Friday, January 2, 2015

Cards shuffle the deck. Do they have what it takes to win it all?

Once again, the Cardinals and GM John Mozeliak got their Christmas shopping done early.  Last year, Mo made his big moves in November (trading David Freese for Peter Bourjos and signing Jhonny Peralta) and he did the same this year (trading Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins for Jason Heyward and Jordan Walden).

Other than maybe a couple more tweaks, it appears that the roster is complete.  But are the Cardinals better off than last year?  Do they have what it takes to win it all?  Lets take a look at the changes and see.

Infield

The main goal for Mozeliak this offseason was to find a right handed bat who could play first and potentially platoon with Matt Adams.  Mo filled that hole with the signing of Mark Reynolds to a one year, $2 million contract. 

Reynolds will not provide much in terms of batting average (career .229 hitter), but he has 224 homers in 1118 games and has fared a bit better against lefties in his career (.809 OPS compared to .772 vs righties).  This is far better than Adams' numbers against lefties (.553 career OPS), making Reynolds a good option to platoon with Adams.

Free agent Mark Ellis and his .180 average will not return and the Cardinals finally moved on from Daniel Descalso and his career .654 OPS.  Replacing them will be veteran minor leaguer Dean Anna, who finally got a cup of coffee in the majors last year at the age of 27 and hit just .136 in 22 at bats.  However, he does have a career .380 OBP in the minors, with nearly as many walks (310) as strikeouts (319) in 2448 plate appearances.

Another addition, is 26 year old Ty Kelly, who the Cardinals acquired from Seattle for Sam Gaviglio. Like Anna, Kelly showed the ability to get on base in the minors (.387 OBP) and had more walks (434) than strikeouts (431).  Both Anna and Kelly project to be utility infielders, with Anna capable of playing second, short, third and corner outfield, while Kelly is capable of playing second, third and corner outfield.

Pete Kozma will also compete for a backup spot and is a career .236 hitter in 522 at bats.

Overall, I would have to say that infield is a bit better than last year, as the bench has improved with the addition of Reynolds, while the combination of Anna, Kelly and/or Kozma should be able to improve upon the meager outputs of Ellis and Descalso.

Outfield

After losing top prospect and likely starting right fielder Oscar Taveras to a tragic car accident, the Cardinals filled the void with the trade for Heyward.  Heyward is an excellent defender, but has seen his OPS drop in each of the last 3 years from .814 in 2012, to .776 in 2013 and .735 in 2014.  The main culprit for this drop is a serious power outage during that time that has seen his home runs drop from a career high of 27 in 2012 to a career low of 11 last season.

Randall Grichuk seemed to find his stroke in the second half last season, hitting .318/.338/.485 after the break and should provide some pop off the bench.  Peter Bourjos will also fill a reserve role, with resurgent Jon Jay (.303/.372/.378) having reclaimed his starting job.

The Cardinals will also have highly regarded prospect Stephen Piscotty and defensive wiz Tommy Pham as extra depth at AAA Memphis, while Shane Robinson, who was released in November, along with his career .612 OPS, will not be missed.

Overall, Heyward should be an upgrade over the Cardinals 2014 right fielders (mostly Allen Craig and Taveras) who hit a combined .237/.283/.326.  Bourjos and Grichuk will provide the backup, as they did for most of 2014 and will look to improve on their 2014 numbers.

Starting Pitching

The Cardinals started the overhaul of their rotation last July, with the acquisition of John Lackey for Allen Craig and Joe Kelly.  He will slot into the rotation that will also feature holdovers Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn and Michael Wacha.

With the trade of Shelby Miller, the 5th starter job will likely come down to a battle between Carlos Martinez and Marco Gonzales.  Martinez made 7 starts last year and has the best stuff of the two, whereas Gonzales made 5 starts in 2014 and may be more polished.

One key to the Cardinals rotation will be the health of Wacha, who missed over two months last year due to a stress reaction in his shoulder.  Should he prove healthy, he will give the Cards a quartet of starters that would match up well with most other teams in the league. 

