Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Good Teams Beat the Teams They Are Supposed to Beat

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, a World Series contender is supposed to beat the bottom feeders, not play to their level. If the Cardinals end up on the outside looking in when the playoffs open, they'll have no one to blame but themselves. Yet again, we see a team that was supposed to be the class of the NL Central drop two games to a team they should be taking 2 of 3 from (if not sweeping). No disrespect meant to the Pirates -- they have some intriguing young talent for the first time in what seems like forever. But, the Cardinals have a payroll that suggests contender, they've signed free agents thinking it enhanced their standing as contenders, and they've made late season trades that are consistent with moves a contender would make. Yet here we sit on 8/25 and they are 3.5 games behind the Reds for the NL Central lead and are 1 game out of the NL Wild Card. Obviously, plenty of time left, but you gotta get it going. NOW. This season won't be considered successful in St. Louis without a solid showing in the playoffs.

Here's a quick look at what's at stake for other NL playoff contenders:
Reds - The season's a success at this point -- no matter what happens. That said, Walt Jockety has done a nice job of mixing veteran players with the young talent that the Reds had developed. This team has really taken on the challenge of being a power in the NL -- not just a surprise.

Braves - Many tabbed them to have a good season, and they've delivered. Winning one last division for the retiring Bobby Cox would be a fitting end to one of the greatest managerial careers in the history of the game. I don't see them letting go of a playoff spot at this point, but Philly always seems to make a late charge, so they may end up the Wild Card. Missing the playoffs is always considered disappointing for a team with Atlanta's recent history, but would be especially painful after the season they've had so far.

Phillies - While currently on a 3 game losing streak, the Phillies are starting to play like the team that many expected them to be when 2010 opened. They are currently tied atop the Wild Card standings, but are only 2.5 out of the division lead. Outside of the Yankees, there probably isn't another team in baseball that will see more negative press for missing the playoffs. If/when they make it to October baseball, they'll be a tough out for anyone with a rotation of Halladay, Oswalt and Hamels.

Padres - They've been the surprise team of the year, and they just keep rolling. Their pitching is as good as anyone's despite the fact that it doesn't have the name recognition. Their offense isn't as feared as other teams', but they excel at getting the key hits when they matter. A nice playoff run, and Adrian Gonzalez could be a full fledged star -- not to mention one step closer to being a former Padre. It'd be disappointing, and a little surprising, to see them lose their 6 game lead at this point, but the season is a huge success simply because they played well enough to hang onto A-Gon and Heath Bell all season -- players many predicted would be gone long before the non-waiver trading deadline.

Giants - The division is a longshot at this point, but they're tied for the Wild Card. Buster Posey has had a monster season, and could easily end up winning Rookie of the Year, which would be quite a feat considering the great play we've seen from rookies in 2010. Their big guns in the rotation haven't been as good as expected, but you can't count out a team that can go into a short series with Lincecum and Cain pitching the first two games.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Where Did the Fight Go?

I had the best intentions of writing a post about the now infamous fight in Cincinnati last week, but the reality of life with a 6 month old child and 40+ hour a week job (not to mention being old and needing sleep) got in the way. With the extra few days of perspective, my viewpoint changes, and not really for the better.

The Cardinals finally looked like the team most expected them to be during that series versus the Reds. They were ticked at Brandon Phillips calling them "little bitches", and they set out to show him and his team why they were still the team to beat in the NL Central. It was a much anticipated series, and turned out to be a bit of a yawn. With sweep in hand, the Cards returned home to face the lowly Cubs and a roster that looked like it belonged in Des Moines. I was thinking sweep, or 2 of 3 at the very least.

