Springtime Storylines: Is Albert Pujols' supporting cast good enough to help him win it all?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30
teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally
breaking down their chances for the 2010 season.  Next up: The Cardinals


The
big question: Is Albert Pujols’ supporting cast good enough to help him win it all?

This isn’t exactly a “big” question as much as it is the question that has been asked every single year of Pujols’ career and must be asked until he retires and joins baseball Valhalla.  That’s just the way it goes with this guy on your roster: you don’t obsess on the piece-by-piece of it all. You start with the assumption that the team is a strong contender because of Pujols and ask how strong. Cardinals fans probably have a better grasp of the nuances of this annual parlor game than I do, but from where I’m sitting it seems like a strong enough supporting cast to easily give them the division and to make a bit more noise in the postseason than they did last year.

I love the addition of Felipe Lopez. I was lukewarm on the Brad Penny signing when it happened, but smarter people than me convinced me that I was being a too pessimistic. He beats John Smoltz at any rate and will help take some of the sting away from the loss of Joel Pinero. None of the departures apart from Joel Piniero are huge losses and many (e.g. Rick Ankiel, Todd Wellemeyer) represent addition by subtraction.  Several of the returning guys — Yadier Molina, Colby Rasmus, Ryan Ludwick and Brendan Ryan — can reasonably expect to be better in 2010 than they were in 2009.

The Cardinals weren’t terribly busy this winter as most of their time was spent re-signing Matt Holliday, but no other NL Central team did much to improve itself.  Between that, the strong rotation and Mr. Pujols anchoring things, the Cardinals are the closest thing to a lock there is to win their division in all of baseball.

So what
else is
going on?

  • He never fully answered all of the questions about his bad judgment, nor did he truly answer for it. His influence and example will clearly make it difficult for parents in St. Louis to explain things to their kids. He doesn’t play for the team, but his presence will create a distraction. The question is: can the Cardinals get past the fact that their manager was arrested for DUI?  Oh, you thought I was talking about the McGwire business? Jeez, that shouldn’t matter at all. It’s not like McGwire’s behavior in the 90s could have killed innocent people like La Russa could have in 2007. And he’s only the hitting coach for cryin’ out loud. This is a non-issue.
  • Above optimism notwithstanding, the rotation will take a step back. Carpenter and Wainwright are great and all, but not too many pitchers are that good year-in, year-out, so some falloff should be expected. Kyle Lohse should be a bit better. Whatever happens, I think the Cards have enough pitching.   

  • The contract. Negotiations for the Pujols extension are on hold until next fall, but the notion that the Cardinals aren’t going to eventually extend Pujols seems ludicrous to me. Prediction: the only people who make a lot of fuss over it this season will be visiting writers who are told that they must by their editors. Now, if we get to this time in 2011 and it’s still unresolved, OK, maybe it will be time to panic.
  • The bullpen should be sturdy and workmanlike. Ryan Franklin was kinda ugly late in the season and in the playoffs, but he leads a balanced bullpen with guys like Mitchell Boggs, Kyle McClellan and Blake Hawksworth, all of whom should be reliable even if they’re not spectacular. 

So
how
are they gonna do?

With Albert Pujols, a couple of Cy Young candidates, Matt Holliday and the best defensive catcher in the National League, the job of the pen, the bench and the role players is not to to shine. It’s to provide simple competence and the ability to rise to the occasion from time to time. This group seems capable of that, with nary a black hole on the roster. La Russa is still about the best manager in the game and he’ll usually get the best out of otherwise ordinary players. Between that and the fact that none of the other NL Central teams look at all like contenders, the division should easily win the division.

Prediction: First place NL Central. The real challenge starts when they meet the Phillies, Braves and either the Dodgers or the Rockies (I haven’t decided yet) in the playoffs.

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Are the current Collective Bargaining Agreement talks too friendly?

Scott Boras
Associated Press
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Baseball’s current collective bargaining agreement expires on December 1. There have been comments from both commissioner Rob Manfred and MLBPA director Tony Clark suggesting that progress was being made and there has been no suggestion thus far that there are sticking points which could lead to a work stoppage. Heck, even a few acrimonious rounds of negotiation before it’s all said and done seem unlikely.

That’s good news for fans, but it’s not making certain agents happy. Smooth labor sailing likely means a new CBA that is pretty close in most terms to the current CBA. Agents — especially agents who represent veterans — don’t like that because they believe that the current rules regarding free agency, draft pick compensation, luxury taxes and qualifying offers penalize the players they represent. Today Ken Rosenthal has a story about that anger, talking to both anonymous agents and super agent Scott Boras about how baseball’s middle class is disappearing and baseball’s median salary goes lower and lower.

Major League Baseball counters that while the median salary is going down, the average salary is going up. And baseball is right about that. But it’s also the case that the average is propped up by a handful of superstar contracts while the somewhat less lucrative but still nice mid-level contracts for mid-level veterans are disappearing. The financial landscape of the game is morphing into one with a small upper class with nine-figure contracts and a large lower class of pre-arbitration players and veterans on shorter, smaller deals, squeezing the old veteran middle class out of existence.

Sound familiar?

Baseball, of course, is not the American economy. There are some good reasons why those mid-level contracts have gone away. Specifically, because they tended not to be very good deals for the teams who signed them. At the same time, baseball is far better able to tweak its rules to spread the wealth than the U.S. government can, and those rules — like the qualifying offer and luxury tax — have had a harsh impact on a lot of players.

There’s not a clear answer on what the best system is for free agents, draft pick compensation, draft bonus pools and the like actually is. I tend to favor the fewest restrictions on a player’s right to negotiate freely with teams, but I’ll also acknowledge that there is a less than perfect market at play in baseball given revenue disparities between teams and the need to maximize, within reason, competitive balance. It’s not an easy trick even before you get into the B.S. team owners tend to spew about pocketbook matters.

But it’s also the case that an all-too-friendly relationship between the union and the league — one in which a given set of rules is rubberstamped from CBA to CBA — is not an ideal situation. No one wants acrimony, but the fact is that the players and the union are slicing up a pie. If the person you’re slicing up a pie with is all-too-happy to keep slicing it the same way, it probably means that they’re getting a bigger piece than you. Maybe, if it’s your job to grab a bigger piece?

The agents Rosenthal talked to, who represent a good chunk of MLBPA membership, certainly think the union should be doing some more grabbing. I wonder if their clients do too.

Four baseballs autographed by Jose Fernandez wash ashore

MIAMI, FL - AUGUST 03: Jose Fernandez #16 of the Miami Marlins looks on during a game against the New York Mets at Marlins Park on August 3, 2015 in Miami, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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This is just . . . ugh.

WSVN-TV in Miami reports that a black bag containing Jose Fernandez’s checkbook and four baseballs signed by him washed ashore on Miami Beach. Probably a bag to keep stuff dry while out on the water.

The bag was given to a lifeguard. Hopefully the bag finds its way back to Fernandez’s family quickly.