Mike Matheny, Chris Carpenter

Cardinals’ lack of action could be their undoing

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It’s hard to blame the Cardinals for staying the course. Even with free agents Kyle Lohse and Lance Berkman set to depart, St. Louis ended 2012 with a roster that already looked like a winner entering 2013:

Rotation: Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia, Lance Lynn, Jake Westbrook, Shelby Miller, Joe Kelly, Trevor Rosenthal

Bullpen: Jason Motte, Rosenthal, Edward Mujica, Fernando Salas, Mitchell Boggs, Kelly, Marc Rzepczynski, Eduardo Sanchez, Victor Marte

Lineup: CF Jon Jay, RF Carlos Beltran, LF Matt Holliday, 1B Allen Craig, C Yadier Molina, 3B David Freese, SS Rafael Furcal, 2B Matt Carpenter/Daniel Descalso

What did it make sense to do from there? Upgrade at second base? Perhaps, but it was probably the weakest position in free agency this winter. The Cardinals were rumored to have made a run at Marco Scutaro before he re-signed with the Giants.

Upgrade the rotation? Since the Cards seemed committed to Carpenter and Westbrook, that probably would have meant sending Lynn back to the bullpen and there simply weren’t many starters available in free agency that were better bets than Lynn and those few would have been expensive.

Adding to the bench should have been a priority, and the Cardinals did. Unfortunately, they did so with Ty Wigginton, a defensive liability no longer worthy of a roster spot. They also signed Ronny Cedeno as a shortstop fallback rather than trust an encore performance from late-season surprise Pete Kozma.

Besides those two, the only notable newcomer is lefty specialist Randy Choate.

That the Cardinals did so little might have been just fine if not for the events of the last month. Carpenter is expected to miss the season after his nerve problems returned with a vengeance. Miller, the early favorite to replace him in the rotation, is sidelined with shoulder tightness. And Furcal, the lineup’s biggest question mark, is still having problems with his throwing elbow.

The Cardinals are still fairly well protected in the rotation. Even if they have to dig down deeper as the season progresses, top prospects Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha could prove ready. Rosenthal should be a big weapon wherever he happens to be deployed.

The team is also very well set in the outfield, what with top prospect Oscar Taveras available to step in if Beltran goes down. The Cards can even put Craig back in a corner and call up power-hitting Matt Adams to play first base if needed.

The middle infield is a big issue, though, particularly in light of Furcal’s ill health. Ideally, Matt Carpenter will prove capable at second base and win the job there. However, if he can’t handle the defensive responsibilities, the Cards could be looking at spending big chunks of the season with the light-hitting Descalso covering one spot and Cedeno, Kozma and Ryan Jackson vying for the other.

At third base, Freese also has an extensive injury history, and while Carpenter is a fine fallback there, he can’t play second if he’s starting at the hot corner.

With spring training games having even yet to start, the Cardinals’ depth has been whittled away. If it stops now, the team is still in very good position, particularly since it should have plenty of flexibility to pull off in-season trades. Still, it’s fair to express disappointment that the team didn’t do better than Wigginton and Cedeno for the bench. A Scutaro to start at second or a Kelly Johnson to give added protection would look quite nice right now. The left-handed-hitting Eric Chavez would have made a lot more sense as a backup to two right-handed-hitting corner infielders than Wigginton does. Time will tell if those misfires come back to bite them.

Joe Blanton signs with the Nationals

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 07:  Joe Blanton #55 of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches in the sixth inning against the Colorado Rockies at Dodger Stadium on June 7, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)
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Jorge Castillo of the Washington Post reports that the Nationals have signed Joe Blanton to a one-year contract.

Surprised it took this long given that Blanton was excellent out of the pen for the Dodgers last year, posting a 2.48 ERA and 80/26 K/BB ratio over 80 innings. But even if it’s a late signing, it’s not a terrible one: Blanton will receive a $4 million salary and will have the chance to make an additional $1 million in performance bonuses. UPDATE: The salary structure is kind of odd. Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post reports that Blanton will get only $1 million in 2017, plus some incentives, and will have $1 million deferred to 2018 and $2 million deferred to 2019.

