March isn't a bad place to start, really.
It's not really accurate to call this the midpoint of camp, I realise; however, it does serve a storyline far too conveniently for facts to get in the way. Games have been going on for just about two weeks now, and there are about two more weeks to go. By the first of April, all that can be learned will likely have been, and the Cardinals will be ready to move forward into the 2010 baseball season. So yeah, we're going to call this the midpoint of camp, and I'm going to feel mighty fine about it.
So it's progress report time, boys and girls. There were really three main areas with significant decisions to be made coming into spring training: third base, the fifth starter's spot in the rotation, and the bullpen pretty much as a whole. Let's reset those questions and see where we stand now, shall we?As I sit here on the morning of the 17th of March, I have a cup of tea in my hand, a hot cross bun in the other, and Bowie's "Young Americans" spinning happily away on the platter. My baseball team is the favourite to win the National League Central Division. My car is paid off and there are three Schlafly Christmas Ales left in my refrigerator thanks to careful rationing. In short, life is actually pretty damned good this Wednesday morning. And it's thanks to this current quality of day that I can look at my favoured ballclub and say, "Yes, it is rather good to be a Cardinal fan right now. Thank you for asking."
When camp opened, David Freese was seen as the near-prohibitive favourite to win the Cards' starting third base job. A month later, very little has changed on the Hot Corner frontier. Freese is still the favourite, with Joe Mather looking destined for a very handsome fourth outfielderdom. It's interesting Mather got his first start of spring at third base yesterday, but I don't know if it's anything more than interesting.
There are two wild cards in the third base race: Felipe Lopez and Freese himself. Lopez, signed just before camp got underway in earnest, isn't much shakes with the glove, but he has that veteranness so beloved by the manager and his bat plays better than virtually any other in the second spot in the lineup. The most sensible option, of course, is for Lopez to get his 300-400 plate appearances at a variety of positions, but if there's a spot on the diamond I could see La Russa just pencilling in 'Lopez' night after night, it's definitely third base.
The other wild card is Freese's performance this spring; or, rather, his lack thereof. The sample sizes are all still ridiculously small, but Freese hasn't exactly lit the world on fire this spring. His bat has been slow to come around, and more worrisome, he's made several errors in the field, where his reputation has mostly been built. Add in a couple of baserunning gaffes and it doesn't seem all that unfair to question if Mr. Freese has his head entirely in the competition.
Nonetheless, the job still appears to be his to lose. I think Freese will have to play himself out of playing time more than any other player will be playing into it.
Now this one is much more interesting, especially if one happens to have paid attention to the box score from yesterday's game. More specifically, the line just to the right of Garcia, J. The part where it says three innings, no runs, one hit, one walk, and seven strikeouts.
The fifth starter race has been seen as a two-man race for quite some time, and it's probably down to about one and a half now. Kyle McClellan has been his typical whelming self, while Rich Hill has struggled to throw strikes and find a consistent delivery. Sure, Hill could still end up winning the spot, but things aren't looking all that up for the man with the big curve.
On the other hand, with Garcia's ERA all the way down to 1.04 now for the spring and him looking stronger each time he takes the mound, one has to wonder if he might not be able to force his way back into consideration after all.
Here's something we definitely know: Ben Jukich is not getting a chance to make the Cardinals out of spring training. (Why they bothered to pick him in the first place if they don't mean to give him any innings I don't understand, but that's another issue entirely.) Ditto Blake Hawksworth, who has yet to see anything resembling a multi-inning starter's audition. The only man who seems to have even an outside chance of crashing K-Mac and Hilldawg's exclusive gathering is Garcia.
And this is the one I'm really worried about. At the beginning of spring training, the lefties were set, the righties were pretty much wide open, but the closer's spot was fully settled. So hey, at least the tough situations were covered, right?
Well, from where I'm sitting right now, I don't see any reason to be at all excited about Ryan Franklin closing out games for the Cardinals in 2010. Nor am I certain Jason Motte really has turned any sort of corner, proverbial or otherwise. Really, the one and only guy in relief I can honestly say I believe in right now is Trever Miller. He looks as if he's picked up right where he left off in 2009, when he was the best LOOGY in the game.
The possible departure of McClellan for the rotation only exacerbates the bullpen situation. Sure, I'm not a huge fan of K-Mac's stuff or the resulting peripherals, but the fact is he's been a very useful reliever for the Cards the last two years. If he heads for a starting gig, that's just one more hole to be filled.
Unfortunately, Mitchell Boggs hasn't exactly lit Roger Dean on fire yet in the 'pen, causing many of us to worry his late season performance was some sort of mass hallucination, brought on by thousands of undiagnosed brain tumours. Hawksworth is what he is; he doesn't strike out enough batters to be a feared presence, at least in my book. Motte has looked fine, but that whole thing about throwing more than one pitch is stil a little iffy for the Hoople. Eduardo Sanchez has unbelievable stuff, but I just don't see him as ready quite yet. Fernando Salas was a little shaky early on, but his last couple outings have been very, very impressive. I don't think he's beating anyone out just yet, but it might not be a bad idea to get him in your mind as the first guy up.
So really, what have we learned after all this time already in camp? Well, to be honest, not a whole hell of a lot.
- It's probably a good thing the front office didn't listen to us and our demented Ben Sheets lust.
- Ryan Ludwick looks better right now than he did at just about any point last year.
- Colby Rasmus actually is capable of taking a walk; you just have to get him in the right mood.
- Trever Miller with a bum shoulder can still kick your ass every day of the week.
- When Carpenter and Wainwright struggle, it's spring training. When Kyle Lohse struggles, brother, it ain't pretty.
And finally, the leaders so far in our Spring Surprise Sweepstakes are, on the hitting side, probably Allen Craig and Nick Stavinoha. There's no reason to be surprised by Craig's offensive acumen, of course, but he's been all kinds of impressive. As for Stavinoha, um, well, you say he has a high average with very little in the way of power or on-base skills? Well, I guess there's a reason we call him Fat Miles, eh?
On the pitching side, it's a little harder, honestly. Very few of the Cardinal pitchers have really stood out to this point. All the starters have been very up and down. Franklin has been non-ironically awful; most of his bullpen mates have failed to distinguish themselves with great performances. So to this point, the pitching surprise clubhouse leader would probably have to be Jaime Garcia. Sure, we knew he was probably pretty good if healthy, but his performance to this point has been very, very impressive. Impressive enough he just might win an award for someone.
The Baron's Playlsit for the 17th of March, 2010 -- Monet
"Make You Mine" - Best Coast
"The Last Good Night" - Parker & Lily
"Until Then" - Broadcast
"The End of the World" - Girls
"Bells Ring" - Mazzy Star
"Deep Sea Diver" - Grizzly Bear
"Manteo" - Love Language
"Love Can Destory Everything" - the Raveonettes