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2014 Preview: St. Louis Cardinals


Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2014 season. Next up: The St. Louis Cardinals.

The Big Question: Another World Series run?

The Cardinals have made the playoffs 10 times since 2000 and they’ve advanced to the National League Championship Series or beyond each of the last three years. It’s a dynasty at this point, and the 2014 squad is poised to further fill the trophy room.

Yadier Molina — long considered MLB’s best defensive catcher — has produced a .317/.366/.489 batting line in 274 games since the start of the 2012 season. He is a rock behind the plate for the young, talented Cardinals pitching staff and he has molded himself into one of the toughest outs in the sport. If his health cooperates, a sixth straight All-Star nod will be in order. Matt Carpenter made a very smooth transition to second base in 2013 and finished fourth in the National League MVP balloting after leading the majors in hits, doubles, and runs scored. He’ll now move back to third base, where he has the most pro experience. Allen Craig has never played more than 134 games in a season, but he left spring training on a clean bill of health and can be a monster in the middle of the St. Louis order if he manages to avoid the disabled list. Craig, 29, has batted .312 with an .863 OPS (136 OPS+) in 328 games since the beginning of the 2011 campaign and he is a .394/.451/.636 career hitter with runners in scoring position. Matt Holliday’s power numbers are trending downward, but an OPS in the high .800s remains a fair expectation in his age-34 season.

It goes on and on with this team. Matt Adams, the Cardinals’ big-bodied first baseman, slugged 17 home runs in 2013 despite starting only 63 games. Kolten Wong, rated a Top 35 prospect this winter by Baseball Prospectus, will be taking over at second base. He tallied 20 steals in 21 attempts last summer at Triple-A, hit .375/.434/.646 this spring, and is a very strong defensive infielder. Then there’s Jhonny Peralta, who was signed this winter to a four-year, $53 million contract to provide a much-needed upgrade at shortstop.

The lineup is loaded, and the starting rotation is, as usual, filled with gifted arms. Adam Wainwright is a perennial Cy Young Award candidate and clubhouse leader. Michael Wacha — with his mid-90s fastball and elite-level changeup — looks to be a budding ace. Lance Lynn is a more-than-steady No. 3, Shelby Miller has front-line stuff, and Joe Kelly registered a 2.69 ERA (135 ERA+) over 124 innings in 2013.

What else is going on?

  • If the Cardinals need an emergency starter, they don’t even have to pick up a phone. Carlos Martinez will open the 2014 season in a setup role, but he was stretched out this spring in the Grapefruit League and almost beat out Kelly for the final spot in the rotation. The 22-year-old Dominican right-hander has a filthy arsenal and should do well in the meantime as the eighth-inning bridge to closer Trevor Rosenthal. Rosenthal, a 23-year-old who regularly hits 100 mph with his fastball, also wants to be a starter eventually.
  • Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak pulled off a slick trade this offseason, moving third baseman David Freese and right-handed reliever Fernando Salas to the Angels for center fielder Peter Bourjos and 2009 first-round pick Randal Grichuk. Bourjos has outstanding defensive range and his bat showed signs of life this spring in Grapefruit League play. Freese, meanwhile, failed to register a single extra-base hit in 60 plate appearances over in Angels camp. Bourjos will be the Cardinals’ primary center fielder if he’s healthy and hitting. Jon Jay, a left-handed batter, is still around as a possible platoon partner.
  • Cardinals manager Mike Matheny made some promising strides in his second year as Tony La Russa’s successor. In 2012 — Matheny’s debut season — the Cardinals ranked sixth in the National League for sacrifice bunts, most of which were either misguided or completely unnecessary. In 2013, the club’s sac bunts total dropped to 11th in the 15-team National League. Matheny said when he took the job that he was open to progressive baseball thinking, and data-minded general manager John Mozeliak may have given his skipper a crash course in basic sabermetrics between year one and two.
  • According to Forbes’ recently-published financial estimates, the Cardinals had the highest operating income of any Major League Baseball organization last season. Busch Stadium III has welcomed over three million fans every year that it’s been in existence and merchandise sales are always strong for shirts, and hats, and jerseys featuring The Birds on the Bat. The newly-opened Ballpark Village — out in left-center field with features like rooftop seating — should only boost the Redbirds’ bottom line.

Prediction: The Cardinals roll to 98 wins, easily claiming the National League Central crown.

What Barry Bonds being the Marlins hitting coach means. And what it doesn’t mean.

