Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘2011 Season’ Category


Time to cue up some late era Pink Floyd and let the mechanical droning rhythms of The Wall bring out your inner child.   Or something like that.

Baseball exec or Cat in the Hat ?

In the last few weeks, impatience over the lack of an Albert Pujols contract extension is causing a lot of stress across Cardinals Nation, and it is just not necessary.   An increasing number of bloggers are turning negative towards the Cardinals executive team, and while there good reasons to do so, the Pujols situation is not one of them.  Criticize them relentlessly for the lack of depth on the major league squad and how the minor league system has been pillaged. Please call the fashion police every time John Mozeliak wears a scarf to a press briefing. But the Albert Pujols situation, not so fast.

Conventional wisdom suggests that they should have already signed Albert to an extension.   Why ?

At this point, we are getting the best player in baseball at a significant discount.   That is easy to say now, after he has nearly fulfilled his current obligation with a consistency that only a draftsman can get with a straightedge.   There was plenty of risk in the early years, and the Cardinals front office bore all of that.  It all worked out, but an injury or premature decline in production would have put management in a very precarious position.   The last two or three years of the current agreement is their payout for bearing the early risk.

Some will suggest that Albert’s value has gone up and the front office should have already pounced to lock him in.  But has it really ?   Really ?   Sure, the Ryan Howard deal last year added some interesting fuel to the fire of debate, but they have known for the last three years that Albert is a $25-30M/yr extension.  Knowing this, the best tactic would be to wait and see what happens.   He’s under contract, he’s the ideal professional and won’t play out his option year pouting like some prima donna’s have done in the past.  So where’s the urgency ?

There are three more things in play that give the front office reason to take a big picture view of this contract extension.

1. A new TV deal with Fox Sports Midwest.   In 2011, FSMW is now the exclusive TV carrier of all the Cardinal broadcasts.   This gives Bill De Witt Jr and III some interesting negotiation room in the latter years of a Pujols contract extension.   FSMW wants Albert to stay in St. Louis just as much as we fans do, and they may have a financial incentive to assist paying the big man.

2. A new collective bargaining agreement is just around the corner.   It does not seem as contentious as some of the other sports, football in particular.   But there is always a chance that a new agreement can have a big financial impact on a team.   The executives have a much better idea what the new agreeement will look like now, compared to a year ago, which was better than two years ago.   Said a different way, they may be more willing now to offer a long term contract to a player of Albert Pujols’ stature than at any time in the past.

3. Ballpark Village.   A sore subject for some, this is part of the deal that led to the construction of a new baseball stadium in St. Louis.  While the stadium is a beautiful attraction, one that the city should be proud of, the area around the park that was to be developed for shopping, offices and living has been largely ignored.   Again, this presents an interesting case of leverage.   It can be as simple as asking the city officials whether they want to pay Albert Pujols or build out Ballpark Village.   Of course the answer is both, but it may open the possibility of scaling back the Ballpark Village construction plans, and that is already happening.  Every dollar that the ownership does not put into Ballpark Village this year is an extra dollar that they can spend on Albert’s out years in what will likely be an 8-10 year $240-$300M deal.     We might take exception to this, but that does not change the fact that huge sums of money are involved in this either way, and this is the way that some business gets done.

I respect how both sides have acted in this situation, conducting the negotiations in private.   This is as it should be.   Albert Pujols has earned that, and the front office is smart enough to honor it.   Where this gets tricky is when local and national media step in and fight for your mindshare.   They know that printing anything about Albert and his contract will spread through the midwest faster than an August brush fire in West Texas.   Sources will report something, conclusions will be drawn from that, and pretty soon ESPN or STL Today’s web hit counts are soaring.   “Oh my gosh, did you read what <fill in the blank> wrote about Albert ???”   The only ones who make out in this are the advertisers.

The front office has consistently stated that they want to see Albert remain a Cardinal, and we should take them at their word.   Albert Pujols has continually reaffirmed that he wants to stay in the St. Louis area, and we should take him at his word.   The fact that there is no contract extension news means exactly that – there is no news.   It doesn’t mean that there are irreconcilable  differences and that the two sides will not ultimately reach agreement.   While Albert has publicly indicated a deadline of the start of spring training, do you really think that if the Cardinals come back with a reasonable offer in the middle of spring training, before the first home game of the regular season (as they did with Ozzie Smith) or on an arbitrary Tuesday in May, that he wouldn’t sign the contract ?   Of course not.