And he got two weeks off work. Bonus!

Baseball doesn’t need gimmicks to draw in young fans. It just needs to be baseball.

MESA, AZ - MARCH 6: Chicago Cubs ball and bat bags are seen prior to the game between the Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds on March 6, 2015 at Sloan Park in Mesa, Arizona. The Reds defeated the Cubs 5-2. (Photo by Rich Pilling/Getty Images)
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MESA, AZ — I didn’t set out to ask Robin Mitchell about pace of play, rules changes, how to best execute an intentional walk or how to turn kids into baseball fans. I was interviewing her about other stuff. She brought those topics up on her own.

“I heard them saying that they were not going to throw four pitches for intentional walks anymore,” Mitchell said. “I’d prefer that they throw the pitches because anything can happen. There can be wild pitches. And that’s the exciting part of baseball. That you don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t think we need to speed the game along.”

For most baseball fans such sentiments are tied up with a devotion to baseball purism, tradition or their distaste for change. But such is not the case for Mitchell. While the lifelong Chicago resident went to Cubs games as a child, baseball has not been a lifelong obsession. Rather, it’s something she has become reacquainted with via her two baseball-obsessed boys, Jake, 11, and Bennett, 9.

Mitchell and her boys live on the north side of Chicago and, over the past two years, her sons have developed a huge affinity for the Cubs, almost by osmosis. It was certainly a good time for it, as the Cubs have become winners, and Mitchell allows that since Jake and Bennett didn’t “have to suffer through some of the more challenging times,” their attraction to the game became easier. It’s clear to her, however, that they are not going to be fair weather fans.

“They love baseball,” she said, implying that it’s not just homerism for the current World Series champions at work. They love the sport itself and began to play it too. It’s not easy for Mitchell to say whether their playing led to their fandom or vice-versa. It all sort of happened at once, with each reinforcing the other.

I asked her what about baseball, specifically, appeals to them. What, at a time when Rob Manfred and everyone connected to the game is worried about the sport’s seeming inability to attract and hold on to young fans, keeps Mitchell’s sons engaged.

For them, it seems to be all about accessibility and engagement. Being in Chicago and living close to a park is important, as is having all of the games available on TV. Also important to them: appealing young stars.

“It helps that the Cubs have some really nice players who seem like really nice guys,” Mitchell said. “Sometimes we see them in the neighborhood even. Ben Zobrist. Anthony Rizzo. David Ross. Whenever we’ve seen them out or at an event they’re always kind and polite and give the boys encouraging words.”

But isn’t baseball . . . boring? And slow? Don’t kids like video games and kinetic action? Doesn’t a 19th century pastime with a sometimes turgid pace turn off 21st century kids?

“No, are you kidding?!” Mitchell said. “We don’t leave the game before it’s over. That’s what we do. It doesn’t matter what the score is. We love the pace of baseball. In the world of electronics, with everything moving really fast and being gimmicky, there’s something I think that my boys and I find appealing about baseball. I can share it with them and we all just slow down.”

As we talked, Jake and Bennett ran around a field just outside the Cubs clubhouse, playing catch and practicing rundowns with a couple of other boys they just met. Mitchell and I spoke for nearly a half hour. They played the whole time and looked like they wouldn’t stop unless or until their mother dragged them away.

We have spent a lot of time lately talking about how to fix baseball. I don’t know that anyone has made a compelling case that, despite the challenges the game faces, it is actually broken. Robin Mitchell doesn’t think it is. Neither do Jake and Bennett. While Rob Manfred and Joe Torre propose increasingly unorthodox methods for speeding things up, some pretty basic and longstanding factors are continuing to attract young fans:

  • The availability of games almost every day;
  • An exciting and successful local team;
  • The charisma of baseball’s biggest stars;
  • The ability for kids to play the game themselves and to emulate those stars on a little league field; and
  • The chance for parents to share their love of baseball with their children.

These are the factors which have always made up baseball’s appeal. Perhaps Major League Baseball should concentrate on ensuring that those factors, which are proven to draw in fans, persist and flourish. Perhaps they should concentrate less on chasing hypothetical fans via gimmicks aimed at fixing problems which are far-from-established.