Another key will be Lynn proving that his 2014 season (15-10, 2.74 ERA) was not a fluke.  He has been troubled by inconsistency throughout his career and must prove that he can put another strong season together.

Overall, with a healthy Wacha, the Cardinals rotation should be better.  The emphasis should be on keeping these guys healthy, as the Cards showed in 2014 that their pitching depth isn't all that its cracked up to be, using 4 different guys (Martinez, Kelly, Gonzales and Tyler Lyons) to replace the injured Wacha and Jaime Garcia.

Bullpen

The bullpen appears to be the biggest question mark for the team heading into the 2015 season.  Closer Trevor Rosenthal showed some signs of wear and tear after being leaned on heavily the last two seasons.  His walk rate jumped from 2.4 BB/9 in 2013 to 5.4 BB/9 in 2014.  He was able to wiggle out of numerous jams while posting 45 saves, but he was often walking a tightrope.

The Cardinals most effective reliever, Pat Neshek, is gone, taking with him a sparkling 1.87 ERA and 7 wins in 67.1 innings.  While there are questions regarding Kevin Siegrist's health and who will replace Martinez' innings, should he move to a starter role.

To fill these voids, Mozeliak brought in Walden, who has a career ERA of 3.10 in 211.2 innings, and veteran Matt Belisle, whom the Cards hope will follow the Neshek rejuvenation path, after posting a 4.87 ERA in 2014.

The Cardinals will also return groundball specialist Seth Maness, along with lefties Randy Choate (4.50 ERA) and Sam Freeman (2.61 ERA), although Choate may be on the trading block.

Overall, this is the one area where I think the Cards may have taken a step back, especially if Martinez earns a starting rotation spot.  Replacing Neshek and Martinez with Walden and possibly Belisle is definitely a downgrade and, even if Martinez returns to the bullpen, the Cardinals may have only 3-4 reliable bullpen arms.  I would love to see Mo add at least one more proven guy to the pen.

Based on all of the above, I think the Cards should be improved over last year, but there are still concerns surrounding the bullpen.  As we saw last year, when the Cardinals bullpen went 1-3 with a 4.96 ERA in the LCS compared to the Giants 3-1, 1.69 performance, a good bullpen can make all the difference.

Monday, November 17, 2014

What is the long-term (and short-term) impact of the Cardinals acquisition of Jason Heyward from the Braves.

In case you missed it, the Cardinals made a big move today, acquiring Jason Heyward and reliever Jordan Walden from the Braves in exchange for Shelby Miller and prospect Tyrell Jenkins.

GM John Mozeliak let it be known that the Cards were looking to find an upgrade for their right field spot, after the loss of Oscar Taveras left them with Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty as their only internal options, and Mo did not wait long to make a move.

Let's look at the impact of this move on the Cardinals both in the short term and long term.

Short Term

Heyward will immediately step in as the Cards starting right fielder, meaning that Grichuk will likely serve as the team's 4th (or 5th) outfielder.  Matt Holliday, Jon Jay and Heyward will be the starting trio in the outfield, with Peter Bourjos and Grichuk serving as backups. 

Heyward is widely considered an excellent right fielder, having won two Gold Gloves, including just recently winning the 2014 award.  He has some pop, hitting as many as 27 home runs in a season (in 2012), but his power has waned in recent years, as he hit just 11 homers in 2014 and had a .384 slugging percentage.  Given that he is just 25 years old, he could still regain his power stroke.  However, even if he doesn't his defense and his speed (20 stolen bases while being caught only 4 times in 2014) still make him a valuable player and a nice addition to the 2015 lineup.

On the pitching side, losing Miller hurts, but the addition of Walden could allow the Cardinals to slide Carlos Martinez into Miller's rotation spot, with Walden serving as the setup man.  Marco Gonzales is another possibility and the team might decide to go with him instead if only to allow them to keep Martinez and his power arm in the pen.

Much could depend on whether the Cards bring in another reliever (or two) this offseason, to offset the losses of Pat Neshek and Jason Motte.

