Ninety-five wins is the minimum, I figure, that a team is going to have to win to capture the N.L. Central flag in 2009. The Cubs took the Central last season with 97 wins, five better than any other N.L. team and seven better than the Brew Crew. While Chicago hasn't done all that much to noticeably improve itself, it also hasn't hurt its stock considerably with the resigning of Ryan Dempster and the addition of outfielder Milton Bradley. Considering how little the rest of the Central has done to improve itself, those two signings are the equivalent of adding Marichal and McCovey in their prime. The Cubs should continue to benefit from playing a weaker Central schedule; if they remain healthy, they might even improve upon last year's .592 winning percentage against their divisional rivals.
Ninety-five wins may be too low a ballpark figure, but it's plenty high for the St. Louis Cardinals to attempt to reach. It would take a nine-game improvement over last year to hit that mark. For a team whose winning precentage since capturing the crown in 2006 is just a hair above .500, nine games might as well be 19 games — especially when considering management's sub-par efforts this offseason to shape a squad capable of battling the Cubs.
As much as Cardinals fans fretted about the team's offense heading into the 2008 season, St. Louis came out on the other side looking sparkly and clean. Despite never having a "tried and true" leadoff hitter and giving more than 400 at-bats to the black hole that was Cesar Izturis, the Cardinals finished fourth in the N.L. with 4.81 runs per game. (However, they were a half-run behind the league's best offense, Chicago.) St. Louis batters struck out the fewest times in the league, and more than held their own in terms of on-base and slugging percentage. The team notched the best batting average, .281, in the N.L. So, heading into 2009, is there room for improvement? The answer is yes.
The 2008 Cardinals' offensive numbers must be viewed with a touch of skepticism, the same way one would want to reserve judgment on the appearance of grown, mustachioed men dressed from head to toe in baby blue. Those men of yore had to prove they could win a World Series dressed thusly, and so too must last year's Redbirds prove that '08 was no offensive fluke.
The one constant in this annual experiment is, of course, Mr. MVP, Albert Pujols. But the Cardinals received breakout seasons from many of their players — Yadier Molina (.304 average), Skip Schumaker (.302 average), Ryan Ludwick (.591 slugging), Aaron Miles (.317 average) and Felipe Lopez (.385 average). Miles and Lopez are no longer with the team. You may see the returnees as all capable of repeats, youthful players who were hitting their stride. But to think that all three will continue to plug away at a .300 or better clip seems a bit optimistic. Common sense tells me that a regression is in order for at least one of them.
Also, remember we're adding to the mix a shortstop, Khalil Greene (above), who hasn't hit much higher than .250 since his rookie season five years ago. Even if we get the good-hitting Greene, who smacked 27 home runs two years ago, we're only gaining a league-average OPS (that year, his OPS+ was an even 100). That league-average OPS — if it comes to fruition — will be a huge lift from what Izturis gave us last year. But where else will the team see offensive improvement? Greene has been the only potentially significant offensive addition to the club. So will any bump we receive from him be enough to make up for a question mark that is the injured Troy Glaus (shoulder injuries, as we learned from our prior third baseman, can be a nagging bitch), or his likely rookie replacement for at least the first month of the season? Will it be enough to balance out any potential step backward from last season's offensive overachievers? Will our slugging bench — Joe Mather and Chris Duncan — provide more pop? And what will our still relatively inexperienced outfield of Schumaker, Ludwick and Rick Ankiel do for an encore?
This team needed to acquire another steady bat to lean on. I was against the Matt Holliday trade, because he has always been a fairly pedestrian hitter away from Coors, and hence the price for him was a bit too steep. But the sentiment — improve our offense one slugger at a time — was on the nose. In this sense, I agree with the skipper, who has lobbied hard for another big bat.
Where I disagree with him, per usual, is in his handling of the pitching staff. Tony La Russa just can't get enough of torturing young pitchers. If they haven't performed miracles under the brightest of lights — say, struck out the final batter in both the NLCS and World Series on nasty breaking pitches — then they just haven't earned his trust. So, in Tony's sunglassed eyes, Jason Motte and Chris Perez simply can't be handed the title of late-innings stoppers.
This infuriates me to no end. Perez (left) and Motte may struggle some, for sure, but the same can be said for the majority of closers in the bigs. These are two pitchers who have been groomed for the job. This would not be a situation where a player is tossed head-first into unfamiliar waters, as Tony is wont to do with his guys. Instead, installing these two hard-throwing K machines as your eighth- and ninth-inning relievers would be a logical conclusion to years of on-the-job training. Since being converted from a catcher in early 2006, Motte has done nothing but relieve, including prior to his call up last year, when he struck out nearly 1.7 batters per inning pitched in Memphis. Perez was a closer for a premier college team and racked up 58 saves in three abbreviated seasons in the minors. The duo allows the Cardinals a wonderful opportunity to spend little while gaining a lot, a point management seems to get, but which falls on Tony's deaf ears.
Where this team truly needed to focus its attention in the offseason was on improving the rotation and the left side of the bullpen. Early in the offseason, the Cardinals did just that, resigning starter Kyle Lohse to a (in hindsight) crappy contract, and plucking lefty relievers off the grid with frequency. The problem is that those relievers — Trever Miller, Charlie Manning, Katsuhiko Maekawa and Royce Ring — are about as inspiring as a Mark Mulder "comeback." Sure, it's a cheap group (Miller is due the most at just $500,000 plus incentives), but cheap doesn't console me much when I look at their collective failure as Major League pitchers. Miller is a decent option, but as for the rest of 'em, fuhgeddaboudit. Meanwhile, Joe Beimel, a lefty who has allowed just one home run in two seasons, is still unsigned. Since we fell short in our efforts to nab the free agent market's premier lefty, Brian Fuentes, we need to address the still gaping hole in the left side of our pen.
For a team that last season found itself in the upper-middle of the pack in terms of ERA, it needed only to focus this offseason on three areas of mound improvement: increasing its league-worst strikeout rate, limiting hits allowed and converting a higher percentage of its save opportunities. Oddly enough, it's guys like Perez and Motte who can do just that.
Ben Sheets (right) is also still out there, supposedly waiting on a two-year deal worth $18 million, with an option for a third year. The former Brewer has a bad rap due to injuries. Last year alone he suffered from tightness in his groin, forearm and triceps, and a torn elbow muscle that sidelined him for the playoffs. Still, he made 31 starts, threw nearly 200 innings and posted the second-best season of his career. He doesn't allow many baserunners, notches a superb strikeout-to-walk ratio (last year, 3.4 to 1), and for five straight years has owned a far better than league average ERA. Even if he's only good for 25 starts per season (his average over the past five years), is he not worth the risk at $9 million per year?
One can argue that we have enough risk tied up in Chris Carpenter, whose future is anything but certain. But I say when your options are signing a Randy Wolf-type starter or going with a mediocre option from the farm, why not roll the dice and try to hit the jackpot? We're going to pay Carpenter $14 million next year to possibly pitch. For just $4 million more, you could get a two-year flier on Sheets, who, let's be honest, is Carpenter's peer and four years younger.
These Redbirds have a lot of work left to do if they intend to keep pace with the Cubs, who haven't made the anticipated noise this offseason, but have still made the N.L. Central's most significant acquisitions. With the All-Star Game headed to Busch this season and a supposed stash of available cash sitting in management's purse, it would be nice if the Cardinals would position themselves for a serious run at the postseason by pulling out the stops for once and making at least one ground-shaking, window-rattling move that would send a shiver up the spine of their Central foes.