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

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. 

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.

here for other Springtime Storylines

The Cubs clinch World Series berth with NLCS Game 6 win

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 22:  The Chicago Cubs celebrate defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers 5-0 in game six of the National League Championship Series to advance to the World Series against the Cleveland Indians at Wrigley Field on October 22, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
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After 71 years, the Cubs are headed back to the Fall Classic.

The dominance with which Clayton Kershaw attacked the Cubs in Game 2 of the NLCS was nonexistent in Game 6 as the Dodgers’ ace loaded the bases to start the first inning and scattered five extra bases and five runs over five frames. By the time Dave Roberts pulled his starter in the sixth inning, Kershaw was sitting on a Game Score of 33, the lowest he’s mustered since the start of the 2015 season. Only one of his strikes came via curveball, and whether he was having difficulty locating his off-speed stuff or felt more confident with the fastball-slider combo, it was the fewest curves he’d seen land for strikes all year (per David Adler).

Where the Dodgers were able to give Kershaw the edge in Game 2, they found themselves powerless against opposing hurler Kyle Hendricks. Hendricks turned out 7 1/3 scoreless frames with two hits and six strikeouts, preserving the Cubs’ second shutout of the postseason and the first since they bested the Giants in Game 1 of the NLDS. After his 1-0 loss to the Dodgers early in the NLCS, seeing the MLB ERA leader turn out a gem was a relief for the Cubs, especially one as spectacular as an 88-pitch two-hitter.

With Hendricks effectively stymieing the Dodgers’ best attempts to get on base, the Cubs played to their strengths at the plate. Kris Bryant and Ben Zobrist cleared the bases in the first inning for a two-run lead, followed by a Dexter Fowler RBI single in the second. Willson Contreras came through in the fourth inning for the Cubs, lifting an 87 m.p.h. slider to left field for his first home run of October, while Anthony Rizzo hit his second homer of the postseason on a 1-1 fastball in the fifth.

Neither bullpen allowed a single run from the sixth inning onward. Dodgers’ right-hander Kenley Jansen took the ball from Kershaw in the sixth, scattering four strikeouts over three innings and denying the Cubs so much as a single baserunner through the end of the game. Aroldis Chapman, meanwhile, issued just one walk in 1 1/3 scoreless frames, inducing a Yasiel Puig double play to clinch the Cubs’ 17th franchise pennant.

With the win, the Cubs will face off against the Indians in Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday at 8 PM EDT. And, in case you needed a reminder:

Video: Willson Contreras blasts first postseason home run off of Kershaw

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 22:  Willson Contreras #40 of the Chicago Cubs celebrates after hitting a solo home run in the fourth inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers during game six of the National League Championship Series at Wrigley Field on October 22, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Getty Images

So much for Clayton Kershaw posing a threat tonight. The Cubs got their knocks in early and often against the Dodgers’ ace during Game 6 of the NLCS, racking up three runs in the first three innings before rookie catcher Willson Contreras unleashed his first postseason home run in the bottom of the fourth inning.

According to MLB.com’s Phil Rogers, Contreras became the 10th Cub to homer in the 2016 playoffs, following big hits by Addison Russell, Anthony Rizzo, Dexter Fowler, Miguel Montero, David Ross, Jake Arrieta, Kris Bryant, Travis Wood, and Javier Baez. Of the ten home run hitters, Contreras joins catchers David Ross and Miguel Montero as yet another backstop capable of driving the long ball (and, less importantly, as another player capable of a sweet, sweet bat flip).

Rizzo, whose last homer was a deep drive to right field off of Los Angeles right-hander Pedro Baez in Game 4 of the NLCS, piled on Kershaw’s five-run outing with another home run in the bottom of the fifth inning. Kershaw called it a night after five frames, and the Cubs currently lead the Dodgers 5-0 in the sixth inning.