Monthly Archives: March 2011

Is Chris Carpenter a #1 pitcher?

The title is the question we’ve all been asking ourselves for a little over two weeks now as we consider the ramifications of the loss of Adam Wainwright.

Adam Wainwright, 29, was a first round draft pick of the Atlanta Braves. He made four Baseball America top-100 prospect lists, the last one in his first season in the St. Louis Cardinals’ system. He was considered the Braves’ top pitching prospect at the time and the trade ended up being a major steal for the Cardinals’ organization.

His first full season in the big leagues was 2006 and he was tested by fire as he was named the Cardinals’ closer late in the season and then through the playoffs on the team’s playoff run. He was destined to be something special as he moved into the rotation the following year.

But last year, Wainwright’s 20 win season signified something greater than just a great season, to me and a lot of other Cardinals fans, it signified the passing of the torch as the Cardinals’ #1 pitcher from Chris Carpenter to the younger Wainwright.

Carpenter, 35, was a first round pick of the Toronto Blue Jays in 1993. Along with Roy Halladay, who you may have heard of, they were supposed to be the top of the Jays rotation for years to come. He made three Baseball America top-100 prospect lists with the Jays. However, injury derailed Carpenter’s career and ultimately he was released by Toronto.

The Cardinals took a chance on Carpenter, who was 27 at the time, by signing him to a two-year deal. They basically paid him to rehab from his latest injury, which Carpenter has said was a deciding factor in his decision to accept St. Louis’ offer. He would make his Cardinals debut in 2004, notching 15 wins. However it was his 2005 season that assumed the mantle of #1 starter as he won 21 games on his way to the Cy Young Award.

Over the offseason, the organization was relaxed about the prospects of it’s starting rotation. It had Adam Wainwright, who had finished in the top-3 in Cy Young voting the previous two seasons, as it’s #1 pitcher. It had Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter right behind him. Young Jamie Garcia was coming off an impressive rookie year that placed him third in rookie voting. Veteran Jake Westbrook had finally been acquired by the Cardinals and had pitched phenomenally over his starts with the Cardinals. The back end would be Kyle Lohse who was coming back from injury but had yet to live up to his big contract signed after 2008 when he won 15 games for the big birds.

That optimism didn’t last very long. On February 23rd, news came down that Adam Wainwright was being sent back to St. Louis for tests on his throwing elbow. The dreaded words “Tommy John” were used by Cardinals’ GM John Mozeliak. The following Monday, Wainwright was under the knife and officially out for the rest of the season.

Cardinals’ fans began looking at Chris Carpenter with increased criticism. Could the former ace regain his form?

The most recent memory in Cardinals’ fans’ heads for Chris Carpenter is the month of September of 2010. Or more specifically, September 10th in Atlanta (5 IP, 6 ER), the 15th against Chicago (6.1 IP, 5 ER), and the 20th in Florida (6 IP, 4 ER). The talk over the winter was how fans didn’t trust Carpenter to be the go-to guy anymore and how the Cardinals’ rotation was no longer headed by a pair of aces.

I’ll admit, I was in this group as well. Despite the solid ERA, his win totals were dropping. According to ERA+ he had been the best pitcher in the league in 2009, but fell far from that number in 2010. Was he aging and had he begun his decline?

Then I decided to look at the numbers. Over the first five months of the season, Chris Carpenter had a 2.92 ERA and was 14-5. He’d thrown 197.1 innings. Having thrown just 192 innings the year before, his first full season back after injury, Carpenter had already exceeded both his innings total and his starts total from the year before.

In his six starts in September, Carpenter struggled in those three starts, and put up a combined 4.78 ERA and a 2-4 record. But his final start of the season was a complete game only allowing one run. So he still showed that he has that ability.

While I doubt his 2011 season will be as impressive as Wainwright’s 2010 season, with some improved offensive help he could easily be a 20 game winner.

The Cardinals were 22-13 in games that he started, while they were only 20-13 in games that Wainwright started.

What does this tell me?

