NLCS Prediction and Preview: Los Angeles Dodgers vs. St. Louis Cardinals

Games, History, Management, Players, Playoffs, Stats, World Series

Los Angeles Dodgers (92-70) vs. St. Louis Cardinals (97-65)

Keys for the Dodgers: Get into the Cardinals’ bullpen; stop Carlos Beltran; mitigate the Cardinals’ big post-season performers; coax manager Mike Matheny into mistakes.

The Cardinals’ strength lies in its hot playoff performers and the starting pitching of Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha and the potential of Joe Kelly. The Dodgers must get the starting pitchers’ pitch counts up to dig into the Cardinals’ weak point: the bullpen. The Dodgers have the depth in their offense to get to the Cardinals. They might, however, not have the patience to get their pitch counts up. They like to swing the bat and that might not be the best possible strategy against these Cardinals pitchers.

Beltran is a very good to great player during the regular season. In the post-season, he becomes a historic player. For his career against current Dodgers’ pitchers, Beltran has hammered Ronald Belisario and Ricky Nolasco. In the playoffs, it doesn’t matter who’s on the mound, Beltran is a constant threat. To the dismay and disgust of Mets fans, that excludes Wainwright, who he won’t hit against because they’re teammates. If the Dodgers stop Beltran, they have a great chance of stopping the Cardinals.

The other Cardinals’ post-season performers have history of their own against the Dodgers’ pitchers. Matt Holliday has the following numbers against some of the Dodgers’ top arms:

Clayton Kershaw: .303 batting average; .465 OBP; .424 slugging; two homers.

Zack Greinke: .346 batting average; .393 OBP; .577 slugging; two homers.

Nolasco: .462 batting average; .481 OBP; .885 slugging; two homers.

David Freese is hitting .333 vs. Greinke; and 500 vs. Nolasco.

Manager Matheny has done some strange things in his time as manager, especially with the bullpen and he doesn’t have a closer. He could be coaxed into panicky mistakes.

Keys for the Cardinals: Hope the Dodgers pitch Nolasco; lean on their playoff performers; get depth from the starters; hope the games don’t come down to the bullpen.

Nolasco is listed as the game four starter. We’ll see if that actually happens. If the Dodgers are down two games to one in the series when game four rolls around, I can’t imagine them pitching Nolasco with the numbers the Cardinals’ hitters have against him. In addition to Holliday, Beltran, Daniel Descalso, Jon Jay and Freese have all battered him as well. If he pitches, the Cardinals’ history says they’re going to bash him.

With the Cardinals, there can’t be any discussion without referencing Wainwright, Beltran, Molina, Holiday and Freese with their post-season performances. Very few teams can boast these prime time players.

Apparently, Trevor Rosenthal is going to close for the Cardinals. Matheny – with good reason – doesn’t trust seasonlong closer Edward Mujica. Rosenthal throws very hard, but was shaky in his save chance against the Pirates in the NLDS. Matheny will push his starters as deep as he can.

What will happen:

The Cardinals barely got past the Pirates and much of that was due to the Pirates’ lack of experience in games of this magnitude. The Dodgers won’t have the lack of experience going against them. With their lineup, the Dodgers will feast on the Cardinals’ bullpen. Kershaw and Greinke can match Wainwright and Wacha. Kelly is a complete unknown and the Dodgers have the veteran hitters – Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, Juan Uribe, Hanley Ramirez – to get at the Cardinals pitchers, especially their relievers.

If this series comes down to a battle of the bullpens, the Dodgers have a distinct advantage with Brian Wilson and Kenley Jansen at the back end. The Dodgers’ bats have some post-season experience, but nothing in comparison to that of the Cardinals. The Dodgers’ bats aren’t youngsters, so it’s unlikely they’ll be intimidated. And Yasiel Puig isn’t intimidated by anything. In fact, he’s the type of player who’ll relish the spotlight and want to show off in front of Beltran.

The Dodgers have too much starting pitching, too deep a bullpen and too good a lineup. The Cardinals are a “sum of their parts” team. The Dodgers have the star power and depth where it counts.

PREDICTION: DODGERS IN FIVE

NLCS MVP: YASIEL PUIG




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NLDS Playoffs Preview and Predictions – St. Louis Cardinals vs. Pittsburgh Pirates

Games, Players, Playoffs

St. Louis Cardinals (97-65) vs. Pittsburgh Pirates (94-68)

Keys for the Cardinals: Get runners on base; continue trend of hot hitting with runners in scoring position; try not to leave the game in the hands of the bullpen; get the goods from their proven post-season performers.

