Preseason Approval Ratings: Pitchers

Continuing my post series on the preseason Cardinals’ approval ratings. Today I’m going to move on to the pitching staff.

Adam Wainwright did not make an appearance on the list due to his injury, but I’m fairly certain that he would have been the highest rated pitcher on the staff. Call me crazy.

Instead, that opened the door for the Cardinals’ other ace, Chris Carpenter, to take the nod with his 8.5 rating. After a rough September last year, Carpenter has a lot of work to do to regain the “ace” status that many feel he lost last year to Adam Wainwright. It’s the year that the Cardinals need him too. Wainwright and other stepped up when he was hurt, now it’s his turn to step up.

Second on the list was a surprise to me as Kyle McClellan picks up an 8.0 rating. McClellan has been the go-to guy in the bullpen for the last three years, but moves into the starting rotation this year. He is buoyed by the strong spring where he took command of the battle for the fifth starter’s role. There’s a big hole in the bullpen now, but I think McClellan will be a sweet surprise in the rotation this season.

Next comes late season addition Jake Westbrook who scored a 7.5. He finished the season exceptionally strong, so it wasn’t a surprise that he notched up here. Though I was a little surprised that he exceeded the number that Jaime Garcia, who scored a 7.4, got. Close enough to virtually be equal but it was interesting.

I was also surprised by Kyle Lohse at a 7.2. Seems many fans are giving him a break on his injury and have buoyed him up due to his strong spring where he didn’t walk a single batter. Perhaps there is also hope that he is once again completely healthy and ready to perform at the 2008 levels that earned him the contract that makes him the second highest paid Cardinals’ starter.

After that it comes the bullpen guys. Really surprised as Mitchell Boggs, Trever Miller, Fernando Salas, and Ryan Franklin all scored 6.8. I guess most fans view the entire bullpen as interchangeable. Bryan Augenstein was close too with his 6.7.

Jason Motte came in with a 6.2 and I have to wonder why. He seemed to break out last season, but perhaps it was his slow start in spring training that cost him a rating higher up with the rest of his bullpen-mates.

Also, new bullpen arm Miguel Batista, who just picked up the win tonight, scored a 6.1. He might have gotten knocked down because he was new, but I think the fact that most fans felt that the bullpen would be in better hands with the younger pitchers also contributed to the low rating. Ultimately, he has performed fairly well both in spring training and this young season, thus far.

The lowest man on the totem pole was Brian Tallet with his 5.9. Ultimately, I think his rating was reduced due to many not being familiar with him. When he was picked up, I know I wasn’t the only one that went “Who?” and then responded with “Why?” after seeing his stats.

And getting to the one minor league pitcher on the list, Shelby Miller scored a 7.7. That basically makes him the third highest rated Cardinals’ pitcher. He’s still at least a year away from garnering any real consideration for the big league club, but it shows that he’s impressed and he’s on the minds of Cardinal nation.

Game 5: Cardinals 3, Pirates 2

Is that the hallelujah chorus I hear? No? Well it should be! The Cardinals eked one out tonight with a hit by Albert Pujols that just barely squeaked past the infielders. Plus, it wouldn’t be the ninth inning without Ryan Franklin letting someone on base. My thoughts on the game:
Kyle McClellan did everything we could have asked him to do. Threw a strong six innings and kept us in the ballgame. You have to rely on the offense to score some runs because no pitcher will always be perfect. He made one real mistake in the first inning that resulted in a two run home run by Lyle Overbay, but settled in after that. Who can blame him? The St. Louis boy making his debut as a starter in front of the home crowd, my nerves would be flying. In the end, six innings, 6 hits, 1 walk, 7 strikeouts.
Colby Rasmus has turned into a beast in the two spot so far this season. He goes 2-for-3 tonight with a walk to improve his batting average to .400 on the short season. Hitting in front of Albert, even a slumping Albert, has gotten him hot. If he can maintain the attention he seems to be paying to the game, this may be the season he polishes his game and puts it all together for a very big year. Return of the MV3 in 2011? We could see it with Rasmus, Pujols, and Holliday in the middle of the lineup.
And yeah, Albert Pujols finally comes through. He might not be out of his slow start yet, but he manages to get the game winning RBI and for 13 or 14 hours, all will be right with the world. It wasn’t a very well hit ball, but it went between the infielders for a hit at a crucial time and that’s what matters.
Hero of the Game: Craig and Pujols are obviously both very good candidates, but I’m going to give it to Kyle McClellan tonight. (6.0 IP, 6 H, 1 BB, 2 ER, 7 K)
Zero of the Game: Does there have to be one? I think I’m just excited about another win. Looking at the boxscore, I think that has to go to Gerald Laird, though David Freese could get it too as his struggles at the plate continued. It was his first start of the season, and I heard the 600th game of his career. Unfortunately, he did not celebrate it in style. (0-for-4, 2 K, GIDP, 3 LOB)

