Waiting for Cardinals to make a move? Don't hold your breath
MAY 20, 2014 8:00a ET
A National League executive summed up the “problems” facing Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak rather nicely.
“Mo realizes he has more talent than anyone else -- and he’s reluctant to get rid of it,” the exec said.
Indeed, why should the Cardinals rush to do anything?
The Brewers are 7-11 since their 20-7 start. The Cardinals have won five of seven, averaging nearly five runs per game. And the non-waiver trade deadline is more than 10 weeks away.
Yes, the Cardinals’ offense has been a disappointment, but that was to be expected. The team was not again going to hit .330 with runners in scoring position. And the loss of right fielder Carlos Beltran, who had an .830 OPS last season, was bound to hurt.
So here are the Cardinals, 3½ games out of first place, knowing certain things will only get better: Matt Holliday’s home-run total (two), Allen Craig’s on-base percentage (.281) and Matt Carpenter’s slugging percentage (.324), among them.
Here are the Cardinals, sitting on two second basemen, two center fielders and three outfield prospects at Triple A, not to mention enviable pitching depth.
Their best course: Stay disciplined.
Keep playing. Identify any weaknesses. Then adjust.
The Pirates are struggling, in part due to a sagging offense. The Cardinals, on the other hand, would like to see Peter Bourjos hit well enough to justify keeping his elite defense in center, and have Holliday and Craig entrenched on the corners. If they eventually need Taveras -- or Randal Grichuk, or Stephen Piscotty -- they can go get him.
My friend, Bernie Miklasz, has written in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about making room for Taveras in right by platooning Craig and Matt Adams at first. Makes sense for Adams, who is batting .143 with a .367 OPS against lefties. But Craig? A platoon player? Not yet. No way.
Once the Cardinals’ slumping hitters ignite, any offensive deficiencies in center and at second base will be less glaring. Bourjos actually has hit better in the last two weeks. Second baseman Kolten Wong already is 5-for-11 since returning from the minors. The problems might not even be problems, when all is said and done.
No team can match the Cardinals’ depth -- depth that will prove invaluable in the event of injury, depth that will enable Mozeliak to make any trade he deems necessary.
The GM with the most talent holds the upper hand.
AL EAST OR AL LEAST?
Get this: The five AL East teams are a combined 10 games under .500 at home.
“Our problems are holding us back,” Yankees GM Brian Cashman said. “Other peoples’ problems are holding them back, too.”
The Yankees’ problems, like the Rays’, are rooted in injuries. The Red Sox’s offense is down more than a run per game from last season. The Jays’ bullpen is next-to-last in the AL in ERA. The Orioles are dealing with an underperforming offense, mediocre rotation and unsettled closer’s role -- and from May 6 to 17, they held at least a share of first place.
So much will change over the coming weeks -- injured players will return, healthy players will get injured, prospects will be promoted, teams will make trades.
Which leads us to ...
SOME CLOSER LOOKS
*The Rays, according to the internal metrics of at least two clubs, are better than their 19-26 record would indicate.
The high opponents’ batting averages on balls in play against three of their top starters -- Chris Archer .327, David Price .351, Jake Odorizzi .362 -- demonstrates that at least part of the team’s problem is poor luck.
Price’s home-run rate also seems flukishly high -- it’s nearly twice as high as his rate the previous four seasons. And remember, injured righties Alex Cobb and Jeremy Hellickson will return reasonably soon.
*The Blue Jays shrewdly are trying to extract as much offense as they can out of Juan Francisco while he stays hot, starting Brett Lawrie at second against certain right-handers so they can use Francisco at third.
What happens if Francisco reverts to his low on-base ways? The Jays would keep trying to patch together second base, but their offense is so strong, they could accept one under-performing spot in the lineup.
“The bigger issue is getting the rotation to click,” one club official said.
The emergence of righty Dellin Betances could enable the Yankees to move righty Adam Warren to the rotation, if necessary, once Kelley returns to his setup role.
The Yankees also have four right-handed relievers throwing 94 mph or more at Triple A -- Diego Moreno, Jose Ramirez, Danny Burawa and Branden Pinder. One or more of them may contribute this season.
A trade? Sure, the Yankees will look, and they can take on a big salary now that they’ve abandoned their plan to be under the $189 million luxury-tax threshold.
Still, the days of salary dumps are largely over. Even the Phillies would want a decent return for their pricey left-hander, Cliff Lee. The Yankees have little other than high-end catching to offer, and they will be bidding against at least two other AL East teams, the Orioles and Blue Jays, for rotation help.