The Cardinals led the National League in runs scored using a similar formula as the Yankees of the 1990s used by having a very high teamwide on-base percentage and no big home run hitters. Instead of having that one basher in the middle of the lineup hitting 35-45 homers as they did with Albert Pujols, they spread the wealth in the home run department with six hitters in double figures. Not one, however, had more than 24. In addition, the Cardinals had a .330 batting average with runners in scoring position.

The Cardinals bullpen is deep and diverse. Edward Mujica pitched well for much of the season as the team’s accidental closer after Jason Motte was lost for the season with Tommy John surgery. Mujica saved 37 games and walked only five batters in 64.2 innings. Home runs have always been his bugaboo and he surrendered nine. With Mujica’s struggles, the Cardinals have to decide whether to stick to the regular season script and leave him in the role, go with Trevor Rosenthal or a closer-by-committee.

The Cardinals have a roster full of players who’ve put up big numbers in the post-season with Adam Wainwright, Carlos Beltran, Allen Craig, David Freese and Yadier Molina. Players who’ve performed in the post-season have a tendency to do it again.

Keys for the Pirates: Don’t wait too long with their starting pitchers; don’t change their game; keep the Cardinals off the bases; get into the Cardinals’ bullpen.

The Cardinals were vulnerable to lefty pitchers but with Francisco Liriano having started the Wild Card Game against the Reds, he won’t pitch until game three in Pittsburgh. The Pirates are starting A.J. Burnett in game one and Gerrit Cole in game two. Even though he struggled in September, I might’ve rolled the dice and started Jeff Locke in game one if I were manager Clint Hurdle. The Pirates have a deep bullpen and shouldn’t wait too long with their starting pitchers before making a change. Locke as a middle reliever might end up being more effective than having him start.

As stated earlier, the Cardinals get a lot of runners on base. The Pirates have a solid defense and have to shun the walk – this is especially true for Burnett with his scattershot control.

If the Pirates don’t get the Cardinals starting pitchers’ pitch counts up and force manager Mike Matheny to go to the bullpen, they might not get a shot at Mujica.

The Pirates won their games this season with good starting pitching, speed, power from Pedro Alvarez, a great back of the bullpen and defense. They have to maintain all facets of their game.

What will happen:

The Cardinals are built more for the long season than for a short series. While they have those aforementioned big time post-season players, the Pirates have the pitching and bullpen depth to neutralize them. If the Cardinals don’t get runners on the bases, they’re not going to score because they don’t hit enough home runs and the Pirates don’t surrender many home runs. Mujica is not trustworthy as a post-season closer and if it comes down to a one-run lead in the ninth inning, everyone in St. Louis will be holding their collective breaths waiting for the inevitable longball.

The Pirates are riding a wave with their veteran acquisitions Russell Martin and Marlon Byrd leading the way joining Alvarez, Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker in the lineup. A lack of post-season experience could be a problem. The Cardinals have loads of it and the Pirates have nearly none. It could also go the other way. With the first playoff appearance and playoff win in two decades under their belts, the Pirates won’t feel the pressure. That’s one instance when the Wild Card Game will benefit a young and inexperienced team.

I don’t like the way Matheny handles the bullpen as if he’s panicky and desperate not to do the wrong thing rather than do the right thing.

The Pirates’ method of winning has a better chance to carry over into the post-season. They rely on fundamentals, speed and pop; the Cardinals relied on getting on base and clutch hitting. The Pirates are younger, stronger, faster and hungrier than the Cardinals. They’re better too.

PREDICTION: PIRATES IN THREE




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Washington Nationals vs St. Louis Cardinals—NLDS Preview and Predictions

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Washington Nationals (98-64; 1st place, NL East) vs St. Louis Cardinals (88-74; 2nd place, NL Central; Won Wild Card Game over Braves)

Keys for the Nats: Don’t be overconfident; get good starting pitching; let the game come to them.

The Nationals have taken the tone of being very impressed with themselves. This stems from their large number of young players who’ve never been in the post-season, nor have they been on clubs that were as dominant as the Nats were in 2012. Manager Davey Johnson has always been somewhat egotistical to say the least. He’s been able to back it up in regular seasons past, but in the playoffs, his clubs have been disappointing considering talent levels.