Game 4: Pirates 4, Cardinals 3

Kyle Lohse turned in five solid innings before his first walk of 2011 came back to bite him in a 4 run sixth inning. All in all, probably one of the better fundamental games of the season. Considering the lack of fundamentals, I’ve decided that was worth noting. However, here are my three thoughts.
In the bottom of the 8th, the Cardinals had Lance Berkman on first, Albert Pujols on third, with Allen Craig at the plate and none out. Tony LaRussa had Daniel Descalso and Tyler Greene sitting on his bench and didn’t opt to pinch run for Berkman. I’m curious as to why as it probably became the game changing move after the Pirates short stop bobbled the ball and managed to just beat a sliding Berkman to second. If anyone faster is on first, there isn’t an out and you get another at bat in the inning. 
Yes, you’d already used your other outfielder on the roster in a pinch hitting situation, this is a place where only having 24 usable players has hurt the Cards. However, with the will to shuffle Descalso or Greene could have been used. Either Greene goes to right field or Schumaker does, in either case Greene or Descalso can play second. But LaRussa was probably unwilling to move Schumaker from second base. 
I know I got on Tony last season for managing us out of games, but this is one time where he sat on his hands and shouldn’t have. There were a couple of us on Twitter that realized this and we’ve never managed a major league ballclub, so why did we know it was the right decision?
That leads into my second point. How does Tyler Greene only have one plate appearance this season? The way he was talked about in the offseason led me to believe that he was going to be the primary guy off the bench this season. Instead, it’s Descalso getting the opportunities. For once, Tony has surprised me with how he’s handled guys off the bench. Part of me wonders if Greene is hurt and we just haven’t heard anything.
And finally, Lance Berkman should have played more outfield in Spring Training. His error in the top of the 4th was a result of having not played enough outfield and not having the right instincts. As a guy who plays outfield a lot, and usually right field at that, once you’ve decided how to pursue the ball you don’t change your mind. In this situation, Berkman was charging hard at the ball and changed his mind at the last minute and the ball bounced off his shoulder and away from him. Luckily it didn’t haunt us this time, but it’s something he’ll need to get back if he wants to be an every day right fielder. 
Hero of the Game: Tough call. I really liked how Lohse threw six of his seven innings. He bounced right back from the four runs, but I think it has to go to Lance Berkman. Beyond the error, he went 1-for-2 and drew a couple walks. (1-for-2, 1 R, 1 RBI, 2 BB)
Zero of the Game: As much as I’d like to give it to Albert for another 0-for performance, it goes to David Freese tonight. Twice he came up with an opportunity to make something happened and struck out. (0-for-4, 2 K, 5 LOB)

Game 3: Cardinals 2, Padres 0

Finally! The Cardinals break through for the win on the back of Jaime Garcia. Garcia, who had looked shaky during Spring Training, put some worries to rest with his dominant pitching performance. He used just 102 pitches to work through the 9 innings, showing some improvement over a problem he faced often in his rookie season. Last year he would commonly be inefficient with his pitches and hopefully this is him turning over a new leaf. It was just his second complete game shutout, the last was a 3-hitter he tossed last August against San Francisco.
After just getting through watching this game on the MLBtv Archive after missing it because I was on the road this afternoon, there are a few thoughts.
First, Skip Schumaker still looked awful at second base. How long until his fielding problems become a bigger issue? Today he couldn’t hang onto a pretty decent throw from Molina to attempt to catch someone stealing and then he made a bad throw on a double-play ball in the top of the sixth that got Garcia into the most trouble he was in all afternoon. 
Secondly and luckily, Daniel Descalso held onto a sharply hit line drive to him and managed to pull off the unassisted double play while San Diego had the bases loaded with 1 out. It ended the inning and got Garcia out of a big jam. Had he not made the play, this game would have looked very different and it would have all unraveled because of that bad double play toss from Schumaker.
Thirdly, there was an interesting graphic that has shown Yadier Molina‘s batting average drop the last three seasons. From .304 in 2008 to .293 in 2009 and then to .262 in 2010. Part of me wonders if this isn’t due to the strain on the body of playing all the innings? In 2009 he played the most innings behind the plate of any catcher in the big leagues, and he probably did it again in 2010 (haven’t been able to find a list to confirm, though). Are we riding Molina into the ground or should we be easier on him in the hopes his career lasts? At this point he’s nearly due a new contract and those knees have a lot of innings on them.
Hero of the Game: There really is no doubt here. The man who dispelled all the questions with his performance today, Jaime Garcia. (9.0 IP, 4 H, 2 BB, 0 ER, 9 K)
Zero of the Game: Not sure what’s wrong with him, but there is plenty to speculate about. For the second time in three games, Pujols goes hitless and he added another to his already MLB high GIDP total. Albert Pujols, you get your second ZOG award. (0-for-4, 1 GIDP, 4 LOB)

Albert Pujols doesn’t owe Bobby Bonilla?

Consider it news to the entire Cardinals’ fan base or a non-issue to some. In B.J. Rains’ article this morning about Albert Pujols’ 10 year anniversary of making that opening day roster in 2001, Cardinals’ manager Tony LaRussa is quoted saying that the story that Bobby Bonilla’s injury gave Pujols his opportunity to make the roster, isn’t true.