Now that the Cards have dropped 2 of 3, I'm starting to become more and more convinced that this is a team destined to go out with a whimper once October rolls around -- assuming they even make it that far. For the second straight series, the Cardinals can only manage one win against the Cubs. Had the Redbirds shown any streak of consistency at all in 2010, I might chalk this up to the rivalry and the fact that these series against their biggest rival are about as close to meaningful baseball as the Cubs are going to see from here on out. We've seen this series after series with this year's Cardinals, though, and unless that mythical switch is out there just waiting to be thrown, we might be seeing a team falling far short of expectations. A shame, given that so many things are going right:
  1. Wainwright is having his second straight Cy Young worthy campaign.
  2. Pujols has turned things on and just became the only player in history to hit 30 HR in 10 straight seasons.
  3. Matt Holliday is putting up numbers consistent with a guy who commanded huge money on the free agent market.
  4. Jaime Garcia has more than made up for the departure of Joel Piniero and softened the injuries of Lohse and Penny.
  5. Rookie Jon Jay has been raking and is an almost permanent fixture in the 2 hole.
  6. Colby Rasmus still has some room to grow, but is clearly blossoming into one of the team's best players.
In spite of all of this, the Cards still find themselves trailing the Reds on 8/16. Why is that? You can point to some of the under-performers -- Ryan, Schumaker, Lopez, etc. Then there are injuries to guys like Freese, Lohse, Penny and (since traded) Ludwick. The big problem, though, is that the team doesn't seem to play with that "Win or Die" mentality that Tony LaRussa managed teams seem to carry. Tough to pinpoint a simple reason why that is missing, but if this team doesn't find its heart soon, then we'll be talking 2011 much sooner than any of us would have thought.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

ARod reaches 600 and Trade Deadline Reaction

Alex Rodriguez FINALLY hit #600 in his first at bat against the Blue Jays today. I'm sure a nation of Yankee haters can rejoice that the daily updates on ARod will be coming to an end after a day of tributes. The milestone leaves me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I've come to appreciate ARod for the fact that he's finally done what I'd always wanted him to do -- cut out all the "I need to be the perfect superstar ballplayer" crap and just turned into a ballplayer. The flip side is that he's an admitted PED user, so his 600 doesn't mean as much as a guy like Ken Griffey Jr. reaching the same level. I guess in many ways, ARod has come to represent what I started to dislike about the Yankees betweeen 2002 and 2008 -- the excess, the flaunting of their financial power, the ability to hate without admitting you respect the team/player. Those were cornerstones of Torre's early years, and I felt like after losing the World Series in 2001. But still, it's a milestone, and I think years from now, as the dust settles from the steroid era, I think ARod will get his due for being the player that he is.

Last weekend also saw the non-waiver trading deadline come and go. For all the talk that it would be a quiet deadline this year, it sure seems like there was a lot of activity. The Yankees added Lance Berkman, Austin Kearns and Kerry Wood. I was pleased with all three acquisitions, and think this might strengthen the team to a point where they'll be awfully tough to beat in October, providing their starting pitching returns to full health. Wood is a player that I was especially pleased to see in pinstripes. I've watched his career from the beginning, and really was annoyed with the way the Cubs shuffled him out of town. He adds depth to a bullpen that has been struggling of late.

Down in St. Louis, it has been a bit of a mixed bag. The Cardinals ripped off 8 straight wins after the All Star Break, but have been a model of inconsistency since. Most frustrating for me is that they seem to play poorly against teams they should be beating. Both Houston and the Cubs are teams that are struggling and there really is no excuse for expecting a team to take 2 of 3 games in a series from these teams. But, time and again, we've seen this team lost 2 of 3, and that just doesn't give you a good feeling as we get closer to the end of the season. Cincinnati hasn't show much sign that they are going away, and a team with championship aspirations MUST pad a lead against the lesser teams in the division.

The trade deadline was a bit quieter in St. Louis. The team was in the mix for Roy Oswalt, but had to settle for Jake Westbrook. Westbrook, who is a groundball pitcher, seems like an ideal guy for Dave Duncan and the Cardinals pitching staff, and the depth helps negate the injuries to Lohse and Penny, not to mention gives you some protection against Jaime Garcia hitting the rookie wall. The trade did spell the end of Ryan Ludwick's time in St. Louis and I'm very sorry to see him go. His was a great story and you love seeing a guy like that stick with things and finding his chance to be an everyday player. His playing time had slipped due to injury and the emergence of hot-hitting rookie John Jay, so something had to give. Ludwick should fare well in San Diego. They're a team that reminds me very much of the Cardinals of the last few years, and they should have a regular spot for "Luddy" in their outfield. They are a possible playoff opponent, should the Cardinals hold off the Reds, so you do worry a bit about him coming back to haunt his old team.