Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Not in the Cards?
By Ben Valentine

Having two of the best players in the league can do a lot for a team. It can cover up a lot of weakness and most importantly, it’s a great start in building a championship caliber squad. Or at least, that’s what it should be. Unfortunately, some teams lull themselves into a false sense of security and take another stance entirely. They decide that since they’ve got these two great players, they can get by with mediocre or poor players around them, rather than attempting to fill the other spots with solid talent.

As Zach mentioned in his NL Pythagorean standings last week, the St. Louis Cardinals have done just that. He did it in reference to Albert Pujols, who is by far their most important player. However, it can also be said for their pitching staff, which features Chris Carpenter and a bunch of 3rd starters and below.

Well at least it did. Until yesterday. The Cardinals placed Chris Carpenter on the D/L with what they are calling a shoulder bursitis. While the injury doesn’t appear severe, one has to remember Carpenter is a pitcher who has dealt with injuries throughout his career. Last year’s Cy Young season was a surprise to many; not because Carpenter wasn’t a good pitcher but because he’s never been healthy. One of the big questions before the season was whether he could remain healthy for two years. It appears that isn’t happening.

The Cardinals are now left with Jeff Suppan, Mark Mulder, Sidney Ponson and Jason Marquis. The team’s best pitcher may well be rookie Anthony Reyes, who was called up in response to the injury. In 52.1 IP at AAA, he has 48 strike outs and just 6 walks. He has surrendered 6 homers but has a very good 3.10 ERA. He isn’t the problem. The rest of the starters are. Here are their numbers:

Mark Mulder- 5-3, 72.2 IP, 4.52 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 4.77 K/9, 1.81 K/BB, 2.71 GB/FB, 1.36 Hr/9

Sidney Ponson- 4-0 37.0 IP, 2.92 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 4.14 K/9, 1.42 K/BB, 2.03 GB/FB, 1.22 Hr/9

Jason Marquis- 6-4, 72.0 IP, 4.75 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 3.38 K/9, 1.08 K/BB, 1.20 GB/FB, 1.38
Hr/9

Jeff Suppan- 5-4, 58.0 IP, 5.12 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, 4.97 K/9, 1.52 K/BB, 1.02 GB/FB, 1.24 Hr/9

Now the Cards have been lucky so far in two respects; for starters, it’s a mini miracle Sidney Ponson hasn’t given up more runs this year. Secondly, all of their pitchers have winning records despite their awful peripherals AND ERAs. This is why Pujols is their most valuable player. However, it to expect these guys to continue pitching this way and getting wins just isn’t realistic. I can’t see a staff of guys in the NL with ERAs in the mid 4.00’s and higher being anything more than .500 pitchers. Even with Pujols performing out of his mind, those starters have only been slightly better than that so far.

Carpenter was as close to a sure thing as you could get in that rotation. Over the last two years the Cardinals had the pitching advantage nearly every night he threw. Only on the odd nights where he matched up against Roger Clemens, Dontrelle Willis or Pedro Martinez could you say otherwise. That meant one out of every five days the Cardinals stood an excellent chance of winning. That just isn’t the case any more.

The silver lining here is Reyes is probably a better pitcher than anyone in the current Cardinals rotation. Should he pitch well enough and Carpenter returns healthy, then they could actually emerge a better team than they were before.

But with Carpenter’s history, the Cardinals probably would trade Reyes for the certainty of the health of their ace. Because one thing is certain; sans the 2005 Cy Young winner, the Cardinals will not be returning to the postseason.

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