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:
- Eckstein, SS
- Kennedy, 2B
- Pujols, 1B
- Rolen, 3B
- Edmonds, CF
- Encarnacion, RF
- Rodriguez, LF
- Molina, C
- 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.”