FILE - In this March 10, 2014, file photo, former San Francisco Giants Barry Bonds chats to the dugout during a spring training baseball game in Scottsdale, Ariz. Bonds' obstruction of justice conviction reversed by 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday, April 22, 2015.  (AP Photo/Chris Carlson, File)

The news that Barry Bonds plans, tentatively at least, to accept the Marlins offer to be their hitting coach has the hot stove sizzling. Which is totally understandable. Barry Bonds is a big famous — infamous, even — name and he’s been out of baseball for a long time. That he seems to be getting back in the game, then, is understandably interesting. That he seems to be heading to the Marlins — not exactly an expected destination — is likewise interesting.

But how interesting is it? And does it really matter, both for Bonds and for the Marlins? And if so, how much? Let’s do a quick Q&A about it, shall we?


Q: Bonds is one of the greatest hitters of all time. That should make him an amazing hitting coach, right? 

A: Not necessarily. The guy thought to be one of the best hitting coaches in history — Charlie Lau — had an OPS+ of 89 for his career across 11 almost totally bench-riding seasons in the bigs. Many of the other top hitting coaches in baseball history were likewise scrubeenies of one flavor or another. Same goes for pitching coaches, by the way, while many of the ex-superstars that got into the coaching biz didn’t last long and didn’t have a lot of success. Indeed, there appears to be no correlation at all and at least some anecdotal disconnection between playing prowess and coaching prowess, possibly because that which comes naturally to a superstar is hard to communicate to someone not as gifted. Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and Bob Gibson coached. None of them changed the coaching game by their presence.

All of that said, Barry Bonds’ greatness came not just from his physical gifts —  naturally or artificially bestowed — but from his approach to at bats. His preparation, his strategy and his plate patience. Some of those things can likely be communicated fairly straightforwardly, even if they cannot simply be picked up by any Justin, Adeiny or Christian who comes along.


Q: Let’s assume Bonds would be a good hitting coach, though. How much of an impact could he possibly have?

A: That’s the big question, really. And you won’t find a lot of agreement on it. Many people say that hitting coaches are only as good as the lineup they coach and that, especially in this day and age, a player’s own preparation — which he may take far more seriously than the atta-boys from a coach his father’s age — matters much more than anything else.

There have been some attempts to quantify a good hitting coach’s impact, however. One such study was conducted by Baseball Prospectus’ Russell Carelton a couple of years ago. Carelton found that hitting coaches can really only have a noticeable impact on whether or not hitters take a more aggressive or a more passive approach at the plate and cannot, by themselves, teach pitch selectivity. He further found that hitting coaches seem to be divided into two groups: those who teach hitters to put the ball into play and those who encourage a walk/strikeout/home run approach to things.

As far as results go, Carleton found some pretty significant impacts in small sample sizes and for hitting coaches, like Clint Hurdle, who coached in volatile run-scoring environments such as Colorado and Texas. He concluded, however, that even if we’re being super conservative, a good hitting coach could account for 20-30 runs in a year, which is a couple of wins, and that a couple of wins is a pretty big impact for a low-paid coach.

Of course, the Marlins had the second worst offense in the National League last year. They need more than just 20-30 runs.


Q: Getting away from the numbers, this is a big deal, right? For the Marlins? For Bonds? 

A: Though I’m on record being a pretty big Bonds fanboy, I think we should temper our expectations on all of this. Mark McGwire made something of a P.R. splash when he entered the coaching ranks with the Cardinals. He was the first bigtime PED guy to return to the game and he was under the microscope for a bit. But then, of course, he just faded into the same woodwork into which all of the other hitting coaches fade. We didn’t think too much of him until he changed jobs a few years later then when he changed jobs again just recently. Being back in the game certainly didn’t help his Hall of Fame case either. He’s been sliding off the ballot pretty steadily for years, actually. The most that can be said is that, when McGwire’s name comes up in news reports, the first reference to him isn’t “The controversial, steroid-associated slugger, Mark McGwire.” That usually waits until the second paragraph. If Bonds has that happen to him it’ll be a moral victory for him. But given that he’s more infamous than McGwire was, don’t count on that happening.

Ultimately I think that Bonds will, after the initial wave of stories and the initial pictures of him in Marlins garb next spring come out, fade into that woodwork like any other coach. After all no one comes to the ballpark to see a hitting coach. Not even one as famous as Barry Bonds.


Q: Quit being negative. Isn’t it something of a big deal? Even a little bit? 

