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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Angel Hernandez ejects Asdrubal Cabrera from a spring training game

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You don’t see many ejections in spring training games. The stakes are virtually non-existent, so it’s not like a player is likely to blow up at a bad call or something. That’s especially true now, as we enter spring training’s final week. Everyone wants to get through it uninjured and without fuss. And it’s getting hot in Florida in Arizona too. No one’s got time for that.

Yesterday Asdrubal Cabrera and Angel Hernandez did, though. Cabrera was batting in a road game against the Nats. He asked for time to step out of the box. Hernandez didn’t give it to him. This annoyed Cabrera who, after hitting a single, jawed at Hernandez as he ran out of the box and then pointed at him once he reached first base. Hernandez ran him.

Cabrera didn’t quickly leave the field. He took a slow, slow walk to the outfield and left via the gate in right, which is where visiting players tend to enter and leave spring parks. Watch:

 

Here’s what Cabrera told reporters after the game:

“‘C’mon, man, you’re better than that,’ ” Cabrera said, recalling what he yelled at Hernandez. “And he threw me out.”

Eh. I have no love for Angel Hernandez, but “you’re better than that” is a weak sauce insult. For one thing, maybe the person isn’t better than that? For another, it’s functionally equivalent to “you know better,” which is a thing a parent says to a kid. It’s fine when your dad says it, but Cabrera isn’t Hernandez’s dad and thus saying so carries with it an implicit belittling intent. It’s an ad hominem, which violates the usual ump-player understanding in which you can say a call was b.s. but don’t say the ump is a jerk personally.

More generally, it’s just cowardly. It’s designed not to deal with the substance of the beef. “You are a fine person all of the time, kind sir, but in this instance you are not up to par.” Well, why? Say so or shut up and quit being passive-aggressive.

Again: Hernandez is generally horrible. He’s not better than that, actually. But Cabrera deserved to get run, if for no other reason, than his insult was lame.

Report: Jung-Ho Kang not granted a visa to enter the United States

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This could be a problem for the Pirates.

Ballwriter Sung Min Kim tweets that, according to a Korean report, which you can read here if you know Korean, Pirates infielder Jung-Ho Kang has been denied a visa to enter the United States. The report just broke this morning and has yet to hit the English language press.

He adds that the report suggests that Kang, who was just convicted of a third DUI in Korea, may have a DUI conviction in a third country, though that part is unconfirmed. It’s also unclear whether that, or the mere fact of his conviction in Korea, has held up his visa.

Either way, Kang has yet to see a day of camp and will almost certainly not be ready to start the season for the Pirates, even if he gets his visa today. It sounds, however, like this could be a more drawn out process. We’ll stay tuned.