Gio Gonzalez won 21 games in the regular season and shed the “wild” and “inconsistent” labels he brought with him from the Athletics. He strikes out a lot of hitters, allowed only 9 homers in 199 innings, and had a great innings pitched/hits ratio of 199/149—the entire tone of the series will be set by Gonzalez’s performance. With Stephen Strasburg having been shut down, game 2 falls to Jordan Zimmerman, game 3 to Edwin Jackson, game 4 to Ross Detwiler.

The Nationals will be excited to be in the post-season and with the number of first-timers and young players, there could be an aspect of trying to get it all done at once from the likes of Bryce Harper, Danny Espinosa, and Michael Morse.

Keys for the Cardinals: Take advantage of the Nats’ inexperience; catch the ball; don’t put manager Mike Matheny in a position where his strategic gaffes can cost them.

The Cardinals have plenty of playoff and World Series history behind them from the top of the roster to the bottom. They got by the Braves in the Wild Card play in game with Kyle Lohse starting and now have the battle-tested Adam Wainwright ready for game 1 and Chris Carpenter for game 3. The Cardinals have been here before as heavy underdogs and they’re feisty in their own right so the Nats won’t be able to bully them as Johnson’s teams have been known to do.

The Cardinals defense is not great and they don’t want to give extra outs or miss catchable balls to give the Nats baserunners for the bashers to knock in.

Matheny has no managerial experience and that is a factor when going against one as experienced as Johnson. The more times he’s in a position to make a mistake, the more likely he is to make one.

What will happen:

Gonzalez truly surprised me this season with his Cy Young Award-caliber season, but a game 1 playoff start is a whole new level for him. I still don’t trust his command and if his adrenaline is exploding the Cardinals will take advantage of walks followed by a fat, get-me-over fastball.

Fear and not knowing what to expect will not be a factor for Wainwright or Carpenter. Cardinals’ closer Jason Motte has gotten the big outs in the playoffs and World Series. Nats’ closer Tyler Clippard hasn’t.

The Cardinals are one of the few teams in baseball that have the offense to get into a shootout with the Nationals and win it. Carlos Beltran, David Freese, Matt Holliday, and especially Yadier Molina have—for the most part—relished the playoff spotlight. The Nats’ only key players with post-season experience are the veterans Jayson Werth, Jackson, and Adam LaRoche. It’s not necessarily a key component to winning. It helps more to have good starting pitching and a solid bullpen with an experienced closer. The Nats have the potential in the starting rotation, but I’d like their chances exponentially better if they were pitching Strasburg in the playoffs. They’re not. He’s doing the equivalent of taking violin lessons while his friends are outside playing ball.

Davey Johnson’s teams have a history of regular season dominance, lots of yapping, and a playoff flameout. The Cardinals starting pitching is deeper and more experienced and the offense can score with the Nationals. Those factors will get them through the first round.

PREDICTION: CARDINALS IN FOUR

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National League Wild Card Play-In Game Preview—St. Louis Cardinals at Atlanta Braves

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The starting pitchers are relatively meaningless in a one-game playoff. What’s most important is how the managers handle said pitchers. Will either wait too long before pulling him? Will one or the other panic and pull him too soon? It’s a fine line between letting the pitcher get a feel for the game and gain his bearings or leaving him in to blow the game up before the fans are in their seats.

This is not going to be totally about Cardinals’ starter Kyle Lohse or Braves’ starter Kris Medlen. It’s going to be about which manager hits the panic button and does something he shouldn’t do. Cardinals’ manager Mike Matheny has no post-season managerial experience and Braves’ manager Fredi Gonzalez is prone to gaffes and knee-jerk decisions to make it look like he’s doing something when he should sit back and wait.

The 34-year-old Lohse went 16-3 during the regular season with excellent on-the-surface numbers across the board, but he benefited from a large amount of luck with a .267 BAbip. He allows a fairly high number of homers (19 this season), and the Braves beat him around in their one game against him on May 30th as Freddie Freeman and Brian McCann took him deep. Lohse has a 5.54 ERA in nine post-season appearances. Matheny is adhering to his starting rotation by keeping Lohse in his turn, but Adam Wainwright is rested and in a one-game playoff, 100 out of 100 times, I’d start Wainwright over Lohse. If Lohse gets into trouble, one would assume that Wainwright would be the first one out of the bullpen, but by then it could be too late. Lohse has had a fine year, but Wainwright has the post-season bona fides that Lohse does not have and Wainwright should be the starter.

