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Cardinals vs Cubs preview 4/11-4/13

The Cubs visit Busch this weekend for the first 3 games of the season between old rivals.

Starlin Castro
Starlin Castro
Brian Kersey
The Starters

  • Joe Kelly and Jeff Samardzija open the series this evening at 7:15 central.
  • Adam Wainwright and Carlos Villanueva have game 2 on Saturday at 1:15.
  • Michael Wacha and Edwin Jackson wrap it up on Sunday at 1:15.

It's always a little extra fun playing the Cubs. Like most of the diversions people devote their time to, baseball is only as valuable as the meaning people imbue it with. The benefit of a true rivalry is a little extra space for that meaning to bloom. Of course battles with other teams can be compelling in the right circumstances, but I can't say I particularly care about how good or bad the Reds or Pirates or Brewers are in a given year if they're not directly competing with the Cardinals for the division. On the other hand, thanks to their historic rivalry with the Redbirds, I'm always interested in how the Cubs are doing, and that's something that makes the value I get from the sport richer. Thanks, Cubs.

The Cubs come to Busch at 3-6, having lost home and away series with Pittsburgh and a home series against the Phillies all 2 games to 1. At 5-4, the Cardinals are off to a solid start. There is no shame in splitting 6 away games before winning a home series against top divisional competitors. While the Cardinals have been competitive for years and appear to be an upper-echelon team for 2014, the Cubs have hit a (particularly) rough patch. They haven't had a winning season since 2009, and have finished an average of over 30 games out of 1st place over the last 3 seasons. The Cubs of 2014 don't appear to be more competitive than those of the last few years, though this is a team that seems poised to make some noise in a couple of years with a quartet of top prospects in SS Javier Baez, 3B Kris Bryant, and OF's Albert Almora and Jorge Soler. They have more high picks in upcoming drafts, and likely considerable future payroll flexibility.

The Brewers and Pirates play each other this weekend, while the Reds host the Rays.

Some things to watch for

Given the timeframe of when the Cubs might again be good, players on the current team who appear as likely contributors down the road should attract your attention far more than the middling stopgaps who make up the majority of the current club.

The Cubs' best pitcher, Jeff Samardzija, is young enough to fit into this window, but he's a FA in 2016 and there have been far more rumors regarding the Cubs trading Samardzija than reaching agreement on a contract. Travis Wood is still reasonably young and had a good season last year by ERA, but his peripherals remained unexciting. The rest of the rotation consists of mediocre veterans.

There are 2 main position players whose fortunes could influence 2017 as much as 2014: Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro.

Anthony Rizzo is a young slugging first baseman. Just 24, Rizzo is already well-traveled. Traded from the Red Sox to the Padres for Adrian Gonzalez and then to the Cubs for Andrew Cashner, Rizzo hit for average and power throughout the minors. After a very promising half-season with the Cubs in 2012, Rizzo's 2013 numbers were something of a disappointment. He walked at a strong 11% clip last season, and kept his K% at a reasonable 18.4, but his BABIP plummeted as his line-drive and ground-ball rates dropped in favor of more fly-balls. This resulted in 23 homeruns, but he batted just .233. While some of former manager Dale Sveum's staff remain on the squad, Rick Renteria hired Bill Mueller as a new batting coach. It will be interesting to see how Rizzo's approach evolves going forward.

Starlin Castro has been around long enough that it's easy to forget he's also just 24. He was an immediate hit in 2010 and signed a $53M contract through 2019 after a 3.1 fWAR season in 2011. Outstanding defense in 2012 helped him match his 2011 value despite a slip in his offensive value, and then the wheels came off in 2013. He graded out as just a good defender and had a lower wOBA than Daniel Descalso. This added "up" to a -0.1 season in fWAR.

He is a supremely talented player blessed with outstanding tools, but an already high groundball rate rising further and annually declining contact ability are not good signs. His power slipped as well last season, and he doesn't have the elite defensive skills, speed or contact profile to be valuable as a slap hitter: He has to drive the ball. Getting Starlin Castro back on track is easily the most pressing matter for the Cubs this season, so it's something that bears watching. For what it's worth, he's off to a good start, and says "I got my feeling back."

Mike Olt will be a familiar name for those who follow prospect wonkery. He was once an exciting power prospect for the Rangers, but his star has fallen significantly since. He still has power in his bat, but simply doesn't have the contact skills of a major leaguer. He's platooning at 3rd with Luis Valbuena, so we probably won't see much of him with the Cardinals all-righty rotation.

Who the hell is that?

That's Junior Lake! Yet another 24-year-old, Lake got his first taste of the majors last season, and it went well in an unusual kind of way. Showing a bit of power and pretty good speed, he managed a solid .284/.332/.428 line over 254 PA, but it took a .377 BABIP to accomplish this. While that number is unlikely to be repeated, he did well there throughout his 4 years in the minors. Is Jon Jay with a little more power and speed but many more strikeouts in a corner spot a valuable player?

Keys to the series

  • Intensity
  • Duration
  • Frequency