Even if it gets as far as free agency, it doesn’t mean that the Cardinals are out of it by any means.   Sure, it might be a little more expensive at that point in time because cash rich teams like the Angels might make it hard on the Cardinals, but it can still be done then.

All we know is that there is no agreement.   I’m not getting all wound up by some sports writers longing to sell newspapers or pad their web hit counts.   I won’t get upset until I see Albert at a press conference in a city other than St. Louis.

No, this is not the real contractual crisis facing the Cardinals.   That will happen in 2013 when Adam Wainwright is playing out his option season.   We haven’t seen a pitcher like Adam Wainwright in a long time, and that’s the one that I worry about.   But I won’t start worrying until 2013.   If the Mayans are right, we’ll have much bigger problems before we get to that point.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »


Not Brandon Phillips.

Yadi the Enforcer

As much as I love that photo, and the memories of the Cincinnati series last August, Phillips is not a problem for the Cardinals in 2011.   Yes, he did spout off his mouth, like many competitive players do.   Sure, we took extreme exception to those comments, as we were meant to.   But, Phillips owned up to them like a professional and pretty much laid an egg against the Cardinals – how about a line of .236/.276/.292.  Nope, I don’t think we’re going to hear much more out of Mr Phillips for a while.  Not that I admire him, I don’t, but he didn’t complain while laying that ostrich sized cackleberry.

So, if it’s not Brandon Phillips, who is the new Public Enemy No. 1 of Cardinals Nation ?

That’s right, Johnny Cueto.

We need to have a long memory, Cardinals fans.  Let’s not forget

This is the Johnny Cueto that we need to remember for the next few seasons.  The one that ended Jason LaRue’s season, and ultimately his career.   The one who kicked violently at other Cardinals, including Chris Carpenter.   The one who just signed a contract extension, meaning he will have plenty of chances to play against the Cardinals for the next few seasons.

The proper response

Before we all start talking basebrawl or suggesting that a Cardinals pitcher throw at Cueto or any member of the Reds, please take a look at this article from I-70 Baseball where we look at the consequences of bean-ball.   That is just not good baseball, and Cardinals Nation is all about good baseball.

It was an unfortunate situation for all players involved, including Cueto.  It all happened quickly, and nobody really knows how they would have reacted in a similar situation (although kicking an opposing player in the head wouldn’t be in my top 10, but that’s easy to say while typing at a computer).

The proper thing to do as a Cardinals fan is make him welcome at Busch Stadium.  Let’s hear 40,000+ voices all shouting out his name (and whatever else you choose to append to it).   Over and over and over and over.   If  he walks a batter or throws a bad pitch, make sure that he knows that we are an observant audience, and pay it the respect it deserves.   In the 1980’s, the sound of the crowd chanting “Darryl” had to get under Darryl Strawberry’s skin, and Strawberry was a pretty tough customer.  That’s just the thing that we need to hear again in 2011, but to a repetitive chorus of “Johnny”.

Oh, this is going to be a wonderful season of baseball.  I can hardly wait for it to begin.

Read Full Post »


In an attempt to keep one of my New Years resolutions (keeping things brief), I have broken up a long and rambling article about trying to handicap the 2011 Cardinals into two pieces.  Here is the second part – certainly shorter and I hope less perambulate.

Viva el Birdos 2.0

Of all the championship teams, the 1968 Cardinals were unique in their ability to shut down the opponent, night after night.   Not just wins, it was complete and total domination.  Historians are too easily fixated on on Bob Gibson’s historic season and miss the real story here.  While the offensive struggled most of the year, the pitching simply lights out.  Not just Bob Gibson, the entire staff.  Ray Washburn, Steve Carlton and Nelson Briles pitched some of the best baseball of their careers, and in the few games that they did not go the distance, Joe Hoerner and Wayne Granger shut things down very quickly out of the pen.  If  the ’67 Cardinals were Go Go El Birdos, the ’68 team should have been called Throw Throw El Birdos.

