For those of you who know me or follow me on Twitter, you know I despise contrived narratives in sports. Narratives are the invention of lazy sports writers who can’t efficiently analyze the game their watching. Of course, narrative prevails because casual fans eat it up as eagerly as writers concoct it. They do so because they also don’t understand the game on a deeper level. And that’s fine. It serves a purpose. I just have no time for it.
The narrative around the defending world champion St. Louis Cardinals is that they are an excellent offensive baseball team more than capable of making up for the loss of Albert Pujols and in possession of enough talent to win the NL Central easily. They are considered one of the best teams in the National League and certainly there is a grain of truth to that given that they are off to an 11-7 start and have given no one any reason to take pause.
But I have to tell you, I don’t get it.
I don’t think the Cardinals are that good. Not only that, I think both the Brewers and the Reds are better even if they’re off to not-so-great starts.
This so-called vaunted Cardinals lineup that is apparently an offensive juggernaut looks to me like one great player, a couple regression candidates, a whole lot of old and injury-prone players, and a pile of mediocrity.
Let’s start at the top. The Cardinals needed some middle infield help this offseason and so they re-signed shortstop Rafael Furcal to a two-year deal and installed him as their leadoff hitter. Here’s the problem: he’s just not that good anymore. For all the poetic waxing rained upon him in the Cardinals’ unlikely September and playoff run, Furcal’s only virtue after his trade from the Dodgers was an unsustainable uptick in home runs. Although he did post a 105 wRC+ in 50 games with the Cardinals, his numbers on the year were a dismal .231/.298/.348 with a .288 wOBA in just 87 games.
Furcal has been on fire so far this year hitting a surreal .369/.423/.523 in 72 plate appearances and already contributing 1.2 WAR according to FanGraphs. But he’s also posted a completely unsustainable .421 batted-ball average and is 34 and injury prone. Trust me, this will not end well.
Carlos Beltran was signed in the offseason and given the starting rightfield job and to be totally honest, is a terrific player even at 35-years-old. He has a ridiculous .419 wOBA and five home runs so far this year and is not hitting too much above his established level of play. He’s awesome. But, like Furcal, he can’t stay healthy. Last year’s 142 games was an ordained miracle and the most games he’d played in a season since 2008. At some point, Beltran is going to hit the DL for an extended period of time and the Cardinals will suddenly be without their second-best hitter.
Number three hitter Matt Holliday is the one great player I spoke of earlier, but he’s not exactly the most durable player in the world either and he looks awful so far this year. Still, he has a better chance at staying healthy than a lot of the players in this lineup and his slow start is merely an aberration.
Cleanup hitter Lance Berkman was moved in to first base from rightfield to replace Pujols after a season in which he not only managed to stay healthy, but he turned back the clock a few years and once again was one of the best hitters in baseball. Unfortunately, he’s already hit the DL with a calf injury and he’s 36. A) He won’t stay healthy, B) he’s old, and C) even if ‘A’ and ‘B’ were not factors, he’s not going to hit like he did last year; not even close.
Third baseman David Freese may have won over the hearts and minds of many an American last October when he slapped the snot out of every opposing pitcher on the way to victory, but he’s 29 and has never played more than 97 games in a season at the Major League level. He’s probably a slightly above average hitter when he’s in the lineup, but don’t bank on that happening all year; a significant DL stint is on its way soon.
Yadier Molina had a career year at the plate in 2011 discovering that he could hit for power. He became one of the best offensive catchers in baseball, something he was definitely not before last season. He is a very valuable player because he’s an incredible defensive catcher who doesn’t get hurt, but I simply can’t see him putting up a repeat of last year’s power, even if he has had a great start to the year in that regard. One potential red flag is his strike out rate (a number that is somewhat more trustworthy in small sample sizes than most), which is currently at 13.8% as compared to a career 8.6%-mark. More strikeouts mean more reliance on a high BABIP to bring up offense and that’s not something any ballplayer should want to rely on. Molina will hit plenty for a catcher and is still a tremendous player, he’s just not much more than an average hitter overall.
The bottom of the lineup belong to the sultans of the second-division, Jon Jay in centerfield and Daniel Descalso at second base. Both are barely good enough to be starting on a Major League team.
As for the depth? Allen Craig may be a nice platoon player or a nice power bat off the bench, but suggesting he’s anything more than that is crazy. He’s 27, not 23; he is what he’s going to be.
Matt Carpenter? Skip Schumaker? Tyler Greene? Erik Komatsu? Please. Good bench or role players but if the Cards lose two or three regulars to injury, none of these guys are going to cut it.
The story is the same with the pitching. Jaime Garcia is good, Kyle Lohse is merely passable and Jake Westbrook is a steaming pile of slightly below-average. Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter are both number-ones, but Carpenter can’t stay on the field and Wainwright may take more time to readjust to his new elbow ligament than people are willing to admit. Top prospect Shelby Miller will be a nice mid-season addition, but can’t be relied on too heavily given his age and stage in development.
Sure, if everyone miraculously manages to stay mostly healthy and the regression candidates don’t fall off a cliff, they should contend in the NL Central. But let’s not forget how rare that actually is, especially with an older team like this one.
I said in my team previews that I see the Cards as an 84-win team and nothing I’ve seen so far has dissuaded me much from that. Let us remember that this team was an ‘also-ran’ in late August before going on a tear to capture the collapsing Braves. When they were 68-63 last August 25th, no one was calling them the best team in the NL. Are they really any better than that team?
The Cardinals won the World Series last year and that gives the narrative power and a slack rope. Many are going to naturally assume that they’re better than they are, but last year’s run was a very small sample size and we should never put too much stock in those. The Cards have the raw talent to prove me wrong, but call me when they all make it through a season without hitting the DL.