The St. Louis Cardinals come to Citi Field to visit the Mets for four games and that means that we've got another Amazin' Avenue Five For Five series preview for you. Sans Albert Pujols and Tony LaRussa and a season removed from their magical World Series run, the Cardinals sit in second place in the NL Central, a game and a half behind the Reds. Today, we are joined by Bgh of SB Nation's Cardinals site Viva El Birdos and he gave us an insightful look at where the Redbirds sit coming into this set.
SS: The Cardinals sit at 27-24, good enough for 2nd place in the NL Central. Who would you say has been the biggest success early on and who has been the biggest disappointment? Any surprises?
BGH: While Yadier Molina and Carlos Beltran are tied for the team lead in fWAR at 2.3, I'm going to say that the biggest success early on for the Cardinals has been Beltran. After Pujols chose to sign with the Angels, Cardinals fans were reeling a bit. The front office targeted Beltran to fill the void and signed him to a two-year deal worth $26 million. In the season's first two months, Beltran has been downright Pujolsian. Beltran's .420 wOBA is ninth in all of baseball entering play on Thursday, his 15 homers rank sixth, and his 42 RBI are tied for third. The power void left by Pujols has been filled by Beltran. This has been even more important with Matt Holliday starting out the season in a slump and the injuries suffered by Allen Craig and Lance Berkman. He has done all this while wearing uniform number three, which has gone a long way toward erasing the lingering memories of Ryan Theriot from fans' minds.
Targeting the biggest disappointment is a difficult thing to do because the Cardinals have hit so well. Even though it isn't fair to do so given how low their innings pitched total is, I would say that the bullpen has been the biggest disappointment to date. Collectively, the unit has been below the league average in the following categories: K/9, LOB%, ERA, and FIP. The club is 3-9 in one-run games and while most of their one-run losses have occurred on the road, as one would expect, no reliever has emerged as a shutdown arm late in the games. Jason Motte, who was so great last season, has hit a few bumps in the road. In fact, our best reliever this season has been Mitchell Boggs, something few would have anticipated entering the season.
The biggest surprise on the Cardinals this season has been Rafael Furcal. The veteran was a breath of fresh air at shortstop for the club last season after his acquisition ended the nightmare that was Theriot's tenure as the everyday shortstop in St. Louis. In 2011 with the Cardinals, Furcal posted a .323 wOBA despite hitting for only a .255 BA. This season, Furcal has slashed .333/.391/.460 which equals a .376 wOBA. He has already been worth more than his 2012 salary according to Fangraphs bucks.
SS: Adam Wainwright is back from Tommy John surgery but has been just mediocre results-wise so far (though the defensive independent pitching stats paint a better picture). What have you seen from him since his return?
BGH: I was there in the rain for the home opener against the Cubs when Wainwright lasted just three innings after surrendering two homers and eight runs total. I confess that I was in the bleachers, but it sure didn't look like Adam Wainwright out there on that cold and wet day. His fastball didn't seem to have the speed and his breaking pitches didn't seem be located with the precision we've come to expect. Over 26.2 IP in his first five starts, Wainwright gave up seven homers and his ERA was 6.45. As his home run has normalized, his results have improved. Over his most recent five starts, Wainwright has thrown 32 innings, allowed zero homers, and posted an ERA of 2.53. His fastball velocity has been up in recent starts, his control seems to have improved, and he is looking more and more like the ace pitcher we saw pre-surgery.
SS: The Cardinals lost one of their biggest bats in Lance Berkman to an injury. How are the Cardinals planning to fill that hole?
BGH: First base has been interesting this season, to say the least. After having Pujols as a fixture there from 2004 through 2011, the club planned on sliding Berkman from right field to first base this year. And they did, but Berkman missed a lot of time in April to a calf injury he sustained while legging out a triple against the Reds on a cool April night that he then aggravated. Shortly after returning from that injury, he sustained the knee injury against the Dodgers that required surgery last week and will cause him to miss ten weeks. Berkman only tallied 49 plate appearances in 13 games this season.
Plan B at first base was Allen Craig, who posted a .399 wOBA in 219 plate appearances but Craig opened the season on the DL and returned there in San Francisco. He is supposed to be activated on Friday. Craig has hit .373/.424/.765 with a .487 wOBA, but has played in only 13 games and tallied only 59 plate appearances (many of which in the outfield), so the Cardinals have had to look elsewhere. Plans C and D haven't been too shabby.