How good were they ???

I struggle to find a superlative to adequately describe the pitching staff of 1968.   The closest comparison would be White Herzog’s ’85 Cardinals (John Tudor, Joaquin Andujar, Danny Cox, Ken Dayley, Todd Worrell), but even they fell far short of what the 1968 Cardinals accomplished as a staff.  All you need to know is:  30 shutouts, 31 games where they allowed just 1 run, and 21 games allowing 2 runs.   If you add all of those up, and please place a pillow under your jaw before you do, that’s 82 games allowing 2 runs or less.  Or let me put this another way, for half of the 1968 season, the Cardinals pitchers held the opponents to just 2 runs or less.   Not the starters, not earned runs – those are total runs allowed by all pitchers.  To put this into context, the 2010 pitching staff held opponents to 2 runs or less in just 57 games, which is actually pretty good.  Herzog’s ’85 staff did that 66 times.

Can the 2011 hurlers even come close to this ?

Of course not, but let’s not give up quite so fast.   Let’s line up the pitchers and take a closer look.

Starter (1968) W L ERA Starter (2010) W L ERA
Bob Gibson 22 9 1.12 Chris Carpenter 16 9 3.22
Nelson Briles 19 11 2.81 Adam Wainwright 20 11 2.42
Steve Carlton 13 11 2.99 Jaime Garcia 13 8 2.70
Ray Washburn 14 8 2.26 Jake Westbrook 10 11 4.22
Larry Jaster 9 13 3.51 Kyle Lohse 4 8 6.55

While nobody is expecting a Bob Gibson like performance out of Chris Carpenter in 2011, taking a couple of steps back from the details might help us find our early indicator of success in 2011, and it’s not where I was first looking.

Barring injuries, Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainright can come close to matching  Gibson and Briles in 1968 – perhaps not the microscopic ERA and embarrassing WHIP’s Gibby and Nelly thew up, but certainly they can come close to the win/loss totals and differential.

If you want to use Steve Carlton as a predictor for Garcia, know that in his second season (1969), Carlton went 17-11 with a 2.17 ERA.  Ummm, yay!!!!  Can Garcia match Carlton’s 1969 season ?  Absolutely.   The real question is whether or not Tony La Russa lets Garcia go deep enough in games so that the youngster doesn’t have to rely too much on the bullpen.   In Carlton’s sophomore year, he pitched 12 complete games.  I’d be surprised if  there were 12 complete games in the last decade of Cardinals baseball, so it’s not reasonable to think that Garcia will come anywhere near that.   But if Garcia can reliably get into the seventh inning, he might have a chance to duplicate Carlton’s production.

Cardinals Nation should exhale in unison when looking at Larry Jaster’s 1968 season.   He didn’t pitch poorly, in fact quite the opposite.  Unfortunately Jaster did not get much run support from the anemic offense that the Cardinals put on the field that year.   Of course, he could not complain too much about lack of run support because Bob Gibson had a 1.12 ERA and lost 9 games.    If Jaster had received some better run support from his team, his numbers might have looked more like they did in 1966 (11-5) and 1967 (9-5).   What does this mean for the 2011 Cardinals ?   Even if Kyle Lohse lays an egg, which many of his detractors like to predict (endlessly), it might not be the death blow that many fear.  Heck, even some of the most cynical Lohse critics project him in the vicinity of Jaster’s 9-13 mark for ’68.

That leaves us with Jake Westbrook, and where we need to look for an early season indicator for 2011.   This is also the time to cue up Rod Serling and the theme song to The Twilight Zone as the parallels between Westbrook and Ray Washburn are absolutely spooky.  Both are veterans that had success early in their career – to be fair though, Washburn had Don Drysdale like success until injuries slowed him down.   After missing several seasons due to injury, both pitchers re-invented themselves as pitch-to-contact types, keeping the ball low in the zone instead of trying to strike every batter out.   If Westbrook can keep pace with Washburn’s 1968 season, and 15-10 is an optimistic but not unreasonable projection, the Cardinals may actually have a good chance at winning the NL Central.

Barring injury.

Now let’s look at the bullpens.

