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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And That Happened: Sunday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Reds 7, Cubs 5:  I realize anything can happen in any given game, but I’m not sure that “40-year-old soft-tosser two years removed from baseball due to all kinds of elbow problems will allow only two runs on three hits over six innings against the World Series champs” would be a bet I would’ve made before the season. That’s what Bronson Arroyo did, though. And get this quote from Miguel Montero:

“He’s a tough pitcher to face. Obviously he’s throwing below hitting speed right now.”

Slowness: the new inefficiency. Montero is obviously joking here, but sometimes I wonder if we’ll see something of a junkball revolution some day soon. Pitchers are ahead of the hitters for the most part these days due to all the hard stuff they throw. Makes you wonder if hitters adjusting to that won’t create a little bit of daylight for some crafty dudes to come in and flummox people.

Astros 6, Rays 4: Tampa Bay jumped out to a 4-0 lead in the first inning. It would be the only runs the Rays would score, however, and the Astros clawed back. Evan Gattis tied it in the ninth with a sac fly and then Brian McCann and Yuli Gurriel each hit RBI singles.

Red Sox 6, Orioles 2: Boston jumped out to a 4-0 lead in the first inning but the Orioles did not claw back. Obviously the game’s outcome was secondary to the storyline that began with Manny Machado‘s hard slide on Friday that hurt Dustin Pedroia and continued with Matt Barnes throwing a ball at Machado’s head here. That’s dumb, but it may be that the post-attempted-beanball was less dumb than the postgame chatter. First Pedroia apologizes to Machado on the field by saying “it’s not me,” which, OK, cool. But then after the game he says this:

“I had nothing to do with that. That’s not how you do that, man,” Pedroia said afterward. “I’m sorry to him and his team. If you’re going to protect guys, you do it right away.”

Does that mean that the problem to Pedroia, for which he apologized, was not that someone threw at Machado’s head, but that someone threw at Machado’s head on Sunday instead of on Friday or Saturday? I dunno. Still, that’s not as dumb as this:

Good to see we’re about to enter a new, era of unwritten rules and clubhouse politics. The “veterans are responsible for controlling relief pitchers” rule. I fully expect someone to get on Chris Davis or whoever now for not controlling Britton and keeping him from commenting on the dynamics of another team’s clubhouse. Because this idiocy never ends.

Phillies 5, Braves 2: It was tied 1-1 in the bottom of the eighth when Cesar Hernandez, Aaron Altherr and Odubel Herrera hit back-to-back-to-back homers. The first two came off of Arodys Vizcaino, the third off of Ian Krol. The Phillies sweep the Braves and win their fourth in a row overall. They’re 9-9 after 18 games. Which is the first time they’ve done that since . . . last year, when they were 9-9 after 18 games.

Pirates 2, Yankees 1: Ivan Nova outdueled Jordan Montgomery, allowing only one run on four hits over seven innings. He also, somehow, walked Montgomery, who had not batted in a game since he was in high school six years ago. It was Nova’s first walk issued all season.

White Sox 6, Indians 4: The Sox snap a three game skid thanks to a strong outing from Derek Holland and a few runs for a change. Cleveland had blanked them on Friday and Saturday, holding them to a total of six hits in those two games. Here Melky Cabrera drove in a couple. The Indians’ five-game winning streak ended.

Cardinals 6, Brewers 4: Mike Leake scored a run in the third inning and hit a two-run single with the bases loaded in a 2-2 game in the fourth. Oh, he pitched too, allowing two runs over six.

Tigers 13, Twins 4: The good news: Chris Gimenez didn’t allow any runs in his outing today. The bad news: Chris Gimenez is the Twins’ backup catcher, and when your backup catcher is pitching, something has gone wrong. Here what went wrong was Kyle Gibson allowing seven runs on eight hits before the third inning was even over. John Hicks, filling in for the injured Miguel Cabrera at first base, hit a three-run homer and a two run single. Just about everyone on the Tigers had a good day as they scored 13 runs on 13 hits. Tyler Collins went 0-for-5, though, which has to feel weird. Andrew Romine flew out to center against Gimenez, which has to feel weirder.

Rangers 5, Royals 2: The Rangers complete a four-game sweep of Kansas City behind eight strong innings from Yu Darvish. It was Darvish’s longest outing since elbow surgery two years ago. Homers from Joey Gallo and Robinson Chirinros.

Rockies 8, Giants 0: The Rockies swept the Giants in Coors for the first time in 15 years. Baseball seasons are long and a lot of stuff happens, but one feels like the Giants’ entire season went into the crapper the second their plane landed in Denver on Wednesday night. Since then they lost their ace for an extended period to a minibike accident and then they got outscored by the Rockies 26-8 in this series. That’s four losses in a row for San Francisco, and six losses in their last seven games.

Blue Jays 6, Angels 2: Marcus Stroman tosses a complete game, allowing two runs on seven hits. Devon Travis hit a go-ahead, two-run homer during a four-run eighth inning. Jays manager John Gibbons got ejected after Stroman was called for an illegal quick pitch and batter Kole Calhoun was awarded first base. That’s not a call you see every day.

Mariners 11, Athletics 1: Nelson Cruz homered an drove in five and Yovani Gallardo got his first win as a Mariner. Taylor Motter hit a grand slam. I’m angry that Motter played on Saturday too, though, because if he had had the day off I totally would’ve written “Welcome Back, Motter.” Now I can’t say such a hacky thing. Sigh.

Dodgers 6, Diamondbacks 2: L.A. avoids a three game sweep thanks to Brandon McCarthy‘s seven strong innings of work. The Dodgers scored all six of their runs in the fifth inning. That’s the inning Shelby Miller left due to tightness in his forearm, so they were likely facing some damaged goods, unfortunately. Two driven in a piece for Adrian Gonzalez and Yasmani Grandal, with the former doubling in two runs and the latter coming up next and driving in the former with a homer.

Marlins 7, Padres 3: Miami scored six runs in a single inning as well. That was the sixth, which was capped by a Justin Bour three-run homer. Up until that inning Padres’ starter Luis Perdomo had cruised. Then the first six Marlins batters reached in the sixth and it was Gas House Gorillas time:

Nationals 6, Mets 3: Daniel Murphy hit a grand slam against his old team. His career line against the Mets: .386/.421/.727, 8 homers and 25 RBI in 22 games. But I’m sure no one with the Mets or any Mets fans have taken the slightest bit of notice of that.

Hunter Pence appeared as guest on Bill Nye’s new show

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Bill Nye — yeah, “the science guy” — has a new show on Netflix called Bill Nye Saves the World. His show ties science to other areas such as politics, pop culture, and sports. Giants outfielder Hunter Pence was invited to appear as a guest.

Nye talked a bit about Pence and marveled at the dedication players must have to stay competitive in the sport. Nye called Pence “a cool guy” and “charming,” which is not surprising.