Yesterday the Cardinals were no hit through seven innings, and we didn't have to freak out about it. They weren't the real Cardinals, and they weren't on TV—for all the usual patter about rooting for laundry, we're pretty good, and pretty intuitive, about adjusting our allegiance based on who's wearing it. But here's the difference between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Jupiter Cardinals: Ryan Ludwick, Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday.
The Cardinals are a pretty average team all around—there are no clear holes in the 2010 model, and that's a major boon for a team that, in the immediate post-MV3 era, looked like this. And as minor league depth goes—well, yesterday's discussion was predicated on the idea that the Cardinals' replacement level is suddenly somewhat better than replacement level. So I don't mean to advance this as a legitimate complaint about a team that's done everything it can to address same. All that disclaiming aside, submitted for the approval of the midnight society... The Frightening Lineup, as projected by ZiPS.
Having watched Khalil Greene, Joe Thurston, and Rick Ankiel just one year ago it's impressive to see that the Cardinals are able to lose their three best hitters and still keep the low OBP at .319—and for a player who would, in a non-test situation, be replaced by Allen Craig (.330). There are three messages, I think, to be taken from a pretend-lineup like this:
- If the team doesn't hit in Spring Training, it is often because it is not the team in Spring Training. During the few games Albert doesn't play in the regular season I find myself underestimating the drop-off between the lineup I'm used to watching and the one with Yadier Molina starting at first base, because of the anything-can-happen clause. But even one game at a time it happens considerably less often when Albert Pujols sitting on the bench.
- The Cardinals have a lot of depth that would not be altogether embarrassing in the starting lineup for a week or two at a time. It'll be interesting to see if the current dearth of minor league upside leads to a brief set-back in that department a few years from now.
- No matter how good the depth is, a team can't win by being really deep everywhere; only one of the Cardinals' various 1.5-2 win options at third base can play at a time, and those cheap wins don't stack. The Cardinals' plan of building around two or more high-value players on the cheap gets better and better as mid-range players like Felipe Lopez find themselves getting killed on the free agent market.
In related news, this story is obviously as frightening as minor back pain gets. The incentive to build a team from cheap, interchangeable widgets is basically summarized by this story; it is the safe thing to do, and the thing that does not trip huge alarms in the middle of March over one missed Spring Training game.