How the Other Half Lives

added 1/30/2006 by Scott Barzilla

The airwaves, bulletin boards, and newspapers are buzzing about the "Jeff Bagwell controversy". Interestingly enough, everything has exploded since my last column, but I thought I'd leave it alone for the time being. My colleague (in the sense that we both write about sports) Richard Justice seems to be on top of this situation in more ways than one. On the one hand, we can't say we're not informed, but I have to wonder how much of his efforts are fanning this flame.

I certainly have been critical of Justice in the past and it would be easy to call him a glory hound in this instance, but I have to ask myself what I'd do in his shoes. Justice probably has career aspirations like many of his colleagues. When he began his career as a beat-writer he worked in the Baltimore market along with Tim Kurjikan and Ken Rosenthal. Now, they write for and the Sporting News respectively. I'd probably want advancement too if I were Justice. Plus, I'm sure he doesn't look at his zealous reporting/commentary as fanning the flames at all. He probably sees himself as a public servant informing Astros fans of what is going on. I know that if an influential person gave me some inside information it would be hard to suppress the urge to pass it on.

This is not meant to be another attack on Justice at all. Simply put, I'm going to get off the dead horse because I'm not privy to inside information. Instead, I want to start focusing on the coming season. The baseball world seems to revolve around what New York and Boston do. Their rivalry can only compare to great NCAA football and basketball rivalries like Michagan/Ohio State, Alabama/Auburn, and Duke/North Carolina. No other baseball tandem can compare, but the Astros are developing a decent rivalry with the Cardinals. No, we don't shout 'Cardinals Suck!' at football or basketball games and I'm sure they don't have similar chants at Rams' games. When Orlando Palmeiro signed with the Astros from St. Louis I'm sure fans in Cardinal country didn't call him a traitor. No matter how subdued the fans, the teams have been connected beyond the last two NLCS.

        Astros W-L   Finish        Cardinals W-L   Finish       
1995       76-68      2nd               62-81        4th
1996       82-80      2nd               88-74        1st
1997       84-78      1st               73-89        4th
1998      102-60      1st               83-79        3rd
1999       97-65      1st               75-86        4th
2000       72-90      4th               95-67        1st
2001       93-69      1st               93-69        2nd
2002       84-78      2nd               97-65        1st
2003       87-75      2nd               85-77        3rd
2004       92-70      2nd              105-57        1st
2005       89-73      2nd              100-62        1st
Total    958-806      1st              956-806       2nd

The similarities here are striking. The only thing that separates these two teams in overall record is two additional wins by the Astros. The two teams have combined for nine of the eleven division championships in the history of the NL Central. They finished first and second in the standings on five different occasions. The last two years were interesting, but the most interesting case might have been in 2001 when the Astros went to St. Louis and took the series to force a tie. Since the Cardinals qualified as the wild card there was no need for a playoff.

While the Yankees and Red Sox grab the headlines, the Astros and Cardinals have been just as intertwined as those two teams over the last eleven years. Needless to say, no team should make off-season moves with one team in mind, but Astros fans and Cardinal fans cannot help but pay very close attention to what the other team is doing. Unlike the other famous rivalry, the Astros and Cardinals have given as good as they've gotten. Following is a look at how the Cardinals might look this year using Bill James win share model. What I like to do is take each player's three year average and add up the 25 man roster to estimate a won-loss record.

The Lineup          WS AVG
SS David Eckstein       16 
2B Junior Spivey         6
1B Albert Pujols        37
CF Jim Edmonds          27
3B Scott Rolen          22
RF Juan Encarnacion     15
LF Larry Bigbie          8
C  Yaddy Molina         10
Total                  141

As usual, the middle of that lineup is going to be tough to beat. If Scott Rolen returns to 2004 form it might be enough by itself to keep the Cardinals on top, but Junior Spivey and Larry Bigbie are the keys to their World Series hopes in the lineup. The 2004 and 2005 Cardinals won because of deep lineups. Spivey's career got off to a great start in 2002 when he sported a .865 OPS for the Diamondbacks. He hasn't surpassed a .780 OPS since then. Larry Bigbie began much the same way in Baltimore where he sported an OPS better than 800 in 2003, but saw it plummet in each of the last two seasons.

If both players even produce at a 750 OPS the Cardinals will be ecstatic and will let guys like Pujols, Edmonds, and Rolen lead them to the promise land. There is good cause to believe each will have a good season. David Eckstein, Reggie Sanders, and Mark Grudzielanek each had career seasons in St. Louis. The environment seems to be very conducive to being productive. This trend also bodes well for Juan Encarnacion as he's set to replace Larry Walker. In particular, Jim Edmonds is the only regular on the downside of his career. The Cardinals did a good job of getting younger while having some experience at those positions. The Cardinals lineup projects to be 24 win shares (or eight real wins) better than the next best lineup in the Central (Cubs). Of course, the mound might be a different story.

The Mound          WS AVG
Chis Carpenter         16
Mark Mulder            15
Jeff Suppan            12
Jason Marquis           9
Sidney Ponson           8
Sub-Total              60

Jason Isringhausen     11
Braden Looper          10
Ricard Rincon           4
Randy Flores            3
Carmen Cali             0
Tyler Johnson           0
Sub-Total              28
Pitchers Total         88

The pitching staff may look weak, but they actually stand in first in the division with their 88 win shares (the Cubs have 86). Of course, if Roger Clemens comes back for the Astros it will change things significantly, but the implication is simple: no one in the Central has a dominant staff. Still, the Cubs are always dangerous if the big three remain healthy and the Cardinals rotation is more vulnerable than in the past two seasons. Believe or not, Sidney Ponson has been average or above more often than he's been terrible, but 2005 was terrible. They aren't investing a lot in him financially, but they don't have many candidates ready to take his spot.

The Bench     WS AVG
Gary Bennett       4
Deivi Cruz         9
Aaron Miles        7
Hector Luna        5
So Taguchi         7
John Rodriguez     5
Total             37

Lineup           141
Pitchers          88
Bench             37
Grand Total      266
Projected Wins   88.7

There are usually caveats I want to include in this kind of projection. First, the team projection is usually more meaningful than the individual projections. I can hear people scream and say, 'how can you claim that two relief pitchers will have zero win shares?' They're right, but these things usually even out. However, it is more important to point out that this projection only includes the top 25 guys on the roster. Every team has minor league help during the year that can account for as many as 15 win shares (five real wins).

If you held a gun to my head I would put the Cardinals in the 92-93 win category. You don't lose Matt Morris, Reggie Sanders, Larry Walker, and Mark Grudzielanek without feeling some of the effects, but it's the lack of depth in the bullpen that's going to hurt them more. Walt Jockety has always impressed me as a general manager because he is able to fill out the last spots of his roster with accomplished players. Jeff Nelson signed a minor league contract (so he is not on the official roster) and he will definitely help the pen (and their projection) if he is able to make the squad. Yet, the shallow pen makes them vulnerable this year where they really weren't the last couple of years (over a 162 game season).