Reliever (1968) W L ERA Reliever (2010) W L ERA
Joe Hoerner (l) 8 2 1.47 Ryan Franklin 6 2 3.46
Wayne Granger 4 2 2.25 Kyle McClellan 1 4 2.27
Ron Willis 2 3 3.39 Jason Motte 4 2 2.24
Dick Hughes 2 2 3.53 Mitchell Boggs 2 3 3.61
Mel Nelson (l) 2 1 2.91 Trever Miller (l) 0 1 4.00
Hal Gilson (l) 0 2 4.57 Brian Tallet (l) 2 6 6.40
Fernando Salas 0 0 3.52

This is not quite as easy to compare as the starters because the bullpens are used much differently now than in the 60s.   But that doesn’t mean we can’t find a few things to help us prepare for 2011.

If Jake Westbrook is the litmus test for the starters, Ryan Franklin will that for the bullpen.   Simply put, the bullpen needs to be as good as they were in 2010 to win in 2011, perhaps just a little bit better.   There is no reason to believe they won’t be, other than just a bit of pessimism that a lot of Cardinals fans seem to have heading into every season, perhaps fueled by an excess of doom and gloom from some  local and nearly all of the national sports media.

If Franklin is good, then so will be the hopes for a NL Central title.   To help take a bit of worry out of that last statement, we held our collective breaths every time Joe Hoerner went to the mound in 1968, and things turned out just fine.   Part of what got us through the ’68 season was a closer-in-waiting, just in case we needed him.   In 1968, it was hard throwing Wayne Granger.   More Twilight Zone music – in 2011 it will be the hard throwing Jason Motte.   If you still have not exhaled, perhaps you would like to know that Wayne Granger won the Fireman of the Year award in 1969 and 1970, leading the league with an amazing 35 saves in 1970.   If Motte can learn to master the sinking fastball like Granger did, and the front office is smart enough to hold on to him, there is reason to be optimistic beyond 2011.

What about the other 8 guys ?

Here’s where things start falling apart.   First the bad news.

Up the middle

Much of the Cardinals pitching success was due to particularly strong middle defense.   Curt Flood was one of the best defensive center fielders to play the game, and the infield combination of Dal Maxvill and Julian Javier were as good as any in Cardinals history.  Very little rolled it’s way though the center of the infield, and if a ball was hit into the outfield, it had to be on a rope to get down between Flood and Lou Brock in left field.

I may be stating the obvious, but Ryan Theriot, Colby Rasmus and whoever Tony La Russa will throw in the lineup at second base will fall well short of Flood, Maxvill and Javier.   At least there is an offensive upside for 2011 if Colby Rasmus can keep his swing under control and be more Keith Hernandez than Dave Kingman.

Fortunately, that’s the end of the bad news.   That must mean there is lots of good news – and there is.

Left field

The corner defensive positions (1B, 3B, LF, RF) of the 1968 Cardinals were average.   But, and this is a big but, none of them were an embarrassment at their positions either.   Lou Brock could be inconsistent at times, and did not possess a good arm, but more times than not he made up with those deficiencies  with his legs.  Of course, he might run across the entire outfield and totally miss the ball, or overthrow the cut-off man by 100ft, but he was hardly a bad defender.   Comparing Lou Brock to Matt Holliday would take up an entire blog, so for the sake of brevity, I’ll point out that there have been very few offensive threats in Cardinals history that can match Holliday’s production so far in his career.   And Big Matt is just entering the prime of his hopefully long career, so whatever defensive runs might be lost to Brock will be more than made up for at the plate.   Many times over.

Slight advantage to the 2011 Cardinals.

Right field

Roger Maris had been a Gold Glove outfielder in New York, and should have been with Kansas City too.  By the time he got to St. Louis, the wear and tear on his legs took away a lot of his speed, but he still played smart baseball.   He also had a pretty strong arm and always hit the cut-off man with his throws.  There weren’t too many times when he laid out to make a brilliant catch, but he was a consistent defender in right field.   There is no reason to believe that Lance Berkman can’t play just as well as Maris, and the Big Puma’s bat is much more potent than that of Maris at this point in their careers.   When Maris needed a day off, Bobby Tolan would take over and we would have a plus defender in the field.   The same way that Skip Schumaker or Jon Jay will spell Berkman in 2011, but both Schumaker and Jay have shown much better offensive production than Tolan did for the Cardinals.

