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Team Preview - The First-Place St. Louis Cardinals

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[Editor's note - the engagingly written portions of this article are the work of Eric Stephen and those paragraphs are marked with his initials.  For the balance of the drivel, blame the name on the byline.]

(Draft chat continues here)

The St. Louis Cardinals return to Dodger Stadium for the first time since Game Two of the National League Divisional Series, when Matt Holliday's two-out error in the ninth inning on James Loney's sinking line drive to left field opened the door to a comeback, walk-off victory, a 2 - 0 series lead, and an eventual sweep by Los Angeles.

The Cardinals have tallied a National League-leading 33 victories, tied with the Dodgers, the just-departed Atlanta Braves, the San Diego Padres and the Cincinnati Reds.

Classically constructed with defense up the middle, offense from the OF and the corner IF, and two top starting pitchers, the Cardinals should pose a formidable challenge in this midweek series.

Position Breakdown

1B - Albert Pujols.  'Nuff said.

2B - Skip Schumaker sees almost all the playing time here. He has struggled with the bat all season and has a line of .240 / .309 / .311 / .620 to show for it.  His career UZR/150 at 2B is -10.2, so he's not making up for the lack of offense with stellar glovework either.  A Southern California native, Schumaker played at Aliso Niguel High School and the University of California, Santa Barbara.

SS - Dodger fans got an eyeful of Brendan Ryan's defensive prowess last year as he made several outstanding plays in the field.  He carries a career UZR/150 of 7.9, which helps him sleep at night while he hits .211 / .287 / .317 / .604 this year.  However, he is hitting .357 / .400 / .643 over his last ten games.  Ryan graduated from Notre Dame High School of Sherman Oaks.

3B - 27-year old rookie David Freese, obtained by trading Jim Edmonds to the Padres, has been holding down the hot corner capably (1.7 UZR/150, but in only 57 career starts), while hitting a robust .314 / .383 / .445 / .828 this season.  Freese is day-to-day however with a right ankle sprain and may be limited to pinch-hitting at least to start the series.

 

LF - Matt Holliday is actually a decent fielding left-fielder with a career UZR/150 of 1.7, with only one season under 3.3, but Dodger fans tend to see Holliday through the glasses of one particular play in Game Two of last season's NLDS.  Oh yeah, he's a pretty good hitter too: .305 / .384 / .467 / .851.

CF - Colby Rasmus is also day-to-day with a calf injury sustained in Sunday night's game.  The 23-year old, a Cardinals first-round pick in 2005, is a fine fielding CF (4.7 UZR/150) who has been a good hitter this season as well: .293 / .405 / .569 / .974.  Last year Rasmus' offense was dragged down by his performance against LHP, but he is hitting all comers this year, posting line of .273 / .368 / .515 against lefties.

RF - Ryan Ludwick continues his late-blooming career in St. Louis by batting .290 / .365 / .481 / .846 this season to complement his career UZR/150 of 6.3 as a right-fielder.

C - Yadier Molina has started 49 games or one more than LA's Russell Martin.  Molina crouches behind the plate with a reputation as an excellent defensive catcher, but has been even more powerless than the Dodger catcher with batting numbers of .253 / .337 / .331 / .668 this season.

Bench - Felipe Lopez was coveted by some Dodger fans for the backup jobs that Jamey Carroll and Ronnie Belliard are occupying for Los Angeles.  He has started 24 games at the infield skill positions this season and has even pitched a scoreless inning in relief during a tied ballgame.  The Reds cut Aaron Miles in the spring and St. Louis purchased his contract on June 1 to be their last infielder on the bench.  The Cardinals were so enamored of their outfielder depth they signed the recently jettisoned Randy Winn after he was DFA by the Yankees.  He joins Nick Stavinoha on the bench, but might start in CF if Rasmus can't go.  Lopez, Miles and Winn are all switch-hitters.  Jason LaRue is the backup catcher who has seen less playing time than A.J. Ellis.

