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The Cardinals and the Abraham Nunez Clause

My expectations for any Cardinals team in the compete-every-year era can be divided among three recent vintages—the 2008 squad that kind-of-competes and could sneak into a division title; the 2001 squad that will compete in any given year and probably make the playoffs; and the 2005 squad, which makes me swoon, a little. 

All these teams, usefully enough, had multiple all-star-caliber performances; if you look at the top of their WAR graphs you'll see, at least, a familial resemblance. The 2001 team had J.D. Drew doing his next-Mickey-Mantle thing and then getting hurt, not to mention a peak Jim Edmonds year and Albert Pujols's just-put-him-somewhere rookie season; 2005 had the canonical MV3, minus Scott Rolen and plus Chris Carpenter; and 2008 featured Pujols at his best and Ryan Ludwick at his brass-monkeyest. 

At that, at least, the Cardinals have done a fine job hedging their bets this season. In addition to Pujols and Holliday, who are being paid to be MV2, they've got Adam Wainwright, Colby Rasmus, Chris Carpenter, and Lance Berkman with better-than-Ludwick odds of putting together an All-Star season. 

But if I think about that 2005 team compared to the ones that came before and after it, lately it hasn't been Albert Pujols riding a unicorn or Brad Lidge going catatonic that shows up to complete the mental image. It's Abraham Nunez. 

I don't like it, either.

Abraham Nunez joined the Cardinals with a career bWAR of -0.7, left them with a career bWAR of 1.3, and finished his career at -0.9. He's the rare example of a Tony La Russa Scrappy Infield Hubris play both working out perfectly and failing to wear out its welcome, and he's a perfect representative of a team that, despite almost resisting it in places, managed to be adequate everywhere. Their biggest problem was at backup catcher.

The same, really, is true of the 2001 and 2008 teams. 2001 was hamstrung by La Russa's inviolable grit-crush on Mike Matheny and the collapse of several load-bearing rotation members, but Albert Pujols and Craig Paquette, of all people, held things together at third base and in the outfield, while Woody Williams and Bud Smith combined to be most of an excellent starter behind Darryl Kile and Matt Morris. In 2008 the Cardinals got excellent defense and surprise adequacy out of Adam Kennedy and Cesar Izturis, and solid work from Braden Looper, Kyle Lohse, and Todd Wellemeyer that they had no right to expect.

Here's my contribution, then, to Viva El Birdos Graph Abuse Week: A look, very roughly, at the Cardinals' runs created and saved above average in these three tiers, across each position. (That is: I've sacrificed some accuracy by running the numbers myself in terms of runs created above average, because that was the only way to get batters' stats by position. Look at the shape, which is accurate, and not the numbers, which probably aren't.)

The playoff teams don't just have large advantages on runs above average, they also have less below-average play dragging them down; -14 and -13 runs for the 2005 and 2001 teams, compared to -37 for the pitching-challenged 2008 club. If you further atomized the rest of the pitching staff I think you'd see this more clearly—the not-quite-there Cardinals clubs don't lack the star power, they lack adequacy, in all its forms. (The 2001 team, for instance, is made adequate or more-adequate at three positions thanks to the all-over-the-place work of Pujols and Paquette, and Nunez swooped in to pick up Rolen's exploded-shoulder batting numbers in 2005. It's difficult to replicate "sign a terrible player and have him hit 40 points above his career average" in every offseason, let alone "develop a Hall-of-Fame talent and vacillate about where to start him.") 

And it's that ability to stay average that worries me about the 2011 roster. Ryan Theriot, Skip Schumaker, Nick Punto—those are players who exist to keep a team above replacement level, and nothing more. The Cardinals were too busy fighting parochial battles about the way an infield should behave to deal with the way it should perform. That said, they did patch one sub-average hole by signing Jake Westbrook, and Lance Berkman gives them multiple routes toward soiid play in the outfield and frees Allen Craig up to be Craig Paquette, if you like that sort of thing.

I could see this Cardinals team fulfill any one of these rough outlines; the 2004 team, after all, got its above-average second base play out of Tony Womack, who makes Ryan Theriot look like Bo Hart circa Independence Day, 2003, and the 2008 team's second most-valuable position belonged to a minor league free agent. But I wish the 2011 team had given itself fewer areas in which they needed to rely on the Abraham Nunez Clause to push toward average.