Chris Carpenter still appears to be capable of commanding the top of the rotation. Is he the pitcher that he once was? No. But he threw a ton of innings last year and should be solid to go just above 200 innings again this year with a very good ERA.

A solid season by Carpenter combined with improvement from Garcia, a full season of Westbrook, and a decent season by Lohse that isn’t hindered by injury and the Cardinals will be capable of contending in the division.

As with last season, I think the Cardinals’ success will be defined by the offense, not the pitching staff.

NL Central Preview: In Review

As I look at the NL Central Preview, I’m fairly happy with the results as they line up with what I expected to get. I hope everyone enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed researching the other teams in the NL Central. Here is a look at the final standings:

1. Milwaukee — 65 pts
2. St. Louis — 58 pts
3. Cincinnati — 52 pts
4. Chicago — 52 pts
5. Houston — 35 pts
6. Pittsburgh — 32 pts

The question will be how will they stack up after a year of wear and tear on their teams. Some teams are already feeling it.

Milwaukee has lost Zach Grienke from their rotation for a few weeks after he broke and bruised his ribs during a game of pickup basketball in the offseason. He is expected to start the season on the Disabled List, but the rest of that pitching rotation should be able to keep winning for the month of April while Grienke is expected to be out.

St. Louis on the other hand has lost their ace, Adam Wainwright. Wainwright had Tommy John surgery last week and begins the year long rehabilitation process. While several guys say it is unrealistic to expect him to be a starter at the beginning of next year, I look at Jaime Garcia. Garcia had his Tommy John after the season ended in 2008 and was starting for Memphis in the AAA playoffs in 2009, under a year later. We should get nearly a season out of Wainwright next year.

That means expectations need to be adjusted when I sit here and actually call out win totals.

1. Milwaukee (93 wins)
Grienke’s injury hurts, but not very much. The rest of this team is still very solid and very good. Milwaukee definitely went all-in in what is likely to be Prince Fielder’s last season in a Brewers uniform. They dealt their young talent away in order to restock their rotation with the addition of Grienke and Shaun Marcum, both of whom were #1 pitchers on their staffs in 2010. This is a team very capable of pushing 100 wins, but I think low-90s is a much more realistic expectation.

2. St. Louis (88 wins)
I still think the Cardinals are #2 in the NL Central, even with Wainwright’s injury. It’s hard to replace Adam Wainwright, but I expect Lohse to step up as he did in 2008 with Carpenter’s absence. I also think that McClellan will step up in the #5 role and get to double-digit wins. Getting to the high-80s in wins is very possible and if Milwaukee slips, the Cardinals will be right there to grab them. As always, it will depend on the Cardinals’ offense. Last year they were disjointed and Pujols and Holliday never got hot at the same time, which is good in theory. Pujols killed the sub .500 teams, and Holliday killed the above .500 teams. There is the potential for more threats in the lineup this year, but it’ll be interesting to watch the defensive regression and just how bad it may be.

3. Cincinnati (86 wins)
I expect the Reds to fall off a little bit this year. Only by 6 wins too. On paper, they should be better than last year, but while that may be true the effects of age will likely show on Scott Rolen, who despite putting up an impressive season last year, only hit 3 home runs in the final 3 months of the season. Rolen is a key part of this Reds offense, and I don’t see the other young Reds players improving enough to assume the loss of offense at his position. Also, I don’t expect Joey Votto to put up another year quite as good as he did last year. He is still a great player and worthy MVP, but he should regress from his 2010 numbers.

4. Chicago (81 wins)
Just above .500 for the Cubbies in 2011. Their rotation is upgraded, but the team still has huge personality issues that they need to overcome. The fact that there is conflict emphasizes that there are still some players in Chicago that care about playing good baseball and care about winning. However, fighting with your teammates in the dugout is not the best idea. They have the talent, but they continually struggle to put it all together and perform, and that sounds more and more like the Cardinals’ every day.