Overall, I like this move from a 2015 standpoint, as the offense (and defense) should be better with the addition of Heyward, while the pitching should not skip a beat, as the combination of Martinez and Gonzales should make up for the loss of Miller and Walden should help in the bullpen.

Long Term

Here's where things could swing in the Braves favor.

A lot depends on whether the Cardinals can sign Heyward to an extension.  He is only under contract through the 2015 season and if he leaves for free agency, the Cards will be left with just Walden. 

The Braves on the other hand, will have 4 more years of Miller (including the 2015 season) and 6 years of Jenkins.

After a great rookie year, in which he posted a 3.06 ERA and finished 3rd in the Rookie of the Year voting, Miller struggled in 2014.  He was inconsistent for most of the year and saw his ERA rise to 3.74, while his strikeouts per 9 innings (K/9) decreased from 8.8 in 2013 to 6.2 in 2014.  He is only 23 and certainly has the ability and stuff to bounce back, but there were some concerns about Miller after he didn't pitch in the 2013 postseason and the Cards seem to have been shopping him for a while.

Jenkins, of course, is the real wildcard here.  In 5 minor league seasons, he has yet to pitch above A ball, mainly due to injuries.  However, he had a good showing in 2014 at high A Palm Beach (3.28 ERA in 74 IP).  He was rated as high as the Cardinals #8 prospect by Baseball America, prior to the 2013 season, but fell to the #17 slot prior to 2014.  He's still got a live arm, throwing in the mid-90's, but needs to prove he can stay healthy.

Overall, I like this trade.  Yes, we may lose Heyward after the 2015 season, but the Cardinals have shown the ability to retain players they have acquired via trade in the past (Matt Holliday being the most recent example).  There are questions surrounding Miller, as there are with Heyward, but the Cards are still getting 2 proven major leaguers for one somewhat shaky starter and a prospect. 

Monday, November 10, 2014

Cardinals look to fill the void after tragic loss of Oscar Taveras

Like most (if not all) of you, I was shocked and deeply saddened upon learning of the death of Oscar Taveras.  Not only did the Cardinals lose a potential star in the making, but they also lost an incredible person both on and off the field.  My condolences go out to the Taveras' family and friends, as well as those of his girlfriend, who was also killed in the accident.

Taveras will be missed.

Now, the Cardinals have to move past the tragedy and try to build a team capable of beating the Giants and making it to next year's fall classic.

To start off with, the Cards will have to find a replacement for Taveras.  Randal Grichuk, who was slated to compete with Taveras for the right field job, could get the nod, and the team also has Stephen Piscotty waiting in the wings. 

However, Jennifer Langosch is reporting that the Cardinals could look outside of the organization for a right fielder. 

If the Cardinals do look outside the organization for a right fielder, what are their options?

Here are some free agent possibilities:

Yasmany Tomas

Probably at the top of many teams' lists is Cuban defector Yasmany Tomas, a right-handed corner outfield who reportedly has "huge power".  He is just 24 years old and is expected to get somewhere in the neighborhood of a 7-year, $100 million contract.  However, there are already several teams vying for his service, which could result if a bidding war, something the Cards may want to avoid.

Nick Markakis

Markakis is a decent right fielder with a good career OBP (.358) and a little pop (.435 SLG).  The Orioles did not make him a qualifying offer, meaning he is not tied to any draft picks, thus making him all the more attractive.  He is only 30 years old and will likely be seeking something in the neighborhood of 4 years/$65 million.


Nelson Cruz

Cruz, 34, led all of MLB with 40 homers in 2014 and is arguably the best power hitter on the market.  For a team that finished last in the NL in home runs, that certainly holds some appeal.  However, he is limited defensively and, with Matt Holliday patrolling left field, the Cardinals may not want to further damage their defense.


Mike Morse

Morse could be a decent stop gap option if the team feels that Randal Grichuk just needs a little more time before he's ready.  As a right hander capable of playing first, he could also be worked into a platoon with Matt Adams.  He's only 32, but seems to be on the down slope of his career.

Alex Rios

Another potential stop gap, Rios offers little power, but hits for a decent average and destroys lefties (.325 average against in 2014).  He will turn 34 next year andcould be had on a one year deal in order to build value.