First base

Albert Pujols is the best player in baseball, Orlando Cepeda wasn’t.   Cepeda had a good year in 1967, but so did Curt Flood, Dick Hughes and Bob Gibson.   If the MVP voters had any courage, they would have given the award to Gibson even though he missed two months of the season.   But we’re getting off track here.

Cepeda had a very good year in 1967.   It was Jack Clark good.   It was more than Keith Hernandez good.   It was about 500 times better than  Tino Martinez good.   As good as it was, it was not even close to an off year from The Mang.  But we’re not talking about 1967 Cepeda, we’re comparing 2011 Albert Pujols and 1968 Orlando Cepeda.   That Orlando Cepeda (.248/.306/.378 16 home runs, 73 RBIs) wasn’t even Tino Martinez (.262/.337/.438 21 home runs, 75 RBIs) good.   Even if the Cardinals management fail to sign Albert Pujols to a contract extension and trade him at the non-waiver deadline, he will likely have produced more offense in 2011 than Cepeda did in 1968.   And there’s more to it than just at the plate, while Cepeda was a good first baseman, Albert Pujols is a two-time Gold Glove first baseman.

Let’s give that one to the 2011 Cardinals.

Third base

Mike Shannon vs David Freese at third base.   Oh, this is hard because there is a variable here well beyond our control.   In all but one aspect, Freese is a superi0r player to Shannon, but that one is a big one – durability.   You could count on Mike Shannon to go out there 150 times or more a year, and produce at a consistent level.   He was never flashy, but he didn’t seem to slump for long periods either.   What he lacked in physical ability, he made up with mental toughness and sheer desire.   If David Freese can stay healthy, the 2011 Cardinals will have a huge plus in their lineup.

Conditional advantage to the 2011 Cardinals.

Backstop

Thanks to his broadcasting career with Fox Sports, most baseball fans know the name Tim McCarver.   While his broadcasting can be amateurish and sometimes just plain goofy, his play behind the plate was nothing to laugh about.   He is a vastly underrated signal caller.   It is important to note that Bob Gibson’s scoreless inning streak in 1968 was interrupted by a passed ball in a game caught by Johnny Edwards, not Timmy Mac.  He didn’t have a particularly strong arm, but it was good enough to gun down all but the best base stealers of the day.   And he was productive at the plate as well.   Not a prolific home run hitter, he did manage to hit more than his share of baseballs into the gaps, resulting in more triples than you typically associate with a catcher.

Yadier Molina is a defensive freak of nature.   Nobody has an arm like his, and he’s not afraid to throw to any base.   He occasionally gets a bit lackadaisical behind the plate, especially when the team is not playing well, if it is a must win situation, like three games in Cincinnati last August, there is nobody that is more clutch than Yadier Molina.

Let’s call this one a tie, with some upside for Molina if he had a good year at the plate.

Conclusion

The 1967 and 1968 Cardinals were the best team that the Cardinals have fielded in my lifetime.  Whitey Herzog’s rabbits in the mid-80’s came close, but perhaps only a gashouse team from another era could have beaten Red Schoendienst’s two-time NL Pennant winners.   That said, when comparing them to the 2011 Cardinals, there is a lot to be optimistic about.   And don’t bring up the level of the competition, those Giants, Reds and Cubs teams (yes, the Cubs) were tough to beat, just has hard as the current crop of Phillies, Giants and Braves.

The 2011 offense should be fine, certainly strong enough to win the NL Central.   If, and that’s a big if, David Freese (and Yadier Molina) can remain healthy.   That’s where the Cardinal have their greatest exposure, and frankly the “Plan B” is a little bit thin.   As long as we can stay with Plan A, things will be fine.

Defense and pitching is where the division will be won, and the two are always linked.   This is also where our optimism will be put to the test, because the Dave Duncan pitch-to-contact approach will stress the defense, in particular that of the middle infield.   If extra hits are allowed, and the defensive runs allowed projections seem to suggest this will be the case, it will place extra strain on the pitching staff and a possible change in approach.   The additional stress will burn out the starters more quickly, and that may expose some depth in the bullpen.