5. Houston (69 wins)
The Astros’ win totals will fall off this year without Berkman or Oswalt on the team for the first half of the season, but I don’t think it will be that great. Brett Wallace will get his opportunity to sink or swim at first base and J.A. Happ is a suitable replacement for Oswalt. The Astros team is pretty good, but they are young and still have holes to fill.

6. Pittsburgh (62 wins)
Pittsburgh is another young team. They have talent at their offensive positions, but will have to wait for some of their young pitching to show up. The lack of a reliable starting rotation is what will do Pittsburgh in, but I still expect their win total to improve over last years as some of their young pitchers will get a full season in and begin to show what they have.

Make sure to check back at the end of the season when I will go over all of these predictions with what actually happened. Then I will subsequently make excuses as to why I’m really correct and why they failed to meet my expectations.

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If you wish to go back and read any of the previous articles in the series, here are some quick links to them:

NL Central Preview: Closer

The lock on the door. The guy who shows up to inform you that the game is over. The closer.

In the game of baseball, there is probably no position more ridiculed than that of a closer. Many teams have tried to do without, using a “bullpen by committee.” For some reason, that never works.

Teams are just inexplicably better when they have a shut down pitcher at the back end of their pitching staff who can take the ball at the beginning of the ninth inning and can shut the other team out. Or if he blows the game wide open, forget about it the very next night when he has to do the same thing.

It’s a position where I have heavily criticized the Cardinals and Ryan Franklin over the past few seasons. I don’t really see Franklin as the shut down guy and when things begin to unravel, it seems that more often than not, so does he. However, he has managed to not only hold onto the position, but perform well. At 38, he may be in his final year with the Cardinals, but he’s done a good job.

There is a very talented crop of closers in the NL Central who have all put up great numbers. The pitchers have definitely been the hardest to rank.

6. Francisco Cordero, Cincinnati (3.84 ERA, 6-5, 40 SV in 75 appearances)
Cordero might not completely belong at the bottom of this list, but his performance last year left plenty to be desired. Despite leading the NL Central with his 40 saves, Cordero’s numbers ballooned from his 2009 campaign, let alone his 2007 campaign with the Brewers where he earned his contract. He will once again perform well and be an excellent fantasy closer, but if he continues to decline, there is no reason why he can’t be the worst closer in the NL Central. He also gets hit by his 5 losses, to me the big key of a closer is to not lose a game, even if you blow the save. That’s like a worse case scenario. The closer’s first job is to keep the lead, and if he can’t do that to keep the tie. When you lose, it’s devastating.

5. Joel Hanrahan, Pittsburgh (3.62, 4-1, 6 SV in 72 appearances)
Hanrahan was given the closer’s job in Pittsburgh earlier in Spring Training because of his previous closing experience. Still, he hasn’t had much in the major leagues. Part of it is because of his ability to make major league hitters miss the ball. His K/9 in 2010 was an impressive 12.9 strikeouts per 9 innings. That is some impressive power that should help Hanrahan as long as he can keep the walk totals down. That’s something he’s done well since his arrival in Pittsburgh.

4. Brandon Lyon, Houston (3.12, 6-6, 20 SV in 79 appearances)
Lyon gets knocked down the list thanks to his 6 losses as well. Also, it’s his inability to keep the closer’s job. Lyon is a very good middle reliever who has had his opportunity to close out ball games regularly. In Houston, he should get the opportunity to be the go-to guy in the 9th inning in the event that they have a lead. Last season was one of his best seasons that he kept the closer’s role through most of it. Can he improve on that? His numbers won’t be stellar thanks to the rest of his team, but Houston is closer to ready than a lot of people think and Lyon is still young enough to potentially hold this role into the future.

3. Ryan Franklin, St. Louis (3.46, 6-2, 27 SV in 59 appearances)
As I said early, I’ve heavily criticized Franklin and he keeps going out there and doing well. While his ERA jumped from 1.92 in 2009 to 3.46 last season, it was unrealistic to expect Franklin to continue to perform at a level that would be considered his best MLB season to date. His 1.1 WHIP as a reliever in St. Louis definitely helps him, considering his low strikeout rates. The Cardinals will need him to be on his game, along with the rest of that bullpen, because they can’t afford to give up many leads late in games this year.