Defensive shifts continue to be a hot topic in major-league clubhouses, and two coaches -- the Marlins’ Perry Hill and Pirates’ Nick Leyva -- made the same point to me last week:
The most useful data shows where hitters hit the highest percentage of grounders against a team’s own pitchers, not another club’s.
Hill, for example, said that information on how hitters fare against soft tossers is of little relevance to the Marlins, whose rotation includes a number of hard throwers.
Leyva, meanwhile, said that one reason the Pirates have increased their number of shifts is because they now have more data on what hitters do against pitchers such as Francisco Liriano, Charlie Morton and Gerrit Cole.
The Pirates integrate their statistical analysis as well as any club -- one of their analysts, either Dan Fox or Mike Fitzgerald, even travels with the team on the road.
PORCELLO: THE TIGERS’ INVSIBLE MAN
Tigers right-hander Rick Porcello doesn’t receive as much attention as fellow righties Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez. But if Porcello keeps up this pace, he no longer will be viewed as the team’s fourth Beatle, its Ringo Starr.
Porcello, 25, ranks 12th in the AL in ERA and 17th in fielding independent pitching. His strikeout rate is the sixth lowest of any AL starter, but his walk rate is the fourth best.
Perhaps Porcello is due for regression -- his .266 opponents’ batting average on balls in play is well below the league average, which generally ranges from .290 to .310. But he also is benefiting from the Tigers’ improved defense -- the team ranks ninth in the majors in defensive efficiency, up from 27th last season.
“He has become a much more complete pitcher,” Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski said. “At times in the past, he didn’t have much of a breaking ball. Early in his career, he was fastball-changeup.
“It really looks like he has a grasp of pitching. He has turned into a pitcher”
“Now, not only is he throwing one breaking ball, he’s throwing two -- a curveball and a slider. He’s throwing four pitches, and throwing them for strikes. He’s not overpowering, more of a sinkerballer. But it really looks like he has a grasp of pitching. He has turned into a pitcher.”
The breakdown of Porcello’s pitch selection, per Fangraphs, reveals the most even distribution of his career. He is throwing 32 percent four-seam fastballs, 27 percent two-seamers, 15 percent curveballs, 13 percent sliders and 12 percent changeups.
PIRATES’ SANCHEZ MAKING PROGRESS
The biggest issue for Sanchez is his throwing, which has been a concern ever since the Pirates made him the fourth overall pick of the 2009 draft.
Opposing base stealers are 17-for-19 (89.5 percent) against Sanchez this season, compared to 10-for-14 off Martin (71.4 percent) and 11-for-15 off Chris Stewart (73.3 percent). Sanchez also struggles occasionally throwing to first and third.
“His blocking is phenomenal,” Martin said. “He needs to keep working on his throwing, the consistency of it, repeating his mechanics -- kind of like a pitcher does. It comes from repetition.”
And Sanchez is trying.
“I’m out on the field with (bench coach) Jeff Banister early four times a week at least,” Sanchez said. “I’m tackling it head-on.
“A lot of it is mechanical. Some of it is mental. I’ve been working on it basically since I got drafted. I’ve come a long way. It has made me the man I am today. I will continue to get better. That’s all you can do.”
Go figure: The Twins are .500 even though they rank 28th in the majors in rotation ERA, last in strikeouts per nine innings and 21st in defensive efficiency.
True, they are seventh in runs despite left fielder Josh Willingham appearing in only six games. But the team’s overall record appears to be something of a mirage, considering that its run differential is minus-13.
The question now is whether the Twins’ pitching will continue to improve - the team ERA was 5.02 in April and it’s 4.12 in May. Catcher Kurt Suzuki said the chilly spring temperatures contributed to the Twins’ early problems, saying, “I hate excuses, but the cold weather hasn’t been helpful -- it has been tough to grip the ball.”
Suzuki, in his first season with the Twins, said he has been particularly impressed by Brian Dozier, who is 13th in the AL with an .853 OPS, and shortstop Eduardo Escobar, who also is off to a strong offensive start.
“Dozier is a gamer,” Suzuki said. “He plays the game the right way, has good pop. In my opinion, he should be talked about as one of the best second basemen in baseball. Escobar has played awesome, too -- sneaky pop! Also, our team chemistry is great. It’s a fun clubhouse.
“We could surprise this year. We’ll see.”
