Steve Sommer is one of the more interesting sabermetrically-minded Cardinals fans around, and a co-author the excellent Cardinals blog, Gas House Graphs. He and I did a Q&A exchange about the Reds and Cardinals over the past week, and here are his answers to my questions about the Cardinals. You can find my answers to his questions about the Reds at their blog!
RR: The Cardinals and Reds were neck and neck last season until they swept the Reds in that dramatic series last August. And then the Cardinals seemed to just fall apart. What happened? Was it just bad luck/underachievement, or were there real problems with that team that were ultimately exposed?
GHG: As it is with most teams that don’t reach their ultimate goal I think the answer is likely a little bit of all of the above. The middle infielders (Schumaker and Ryan), while not great players, likely were a little bit unlucky at the plate. They both had BABIPs well below their career numbers, and while some of that was just bad hitting, I doubt it all was. Ironically, I might also start a list of underachievers with those two as well. Both were expected to hit better than they did and as already mentioned, a combination of bad luck and bad performance got in the way.
The major problem with the team however was a lack of depth. Every team has their share of injuries, but the Cardinals could not overcome theirs last year. Once David Freese went down (and he’s only a good player, by no means great) 3rd base was unproductive both offensively and defensively. On the pitching side an early injury to Brad Penny combined with an ineffective an injured Kyle Lohse (who didn’t see both of those coming?) forced the Cardinals to go outside of their system for Jake Westbrook. The price was hefty as we had to ship out Ryan Ludwick, which flows nicely into your next question…
RR: Lance Berkman: key to productive offense, or defensive disaster in right field? Also, what's the over/under on the number of days before his knees give out?
GHG: He’ll definitely be a defensive disaster. He was pretty bad out there the last few years before he moved to first base; I can only imagine what a few years away will have done. I’d set the over under on his knees giving out at around 75 games. The more interesting part of the question is what he means to the offense. Clearly he brings another high OBP capable bat, but I’m a little skeptical about the power he’ll bring. How much the Cards need another power bat probably relates to how well and long David Freese is able to man third and how much the Cards try and tinker with Colby’s swing (not to mention sit him irrationally). All in all I think Berkman will help the offense enough to offset his poor defense, but not enough to make him all that much better than the in house options (Jon Jay, Allen Craig).
RR: The Reds were in possession of Ryan Franklin for part of the 2006 season, and honestly, he seemed sort of lousy. He had one of the all-time great low-BABIP, huge xFIP-ERA seasons in 2003, and hadn't done anything of note since. But then the Cardinals signed him and he's become a very serviceable ...not just middle reliever, but closer! How did this happen? And how has he been able to outperform his peripherals every year in St. Louis?
GHG: Smoke and mirrors? Honestly I’m not exactly sure. One thing that stands out looking at his pitch data on Fangraphs is that he’s used the curveball a lot more in St. Louis than with other teams. Generally speaking it seems like Duncan has his pitchers use the curveball at the back foot of an opposite handed hitter as an out pitch. There may be some correlation here as Franklin has done a little better against LH hitters since becoming a Cardinal and increasing the use of his curveball. That said, I think a more likely explanation is in fact smoke and mirrors.
RR: Albert Pujols is in his walk year, and recently set a spring training deadline for contract negotiation. What is your take on the current state of the negotiations between the Cardinals and the best player in baseball? Is it possible that he might leave St. Louis? Probable?
GHG: I’m definitely not the best Cardinals fan to ask this question. I have paid practically no attention to the situation other than enough to know that deadlines have been set. I’d say that it’s possible that he would leave St. Louis, but not probable. I think management will eventually decide that they don’t want to anger an entire fanbase by not keeping the best player in baseball. That said, I’m sure Albert’s people know this and will therefore force the Cardinals to pay a premium. Hopefully that premium doesn’t make the deal to much worse than market value. I’d be ok with a slight overpay, but anything beyond slight would make being competitive extremely difficult.
RR: A lot was made of the Brewers revamping their starting rotation, but the Cardinals still enter the year with Carpenter-Wainwright-Garcia-Westbrook-Lohse. How do you think the Cardinals' rotation stacks up against other top rotations in the National League, like the Phillies, Giants, and now the Brewers? Any concerns for the coming season?
GHG: I think that the top of the rotation will be solid, but maybe not as spectacular as everyone expects. I’ll take Wainwright right up there with most anyone, but Carpenter I’m less sure about. I think he’ll have a good year, but I’m starting to be slightly concerned about all of the wear and tear on his arm (injury history included). I also think Garcia will have a good year, but wouldn’t be shocked at some level of regression; it’s just the nature of things. Westbrook seemed to thrive in his time in St. Louis and seems like the perfect fit in this rotation. Lohse is likely to be not good, but most fifth starters are likely to be not good. I think an interesting question about the rotation is how much the groundball heavy staff will be affected by the team’s new starting shortstop. Sure Brendan Ryan might not have been able to hit his way out of a paper bag, but he clearly could pick it out at SS. Theriot on the other hand appears to be league average at best. Combine that with Skip at 2nd and you have a miserable middle infield to play behind a groundball staff.
Overall I think the rotation is good with the chance to be great (with Carpenter being the determining factor), but is a good distance behind the Phillies and in the next tier with both the Giants and the Brewers.
Thanks to Steve for answering my questions!