Saturday, April 2, 2011
Cardinals still rate as NL Central favorites
By Christina Kahrl
You can forgive the Cardinals if you think they might be punch-drunk with bad news. Between losing Adam Wainwright for the season and then having to see Matt Holliday disabled -- but not DL'd -- with a laparascopic appendectomy, you might wonder if fate was a mean-spirited kid with a pellet gun, just waiting to plug the next Cardinal.
Losing Matt Holliday for a stretch doesn't mean the Cardinals have lost their pennant hopes.
However, with Stephania Bell's example of Andres Torres' quick comeback last September as our guide, it's worth noting that the Cards might have a lot less injury-induced heartache than you might expect. How good is their situation, despite their troubles? Even allowing for a moderate hit to Holliday's playing time as he recovers, they're still pegged as slight favorites to finish first in Baseball Prospectus' Playoff Odds Report, with a 35 percent shot at the NL Central at the start of play on Saturday to give them a nose of a lead over the Brewers (32 percent) and Reds (22 percent). Remember, that's with Holliday's expected absence, on top of Wainwright's.
That might seem extraordinary, but in the NL Central's fistfight, things are tough all over. Zack Greinke is still on the shelf instead of in the Brewers' rotation, and the Reds' starting pitching is sans Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey ... and that's before we get into Bronson Arroyo's bout of mono and how soon or well he'll come back from that.
What the Cardinals lack in blue-chip prospects they make up for with a solid stable of what often gets called "organizational players," which shouldn't be taken as an insult, but just like saying that it's just an epithet, people connote something negative from both terms, epithet and organizational player alike. Admittedly, Allen Craig, Jon Jay, and Daniel Descalso might never be All-Stars, but all three provide the Cardinals with good power-on-contact bats and give Tony La Russa the sort of depth that means when he goes to the bench, he won't be stuck with a complete unknown at six different positions.
The other thing to keep in mind is how effectively La Russa has used multi-position players in the past. As Holliday's temporary replacement, Craig might not get accolades as a prospect and, in his age-26 season, might seem too old to be a "real" prospect. However, he compares quite comfortably to another "organizational player" La Russa used to good effect in the mid-'90s, when he was still managing in Oakland: Scott Brosius.
Brosius ranged across all three outfield slots and both infield corners before eventually settling in as a solid third baseman for the A's and then Yankees. At 28 years old on La Russa's last Oakland squad, he was older then than Craig is now. As a 20th-round draft pick made good, Brosius was an organizational player par excellence, a hitter with power and patience. With Craig's opportunity to shine starting today, it's worth keeping in mind that organizational players make up in value what they might lack in prospect touts.
Where the Cardinals do have a drool-worthy prospect who might help them cope with their other big loss is in the rotation. Admittedly, it might be a bit much to expect top prospect Shelby Miller to motor through to the upper levels of the system in time to make a late-season cameo before his 21st birthday, but he's not the only potential rookie gunning for a shot at joining Anthony Reyes in Cards' postseason lore, if you haven't forgotten the Game 1 hero of the 2006 title team.
Here again, the Cards have more depth than you might think, one that doesn't require you to drink too deeply of any Kool-Aid involving Kyle Lohse's comeback. Lance Lynn turned a lot of heads down the stretch last summer, showing significantly better velocity by ratcheting his fastball up to reliable mid-90s heat, and touching 97 mph. Marry that to a curve and change he can throw for strikes, and while you might not have Wainwright, you will have something you can win with. If he learns to avoid mistakes high in the zone, he could be the in-season replacement for whichever one of the Cards' starters gets hurt or falters.
Put all of that together with the team's well-known front rank -- presumably you know about this Pujols character -- and you've got not just a team, but an organization that has provided La Russa with enough weapons to make that narrow lead in a projected NL Central finish stand up.