A: OK, I’ll give you this much: between McGwire, the reinstatement of A-Rod and his well-received and successful 2015 season and now Bonds being hired, it’s fair to say that baseball has had no problem with the rehabilitation and mainstreaming of the PED crowd from the 1990s and 2000s. They’re not pariahs in the game and their association with it is not considered controversial by the people who play it and run it. The only people living in the past in this regard, it seems, is the media. Perhaps another so-called villain being welcomed back into the game’s ranks will help bring them around too.


Q: Why is Bonds, after years of exile from baseball and a seemingly idyllic life in California, willing to go work for Jeff Loria anyway?

A: We won’t know until he says so, though I’m sure many people will try to speak for him on that count. To the extent they do, they’ll likely talk about his “legacy” and the fact that his legal troubles were finally and definitively put behind him in 2015. All of that is just speculation, of course. The most we know is that Bonds was (a) willing to coach the Giants in spring training; and (b) spoke at various points in his career about how he’d like to maybe one day be a coach of some kind. This is a job that seems to be open and it’s in a city — Miami — that ain’t a hard place to live, even if the organization for which he’ll work is dysfunctional.

Maybe a young man’s dreams don’t really ever go away. Maybe baseball is fun and guys who spent almost their entire life in baseball miss it when it’s gone. And maybe Barry just wants back in.

Astros “shopping” slugger Chris Carter

Chris Carter

With tomorrow’s deadline to tender 2016 contracts to arbitration eligible players looming, Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com reports that the Astros are “shopping” first baseman Chris Carter.

Few players in baseball have more power than Carter, who hit 24 homers in 129 games this year and has averaged 30 homers per 150 games for his career, but he’s also a career .217 hitter with little defensive value who should probably be a designated hitter.

Houston has no shortage of power options, many of whom have somewhat similar skill sets to Carter, so shopping him around makes sense. He seems unlikely to generate a big return, however. Carter could command a salary of more than $6 million via arbitration.

UPDATE: Barry Bonds tentatively plans to accept the Marlins hitting coach job

Barry Bonds

UPDATE: Bob Nightengale reports that while negotiations are not yet finalized, Barry Bonds “tentatively plans to accept the Marlins’ offer to be hitting coach with Frank Menechino.” Which is a good reminder that Menechino is still the Marlins’ hitting coach. Who would be the assistant and who would be the coach — or if they’d be co-coaches — is unclear.

12:00PM: The matter of Barry Bonds as the Marlins hitting coach has gone from “consideration” to “offer,” reports Bob Nightengale. The Marlins now await Barry Bonds’ response.

The biggest mystery in all of this is whether Bonds is actually interested. No one has reported that he was willing or even that there have been serious conversations between the Marlins and Bonds. That could be because Bonds, as has always been his practice, doesn’t talk too much to the media. Indeed, we learn more about him from his social media presence than anything reported about him. So it’s possible that Bonds and Jeff Loria have been in contact about all of this and he’s strongly considering it as well.

It’s also possible that this is all nothing and the Marlins are just trying to make a long shot happen.

MONDAY, 5:01 PM: This shouldn’t cause any controversy, lead to a lot of people saying dumb things or provide fodder for jokes at all. Nope, none whatsoever:

In what promises to be a bombshell move, if executed, all-time great slugger Barry Bonds is under consideration to become Marlins hitting coach.

Team higherups have quietly been discussing this possibility for weeks.

That’s Jon Heyman, who reminds us that Bonds has worked with the Giants in the spring in recent years. And who, no matter what else you can say about him, was one of the greatest hitters the game has ever seen. Also worth remembering that despite his controversial past, that greatness came not just from physical gifts, naturally or artificially bestowed. It came from his approach, preparation and strategy at the plate. No one can teach a hitter to hit like Barry Bonds, but you’d think that hitters could be taught to try to approach an at bat the way Barry Bonds would. And who better to do it than Barry Bonds?

That is, if Bonds is willing to drop his seemingly ideal retired life in San Francisco, move to Miami and work for Jeff Loria for nine months a year. Which, eh, who knows? But the possibility of it is pretty fascinating to think about.

Royals avoid arbitration with Tim Collins for $1.475 million

Tim Collins Getty
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Left-hander Tim Collins, who missed the entire 2015 season following Tommy John elbow surgery, will remain with the Royals after avoiding arbitration for a one-year, $1.475 million contract.

Collins was a non-tender candidate due to his injury and projected salary via arbitration, but the Royals are convinced he can bounce back to be a valuable part of the bullpen again in 2016 and beyond. He agreed to the same salary he made in 2015.

Prior to blowing out his elbow Collins posted a 3.54 ERA with 220 strikeouts in 211 innings from 2011-2014 and he’s still just 26 years old. He figures to begin 2016 in a middle relief role.