Medlen has been masterful since joining the starting rotation at the end of July, displaying a control and intelligence that has been compared to that of Greg Maddux, but with better strikeout stuff. He doesn’t allow many homers and has been masterful beyond the Braves’ wildest imagination. My worry with Medlen would be that he’s too amped up for the start and loses his feel for the strike zone, using the adrenaline to try and blow fastballs past fastball hitters in the Cardinals lineup such as Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday, and David Freese. The Cardinals also have players who relish the post-season spotlight in Yadier Molina, Freese, and Allen Craig.

The divergent personalities and strategies in the dugout are likely to come into play if either starting pitcher gets into trouble early. Matheny is more likely to stick with Lohse; Gonzalez will have a quicker hook with Medlen and it could be a mistake on both ends.

In a battle of the bullpens, I trust the Braves contingent led by the searing fastball of Craig Kimbrel along with their set-up men than I do that of the Cardinals, whose bullpen has been a recurrent problem. Watch for Edward Mujica’s entrance into the game—he surrendered one homer since joining the Cardinals, but is notoriously homer-prone. In a late, close game, someone’s going to take him deep.

I have little faith in Lohse in spite of his fine season. As long as Gonzalez doesn’t do anything loony such as call for a squeeze play with the bases loaded or something similarly deranged and self-sabotaging, the Braves have too many weapons and the better pitching from start to end.

PREDICTION: BRAVES 7—CARDINALS 2

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1st Round Draft Picks Traded for Middle Relievers is a Bad Move

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One of the more curious trades made on deadline day was the Cardinals sending former 1st round pick Zack Cox to the Marlins for Edward Mujica, a mediocre reliever who has a penchant for giving up lots of home runs. There are many palatable explanations to feed to the hungry public as to why such a deal would be made. With the Cardinals, Cox’s path was blocked at first base by Allen Craig and Matt Carpenter and at third base by David Freese; at 23, Cox is struggling at Triple-A after tearing apart the lower minors; the Cardinals needed help in the bullpen and wanted—for whatever reason—Mujica.

All are legitimate enough. But I’d think a former 1st round pick would bring back more than a homer-prone, journeyman relief pitcher who, bottom line, isn’t that good. There could be issues we don’t know about. Scott Kazmir was traded by the Mets in an atrocious maneuver, in part, because of his attitude. Trading Kazmir wasn’t the mistake the Mets made—pitching coach Rick Peterson wound up being right about Kazmir’s small frame and breakdown potential—but that they traded him for Victor Zambrano.

In today’s game, 1st round draft picks are losing their value and it’s not because they’re not talented, but because teams are more willing to trade them since one of the main reasons 1st round picks get chance after chance is due to the attachment to their names, “1st round pick” and that the clubs no longer have as much money invested in these players. Cox received a $3.2 million, 4-year contract when he was drafted as the 25th overall pick in 2010, including a $2 million bonus. That was relatively in line with the rest of the draft, apart from the Dodgers giving over $5 million to Zach Lee three picks later.

Now things are drastically different in the MLB Draft. The implementation of what amounts to a salary cap with punishments for exceeding the spending limits has rendered nonexistent the leverage of drafted players. That is clearly going to affect how clubs value those high picks and they’ll be more willing to trade them for less than what would be perceptively acceptable to the outsider. With the attention paid to the draft by the newly minted “draftniks” who think they know more than in-the-trenches scouts and experienced GMs, there’s a greater scrutiny placed on what’s done with those picks. When a team like the Nationals or Diamondbacks trades a chunk of their farm system to get a veteran Gio Gonzalez or Trevor Cahill, it’s debated more intensely than when the Red Sox traded Jeff Bagwell (a 4th round pick) for Larry Andersen in late August of 1990. As terribly as that trade is viewed now, the Red Sox weren’t wrong. Bagwell was a very good hitter and back then, the value of on base percentage wasn’t what it is now. He didn’t have any power in the minors and they had Wade Boggs blocking him with Scott Cooper ahead of Bagwell in the minor league pecking order. Anderson posted a 1.23 ERA in 15 relief appearances for the Red Sox and did exactly what they wanted him to do in helping them win their division. Who could’ve looked at Bagwell and expected him to become an MVP, Gold Glove winner, and future Hall of Famer? No one.

