5/26-5/28 Series Preview: St. Louis Cardinals

(Joe Robbins/Getty)
(Joe Robbins/Getty)

After a one series reprieve, the Yankees are right back in an NL park for another interleague series. Thankfully this is their final visit to the so-called Senior Circuit this year, at least until the World Series, of course. The Yankees are visiting the new Busch Stadium for the first time this week for three games against the defending NL champion Cardinals. It is their first trip to St. Louis in general since 2005.

What Have They Done Lately?
The Cards are coming off two straight wins over the Reds and they’ve won nine of their last eleven games overall. They were scuffling a bit earlier in the season, but they’ve definitely turned it around of late. St. Louis is 28-22 with a +24 run differential overall, which is the second best record in the NL Central and fourth best record in the NL overall.

Offense
At 3.84 runs per game with a team 96 wRC+, the Cardinals are a bit below average offensively. Unsurprisingly, their historic success with runners in scoring position last year (.330/.402/.463 (!!!)) has not carried over to this year (.242/.324/.334). That’s just not something a team will do year after year. OF Peter Bourjos (87 wRC+) has been sidelined by a stomach bug the last few days, but otherwise the Cardinals are perfectly healthy on the position player side.

Craig. (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)
Craig. (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)

Manager Mike Matheny’s lineup is anchored by C Yadier Molina (133 wRC+), who also happens to be the best defensive catcher in all the land. Life will not be easy for the Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner led running game this week. SS Jhonny Peralta (123 wRC+) and 1B Matt Adams (124 wRC+) are having very strong years while 3B Matt Carpenter (110 wRC+) and OF Matt Holliday (111 wRC+) have been good but not great. Certainly not as good as they were last season. OF Jon Jay (101 wRC+) has been solid.

The lack of production from RF Allen Craig (89 wRC+) has really hurt the Cardinals these first few weeks. He was expected to be one of their top middle of the order guys. 2B Kolten Wong (83 wRC+) and 2B Mark Ellis (32 wRC+) have more or less shared time at second, though Wong is getting more of the at-bats of late. OF Shane Robinson (24 wRC+), IF Daniel Descalso (10 wRC+), and C Tony Cruz (115 wRC+) round out the bench, which is surprisingly weak for an NL team. It was especially noticeable in the World Series last fall.

Pitching Matchups (Pitcher GIFs is still down for whatever reason)

Monday: RHP Chase Whitley (No vs. STL) vs. RHP Michael Wacha (vs. NYY)
Wacha, 22, shot from college to (near) the front of the Cardinals rotation in less than two full years, which is damn impressive. He has a 2.54 ERA (2.77 FIP) in ten starts and 60.1 innings this season thanks to excellent strikeout (9.58 K/9 and 26.4 K%), walk (2.54 BB/9 and 6.8 BB%), and homer (0.60 HR/9 and 7.5% HR/FB) rates. His ground ball rate (43.0%) isn’t great and he has a tiny platoon split. Wacha’s performance this year is almost exactly the same as last year, and it’s kinda freaky. After relying on his low-to-mid-90s four-seamer and knockout mid-to-high-80s changeup almost exclusively last season, Wacha is using his upper-80s cutter and mid-70s curveball much more often this year. It’s very hard to believe he won’t turn 23 until later this summer.

Lynn. (Mike McGinnis/Getty)
Lynn. (Mike McGinnis/Getty)

Tuesday: RHP David Phelps (vs. STL) vs. RHP Lance Lynn (vs. NYY)
At 27 years and 14 days, Lynn will be the oldest starting pitcher the Yankees see in this series by more than three full years. He comes into the series with a 3.60 ERA (3.10 FIP) in ten starts and 60 innings, and his peripherals — 8.85 K/9 (22.6 K%), 3.00 BB/9 (7.7 BB%), 0.60 HR/9 (7.0% HR/FB), and 44.5% grounders — are career bests as a starter across the board. Lefties (.348 wOBA) are hitting him much harder than righties (.273 wOBA). Lynn is something of a 4.5-pitch pitcher. He uses his low-90s two and four-seam fastballs to set up his mid-80s slider and upper-70s curveball, plus he’ll also throw a handful of mid-80s changeups per start. For whatever reason, Lynn has really scaled back his changeup usage the last two seasons. He’ll look like a legitimate ace on his best days.

Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out this will be a homecoming for Phelps, who was born and raised in the St. Louis suburbs. He told George King he was a die-hard Cardinals fan growing up. I’m sure he’s excited for this game.

Wednesday: RHP Hiroki Kuroda (vs. STL) vs. RHP Shelby Miller (vs. NYY)
The Cardinals reportedly shopped the 23-year-old Miller heavily over the winter, which made me think his arm was about to explode. Especially after they avoided using him in the postseason (faced only four batters despite being on the roster all three rounds). You don’t try to trade former first round pick after he pitched to a 3.06 ERA (3.67 FIP) as a rookie. Sure enough, Miller has taken a big step back this year, though you wouldn’t know it by looking at his 3.18 ERA. His strikeout rate (7.15 K/9 and 18.7 K%) has dropped quite a bit, his walk rate (4.76 BB/9 and 7.5 BB%) has nearly doubled, and he’s been far more homer prone (1.43 HR/9 and 15.0% HR/FB) despite a relatively static ground ball rate (41.8%). Lefties (.381 wOBA) have pounded him as well (.310 wOBA for righties). His 5.22 FIP is no accident. Miller sits in the low-to-mid-90s with his fastball and will mix in the occasional upper-80s cutter. A sharp upper-70s curveball is his top secondary pitch, though he also has a mid-80s changeup. Based on how he’s pitching this year compared to last year, I have to think something is very wrong with Miller. Either he’s hurt or his mechanics are a total mess. He went from budding ace to replacement level in an offseason.

Rosenthal. (Andy Lyons/Getty)
Rosenthal. (Andy Lyons/Getty)

Bullpen Status
The Cardinals recently welcomed RHP Jason Motte (8.19 FIP in limited time) back from Tommy John surgery, which sidelined him all of last year. He is currently being eased back into things while RHP Trevor Rosenthal (2.96 FIP) continues to handle closing duties. He’s had some walk (13.3 BB%) problems this year. RHP Carlos Martinez (3.88) handles setup work.

LHP Kevin Siegrist just landed on the disabled list with a forearm problem, leaving former Yankee LHP Randy Choate (2.90 FIP) as Matheny’s top southpaw. RHP Seth Maness (3.70 FIP), RHP Pat Neshek (1.99 FIP), and LHP Sam Freeman (2.05 FIP in one whole inning) fill out the rest of the bullpen. The Cardinals don’t really have a true long man, though I’m not sure that’s a flaw. It’s just different. Only Choate and Neshek pitched last night, and they threw a combined 17 pitches. Their ‘pen is fresh.

Our Bullpen Workload page has everything you need to know about the Yankees’ bullpen heading into the series. For the latest and greatest on the Cardinals, check out Viva El Birdos.

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Cardinals agree to four-year deal with Aledmys Diaz

According to multiple reports, the Cardinals have agreed to a four-year contract with Cuban infielder Aledmys Diaz. The deal is reportedly worth a little less than $20M. The Yankees had interest in Diaz and even had him in camp for a private workout a few weeks ago, but they ultimately decided not to make a contract offer. Oh well.

Mailbag: Cano and the Cardinals

(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)

Travis asks: If the Cardinals were to attempt a trade for Robinson Cano, taking into account he is a one-year rental, what would the Yankees get? Trevor Rosenthal, Jon Jay, and Lance Lynn?

Cano’s future with the Yankees has been a pretty hot topic in recent weeks given his impending free agency and the team’s intent to get under the $189M luxury tax threshold by 2014. I fully expect them to re-sign him to a long-term contract, but let’s entertain the idea of trading him this winter just for fun. Remember, thanks to the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, Robbie would have to be traded in the offseason for his new team to be eligible for draft pick compensation next winter. That’s a pretty big deal.

Anyway, the Cardinals looked into acquiring Cano prior to the 2009 season but backed away when the Yankees asked for Adam Wainwright. Their middle infield is a disaster right now and top second base prospect Kolten Wong is at least half-a-season away, if not a full season. Adding a big left-handed bat to switch-hitter Carlos Beltran and righties Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina, Allen Craig, and David Freese would really balance their middle of the lineup and make the NL’s best offense even better.

