After a long and miserable road trip, the Padres return home and try to remain relevant in 2008. Their first opponent is the St. Louis Cardinals, who visit Petco Park for three games starting Monday night. To learn a little more about the Cards, I chatted with Larry Borowsky of the excellent Viva El Birdos.
Ducksnorts: Last year was the Cardinals’ first losing season of the century; this year the team is off to a strong start. What has changed, and do you see them remaining in contention?
Borowsky: Aside from the obvious changes (no [Walt] Jocketty, no [Jim] Edmonds, no [Scott] Rolen, no [David] Eckstein, etc.), the big difference has been the performance of the starting rotation. This year’s group is as rag-tag as last year’s — it includes two guys ([Joel] Pineiro and [Todd] Wellemeyer) who were DFA’d last year, and a third ([Kyle] Lohse) who nobody wanted until mid-March — but this year’s group has pitched pretty well. The Cardinal rotation leads the league in innings per start and is fourth in ERA and in opponent OPS. Another key change, related to the first: the Cardinal defense is vastly improved. They’ve upgraded significantly in the outfield and at shortstop, and Troy Glaus has been quite good at third base (the one position where they figured to take a hit). Offensively, their biggest change since last year is a quantum leap in patience: the 2008 Cards lead the league in walks by a wide margin, while last year’s club finished 13th in the league in that category. Will they stay in contention? I think they’re capable of it; the odds are against them actually winning anything, but simply playing meaningful games in August and (may it be so) September would be a big achievement for this team. At the outset of the season, their best-case scenario was to hang in there for the first 100 games or so, avoid getting buried, and then try to make a run at the playoffs once Chris Carpenter rejoins the team in August or thereabouts. So far, so good — the team’s 2 games out of first, and Carpenter is still on schedule to return at or just after the All-Star break.
Ducksnorts: Albert Pujols is supposed to be hurt. Why isn’t he acting like it?
Borowsky: Because he’s not human? …Actually, the injury (to his right elbow, the same ailment that has bothered him since 2003) may be affecting his power stroke. Albert’s groundball rate went up sharply in 2007 and is up again in 2008, and his isolated power the last two years is down about 45 points off his career average. The elbow might have something to do with that, or it might simply be that El Hombre simply never sees a pitch to hit anymore; he’s on pace for about 160 walks. He only had 71 extra-base hits last year, a career low; he’s only on pace for about 65 this year. But he has traditionally been a second-half hitter, and in any given month he’s capable of slugging .750.
Ducksnorts: Rick Ankiel is one of the most fascinating stories in baseball I can recall. For those of us who haven’t seen him since he was uncorking wild pitches in the playoffs some years ago, talk a little about his game.
Borowsky: Well, as you’d expect he can make some eye-popping throws from the outfield. A couple weeks ago in Colorado he nailed Willy Taveras trying to take third on a sac fly; then later in the same game he chucked it 300 feet on the fly from the centerfield wall to third base to nail another runner trying to leg out a triple… ironically, the throw was a perfect strike. It still kind of breaks your heart when you see that arm and think about what might have been. As a hitter Ankiel is very much a work in progress — few people realize that he only had about 700 minor-league at-bats after converting full-time to the outfield, and only about 500 at-bats above Class A. He’s still just learning the strike zone. At Triple-A last year he walked 25 times in about 420 plate appearances; this year for St. Louis he already has 20 walks in about 175 plate appearances, including one that came at the end of a 17-pitch at-bat. Some of us Cardinal fans were worried he’d hack at everything and put up a .270 OBP; he’s currently at .370. I think we’d settle for .335.
Ducksnorts: Ryan Ludwick? Todd Wellemeyer? Seriously, how do you guys do that?
Borowsky: In Ludwick’s case, the Cards didn’t really do anything; they just gave him a chance to play, and his talent finally showed up. Ludwick has always been a quality player, but a couple of untimely injuries and poor play in very limited big-league trials got him unfairly labeled a failure. He’s always been a good hitter — not quite this good, but an .850 OPS season has always been within his range. In Wellemeyer’s case, I think Dave Duncan deserves a lot of credit. He got the guy to throw strikes, which he never could do before — his career BB/9 was well over 5.0 before this season. I don’t know if Duncan changed his mechanics, changed his repertoire, or simply changed his mind-set — maybe some combination thereof. You’ll see him pitch tonight — so far this season he has missed a lot of bats and induced a lot of weak contact.
Ducksnorts: One guy we kind of fantasized about for center field over the winter (before you dumped Jim Edmonds on us) was Brian Barton. I know he’s not out there every day, but how has he looked?
Borowsky: He hit a triple to right-center early this season, and watching him sail around the bases was a joy; the guy’s feet don’t touch the ground. He has a good eye at the plate, seems to pick up the ball well and can lay off a pitcher’s pitch, leading to a decent walks total. But lately teams have stopped trying to set the guy up and have simply been blowing fastballs by him. He has a weak throwing arm, and despite the great speed he hasn’t stolen a base. He’s got clear potential, but like most Rule Vs he’s not quite ready for the big leagues. The Cardinals like him; if they ultimately decide they can’t keep him on the MLB roster, I imagine they’ll try to work out a trade with the Indians so they can keep him in the organization.
Ducksnorts: What’s the deal with Anthony Reyes, and if the Cardinals can’t fix him, would they consider trading him to… oh, I don’t know, the Padres?
Borowsky: Fix him? The Cardinals broke him. They changed his mechanics and his repertoire (costing him 3-4 mph off his fastball), jerked him back and forth between the big leagues and the minors, and expressed very clearly (in word and deed) that they didn’t believe in him. He reinstalled his old mechanics this year, and his velocity is back, but his confidence isn’t; he’s now getting knocked around in Triple-A, which he dominated for the last three seasons. A new organization might be able to salvage him, but the repair at this point will need to be as much psychological as physical. The Cards are actively trying to trade him, but they haven’t come to grips with the fact that Reyes is ding-n-dent merchandise; they’re still asking full price for the guy, and they’re not going to get it.
Ducksnorts: T.S. Eliot or Vincent Price?
Borowsky: The Abominable Dr. Phibes rules.
There you have it. Thanks again to Larry for swinging by and chatting with us. Here’s hoping the series is entertaining and totally free of abominations…