The Cox for Mujica isn’t similar to that trade because Andersen was a proven veteran reliever and Cox has shown minor league power that Bagwell never did. Is Cox what he was projected to be when the Cardinals drafted him and paid him so well? Probably not. But he’s 23 and his numbers in the lower minors were bolstered by a high batting average so his on base percentage looked better than it does now even though he’s walking about the same amount of the time. The Marlins got a better third base prospect than the one they gave up, Matt Dominguez, to get Carlos Lee (who they’re going to unload soon), and all they gave up was Mujica, who was a Marlins’ non-tender candidate after this season.

It was a productive deal for the Marlins and a head-scratcher for the Cardinals. With the diminished amount of money spent on high draft picks, we’ll see more of this in the future. While it wasn’t a good thing for players to get repeated passes for poor on-field play and bad off-field behaviors because of draft status and clubs’ fears of being embarrassed by a failed pick, nor is it a good thing that top draft picks are traded for middle relievers. It will happen again and teams are going to regret it because it’s not a smart baseball decision to make.

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Mid-Season Trade Candidates—Kevin Youkilis

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Name: Kevin Youkilis
Tale of the tape: 1B/3B; 33-years-old; bats right; throws right; 6’1”; 220 lbs.
Contract status: $12 million in 2012; $13 million club option for 2013 with a $1 million buyout.

Would the Red Sox trade him?

Barring injury to Will Middlebrooks, Adrian Gonzalez or David Ortiz, they’re going to trade Youkilis somewhere.

What would they want for him?

Whatever they can get.

Perhaps they can move him for a player who’s not performing well with his current club but could be of use to the Red Sox like a Grant Balfour or Ryan Roberts.

Even if they pay the rest of his 2012 salary, they’re not going to get much of a prospect for him.

Which teams would pursue him?

The Orioles have been mentioned in certain circles, but I doubt the Red Sox are going to trade him in the division.

Casey Kotchman has been a disaster with the Indians and they could slot Youkilis in at first base. The AL Central is winnable for them and Youkilis might be a change-of-scenery player who goes on a tear (if he’s healthy) once he’s out of Boston.

The White Sox have been playing Brent Morel and Orlando Hudson at third base and neither one has hit or played particularly good defense.

It would be an admission that they were wr-wr-wr-wrong (think Fonzie from Happy Days), but the Tigers could get Youkilis and put Miguel Cabrera where he belongs—in the DH spot.

Gaby Sanchez has been atrocious for the Marlins but putting Youkilis in that hair-trigger clubhouse is a bad idea.

The Phillies might make one last desperation move on Youkilis to try and save the season before taking offers on Cole Hamels and Shane Victorino.

The Pirates are an intriguing option because they’re hovering around contention and could use a veteran with name recognition and send a signal that they’re serious about winning without giving up the farm.

The Cardinals could use insurance for their questionable status at first base as they wait (hope) for Lance Berkman to come back; David Freese has had frequent injuries in his career and Youkilis is insurance for that.

It would be an odd acquisition for the Cubs, but Theo Epstein knows Youkilis and they’re not giving up on 2013 in spite of the rebuild they’re planning. They can try and steal a Wild Card next season while simultaneously stocking the farm system by trading other veterans on their roster.

Both the Dodgers and Diamondbacks could use a corner infield bat.

The Athletics would be a weird landing spot but given the bizarre moves made by Billy Beane—clearing out the house of his starting rotation and closer and signing Yoenis Cespedes and Manny Ramirez—maybe he’d like to get his hands on the player he coveted back when Moneyball was believed to be reality. The Greek God of Walks was almost an A when Beane was taking the Red Sox job and Paul DePodesta was going to be the new A’s GM. Youkilis was the compensation for Beane being let out of his A’s contract. But Beane backed out on the Red Sox and Youkilis became a star in Boston.

The A’s need a first baseman and with their young pitching and needs at first and third base, they could trade for Youkilis and renegotiate his 2013 option to sign him for a couple of years. He might be rejuvenated as a fiery leader and dirt-caked, win at all costs type to show the young team how it’s done.

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2012 National League Central Predicted Standings

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Wins Losses GB
1. Cincinnati Reds 91 71
2. Milwaukee Brewers 87 75 4
3. St. Louis Cardinals 77 85 14
4. Pittsburgh Pirates 77 85 14
5. Chicago Cubs 73 89 18
6. Houston Astros 60 102 31

Cincinnati Reds

Dusty Baker’s teams have a tendency to win when his job is on the line or his contract is coming to a conclusion—and this is the final year of his contract.