2. Carlos Marmol, Chicago (2.55, 2-3, 38 SV in 75 appearances)
Maybe the most electric pitcher, Marmol has had moments where his command has to be questioned and he’s been removed from the closer’s role. By many metrics he was the best closer in the NL Central, and I’ll agree that I nearly placed him there. The inconsistency is what really played the biggest role in the move from #1 to #2. Plus, Axford is pretty good.

1. John Axford, Milwaukee (2.48, 8-2, 24 SV in 50 appearances)
It’s definitely a career boost when you get to study a legendary closer like Trevor Hoffman for a couple months before replacing him. Axford was that guy. He was a reliever in Milwaukee and the closer of the future when he replaced a struggling Hoffman as the team’s everyday closer. And Hoffman was okay with the move, to boot, which says a lot about Axford. His ERA was the best of the NL Central closers and being in front of that Milwaukee pitching staff should just help hand him leads all season long.

Look for a wrap up post later this week to discuss the findings and issue final predictions with some of the more recent injury developments in the NL Central. It has hardly been an easy Spring Training for NL Central pitching.

The current points though:

Milwaukee — 65 pts
St. Louis — 58 pts
Cincinnati — 52 pts
Chicago — 52 pts
Houston — 35 pts
Pittsburgh — 32 pts

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NL Central Preview: Starting Pitcher #5

After a brief hiatus (thank you midterms), I’m back at the blog. Spring Training has begun and the pressure is on to get this preview done, but I think it has been pretty representative. So as we near an end, with just this one and the closer remaining, I think this little experiment has been quite the success.

Starting pitcher #5. For the Cardinals, this has changed with the recent injury to Adam Wainwright. However, I’m going to continue as I had them ranked originally and end up subtracting points for Wainwright’s injury. That doesn’t help the Cardinals who are already losing pace to the front running Milwaukee.

6. Kevin Correia, Pittsburgh (5.40, 10-10 in 26 starts)
Correia is expected to show up in a very weak Pirates rotation. There are some bright spots, but for the most part there is no clear pitching roles in their rotation. Just a whole bunch of average pitching. Correia has put up a handful of good seasons in the major leagues already in his career, but can he bring that to the Pirates?

5. Kyle Lohse, St. Louis (6.55, 4-8 in 18 starts)
The oft-injured Lohse is once again in a role where he will be heavily depended on by the Cardinals team. It was Lohse that, in 2008, pitched his way into his current four year contract in the absence of Cardinals’ ace Chris Carpenter. He will be asked to repeat that performance as the Cardinals have said good bye to their current ace Adam Wainwright. Ultimately, the season will hinge on Lohse and the new fifth starter’s performance.

4. Nelson Figueroa, Houston (3.22, 5-3 in 10 starts)
He is far from a prospect, but for Houston, Nelson Figueroa can be a stop gap until some younger talent gets ready to show up. It’s a tough spot for the Astros who have a solid 1-2-3 punch in their rotation, but very little behind it both in the 4-5 spots in the rotation and in the lineup. Figueroa came over from Philadelphia in the Roy Oswalt trade and continued to put up numbers that made 2010 his best career year in the majors. Look for him to get his shot to repeat that effort in 2011. 

3. Chris Narveson, Milwaukee (4.99, 12-9 in 28 starts)
The former Cardinals’ farm hand was brought back by the Brewers rather than bringing back their former ace Chris Capuano who was coming off of injury. After a successful 2009, pitching mostly out of the bullpen, Narveson regressed while given the opportunity to start regularly. If he improves a bit he will make a solid #5 at the tail end of the Milwaukee rotation behind the excellent front four.