As the story goes, Pujols was destined to begin his 2001 season at Triple-A Memphis. However, he was dominating in Spring Training. Ultimately, it was a hamstring injury that resulted in Bonilla hitting the disabled list that opened up a spot and allowed Pujols to make the team. Since then, it’s been history.

Pujols has dominated at the majors becoming one of the best hitters in baseball history.

Today, that story was thrown into doubt as LaRussa was quoted. “That story has been retold a bunch of different times, and that was all because of Bonilla. That wasn’t true. That’s been worked over a little bit. I think it made for a better story, but no.”

Obviously in 10 years, recollections can change and your opinions can change. There’s no doubt that Pujols earned his spot and maybe that’s what LaRussa is referring to with the statement, but would he have had one if Bonilla hadn’t gotten hurt? Was the team prepared to eat the $900,000 on Bonilla? Was it another spot that he was going to take?

But what can we find out? Well, we can look at quotes from articles about Pujols. If the Bonilla story wasn’t true, wouldn’t you have had one of the top members of the Cardinals speaking up sooner than 10 years after the fact? To me, I think it highly unlikely that it was never brought up in an interview.

In a May 16, 2001, article by Steve DiMeglio for USAToday Baseball Weekly, DiMeglio talked about the rise of both Albert Pujols and Rafael Furcal. In this article, Walt Jocketty, the Cardinals’ GM at the time, was quoted. “Each week when we had our cut meetings, there we were, figuring he had to go back to the minors at some point, and each week he kept impressing us more and more. It got to the final week and we just said, ‘Look, we’re a better club with him,’ the way he was playing.”

In the same article, Tony LaRussa said that veterans politicked to have Pujols on the major league roster, and it was injuries to McGwire and Bonilla that gave him the extra playing time in Spring Training.

Yet nothing indicating that the team intended to keep him with the major league team, if anything the quote by Jocketty indicates that they intended to send him to Memphis.

We can also look at the 2001 Opening Day roster.

There were the usual suspects on that roster. Mike Matheny and Eli Marrero on as the two catchers. Mark McGwire, Fernando Vina, Edgar Renteria, Placido Polanco, Ray Lankford, Jim Edmonds, and J.D. Drew as your starting position players. The bench players on the roster were Craig Paquette, John Mabry, Larry Sutton, and Albert Pujols.

Now, that’s 12 position players and they kept 13 pitchers on the roster, which we know is something LaRussa likes to do, especially on a west coast road trip. St. Louis started the season on the road against Colorado and then Arizona.

Other position players competing for a spot in Spring Training for the Cardinals that season were Bobby Bonilla and Bernard Gilkey.

Since you aren’t going to remove anyone from the starting lineup, where do you go from there? You look at the bench players. John Mabry was a favorite of LaRussa’s. So much a favorite that he played for the Cardinals’ three times. Brought back three times via free agency, despite being traded away once. Odds are he makes the roster.

Craig Paquette was viewed as a member of the third base platoon with Placido Polanco. Paquette didn’t hit for average in 2000, but he did hit fairly well for power, hitting 15 homers in 420 plate appearances. At first glance he might be cuttable, but then you notice his $1.5 million salary in 2001 and he becomes quite less so. So he makes the roster.

How about Larry Sutton? He was a utility player whose name I’d never heard. He hit .320 in 23 games and 33 plate appearances for the Cardinals in 2000. Also, according to a USAToday Spring Training recap on the NL Central from March 28th, he was hitting .464 with a week to go. Odds are they were going to take an established .300 hitting pinch hitter who was more familiar with the role coming off the bench than an unproven rookie.

That leaves a three-way competition for the final spot. Bobby Bonilla, Bernard Gilkey, and Albert Pujols. Before the season started, the Cardinals released Bernard Gilkey. And then there were two.

Pujols was tearing up spring training and LaRussa was highly favorable of Bobby Bonilla in the same Spring Training recap I mentioned earlier. “If you know Bobby (Bonilla), it’s not a surprise. He’s got excellent hands, he runs good routes, he gets good jumps. This guy has played on winning ballclubs. And what’s been really positive has been his conditioning. He’s put a lot of time into all parts of the game.” Not really the words of a person getting ready to cut a guy in just under a week, who will cost you $1 million to cut.

Ultimately the decision was never made and there are only a handful of people who know where Pujols was going to end up at the end of the season. It was a decision that LaRussa never had to make. But I think there’s more than enough evidence out there to show that Pujols was destined to make the trip down I-55 to Memphis.

Was he worthy of making the roster? Definitely. I think that’s what LaRussa is getting at with his comment, but I don’t think for a moment that he would have actually made it had Bobby Bonilla not had hamstring problems.

As LaRussa was quoted in the Baseball Weekly special on Pujols and Furcal:

“You don’t do what we’ve done with Albert very often. You’re mindful of shattering a player’s psyche, concerned about bringing a player up too soon considering the lack of experience and age. It is rare – very rare – that a player so young and so lacking in seasoning and experience will survive.”

That’s about all you need to know.