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Two Aces

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The Cardinals are apparently unhurried in their quest to kill the "They only hit home runs" meme. Yesterday's game was less effective than usual in evangelizing for the approach, because they didn't draw a single walk, but since they hit three more savory extra-base hits and six singles to go with the rally-killers the dinger-unfriendly element of the fan-and-media-base probably enjoyed it well enough. 

You don't have to go very far to find successful examples of teams who either took this approach or ended up there on accident; the 2009 Phillies were an average offense plus 70 home runs, the Yankees were an excellent offense plus 60, and both teams led the league in home runs and playoff victories, categories chicks have been accused of digging to different degrees. The Phillies did the same thing in 2008, though the Rays did not. It would be good to have the Cardinals bring baserunners home in new and exciting ways, and it'll probably happen eventually, but in the meantime their home run hitting will continue to be viewed as some kind of moral failing. 

Carpenter's still being knocked around the outfield, but he's apparently adjusted by striking everybody out. His fastball and slider, or cutter, or whatever it is he's been throwing to left-handers, still look less sharp than they were last year, but he was basically perfect last year; it's a bad comparison for anybody. If this is the Good Carpenter, as good as we'll see this year, it's a step down from his peak, but it's still number-one caliber pitching.

And if I'm hard-pressed to come up with the right distressed sounds to make about the Cardinals' early problems it's because most of them have not yet presented themselves as much worse than that proposition: they might not be perfect, but they'll still be a lot of fun to watch, and for the right reasons. Colby Rasmus is slugging .705. I am happy in this alternate universe. 

Carlos Zambrano, meanwhile, is also struggling a little, in a classic early-season way: his ERA looks bad because he got crushed in an opening day start. He may not be an ace anymore—he may just be a guy who can throw 200 innings every year, which is perhaps the kicker of this story—but since then he's made two good starts and one where he was reasonably effective but couldn't make it out of the fifth inning, and Lou Piniella has decided to make some adjustments. He has decided to move Carlos Zambrano to the bullpen. 

"You look at these box scores every day around baseball and these games, especially in the National League, they're won in the sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth innings," said Piniella, in his fourth season as the Cubs' manager. "There are a few blowouts early. There's some obviously but not (a lot).

"Look, this makes all the sense in the world."

It's a bad sign, when making an argument, when you find yourself starting with a series of points, getting progressively more vague, and then finally cross the line demarcating "reasons I'm right" to "look, man, I'm right." Usually when that happened I would storm up the stairs, throw the door to my room closed, and write something angry on my Livejournal. 

I try to be measured on this site—I'm not a combative guy. But this is kind of a dumb thing to say. Games are won in the sixth, seventh, and eighth innings because those innings come later in the game, not because the dollar values have been doubled or the moneyball, which is worth two points, doesn't have any seams on it.

Announcers are fond of saying that baseball is the game without a timer; it's also a game, thankfully, without a shot clock or late-inning rule changes or a two-minute warning. It is a game when pitchers who can pitch one inning pretty well are easier to find, and less dear to pay for, than pitchers who can pitch several innings pretty well. Fetishizing the late innings offers no benefit to anybody but the viewer. Baseball games are won and lost when one team scores several runs in an inning or two, and it seems like that happens a lot later in the game because it is terrible when that happens. But teams can score the proverbial runs-in-bunches in any innings, and as Carlos Zambrano's first start, the 8 runs in an inning-plus that undid his ERA, proves, it really does happen. If Lou Piniella needs more examples of situations in which this happens, he can check newly minted starter Carlos Silva's gamelogs—he was blown out three times in six starts last year, and nine in 28 the year before.

The goal is to minimize the number of innings that are that achingly bad as much as possible. If Carlos Zambrano can offer to throw six innings that probably aren't achingly bad or one, take him up on the first one and call up the guy in Iowa who has the best numbers. Let's see... former Head D of the Rangers' "DVD Boys" super-prospect boy-band Thomas Diamond looks pretty good but hasn't gone deep into a game yet. Go for it! If they're really looking to get rid of Zambrano-the-starter they could probably trade (with his contract) for a reliever at least as good as he's likely to be. 

There are so many potential worst-parts about this idea that I'm not going to pick one. Zambrano is being paid a lot of money for several more years; if the Cubs want to keep him, putting him in the bullpen is an easy way to make a temperamental guy disgruntled, and if they don't want to keep him making him an expensive set-up man is a bad way of getting out from under the contract. If the idea is to stabilize the bullpen, because it's been more of a problem than the rotation, they have successfully destablized the rotation—now featuring Carlos Silva and Tom Gorzellany—as well as the bullpen. Whatever they want to do with him, unless that's get less than optimal value from a guy who's thrown two quality starts in three, this is a bad way to do it.