Can the 2011 Cardinals keep pace with their 1968 ancestors ?  On paper, it would seem so.   Will they ?   That remains to be seen.   Check back with me in early July, we should have a good read on them by the All Star Game.   I don’t see a Tony La Russa team being a good at come-from-behind baseball, so if they haven’t built up a nice lead by the All Star break, we might all be paying more attention to the Rams pre-season in August.

Read Full Post »


In doing some research for my next batch of I-70 Baseball articles, I started thinking about how some of the great Cardinals teams in the last few decades won their division.  One thing led to another, and pretty soon I’m wondering how this cast of characters that John Mozeliak has assembled will do in 2011.  If you are looking for an analytical approach, you are probably in the wrong place – what follows is going to be totally anecdotal, and terribly burdened with the optimism of a long time fan.  Should you desire a more technical (and perhaps even unbiased) treatment, check out our friend Pip at Fungoes or the fine folks at Gas House Graphs.

Come from Behind

For my money, this is the most exciting brand of baseball not involving a Bob Gibson pitching duel.  An aggressive running game, some timely hitting, the sound of Ernie Hayes banging on the keyboards and the crescendo of crowd noise – if this doesn’t make you a baseball fan, nothing will.  The only thing better than watching it on TV or listening on the radio is being there, adding to the cacophony.   While all championship teams must display a certain ability to overcome adversity, some recent teams were better at this than others.

Today, these teams are easy to spot.  All you need to do is look at the number of wins (and losses) out of the bullpen.  A good example is Whitey Herzog’s only World Series Champion, the 1982 Cardinals.  1/3 of the Cardinals 92 wins came from the bullpen, which helps explain how a World Series winner didn’t have a starter with more than 15 wins.   Some unfortunate injuries (Andy Rincon) played a role in that, but Joaquin Andujar’s 2.47 ERA just doesn’t match up with 15 wins, unless the offense was inconsistent.  And it was.  But the real tell is Bruce Sutter’s 9 wins.   Herzog would only bring him in close games, and in 9 of them the Cardinals scored the winning run in the last 2 innings (ok, maybe once or twice in the 7th inning).   In looking back at 1982, one of the unsung heroes was Dave LaPoint, but we’ll talk more about him in a future article.

Of all the come-from-behind teams, the 1964 Cardinals may have been the best.   Not only did they win many of their games in the late innings, it was an unbelievable surge in August and September that propelled them to the World Series.  This was not the first time they had rallied late in the season either.  Johnny Keane’s Cardinals almost pulled off a similar upset in 1963, falling just a few games short of the Dodgers in the end.   If Branch Rickey had not played the role of puppet master in the summer of 1964, there might be more pennants blowing in the wind in St. Louis.  ’64 was no fluke, and Johnny Keane is a very underrated (and unappreciated) manager.

The key to the ’64 Cardinals success ?  Mischief at the top of the batting order and then the big names coming up big.  Curt Flood and newcomer Lou Brock terrorized National League pitchers with their hitting and base running.   It would not be the only time they did this, but in 1964, the middle of the order was brutally consistent in the second half of the season.   Ken Boyer and Bill White challenged each other down the stretch, with Boyer winning the NL MVP in the end.   The few runners that this duo left on base were quickly driven in by Dick Groat, Tim McCarver or a new local kid named Shannon.   There were some great role players on the team as well.  Dal Maxvill, Carl Warwick and Bob Skinner all made big contributions, especially in the World Series, but it was the every day players that brought the pennant to St. Louis in 1964.

Red Schoendienst’s 1967 Cardinals were a similar team in many respects, but it was the role players making the different.  It seemed that every night, a different player stepped up and drove in the winning run late in the game.  Unlike last season, we cheered the late inning bench players coming up to bat.  Ed Speizio, Bobby Tolan, Alex Johnson – and who could forget Harry Caray spitting out the name Phil Gagliano, as only Harry could do.

In recent history, Tony La Russa’ s 105 win 2004 team fits into this category.   They are an unusual team in that no pitcher had a losing record, not even in the September callups.   Even though the starters accounted for about 75 of their wins, high ERAs plus relatively low innings pitched meant that the bullpen were eating a lot of innings and consequently also picking up a lot of late victories.  This is a typical pattern in a Tony La Russa managed game – as the bullpen goes, so go the Cardinals.