GM Walt Jocketty made a bold move in trading a large portion of the Reds’ farm system to get an ace-quality starter in Mat Latos and bolstered his bullpen by signing Ryan Madson and trading for Sean Marshall.

Offensively, the Reds have some question marks but were second in the National League in runs scored last season and first in 2010. Scott Rolen’s injuries are an issue and shortstop is likely to be manned by a talented rookie Zack Cozart.

But with a deep starting rotation; a very good bullpen; Joey Votto in the middle of the lineup; the emerging Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs; and the additions from the winter, the Reds are a championship threat.

Milwaukee Brewers

If Mat Gamel hits and Aramis Ramirez posts his normal numbers, they’ll have enough offense without Prince Fielder. Alex Gonzalez is a good pickup offensively and defensively to replace the limited Yuniesky Betancourt; Zack Greinke is sure to have a big year heading towards free agency; and the bullpen is superlative with Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford.

The questions surrounding the Ryan Braun failed drug test and technical knockout of his 50-game suspension are not going to go away.

Braun has to hit from the beginning of the season to the end and he’s still going to be hounded with a press contingent waiting for a reasonable answer as to how he failed the test in the first place. A slow start will be the death knell to his season and probably the Brewers’ playoff hopes.

And don’t forget how much vitriol their arrogance engendered throughout baseball last season. When the world-at-large was pulling for a Tony LaRussa –led team, you know their oppenents were despised.

There’s a 2006 Mets feeling about the Brewers that they missed their chance and we know what happened to the Mets in the aftermath of their upset loss to the Cardinals.

St. Louis Cardinals

It’s idiotic to base one’s hopes for a repeat championship on the idea that losing the generation’s best manager (Tony LaRussa); hitter (Albert Pujols); and a magician of a pitching coach (Dave Duncan) are going to be easily covered with Mike Matheny (never managed before—ever); signing Carlos Beltran and shifting Lance Berkman to first base (they’re older players); and Derek Lilliquist (um…).

You cannot dismiss the contributions of those three men—all of whom are Hall of Famers.

As respected and well-liked as Matheny is, there’s a learning curve to manage.

The Cardinals have starting pitching, but their bullpen is still a question mark and Matheny’s handling of said bullpen is going to be an issue.

Beltran and Berkman will make up for Pujols’s production to a degree, but if you’re banking your hopes on David Freese being the same star he was in the playoffs and Rafael Furcal, Jon Jay and Skip Schumaker, you’re dreaming.

This team is rife for a big fall and major turmoil.

Pittsburgh Pirates

We’ll never know what the Pirates’ 2011 season would’ve become had they not been so horribly robbed in that play at the plate and egregious call by Jerry Meals in the 19-inning game against the Braves in late July. Those who think that an entire season can’t hinge on one game are wrong.

The Pirates did many good things mostly as a result of manager Clint Hurdle’s simple mandate of discipline and not taking crap.

They’ve locked up key players Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata and acquired cheap, high-ceiling veteran starters A.J. Burnett and Erik Bedard.

They’re not ready to contend, but they’re getting better and if things go well, they have a shot at third place.

Chicago Cubs

Those expecting a Theo Epstein arrival/revival and immediate rise to championship-level status as happened when he took over the Red Sox need to take a step back.

The Red Sox had a lot of talent and money to spend when Epstein took over in 2003; the Cubs are trying to clear onerous contracts of declining veterans like Alfonso Soriano and already got rid of Carlos Zambrano (and are paying him to pitch for the Marlins).

A large part of my analysis isn’t simply based on what a team has when the season starts, but what’s going to happen as the season moves along. The Cubs are going to be ready to deal with Carlos Marmol, Ryan Dempster and Marlon Byrd possibly on the move.

It’s not going to be a quick fix to repair this organization.

Houston Astros

There’s a perception that simply because they hired a stat-savvy GM in Jeff Luhnow and he’s at work rebuilding the system that the Astros are “guaranteed” to have success in the near future.

Are you aware of what happened to similar thinking baseball people like Paul DePodesta and Jack Zduriencik?

The Astros neglected their minor league system for so long that they’re tantamount to an expansion team. Luhnow brought in high-end talent like Fernando Martinez cheaply; he’s scouring the scrapheap with Livan Hernandez for big league competence while he cleans up the mess; and he’s hired like-minded people to help him.