HOW THE YANKEES FOUND PHELPS
I love a good draft story, and I told this one during our Fox Sports 1 broadcast of the Pirates-Yankees game on Saturday:
David Phelps wasn’t the best pitcher taken by the Yankees in the 2008 draft -- no, that would be Gerrit Cole, who the team selected in the first round but did not sign.
While the Yankees had good reports on Phelps at Notre Dame from area scout Mike Gibbons, the righty was not their priority when scouting director Damon Oppenheimer went to see Notre Dame play at South Florida.
Oppenheimer was looking at reliever Kyle Wieland, who eventually went to the Red Sox in the third round. Phelps won over Oppenheimer with his competitiveness, and the Yankees grabbed him in the 14th round, in what proved to be a steal.
AROUND THE HORN
*The raves around the league for Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy are almost universal. Lucroy, though, is unlikely to make the All-Star team ahead of the Cardinals’ Yadier Molina and Giants’ Buster Posey (and the Marlins’ Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Diamondbacks’ Miguel Montero also are putting up big offensive numbers).
Might be a year for the NL to carry three catchers.
*Good news for the Brewers if they need a starter: Right-hander Jimmy Nelson has produced nine straight quality starts and a 1.71 ERA at Triple A, and righty Mike Fiers also has been impressive, with a 2.01 ERA, 72 strikeouts and seven walks in his first eight starts.
Fiers, who turns 29 next month, had a trying 2013 campaign. A line drive broke his pitching arm on June 15, and his mother, Linda, died in August from severe complications associated with the autoimmune disease lupus. She was 54.
*I asked Braves general manager Frank Wren what he has learned about right-hander Ervin Santana that he didn’t know before signing him to a one-year, $14 million free-agent contract.
“He has tremendous makeup -- makeup off the charts,” Wren said of Santana, who has a 2.46 ERA in seven starts. “He’s a competitor, the kind of guy you want on your team and that you win with.
“He knows his craft. He’s not out there just flinging it. He knows what he wants to accomplish, what he wants to do. There are a lot of positives seeing him up close.”
*The Phillies are talking internally about moving Cody Asche from third base to the outfield next season -- a move that would clear third for top prospect Maikel Franco, who currently is at Triple A.
Asche, a left-handed batting .259 with four homers and a .789 OPS, has impressed the Phillies offensively, and the team’s outfielders rank a combined 26th in the majors in OPS.
In the optimistic view, Asche could develop into the Phils’ version of Alex Gordon, whom the Royals moved from third base to the outfield full-time after his fourth season.
*Speaking of the Phillies, their lack of right-handed relief often requires lefties Jake Diekman and Mario Hollands to face middle-of-the-order right-handed hitters, with predictable results.
Only the Red Sox have used more lefties against right-handed hitters in the 3-4-5 spots, and the Phillies’ results -- a .326 opponents’ batting average in 51 plate appearances -- have been far worse.
Diekman and Hollands have combined to face 30 right-handed 3-4-5 hitters, yielding a .333 opponents’ batting average and 1.058 OPS.
*The Indians entered Monday on pace for 165 errors, which would be the most for the club since 1945. The advanced metrics weren’t any kinder -- the team ranked 26th in defensive efficiency, ahead of only the Nationals, Blue Jays, Red Sox and Rangers.
Club officials view the problem as a team-wide issue, more mental than physical at this point. Sixteen different Indians have made errors, led by catcher Yan Gomes with nine.
*This year’s draft includes few quality college shortstops, which could be one reason why North Carolina State’s Trea Turner is said to be drawing interest from teams selecting between sixth and 10th in the first round -- the Mariners at No. 6 and the Mets at No. 10 both have needs at short.
Some teams question whether Turner deserves to be picked that high, and whether he will remain at short. His numbers, though, are good: Turner leads the ACC in runs and is second in home runs and stolen bases. He also leads Div. I in base-running runs over the past three years and is second in defensive runs saved at short the past two, according to collegesplits.com.
*Pirates manager Clint Hurdle had a funny line Saturday in his pre-game meeting with the Fox broadcasters, talking about right-hander Edinson Volquez’s home-road splits.
Volquez, Hurdle noted, has bounced around -- the Pirates are his fifth club and fourth in four seasons.
“Where’s his home?” Hurdle asked.
*And finally, heartfelt best wishes to umpire John Hirschbeck, who recently lost his son Michael and is now recovering from knee surgery. John not only is a fine umpire, but also one of the finest people in the sport.