The 2011 Cardinals don’t seem to be built for a come-from-behind type of game.   Late inning defensive substitutions, such as Skip Schumaker or Jon Jay replacing Lance Berkman in right field, remove a huge offensive threat from the game and make the 2011 Cardinals look a lot like the 2010 Cardinals.   And we know how that ended, don’t we ?   Not exactly the poster child for “come from behind” wins.   No, we must look elsewhere to see how the next season will play itself out.

Methodically winning, night after night

While “businessman-like” seems an odd adjective for a team that ran with the wild abandon of Whitey Herzog’s 1985 Cardinals, it does accurately describe how they navigated the NL East on their way to the World Series. Joaquin Andujar started the season on fire, so much that “30 wins” was starting to get thrown around at the time of the All Star Game.   Of course, that didn’t happen.  John Tudor and his historic turnaround, going 19-1 after an abysmal 1-7 start was the personification of “businessman-like”.   Shutout after shutout.  Methodical, indeed.   Let’s not forget Danny Cox.  He was steady as a rock with a career high 18 wins and never losing consecutive starts during the regular season.   Unlike Andujar, Cox was a rock in post-season.

As thrilling as their style of play was, the outcome of the ’85 season was anything but.   It was “businessman-like” and the first place finish was a rather h0-hum event.   Only an injury was going to derail this methodical leviathan, and that did not happen until a rainy night in October.   A bad trade doomed the team in 1983 (Keith Hernandez for Neil Allen) and injuries took care of 1984 and 1986, but in 1985 they remained healthy and were able to outlast a very good Mets team.   An automatic tarp and a very good Royals pitching staff ultimately beat them, but even then it went down to the wire.

Shut you down

A special case of the methodical winners were the 1968 Cardinals.  Of all the championship teams, they were the only ones that just shut down the opponent, night after night. Not just a little bit, it was complete and total domination from the first inning until the last out.  It is far too easy to become fixated on Bob Gibson’s historic season and miss the real story here.  While the offensive struggled most of the year, except for the engimatic Dal Maxvill who had a career year at the plate, the pitching staff was lights out.   Bob Gibson, Ray Washburn, Steve Carlton and Nelson Briles pitched some of the best baseball of their careers, and in the few games that they did not go the distance, Joe Hoerner and Wayne Granger shut things down very quickly out of the pen.  If  the ’67 Cardinals were Go Go El Birdos, the ’68 team should have been called Throw Throw El Birdos.

In an attempt to keep one of my New Years Resolutions, I’ll take a closer look at the ’68 Cardinals to see if there if we can find anything to be optimistic about in 2011.   Fortunately, there is, but that will have to wait for part 2.

Just hang on

In 1982, the Cardinals theme song was “Celebration” by Kool and the Gang.  The 1985 Redbirds went with Glenn Fry’s  “The Heat is On”.  Although they were fun in the beginning, we would soon tire of both songs.   Had the Cardinals chosen a theme song for the 2006 World Championship team, it might have been Frankie Vallie and the Four Seasons’ “Let’s Hang On”, because that really described the way the season went.   They built a small lead in the NL Central in May, but gave all of it up in early June.   Without really falling behind, they managed to regain their lead later in the month, just to have it evaporate as the calendar turned over to July.    More oscillation in August and one more hot run early in September gave the Cardinals a seven game lead with just 15 to play – a lead they would all but squander before the end of the season.  Let’s hang on, indeed.

La Russa’s ’06 team isn’t the only one that did that.  Facing more adversity than any team in recent memory, the 1987 Cardinals played just about every type of baseball imaginable.   They overcame the loss of John Tudor for half of the season, Tony Pena for the first two months, and the only legitimate power threats in the batting order: Jack Clark and Terry Pendleton at the end of the season to come within a few outs of a World Series Championship.   How they accomplished this is fascinating.   In the first half of the season, they outslugged, outhit and outran everybody.   They were scoring  6 runs a game and really didn’t need the pitching staff to be all that good to win games.  They ran away with the NL East by the All Star Game.    Then the offense fell apart and it was a painfully long summer as we watched the Mets and Expos coming ever closer.   Unlike the 2010 Cardinals, most of key injured players were beginning to return to the lineup and for the most part were able to pick up the slack from the struggling offense.  They did hang on and win the division.    They also outlasted a much healthier San Francisco Giants in the NL Championship Series – one more round of Frankie Valli’s falsetto before getting pummeled in the Metrodome.

