Tuesday, October 31, 2006

St. Louis Cardinals 2007 Outlook

2006 results: 83-78, Won NL Central, Won World Series

Pythagorean record: 82-79

Key free agents: Jim Edmonds (team option), Jeff Suppan, Mark Mulder, Jeff Weaver, Jason Marquis, Preston Wilson, Ronnie Belliard

Plan for 2007: Overhaul the roster to prevent it from slipping beneath the level of contention.

The St. Louis Cardinals are World Series champions. Flags fly forever, and the trophy will be theirs for at least a year. Furthermore, in Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, and Chris Carpenter, they have one of baseball’s strongest cores of superstars to build around.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the Cardinals are in big trouble next year. Baseball Prospectus publishes a statistic called “third-order wins” which attempts to strip out the variance in baseball and simply tell you how well a team has played in a given season. Usually, a team’s third-order win total will closely approximate its actual win total, although factors like clutch hitting, a great record in one-run games, or an easy schedule can help a team win more games and “outperform” its third-order win total.

The Cardinals won only 83 regular-season games in 2006, and according to third-order wins, they weren’t even that good. They managed just 75.8 third-order wins, the ninth-worst total in baseball. By one measure at least, the Cardinals begin this offseason with one of the ten worst teams in the major leagues, and several key contributors are likely to leave in free agency, leaving them in an even weaker position.

What can the Cards do? They can’t enter a rebuilding period, as their farm system is weak and they need to build a contender around the core of Pujols, Rolen, and Carpenter while they are still playing at a high level. The only real option is a major splurge in the free agent and trade markets this offseason.

Fortunately for the Cards, they have two big things going for them: a creative general manager in Walt Jocketty and a devoted fan base that will generate revenue and perhaps encourage free agents to choose St. Louis. But where can they look for the additional production they’ll need to contend in 2007?

In addition to the many holes created by the departing free agents, the Cardinals feature two everyday players whose bats are subpar, postseason heroes David Eckstein and Yadier Molina. At age 24 and with excellent defense, Molina is worth bringing back as a starter. Eckstein is 32 and coming off three poor seasons out of four, making him a prime candidate for an upgrade. Unfortunately, the only better shortstops in the free agent market are Julio Lugo and Craig Counsell. If the Cardinals can sign one of them and trade Eckstein for a useful part, it’s a move worth making.

One move St. Louis should definitely make is to pick up Jim Edmonds’ option. At $7 million—the difference between the $10 million option and $3 million buyout—this move looked like a no-brainer before Edmonds suffered through injuries and slumps during most of 2006. But in a poor free agent market, $7 million for one year is a bargain for a player who should be worth five wins if he can play 130 games next year.

If St. Louis is stuck with Eckstein and Molina in the lineup, they can’t afford to start the no-hit Aaron Miles at second. Ray Durham, Adam Kennedy, Jose Valentin, and Todd Walker are all getting old, but each would be a significant upgrade. Kennedy would be the best fit on a team with a soft-tossing groundball staff, while Durham is the best hitter of the group. It remains to be seen which will be the better fit for the Cards in 2007.

In the corner outfield spots, the Cardinals have two very similar players in John Rodriguez and Chris Duncan, left-handed hitters who can mash against righties but can’t hit a lick against lefties. They also still owe $10 million to Juan Encarnacion. If there’s a trade market for any of these three, and particularly if they can receive a starting pitcher in return, Jocketty should pull the trigger.

Fixing the pitching staff will be a challenge, with lots of holes to fill and the league-wide demand for starters at an all-time high. Signing Mark Mulder to an affordable, incentive-laden deal may be a good move, although Mulder was in steep decline long before his injury. Suppan is likely to sign a contract in the neighborhood of four years and $40 million, way too much for a pitcher who struggles to strike out five men per nine innings. Jeff Weaver will probably come cheaper, and should be roughly as good going forward. If the Cardinals sign Weaver to a one-year, $5 million deal to re-establish himself for next year’s free agent market, it would be a good move for both parties. Marquis is not likely to come back, nor should he be. His peripheral stats in 2005 foreshadowed his awful 2006, and he is unlikely to be a league-average starter again.

With Jason Isringhausen returning from surgery, the Cardinals should give Adam Wainwright a shot to start in the middle of the rotation. He can always move back into relief if the experiment fails. This will probably leave two open starting pitching slots to fill via trades or free agency.

The best free agent starter is Daisuke Matsuzaka. Matsuzaka will be the most expensive starter after including his posting fee, but his NPB stats and stuff are both very good, and many Japanese pitchers with unorthodox deliveries have made a big impact in their first season, like Hideo Nomo, Akinori Otsuka, and Shingo Takatsu. Other top-level pitchers include Jason Schmidt, whose strikeout rate has held up even though his other numbers have not, and Mike Mussina, whose option is expected to be declined by the Yankees. The Cards can target one of these elite starters and one lower-tier, perhaps Adam Eaton.

All in all, the Cardinals have a lot of work to do to even get back to the playoffs, let alone repeat as World Champions. They’ll need to be aggressive and willing to overpay to keep a contender on the field, or risk spending September out of the playoff hunt for the first time in seven years.

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