But it’s not a guarantee and his “success” with the Cardinals minor league system is based on perception depending on your own beliefs and/or biases on how to run a club rather than bottom-line reality.

Here’s what we can agree on: in 2012, they’re going to be terrible.

Click here for a full sample of Paul Lebowitz’s 2012 Baseball Guide (this link is of the Blue Jays) of team predictions/projections. My book can be purchased on KindleSmashwordsBN and Lulu with other outlets on the way.

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Radio Appearance with Breakin’ the Norm

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Here’s my appearance from Tuesday with Les Norman on Breakin’ the Norm on 810 WHB in Kansas City talking about the Royals, Tigers, Cardinals, Prince Fielder, Miguel Cabrera, Mike Matheny, Tony LaRussa, Albert Pujols, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and many other things. Check it out.

Paul Lebowitz’s 2012 Baseball Guide is available.
Click here for a full sample of team predictions/projections. My book can be purchased on KindleSmashwordsBN and Lulu with other outlets on the way.

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The Pujols Departure Makes Like Easier for Matheny

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No manager—especially one who’s brand new and has never done it before—wants to have to come to an agreement on the clubhouse power structure upon walking in the door.

Mike Matheny, whom Albert Pujols was said to like and respect when the two were teammates with the Cardinals, was going to be in just such a situation taking over for Tony LaRussa as the Cardinals new manager. Pujols was said to prefer Jose Oquendo as the new manager. Undoubtedly that will be referenced as part of the list of reasons why Pujols left; this is twisting the issue away from what really was the motivating factor—money—into something other.

If the Cardinals had given Pujols a similar contract as what the Angels gave him, he would’ve stayed. They didn’t and he didn’t.

Already we’re hearing whispers from the netherworld of rumor and innuendo that may or may not be accurate.

“I thought Albert didn’t seem happy.”

“There was something off.”

Blah, blah, blah.

This is just the beginning as an explanation is sought.

Here’s the answer: the Angels paid him a lot more money than the Cardinals were going to.

Period.

This affects Matheny because he doesn’t have to cater to anyone in that clubhouse; that’s immensely valuable to a new manager. The only player on the current Cardinals roster that he played with as a teammate is Chris Carpenter.

That’s not a small thing.

Joe Girardi walked into a similar situation with the Yankees when he took over for Joe Torre, was managing a large segment of contemporaries and former teammates. What made it worse was dealing with a bunch of bratty superstars who’d grown accustomed to Torre and the known rift between Girardi and Jorge Posada that was never adequately repaired.

Matheny has a clean slate.

It’s doubtful any of the remaining stars—Matt Holliday, Lance Berkman, Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina—are going to give him a problem; nor do they have the cachet that Pujols had to try and exert their will over a rookie manager. Pujols isn’t the type to bully and take over the room as a Josh Beckett would, but that doesn’t mean he’d be a perfectly good soldier if the two disagreed about something, anything.

Is it easier to run a team on the field without a weapon like Pujols? Of course not. The Cardinals just lost the best player of this generation and one of the best players ever, but to think they can’t function without him is absurd; the Cardinals will absolutely be better off in the long run without that gigantic contract for a player reaching his mid-to-late-30s clogging up their payroll. That they wouldn’t have the DH position to stash him when he can’t play the field anymore and the contract and his stature would make him untradeable would make the situation exponentially worse.

Right now it’s remarkably simple for them: they move Berkman to first base and find a right fielder. They’ll have a ton of cash left over to keep Wainwright and Molina and possibly lock up David Freese through his arbitration years and have the foundation for a good team without that one Hall of Famer stalking the middle of the lineup and paying him $25 million a year during his inevitable decline.

The Cardinals didn’t want to lose Pujols, but the fallout will be muted by the World Series they just won and that they’re going to acquire a name player to fill the gaping hole in the lineup.

There are outfielders available and Carlos Beltran on a 3-year contract is a perfect addition; the offense won’t be diminished all that much and with Wainwright returning, the pitching will be the strength of the team.

Much like the Stephen Strasburg injury where, I’m convinced, there were numerous people within the Nationals organization who were somewhat relieved that he got hurt and there was no one to hold accountable for it, there will be people with the Cardinals who aren’t all that bothered to see Pujols go. They’ll never admit it publicly, but it’s the truth.There was going to be a transition from LaRussa to Matheny and now it’s made much easier without Pujols to run interference on what the new manager wants to do.