The Cardinals have a loaded farm system that includes arguably the best hitter in the minor leagues in Oscar Taveras. The left-handed hitting outfielder mashed in Double-A this year (.321/.380/.572, 159 wRC+ as a 20-year-old) and will be ranked among the top five prospects in baseball after the season. They also have a ton of pitching in Rosenthal, Lynn, Joe Kelly, Carlos Martinez, Tyrell Jenkins, and Shelby Miller. Martinez and Jenkins are a few years out while the other guys all pitched in the bigs in 2012. Obviously the Rays deserve a lot of credit, but I think the Cardinals are the best player development organization in baseball.

The Adrian Gonzalez trade (Padres to Red Sox, not Red Sox to Dodgers) is a pretty great trade comparison since it also featured one year of a superstar player. It netted the San Diego two of Baseball America’s top 100 prospects in Casey Kelly (#31) and Anthony Rizzo (#75) in addition to the previous year’s first rounder in Reymond Fuentes. Taveras is better than any of those guys and that’s obviously who the Yankees should ask for first. I think 27-year-old rookie and left-handed hitting utility man Matt Carpenter (125 wRC+ in 340 PA while playing first, second, third, left, and right this year) would be a great target as the third piece in a package.

The Yankees should start talks by asking for Taveras or Craig (who could play right, backup first, fake third if needed), Miller or Lynn or Rosenthal, plus Carpenter to round out the three-player package. St. Louis would say no and you negotiate down a bit from there, though I suppose the Bombers could add a player/prospect(s) to sweeten the pot on their end. Cano would have to net you a third high-end piece in addition to one of those arms and Carpenter though, he is the best second baseman in baseball with a below-market salary for 2013. I don’t think the Yankees will find a better trade partner for Cano than the Cardinals given their middle infield needs and prospect depth, but moving him would put a big dent in their attempt to contend in 2013.

The Yankees, Cardinals, and a lesson in offense

(Christian Petersen/Getty)

The World Series starts Wednesday night and the Yankees won’t be playing in it because of their complete inability to generate offense against the Tigers in the ALCS. They scored six runs in the four-game sweep, and four of those runs came in two-thirds of an inning against Jose Valverde. It’s still fresh in everyone’s mind so I don’t need to remind you of how ugly the series was.

The Cardinals also won’t be playing in this year’s World Series because they too just stopped hitting. They blew a three games to one lead against the Giants in the NLCS and were outscored a whopping 20-1 in the final three games. That’s despite the presence of Carlos Beltran, a .363/.470/.782 career hitter in 151 playoff plate appearances and the proud owner of the highest postseason OPS in baseball history. It’s hard to believe that their offense just evaporated.

I bring this up because the Yankees and Cardinals have more in common than their LCS exits. They each led their league in offense during the regular season (113 wRC+ for NYY and 107 for STL), but they did it in very different ways. The Yankees hit .265/.337/.453 as a team and led the world in homers (245) while the Cardinals hit .271/.338/.421 with just 159 homers. The big difference is that New York hit .262/.345/.449 with men on base while St. Louis hit .272/.345/.435 in those situations. Same OBP but less power production for the Cardinals (due in part to the pitcher hitting), but they hit for a higher average in those spots (.272 was the seventh highest team average with men on base this year). Their offense was built more on sustained rallies and getting so-called “clutch hits” whereas the Yankees just bludgeoned their opponents.

Anyway, a lot of people attribute New York’s postseason failure to their inability to score runs without the long ball and want to see them embrace a more contact-oriented approach. I don’t necessarily buy the former but I am on board with the latter to a certain extent. However, the Cardinals had a contract-oriented approach and their offense still disappeared for a stretch in the playoffs. The point I’m trying to make is that there is no magic formula for a winning offense, there’s no right or wrong. You can do everything right and hit all the homers and drive in every runner in scoring position … and it still might not matter because anything can happen in a short series. It’s not luck, it’s just the day-to-day randomness of baseball and life in general.