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 ESPN.com 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).