The Cardinals arrive in town in first place in the NL Central. They have the second best team ERA in the NL (3.63, trailing the Pirates of all teams, the highest team wOBA (.360), and the best player on the planet. Well, at least the weather's lousy.
Here's my preview of the Cardinals series, including the line-up, bullpen, and game one starter Mitchell Boggs.
When the Cards Are Up
--Albert Pujols last year was two wins above replacement better than the next best position player in all of baseball. He's hitting a ridiculous .320 / .448 / .653, and oh by the way is arguably the best fielding first-baseman in the league. He is a man among boys, standing head and shoulders above the rest of the league.
--Rick Ankiel, the converted pitcher-turned-slugger, has tremendous power but huge strikeout rates and below average on-base skills. He struck out 100 times last season (24.2%) and has already whiffed 17 times this year. Unfortunately he's not hitting for power yet, seeing his ISO power drop from .242 to .159, and his plate discipline has taken a step back. Still, he's only been a hitter for a couple years, so the Cardinals have to be patient. Uberprospect Colby Rasmus will take over next year, as Ankiel is a free agent after this season, and Rasmus is getting plenty of PT this year. He's a beast with a good power, excellent plate discipline, and an excellent glove.
--The youngest of the catching Molina brothers, Yadier Molina has a cannon arm and has been regarded as a no-hit, great defensive catcher. He's proving that the label sells him short. In 2008, he cut his strike out rate almost in half from 12.2% to 6.5%, making him a legitimately excellent contact hitter. He still has very little power, and his batting average will be suppressed by his lack of wheels, but he's not an automatic out. So far this year he's been even better than optimists hoped, posting an excellent .353 / .423 / .529 line in the early going.
--Slugging right-fielder Ryan Ludwick busted out last year with 37 dingers. He actually hits righties a bit better than lefties, an unusual reverse platoon split. He's a late bloomer with enough plate discipline and raw power to keep this up, and he's a pretty good right-fielder too.
--Dave Duncan's boy, Chris Duncan, had a potentially career-threatening neck injury last year, but surgery seems to have solved it. He's a great big 6'5" lefty, but he has just good, not great power. He walks a ton, but strikes out a lot as well. He's a butcher in the field wherever the Cardinals have put him and struggles mightily against same-handed pitching. Add it all up and you don't have a ton of value despite a fairly impressive highlight reel. He's off to a good start though, hitting .297 / .387 / .531 in the early going.
--Skip Schumaker is a scrappy, blue-collar guy who's make the ultimate scrappy blue-collar play by learning to play a brand-new position, second-base, in spring training. So far not so good. He's only made one error, but according to UZR he's allowed a whopping 3.7 runs more than average because of his poor range. I haven't seen him play, but I'm guessing it's less athleticism than poor reactions at the new spot, because he was regarded as a fantastic outfielder. But like Willie Harris has shown, it's quite a different skill set to play outfield well than the quick-twitch reactions that make a great infielder. At the plate, he's a good contact hitter who draws a fair number of walks but brings very little power. If he can't figure out second, he's a bench guy.
--Still one of the most hated men in NatsTown for the home run he hit to end the 2005 team's chances of the playoffs (or, looking at it another way initiating the unbroken era of irrelevance for the Scats), Khalil Greene came over from San Diego last off season hoping to jump-start a stalled career with a change in scenery. Last season he was one of the worst offensive regulars the league had seen in years, posting an almost unfathomable .260 OBP (which happens to be exactly what Cristian Guzman did in his horrifying 2005). He's walking more, but it's not translating to results yet, and he's been a problem defensively, committing 5 errors.
--With Troy Glaus hurt, former prospect Joe Thurston is getting the starts at third over rookie David Freese. Total obsessives may remember that Thurston was in Nationals camp in 2007 but couldn't win a job on a team that gave nearly 500 ABs to D'Angelo Jimenez, Tony Batista, and Robert Fick. He's a slappy contact hitter with no plate discipline. He's hitting .300 on an inflated BABIP, but that won't last. I assumed that maybe he could field his position well, but UZR says that's not really true either. Freese must have banged LaRussa's daughter or something.
On the Mound
Mitchell Boggs: A 6'3", 25-year-old righty, Boggs is a fastball-slider guy who's never been better than just ok at any level of the minors. But he's managed do just well enough to keep progressing, and with Chris Carpenter on the DL, he's getting a couple starts in The Show. He doesn't strike anyone out, and his command is just ok.
His top PECOTA comps include William Brennan, which may come in handy when the Obama administration is looking for a Supreme Court nominee, but it doesn't sound too promising for the Cardinals.
Tony LaRussa, the inventor of the modern, inefficient bullpen, is sitting on a group begging to be used with match-ups, rather than arbitrary innings roles, in mind. Dennys Reyes is one of the better LOOGYs in baseball. Jason Motte, Kyle McClellan, and Chris Perez are three big, young power arms deemed not ready for the pressure of closer duties by LaRussa. As a result, veteran Ryan Franklin is back in the 9th inning role, and he's been more than adequate so far, converting 6 of 7 save chances with a 0.00 ERA, even if an entire career's body of evidence shows he can't maintain it.
Season record: 14-7
Cardinals take the opener, 7-4.