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.

email

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.

Mailbag: Montero, Miller, Outfield, Yu, Hughes

I swear, one of these weeks I’m going to do a Jesus Montero-free mailbag. Maybe next week, just to see how it goes. Hopefully you folks don’t revolt or something. Anyway, we’ve got two Montero-related and three non-Montero-related questions this week. The Submit A Tip box in the sidebar is the easiest (and preferred) way of sending questions in. Thanks.

(AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek)

Chris asks: I wrote to you guys earlier about Montero’s conditioning assignment. What is the pro of keeping him as a catcher? Just trade value? Look at all the catchers that break down because of the position. Mauer being a great example. I’d rather keep that bat in an area where he can remain healthy for a LONG time.

That’s the exact reason why the Nationals moved Bryce Harper to right field the instant they signed him two summers ago, and I can see that side of the argument. The pros of keeping Montero at catcher, not that he’s much to write home about back there, is that he’d simply be more valuable at that position, both to the Yankees or in a potential trade. Catchers that can rake are rare and therefore extremely valuable. The downside if obvious, he and his bat would need regular days off, the nagging injuries, etc.

I agree with moving him to a position that will allow him to play every day and theoretically remain productive, but what position is that? Okay, DH is obvious, but what else is there? Mark Teixeira still has five years left on his contract, so first base isn’t much of an option even though it’s the most logical spot. The outfield isn’t going to happen, at least not anytime soon. That’s not the easiest transition to make. Split duty at DH and behind the plate, maybe 100 games at DH and 40 behind the dish, seems like the most logical plan for Montero next year, then reevaluate after the season.

Evan asks: Assuming, and I know this is a huge assumption, that Albert Pujols signs anywhere besides with the Cardinals, do you think a Shelby Miller for Jesus Montero swap makes sense?

I don’t, actually. If the Cardinals lose Pujols, they’ll just stick Lance Berkman at first and play Allen Craig in right, or use Craig with a platoon partner, something like that. Obviously Montero wouldn’t catch for them with Yadier Molina around. Miller is arguably the best right-handed pitching prospect in the game, but he’s thrown just 86.2 IP above A-ball. That’s not enough of a sure thing to get back in a Montero trade in my book. I’d prefer a player that’s unquestionably ready to step in and play in the big leagues right now, kinda like Jesus.

Nick asks: Who are the prospects that can replace Nick Swisher after 2012?

There aren’t any really, and that’s part of the reason why the Yankees brought in guys like Justin Maxwell and Jordan Parraz last offseason. Their outfield depth at the upper levels of the minors is pretty thin. Melky Mesa has a long way to go before he can be considered a viable big league option, and both Abe Almonte and Mason Williams are years away from being options. Slade Heathcott needs to stay healthy for a full year before we can think him getting to Double-A, nevermind the bigs. If the Yankees let Swisher walk after 2012, they’d have to fill the position from outside the organization. Either that or take a big hit in production.

(Jeff Bottari/Getty Images)

Kevin asks: Will Yu Darvish generate a posting fee as high as Dice-K? Will a shallow free agent market balance out the recent dismal big Japanese pitcher free agent history i.e workload, adapting to a new culture? Who would you choose considering price between Darvish and Wilson? Is it possible to grab both and fill out the rotation with C.C., Wilson, Darvish, Nova and Hughes? Thanks.

I don’t think anyone knows what kind of posting fee Darvish will require, it’s all guesswork. It’s worth noting that although the Red Sox won the right to negotiate with Daisuke Matsuzaka with that $51.1M bid, the second highest bid was $39-40M by the Mets. Boston really blew everyone out of the water for Dice-K. Darvish is supposedly better than Dice-K, but baseball salaries have come down a bit in recent years, and I do think Matsuzaka will scare some teams into lowering their bid. It only takes one team to go overboard though, and I’m willing to bet it takes at least $40M or so land him.

As for Darvish vs. C.J. Wilson, I’d rather go with Darvish. Wilson is the safer bet, sure, but Darvish offers more upside (and more risk) and is considerably younger. There’s also the benefit of keeping the draft pick and saving money because the posting fee is not counted towards the luxury tax. Wilson is the safe move and is probably the better bet in 2012 and 2013, but over the next five or six years, Darvish is the guy I want. And no, I don’t think the Yankees, or any team for that matter, will land both guys this winter.