Overcoming adversity

For all of the positive things you can write about Tony La Russa’s Cardinals, the ability to overcome adversity is curiously absent from the list.

With the loss of Darryl Kile on June 22, 2002, the Cardinals had a lot to play for.  Some of this covered in Buzz Bissinger’s Three Nights in August, so well done that Cardinals fans cannot read that section without shedding a few tears.  Win it for DK became somewhat of a battle cry, but that’s not what really drove the 2002 Cardinals to the division title.   It was a healthy Woody Williams returning to the rotation in late August, plus a brilliant late season trade, acquiring Chuck Finley for his Major League swansong.    The Cardinals should have defeated the San Francisco Giants in the NLCS, but the inability of the bullpen to hold leads in Games Four and Five kept the Redbirds out of the fall classic.

Since 2004, the Cardinals have demonstrated even less ability to overcome injuries.   Three first place finishes in 2004, 2005 and 2006.   Coincidently, those were three seasons when Chris Carpenter was healthy.    The big right-hander missed 2007 and 2008 with an injury, and the Cardinals in turn miss post-season.  Healthy again in 2009, and a brief appearance in the NLDS.   While Carpenter was healthy in 2010, and had a very good season, injuries to Brad Penny, Kyle Lohse and David Freese totally derailed the team.   Whitey Herzog overcame this in 1987, thanks to a minor league system that produced some quality replacements when players went down (Curt Ford, Tom Pagnozzi) and some plucky veterans (avoiding the term scrappy due to it’s unfortunately attachment to some unproductive players in 2010).  John Mozeliak’s depletion of the farm system and Tony La Russa’s questionable loyalty to veteran players don’t seem to be a good combination to overcome a lot of bad things that can happen to a team in a long season.

If you are looking for a team that overcame adversity, both Red Schoendienst’s 1967 and Whitey Herzog’s 1987 Cardinals did just that.   In 1967, Red had to deal with the loss of starters Ray Washburn, a relatively common thing, and Bob Gibson – both for a long period of time.   In their absence, some youngsters stepped up and filled in admirably.   In Washburn’s case it was Jim Cosman.   When Bob Gibson went down, Nelson Briles stepped up and pitched some of the best baseball in his career, but we should not forget the role that Dick Hughes played in all of this.  Hughes, the 29 year old rookie, became the ace of the staff in Gibson’s absence and set the tone for the team in July and August.

Even in a small way, Schoendienst’s ’68 Cardinals overcame an early season disappointment when Dick Hughes injured his shoulder in spring training.   That is another story that is lost in the continual recounting of Gibson’s 1.12 ERA and all those shutouts in June and July.    The 68 team managed 31 shutouts without Hughes – it is frightening to think what their record might have been if he had been healthy.

No, the 2010 Cardinals get an F- in overcoming adversity, and we would be foolish to expect anything else in 2011.

What about 2011 ?

If the 2011 Cardinals are going to play beyond the regular 162 game schedule, they are going to have to do it much like Red Schoendienst’s team did in 1968.  In many respects, they are built like the ’68 Cardinals and have the ability to play like them, but it is unreasonable to believe they can run away with the division title like Red’s team did. Thanks to some off-season improvements by the Brewers, Cubs and Pirates – perhaps even a young re-tooled Astros, La Russa’s Redbirds will also have to play a bit of  “Let’s Hang On”.

What I can say with some confidence is that the 2011 Cardinals are nothing like Keane’s ’64 Champs, due in large part to the differences in managerial style between Keane and La Russa.  If the Cardinals get down early in the season, don’t expect an August/September miracle.   Similarly, if the Redbirds fall behind early in the game, don’t expect a late inning comeback.   Come from behind wins will happen, to be sure, but they will be the exception and not the rule.

Read Full Post »