The Cardinals will survive.

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Cubs Or Cards For Francona?

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The Cubs currently have a manager so it’s unfair for people to speculate on whether or not Terry Francona is going to take over while Mike Quade is still employed—the job’s not open, so until it is he’s not a candidate.

But that doesn’t mean he’s not going to be a candidate once Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are settled in and come to a decision on Quade.

Common sense dictates that if they’re making a change, they’ve informed Francona that he should wait before taking another job.

And presumably that was before Tony LaRussa retired and a potentially more inviting job came open—a job where Francona could walk in and win immediately with the Cardinals.

The teams are bitter, historic rivals and that’s only be exacerbated if their manager of choice has to pick one over the other.

Which job is better?

Which is preferable?

Let’s take a look.

Expectations.

The Cubs demands are going to be muted as Epstein sifts through the current mess, tries to clear the contracts of Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Zambrano, repairs the farm system and alters the culture. Francona could run the club on the field while they retool and no one’s going to be comparing him to his predecessor—if they remember his predecessor at all.

The Cardinals are the world champions are are accustomed to contending almost every single year. With or without Albert Pujols (who’s going to have a say in whom the new Cards manager is), they’re good enough to make the playoffs in 2012. It’s not easy being the replacement for a legend and even though Francona has some hardware in his own right with two championships, there’s forever going to be the onus of the appellation of “middle-manager”; that other managers could’ve won with the Red Sox collection of talent; and the way his tenure in Boston ended was a humiliating disaster.

Being the boss and familiarity.

The Cardinals are ready-made to win, but with LaRussa’s departure, I’d be concerned that they’re going to return to their earlier attempt to go the Moneyball route with the Jeff Luhnow-types in the front office and ignore what the manager thinks. LaRussa was able to use his resume as a hammer to fend off those adjustments and eventually won the power struggle; GM John Mozeliak was the man in the middle, appeasing his bosses and the manager. If Francona comes along, he’s not going to have the sharp elbows that LaRussa did. Francona’s much more affable than LaRussa, but that might not necessarily be a good thing.

Francona can work with Dave Duncan and doesn’t have the ego to retreat from delegating responsibilities to his coaches and players.

With the Cubs, he’d have at least some say with the construction of the roster because of his prior relationship with Epstein and Hoyer.

Talent.

Short of a miracle the Cubs aren’t going to be winning anytime soon and Epstein ain’t Moses.

The Cubs have a semblance of a good nucleus with Geovany Soto and Starlin Castro forming the basis for a solid up-the-middle club; Blake DeWitt deserves a chance to play and under Epstein his on-base skills and good defense will be better appreciated.

But it’s going to take a couple of years for the Cubs to be ready to win.

When Epstein took over the Red Sox, much of the ALCS club from 2003 and championship club from 2004 were already in place due to the prior work done by Dan Duquette. The Cubs have some talent, but are far from contending status. Would Francona be willing to walk in and have his record sullied by a 75-87 season in 2012? His job wouldn’t be on the line, but it’s a weak follow-up to the Red Sox collapse.

A starting rotation with Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia and Jake Westbrook; a bullpen with a 100-mph fastball of Jason Motte; a lineup with Lance Berkman, Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday, David Freese and presumably Pujols automatically has the Cardinals in contention.

The aggravation factor.

Francona’s hands-off approach eventually exploded in his face with the Red Sox, but the Cardinals have leaders who don’t tolerate any nonsense.

The Cubs have Zambrano and Soriano. It’s in their DNA to torment the manager.

There’s not a black cloud hanging over the Cardinals as there is with the Cubs. The negativity isn’t, nor will it ever be, present in St. Louis as it is on the North Side of Chicago.

While they’re almost waiting for something bad to happen to sabotage them—they almost revel in it as if it’s a badge of honor—the Chicago media and fans might be less willing to accept the “Flubs” if they don’t look like they’re on the right track under the new regime.

The Cardinals fans and media will support the club and their manager regardless of what happens as long as Francona doesn’t screw it up. And Francona’s not a “screw it up” guy who’ll make changes just for the sake of them.

There’s something to be said for being the manager of both the Red Sox and Cubs and ending two perceived curses—that’s part of what attracted Epstein to the Cubs in the first place; perhaps that would appeal to Francona. But for the reasons listed above, the Cardinals are a better job.

If offered both, the Cardinals job is a better situation and that’s the one I’d take if I were Terry Francona.

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