Anthony asks: I was wondering if you can see the Yankees trading Phil Hughes this offseason. He’s been with the team for a while now (since ’07, no?) and we’ve only seen him perform to his expectations just twice: as a lights out reliever in ’09 and as a dominant starter in the first half of the ’10 season. What would someone like Hughes get the Yankees in a trade?

Hughes’ value is at an all-time low right now, so I can’t imagine they’d get much in return. He’s not that young anymore, nor is he cheap and under team control for another half-decade. He’ll make something like $3-4M in 2012, his second time through arbitration, then become a free agent after the 2013 season. I could definitely see the Yankees trading him, but I doubt they’d get anything special in return. Maybe another kid like Hughes, struggling to take the next step at the big league level. The Yankees aren’t exactly in a position to give away potential starters though, so I’m not sure I’d be okay with dealing him for another reclamation project just because.

Yankees ties to the World Series

(Photo via CBS Sports)

For the second consecutive year, the Yankees are not playing in the World Series this fall (oh what a horrible drought!), but that doesn’t mean they’re an afterthought. There are Yankees ties to both the Cardinals and Rangers, thanks in part due to the age of free agency and non-stop transactions. Texas knocking the New York out of the playoffs last year is another connection as well, but that’s not really the angle I was planning to take.

Two players on the Cardinals once suited up for the Yankees, and two current Yankees helped get the Rangers to the Fall Classic in consecutive years by virtue of their departures. Let’s dig in…

Lance Berkman

More than anything, Berkman is the reason why I’m pulling for the Cardinals in the World Series. A platoon DH for the Yankees late last year, Puma hit a respectable .255/.358/.349 in 123 regular season plate appearances (.298/.404/.417 in his final 99 PA) before emerging as the team’s third best hitter in the postseason (.313/.368/.688). He became far more important than expected in the ALCS thanks to Mark Teixeira‘s hamstring injury in Game Four.

One of the conditions of the trade that brought Berkman to New York was that the Yankees could not exercise his $15M option for 2011, which was perfectly fine because he had all the look of a declining and increasingly injury-prone player. Fat Elvis signed a one-year deal with the Cardinals, had a monster season (.402 wOBA) that won him Comeback Player of the Year honors, and will bat cleanup behind Albert Pujols in the Fall Classic. Go Puma go.

Mark Teixeira

There’s not a direct Yankees-Rangers relationship here, but there’s no doubt that current Yankee Mark Teixeira helped the Rangers get to where they are today. Less than a month after reportedly turning down an eight-year, $140M extension offer, Tex was traded by Texas to the Braves (along with Ron Mahay) for a five-player package that included starting shortstop Elvis Andrus, closer Neftali Feliz, and likely Game Four starter Matt Harrison. That’s some haul, the gold standard when it comes to trading elite hitters.

Alex Rodriguez

(Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

A-Rod‘s connection to the Rangers and their success is a bit more concrete than Teixeira’s, at least from the Yankees point of view. When the Yankees acquired Alex in exchange for Alfonso Soriano and Robinson Cano Joaquin Arias in 2004, Texas gained more than $112M worth of financial flexibility through the 2010 season. That money was redistributed in a multitude of ways; some of it went to Michael Young and his long-term deal, and some was invested in prospects via the draft and international free agency (Derek Holland, Mitch Moreland, Alexi Ogando). Who knows how they rest was spent. That money wouldn’t have been available to the team if the Yankees hadn’t taken A-Rod off the Rangers’ hands.

Octavio Dotel

There’s not much connection here, especially since Dotel has seemingly played for all 30 teams at one time or another, but the right-hander did appear in 14 games (10 IP, 18 H, 13 R, 11 BB, 7 K) for the 2006 Yankees. They signed him off the scrap heap following his Tommy John surgery, rehabbed him for the first half of the season, then stuck him in the bullpen for the stretch run. It didn’t work out. Five years later, Dotel is still slinging it at age 37, this time in middle relief for the Cardinals.

* * *

There are a few other very loose ties (Cards backup catcher Gerald Laird is Brandon’s brother), but those four up there cover most of it. Berkman is the most obvious connection, but I think it’s clear that the Tex and A-Rod stuff will have more impact in this World Series in the grand scheme of things.