The Cardinals first basemen have posted a line of .317/.384/.576 this season, which is good for a wOBA of .404. The bulk of the plate appearances at the position have gone to Matt Carpenter, a third baseman in the minors known more for his excellent batting eye than his power and up-and-coming prospect Matt Adams. In 118 plate appearances, Carpenter is hitting .288/.356/.519 with a .369 wOBA. In 45 plate appearances since his call-up, Adams is hitting .317/.378/.512 with a .384 wOBA.
The plan going forward appears to be some combination of Craig and Adams. It will be interesting to see what the club does if their first baseman of the future, Adams, is still hitting when Carpenter is ready to come off the DL.
SS: Veterans Rafael Furcal and Carlos Beltran have gotten off to great starts so far in 2012 and have helped to carry a strong offense. We're big Beltran fans at AA, so I'm sure our readers would like to hear firsthand accounts of how he has looked and whether the facetious #BlameBeltran meme has been passed along. Also, considering both players' age and injury histories, what would the backup plans be should something happen to them?
BGH: Let me say that growing up in Des Moines, Iowa, only three hours away from Kansas City, made me a big Beltran fan when he was with the Royals and that has continued (except when he played the Cardinals). I was thrilled when the Cardinals signed him. Beltran has far exceeded Cardinals fans wildest dreams with his incredibly performance in the season's first two months. Honestly, his play has been so good that we haven't had an opportunity to bring out the #BlameBeltran meme.
Craig, who I discussed a bit above, is an insurance policy for Berkman and Beltran. Craig can absolutely mash and hits laser beams all over the field. On top of that, he is decent in the outfield defensively and has a pet tortoise named Torty. With Craig on the DL, when Beltran's knee has barked, the Cardinals have gone with such jobbers as Skip Schumaker and Rule 5 draft pick Erik Komatsu as well as Carpenter (who probably shouldn't ever play the outfield defensively).
At shortstop, the Cardinals have Tyler Greene as a potential fill-in should Furcal become injured. Greene did not hit during his call-ups before 2012, but has seen a lot of time at second base this season. His combination of speed and power make him an interesting player. His propensity to strike out and commit errors make him a frustrating one. This season, he has given us glimpses of brilliance in posting a .227/.298/436 line with a .323 wOBA. If he can hit for enough power to maintain a wRC+ of 104, he can justify playing at short where the league average wRC+ is 82.
SS: The Mets and Cardinals found themselves in similar situations last offseason, as they both lost franchise cornerstones to free agency (Jose Reyes and Albert Pujols, respectively). How have Cardinals fans dealt with that loss, especially considering Pujols is such an icon and likely a future Hall of Famer?
BGH: The Cardinals have a tradition of keeping their all-time great franchise players with the team so they can retire a Cardinal. Stan Musial played with the team until after his age 41 season. So did Ozzie Smith. Bob Gibson and Lou Brock retired as Cardinals. Red Schoendienst retired and then managed. All are still around the organization, appearing at spring training and at Busch Stadium. This tradition created a true head-versus-heart dilemma for many fans. We wanted Pujols to stay, to collect his 3,000th hit as a Cardinal, to club his 500th homer (and, who knows, maybe his 600th, 700th, 800th?), retired a Cardinal, and become a franchise ambassador like Gibby, Lou, Ozzie, Red, and Stan. But even the ten-year, $210 million contract was so foolhardy that I think fans were quite understanding when the organization didn't outbid Arte Moreno for Pujols's services. I think most Cardinals fans understand that paying Pujols like that would have significantly hindered the franchise's competitiveness over the life of the contract because he is going to age and decline. Sure, there are a lot of doctored Pujols jerseys with the number five turned into a dollar bill sign and some hard feelings, but I think most fans are thankful to Pujols for eleven Hall-of-Fame seasons and wish him the best of luck in the final ten years of his career with Anaheim. Any hard feelings will be long gone by the time Pujols is inducted into the Hall of Fame with "STL" on his cap. Lots of Mitchell and Ness Pujols Cardinals jerseys will be purchased when that happens.
Thanks again to Bgh of Viva El Birdos! Tonight's game between the Mets and Cardinals begins at 7:10 PM from Citi Field, where Johan Santana will match up against Adam Wainwright.