by Larry Borowsky
Viva El Birdos
The Cardinals are down this year. They play in a weak division and a weak league, so they are still contenders, but it's not the same airtight club it was in 2004-05. My slogan for the first two months was this: "You can beat the Cardinals this year, but you still can't beat Pujols."
Oops. At the time of his injury, Albert was at plus-455 in Win Probability Added (as computed by the Fangraphs web site), while the other 7 regulars were a combined minus-130. He had hit 25 homers, and the rest of the team had combined to hit 29. And his were game-changing homers - on 11 different occasions, a Pujols dinger had either tied the score or put the Cardinals in front.
St. Louis ranks dead last among the major-league teams in production (as measured by OPS) at two positions -- catcher and leftfield; the StL rightfielders (ie, Juan Encarnacion) rank 26th, and their third outfielder, Jim Edmonds, is slugging about 150 points below his .543 career average. After leading the league in runs scored in 2004 and finishing 3d in 2005, the Cardinals in 2006 are in the mushy middle in runs scored - between 5th and 8th, depending on which day you ask. Despite Pujols' record-setting pace over the 1st two months, the Cards are only 9th in the NL in slugging percentage.
Miraculously enough, they increased their scoring rate in the first 8 games after Pujols went down, from 5.02 runs a game pre-injury to 5.25 post. I'm writing this a week before the Cards and ChiSox play, so the attack may have sagged by the time you read this. Without the Big Pu, StL's best hitters are Eckstein, Rolen, a resurgent Edmonds, and Scott Spiezio . . . .
The Cardinal pitchers are also having a rough go. After an excellent opening month (an MLB-leading 3.35 ERA) they have stalled, posting a 4.47 era from May 1 onward. Mulder and Suppan have ERAs in the 5's; Jason Marquis is in the high 4's. The front office supposedly has been trying to deal one of the pitchers for a stopgap 1st-baseman; such a trade would have the added benefit of opening up a slot for Anthony Reyes, an A-minus prospect who is ready to step into the rotation.
Are they pennant contenders? If Pujols comes back sound, I would never count the Cardinals out; he could win three postseason series all by himself. But the adjective that described the last two editions of the Cardinals -- balanced -- doesn't apply this seaspm. They may still finish with the National league's best record (for a 3d straight year, if it happens), but unless they make a big trade they're going to be vulnerable in October. And this week, at Comiskey? Well, you guys won't have to face Carpenter or Pujols . . . . go easy, willya?
Larry Borowsky is a Cardnials fan who runs the SB Nation Blog Viva El Birdos
Update [2006-6-19 21:37:44 by thewizardsofoz]: Everyone in St. Louis seems to have different expectations on Pujols' return. They agree on one thing though: not in time for the Sox series.
The series' pitching matchups are:
* Tuesday: Javier Vazquez vs. Mark Mulder
* Wednesday: Mark Buehrle vs. Jason Marquis
* Thursday: Freddy Garcia vs. Jeff Suppan
And here's a nice article about the friendship between Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf and Cardinals manager Tony La Russa.
Update [2006-6-21 14:50:17 by thewizardsofoz]: Seems Thursday's pitching matchup will be Freddy Garcia vs. rookie Anthony Reyes.