Overall, the Cardinals have been saying they are willing to increase their payroll and with little other needs, a quality right fielder might be the best way to spend that money.  Tomas would be my first choice, with Markakis second.  Beyond that and you begin to wonder if any of the players would be an upgrade over Grichuk. 


Monday, October 6, 2014

John Lackey's big game and Kolten Wong's blast lead Cardinals to game three win

John Lackey came up big again and the Cardinals took advantage of the Dodgers shaky bullpen to win game three and give themselves a 2-1 lead in the NLDS.

Lackey, who was acquired in a controversial trade in which the Cards gave up Allen Craig and Joe Kelly, lived up to his big game reputation, allowing just 1 run in 7 innings.  However, he was matched by Dodgers lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu, who allowed just 1 run in 6 innings despite making his first start since September 12th.

However, Ryu was lifted for a pinch-hitter in the 7th and the Cardinals jumped on reliever Scott Elbert to the tune of 2 runs on 3 hits, with the big blow Kolten Wong's 2-run homer. 

The Cardinals power surge has been surprising this postseason, with 6 homers in 3 games (Matt Carpenter has 3 of those, homering in each game), after finishing the regular season last in the NL with just 105 homers.

Now, with an series edge, the Cards are going to have to close it out against two of the best pitchers in the NL, as Clayton Kershaw will pitch on short rest tomorrow, followed by Zach Greinke in game 5 (if necessary).

The matchup tomorrow should favor the Cards, as Kershaw is 1-4 with a 5.20 ERA in his postseason career, including 0-3 with a 8.10 ERA in his last 3 postseason starts against the Cardinals.  Plus, pitchers going on short rest rarely fair well in the postseason.

However, this is still Kershaw that we are talking about.  The reigning Cy Young award winner and the guy most likely to win it again this year.  So you can throw all those prior stats out the door.  He will be out to prove himself and the Cards will have their work cut out for them.

He will be opposed by Shelby Miller, who was one of the Cardinals hottest pitchers down the stretch, with a 2-0 record and 1.48 ERA in his last 5 starts of the season.  However, he is 0-1 with a 9.00 ERA this year and 1-1 with a 6.57 ERA in his career against the Dodgers.

The Cards will hope to at least keep the game close so that they can exploit the Dodger's bullpen, which has given up 6 runs in 6.1 innings so far. 

In any case, tomorrow is the game we want as we certainly don't want to head back to L.A. and have to face Greinke again  (1-0, with a 1.64 record in his last 3 postseason starts against the Cards). 

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Tomorrow we get to see if the Cardinals' John Lackey really is a big game pitcher

After splitting the first two games of the NLDS, in part due to an improbable comeback in game one against the NL's best pitcher and likely Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw, the Cardinals return home for two games starting Monday night.

Taking the mound for the Cardinals is John Lackey, otherwise known as the guy the Cards traded both Allen Craig and Joe Kelly for back in July.  Lackey will be making his first postseason appearance since winning game 6 of the 2013 World Series against the Cardinals.

Lackey has earned a bit of a reputation as a big game pitcher, with people noting that he out dueled Detroit ace Justin Verlander last year in game 3 of the ALCS and of course his big win in game 6 of the World Series.

However, is he really all that clutch? 

This is Lackey's 6th postseason.  His first postseason with the Angels back in 2002 was pretty special, as he went 2-0 with a 2.42 ERA including winning game 7 of the World Series against the Giants.

Last year was also kinda special, as he earned his second World Series ring while going 3-1 with a 2.77 ERA.

However, in between, he has gone 1-4 with a 3.40 ERA, not terrible stats, at least from an ERA standpoint, but hardly the resume of a "big game" pitcher.

Sometimes players can build a reputation from just a few games or one great season, weather its warranted or not.  Just ask Allen Craig, who hit .454 with RISP in 2013, how "clutch" he was in 2014. 

As statisticians always say, "beware of small sample sizes". 

So while Cardinals fans are hoping for another "big game" performance from Lackey in game 3, I'll just be hoping for a win.