2. Travis Wood, Cincinnati (3.51, 5-4 in 17 starts)
Travis Wood took a spot in the rotation mid-season and held on to it, pitching very well. In fact, in his third career game, Wood took a perfect game bid into the ninth inning against the Phillies. He would leave that game after 9 innings of 1-hit ball with the team losing 1-0 in extra innings. Cincinnati is in a great position though with their rotation. In addition to Wood, they have Aroldis Chapman and Mike Leake sitting there looking for an opportunity in the rotation as well.

1. Randy Wells, Chicago (4.26, 8-14 in 32 starts)
Wells should be the Cubs’ fifth starter. His win-loss record left quite a bit to be desired, but his ERA is solid and a second season in the rotation should help him improve. Last season he was the first Cubs rookie pitcher to win 7 games since Kerry Wood did it in 1998. For the Cubs, they need to take a good look at their young talent and that means letting Wells have his shot at the 5th starter’s role.

The points with one final position left to preview:

Milwaukee — 59 pts
St. Louis — 54 pts
Cincinnati — 51 pts
Chicago — 47 pts
Houston — 32 pts
Pittsburgh — 30 pts

Milwaukee looks to be stretching their lead in the division, leaving second-place up to a battle between St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Chicago.

Spring Training Week #1 Notebook

The Cardinals’ first week of Spring Training games went much better than the previous week. Despite opening up with a 3-8 loss against the Marlins, the Cardinals finished up their first eight days of playing games at 6 wins, 3 losses.

Some quick hits on my thoughts about some things from the first week of games.

Farm hands getting lots of ABs early in Spring Training. Jon Jay, Mark Hamilton, and Allen Craig lead the team in at bats through the first week of Spring Training. Colby Rasmus joins that trio as the only players to score more than 20 at bats. And each of those four are hitting well over .300 which, even though its the first week of Spring Training, makes me feel good that these guys are already well adjusted as they begin warming up for the season.

It’s been interesting watching Hamilton get a few chances to play in the outfield. He is one of 5 Cardinals to have gone deep so far, and the only one with multiple home runs. Could he become a dark horse candidate as a backup outfielder?

Tyler Greene is getting every opportunity to play himself into or out of a roster spot. He hasn’t hit as well as the four guys in front of him with more ABs, but he hasn’t been an embarrassment. For the record, I would be okay with being proven wrong on Greene. Anytime he’d like to prove me wrong, please do.

Matt Carpenter is also getting a chance to play a lot of ball early in Spring Training as David Freese only made his debut today. Carpenter took advantage of it as he is 6-for-16 (.375). He also has 5 RBI, which ties him for second on the team so far.

I’m enjoying the fact that LaRussa is giving the young guys a seemingly legitmate shot this year and the young guys are giving him something to think about. That’s always better than either of the alternatives.

Battle for the fifth starter. Kyle McClellan still appears to be the leader in the clubhouse for the fifth starter role. He strengthened that after a strong appearance in his spring debut, going 3 innings with 2 hits and 3 strikeouts.

Lance Lynn was the early choice as #2 on the list after his strong debut, but his second appearance was much less impressive. Brandon Dickson was also good in his debut while PJ Walters did not help himself.

Those three guys are likely fighting over McClellan’s bullpen role at this point, anyway.

The K-happy Albert Pujols? The good news is that after posting his highest strikeout total since his rookie year, Albert Pujols met 2011 by striking out 3 times in his first 3 at bats. Wait, maybe that wasn’t the good news. Better news is that he hasn’t struck out in the 10 ABs since.

Daniel Descalso blogging. Daniel Descalso has a MLBlog up with a couple posts up. Hopefully the Cardinals’ infielder will continue to blog about his season as it goes. Check it out here.

Some other UCB notes. Check out the February Round Table with all the posts linked at the UCB homepage. Unfortunately I was too busy to participate this month, but there are definitely some good posts there.

“Natural Positions.” I once again read an article describing a player’s “natural position” as short stop while defensive statistics show that they are much better at another position. What makes a position a natural position? And shouldn’t someone’s natural position be whatever position they are best at?

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Three more weeks until Spring Training games are over and we begin anticipating the season opener against San Diego.