Climbing Out Of The Canyon – Part 1

Pat from Where have you gone, Andy Van Slyke prominently displays this quote from the legendary center fielder on his blog:

“Every season has its peaks and valleys. What you have to try to do is eliminate the Grand Canyon.”

Pat’s banner reminds the casual Pirate fan that we haven’t finished with a winning record since 1992. Essentially we’re “in the canyon: 14 years and counting.” But, for the first time in a long while, there seems to be hope. Fans of the black and gold point to the likes of Freddy Sanchez, Jason Bay, Adam LaRoche and a bevy of talented young pitchers. They say that Castillo, Bautista, Nady, Wilson and Paulino could all play to potential. And Kevin McClatchy said this on Friday at Piratefest:

“Some of the [free agent] contracts, I’m glad we didn’t sign some of them. It’s a question of how you spend the money, not the amount you spend. It’s taken a while to get to this point, but we’ve got just about every position locked up with young players. These guys [Littlefield and Tracy] think we can win with what we have.”

So, I suppose it’s time to examine the opposition. Can the Pirates put an end to a miserable losing streak? The other five squads in the NL Central will have a tremendous impact on our performance: If this is to be the year we break .500, we’ll have to beat the teams in our division. In Part 1 of “Climbing Out of the Canyon,” I’m taking a look at the World Champion St. Louis Cardinals to see if that’s possible.
Tony La Russa managed the Cards to an 83-78 record in 2006, making them the most thoroughly mediocre team to ever win the World Series. Their core was solid, though, and they’ve made the following additions and subtractions this offseason (according to the ESPN Hot Stove Index) with less than a month to go before Spring Training:
ADD: Ryan Franklin, SP/RP; Adam Kennedy, 2B; Russ Springer, RP; Kip Wells, SP
DROP: Jason Marquis, SP; Jorge Sosa, RP; Jeff Suppan, SP
Ron Belliard, Jose Vizcaino, Jeff Weaver and Preston Wilson are still free agents, but none figure to be re-signed. Lump them in with the rest of the drops.
The Cardinals’ lineup runs directly through the ferocious bat of Albert Pujols. He’s complemented by aging veterans, Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds. Chris Duncan and Juan Encarnacion should fight for playing time in the outfield with John Rodriguez and So Taguchi. A guess at the starting nine heading into ’07:

  1. Eckstein, SS
  2. Kennedy, 2B
  3. Pujols, 1B
  4. Rolen, 3B
  5. Edmonds, CF
  6. Encarnacion, RF
  7. Rodriguez, LF
  8. Molina, C
  9. Carpenter, P

Not an awful lineup, but question marks do exist. Rolen and Edmonds need to stay healthy to provide protection for Pujols. The middle of the diamond is strong defensively, but Molina, Eckstein and Kennedy are light hitters.
Free agency obliterated St. Louis’ pitching staff. Gone are Weaver and Suppan, crucial contributors to the playoff push, and Jason Marquis, who managed to win 14 games despite a 6.02 ERA. The enigmatic Kip Wells will battle Anthony Reyes for the spot behind ace Chris Carpenter. Some mix of Adam Wainwright, Braden Looper and Brad Thompson will fill out the back end of the rotation until Mark Mulder is healthy. Springer was a nice pickup for the bullpen, but his presence won’t mean much if the oft-injured Jason Isringhausen isn’t available to close games.
If the Cards flop in 2007, the blame can be placed squarely on the shoulders of General Manager Walt Jocketty. The Cards enter the season with Carpenter and Wain’ and pray for rain. I can’t remember the last time a team counted on so many relief pitchers to contribute as starters. It’s gone the other way–Dustin Hermanson, John Smoltz, Jon Papelbon, etc.–but rarely can a staff full of long relievers contribute division-winning appearances. Jocketty knew his rotation was in shambles and passed on all of the significant starters on the market; perhaps he knows something we don’t.
This version of the Cardinals doesn’t seem to be as strong as the one from 2006 which limped its way to an average record. If Jocketty acquires a starter–maybe Steve Trachsel, or a journeyman via a trade–then St. Louis might be able to make a push. So far, it seems as if the Pirates have a chance. We’ll see if that trend continues as I examine the Houston Astros in “Climbing Out of the Canyon – Part 2.”

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  • nicolas

    you’re mostly right, cory. just a couple notes:
    there probably won’t be a battle. reyes and wells will likely be in the rotation until they pitch themselves out of it. (so my guess…carp, reyes, wells, wain, ?)
    they aren’t filling the rotation with relievers, wainwright and thompson were just like jon papelbon in boston, aka they were going to be starters all along, they were just brought up as relievers to gradually work themselves in, and they’ll join the rotation now that there is room.
    if you believe what the scouts and fans would tell you, that first four has the *cough* potential to be reasonably impressive.

  • Cory Humes

    Time to nitpick the nitpicker, Nicolas.
    I said Carpenter will certainly be #1. That’s easy.
    Then, the battle is for #2–either Wells or Reyes.
    The other is at #3, without a doubt–at least until Mulder is healthy.
    Then comes the mix of Wainwright (who, you’re right, was a starter in AAA) and the relievers. Thompson hasn’t been a regular starter since 2004–and went an entire season without a start before getting some AAA work in ’06. Think of him as a Marty McLeary type. Looper hasn’t started since Single A ball–a decade. If Wainwright is needed as a closer again (should Isringhausen not recover well from injury), then the #4-5 starters will be career relievers.
    That is not impressive. The overwhelming majority of what I’ve read has guessed Reyes will struggle and Wells will be his typical average self. On the Pirates, both would be a fifth starter.
    In short: This is not Carpenter, Suppan, Weaver, Marquis, Mulder, Reyes. The Cards’ staff is, at best, mediocre. I can’t believe that Jocketty didn’t do more to improve his rotation this off-season.

  • Pittsburgh Lumber Co. | MVN – Most Valuable Network » Blog Archive » Climbing Out of the

    […] On Saturday, I started the Climbing Out of the Canyon series with Part 1, which previewed the 2007 Cardinals.  Continuing on down the ‘06 final standings, I’m ready for Part 2 and the Houston Astros. […]

  • Pittsburgh Lumber Co. | MVN – Most Valuable Network » Blog Archive » Climbing Out of the

    […] Onward we go in the series of season previews of the NL Central’s teams.  Part 1 covered the World Champion St. Louis Cardinals, and Part 2 went over the Astros.  Journeying down the 2006 standings, we next come to the Cincinnati Reds as I attempt to find out if 2007 will be the year that the Pirates’ 14-year-long losing streak is snapped. […]

  • Pittsburgh Lumber Co. | MVN – Most Valuable Network » Blog Archive » Climbing Out of the

    […] Finally we come to the first improved team in the NL Central as I continue to preview the 2007 division. St. Louis (Part 1), Houston (Part 2) and Cincinnati (Part 3) failed to impress me–it seems as if an overachieving Pirates squad could hang with those teams. Milwaukee, however, is a different story. […]

  • Pittsburgh Lumber Co. | MVN – Most Valuable Network » Blog Archive » Climbing Out of the

    […] The Cubs are the last team left in my 2007 preview of the NL Central. St. Louis (Part 1), Houston (Part 2) and Cincinnati (Part 3) failed to impress me–it seems as if an overachieving Pirates squad could hang with those teams. Milwaukee (Part 4) was a different story; they got better in the off-season. And Chicago? […]

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