Starting Pitching for our Series:

Game 1 - Blake Hawksworth, RHP (vs. Carlos Monestarios, RHP)

As of last night, Tony LaRussa hadn't yet officially chosen between P.J. Walters or Hawksworth. From Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

Before Sunday's game, La Russa had said the only reason Hawksworth wouldn't start tonight was if he had to be used in relief of rookie Jaime Garcia Sunday night against Milwaukee. Hawksworth wasn't used but after a 4-3 loss in extra innings, a terse La Russa said, "You may be ready to turn the page but I'm not. I'd like to think about this game for a while. I have no interest in talking about tomorrow."

Hawksworth said he had been told before the game that he likely would start if he didn't have to pitch Sunday. He said he wasn't sure how long he would be able to go but he said, "I imagine we'll all get a little action (tonight)."

It would be the first major league start for the 27-year old Hawksworth, who has thrown 61 innings in relief in 2009 and 2010.  After striking out over seven batters per nine throughout his minor league career, Hawksworth has struck out 4.87 per nine in his brief time in the majors.  He got his first major league win last season against the Dodgers, by pitching three scoreless innings of a 15-inning game to end what started as a pitching duel between Clayton Kershaw and Joel Piñeiro(ES)

Game 2 - Chris Carpenter, RHP (vs. Hiroki Kuroda, RHP)

Carpenter is having another typical Carpenter year: not a lot of walks (2.09 per nine innings), a strikeout-to-walk ratio of better than three-to-one (3.68), averaging nearly seven innings per start (6.88).  Carpenter is 7-1 with a 2.76 ERA, a 3.90 FIP, and 3.39 x-FIP.  If there is one sign of weakness -- and this is a reach -- it's that Carpenter has allowed 1.1 home runs per nine innings, his highest figure since 2004.  (ES)

Game 3 - Adam Wainwright, RHP (vs. Clayton Kershaw, LHP)

Wainwright is just a younger, better version of Carpenter.  He has more strikeouts (8.69 per nine innings), a stellar strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.86), and averages more innings per start (7.33).  Wainwright is fourth in MLB in ERA (2.05), third in FIP (2.61), and second in x-FIP (3.08).  Wainwright has a better FIP and x-FIP than the amazing Ubaldo Jimenez.  Still, with Kershaw getting the nod, there's no reason for the Dodgers to throw in the white towel.  (ES)

Bullpen:

The Cardinals' bullpen is second to the Padres in the National League in bullpen ERA (2.91) and WHIP (1.145), but are more middle of the pack in FIP (3.92) and x-FIP (4.19).  Closer Ryan Franklin picked up where he left off last season, with a sub-2.00 ERA despite not striking out many batters (5.8 per nine innings).  Franklin has had great control this season, with just one walk in 26 1/3 innings.  Power right-handers Jason Motte (9.64 K/9, 3.40 FIP) and Kyle McLellan (8.20 K/9, 3.52 FIP) are a formidable setup duo.  Trever Miller (.125/.192/.292, 2.98 FIP, 2.38 x-FIP against LHB) and old friend Dennys Reyes (.179/.378/.286, 5.87 FIP, 4.85 x-FIP against LHB) are the Cardinals' LOOGY options.  Mitchell Boggs and either Walters or Hawksworth round out the pen. (ES)

Old Friends:

Brad Penny, who is on the 15-day DL from the strained right lat muscle suffered while hitting a grand slam, Dennys Reyes, and Trever Miller.

Be sure to check out Viva El Birdos, the SB Nation Cards' blog, for in-depth analysis.  Here is a Cardinals vs Dodgers series preview from The Sports Network as well.

Cardinals news on Twitter@stlcardinals @thebirdos @MatthewHLeach @dgoold @JoeStrauss @PitchersHit8th @andrewdmoses @Steve_Sommer 

Statistics courtesy of baseball-reference.com and fangraphs.com.