LaRussa's Mad Science:
I should really know better by now. I lived in St. Louis for six years, during which Tony LaRussa took the Cardinals to the playoffs four times, including an 105 win season and an NL Championship in 2004, when nobody (even St. Louis fans) expected the Cards would finish higher than 3rd place in the NL Central. Last year the Cardinals stayed in contention until the final two weeks of the season, even though nobody other than Pujols drove in more than 70 runs or scored more than 58. By comparison, the two teams they were chasing, the Cubs and Brewers, each had at least four players who eclipsed those numbers in both categories. What's more perplexing? St. Louis also had by far the worst team ERA of any of the three franchises. Yet somehow the Cardinals finished only seven games back, even after they lost 14 of 16 in mid-September.
Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan are the only managerial team in baseball (sorry Bobby Cox) with seemingly magical abilities. Let me just list a few players that they've transformed in the last decade:
Chris Carpenter - SP - Had a .500 record, an ERA over 4.50, and had just missed a full season before arriving in St. Louis. Since then he has gone 51-18 and won a Cy Young.
Woody Williams - SP - He went 45-22 with the Cardinals, 87-94 everywhere else.
Matt Morris - SP - Hasn't had a winning record or an ERA under 4.90 since leaving St. Louis, where he once posted five straight winning seasons, averaging 16 wins a year during that span.
Sure they've had some tough cases as well (Anthony Reyes, Mark Mulder, Jason Marquis, etc.), but in general they patch together pitching staffs and lineups from players that other teams have castaway (besides Carpenter and Williams, they've gotten significant contributions in recent years from Joel Pineiro, Jeff Weaver, Ryan Franklin, Russ Springer, and Todd Wellemeyer).
If St. Louis remains in contention all year, this will be, undoubtedly, their most impressive performance yet. They are already making me regret picking them to finish last in the division. Right now, LaRussa has a quartet of outfielders batting better than .311. Their names? No, not Walker, Edmonds, Sanders, and Encarnacion. Not even Ankiel. Their names are Schumaker, Ludwick, Duncan, and Barton. Add in Ankiel, Glaus, and Prince Albert and you've got a lineup that is 5th in the NL in scoring. It's early and I highly doubt these guys can continue this pace, but St. Louis had Colby Rasmus waiting at AAA, so if even one or two of these guys proves to be for real, they could have a very respectable outfield by the end of the season.
More surprisingly, perhaps, the Cardinals are 4th in the NL in ERA, despite having a patchwork staff which includes seven pitchers who have made multiple appearances as both relievers and starters during the last two seasons. Versatility may be nice from one or two guys, but it generally doesn't suggest an impressive corps, since going back and forth from the bullpen to the rotation usually means a player hasn't been particularly good at either. Yet, somehow, LaRussa and Duncan, have quietly made Ryan Franklin, who pitched 190+ innings as a starter for three season sin Seattle, into one of the league's best set-up men (32 Holds and an ERA under 3.00 in 90 innings over the last two seasons). They've converted Braden Looper, who hadn't made a start in eight full major league seasons, into a solid inning-eater at the backend of the rotation (15-13 with 190 IP in 34 starts). And they're looking to Todd Wellemeyer, Brad Thompson, and Anthony Reyes to make similar transformations (so far the trio is 4-1 with 3 QS, 1 SV, 2 HLD, and an ERA around 3.50).
I'm not ready to predict that the Cardinals will outlast the surgin, power-packed Cubs or the young, talented Brewers, but if St. Louis finishes over .500 in third place with this group of players, LaRussa will deserve another Manager of the Year award.
The Baby Backs:
Matthew Berry, ESPN's Talented Mr. Roto, whose self-deprecating fantasy advice I usually enjoy and often agree with, recently predicted that Justin Upton, despite his hot start will only finish with about 25 HR and a .275 average (he's currently hitting .368 with 5 HR). While I understand his justification. The league will adjust and the 20-year-old Upton will suffer some slumps as the season progresses, I think you need to moderate this assumption with a player of Upton's caliber. Remember, Upton struggled under prolonged exposure to the league at the end of last season, but made successful adjustments in the postseason (1097 OPS) which he's carried over into this year. The Diamondbacks made a wise decision in sticking with him last year and they're reaping the benefits now. The proper comparison for Upton is not to guys like Jeff Francoeur, Rick Ankiel, and Troy Tulowitski, who are susceptible to sophomore slumps, but to Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Bonds, and Miguel Cabrera, who were not. Cabrera hit 33 HR with 112 RBI in his first full year. In Arizona's lineup, where Upton is currently batting 6th and is not expected to be the dominant force, such numbers are not unreasonable. Remember, one of the things (there are many) which separates Upton from his teammate, Mark Reynolds, and guys like Ankiel and Francoeur, is his control of the strike zone. Don't get me wrong, he's going to strikeout, but it isn't going to be consistently on pitches way out of the zone. No matter how NL hurlers approach him, they will have to throw him strikes.
Reynolds, also off to a very hot start, is something of a different story. He's looking great right now, but last year his K to BB ratio was almost 4:1. At one point, he struck out in ten consecutive at-bats. He's averaging more than one strikeout a game even during his hot streak. Reynolds is going to go cold much more often than Upton and his position is not nearly as secure since the D-Backs will have Chad Tracy coming back soon. Sure, there are plenty of studs like Ryan Howard and Adam Dunn to strike out as much as Reynold does, but even when they are slumping, as Dunn has been recently, they get on base via the walk. Reynold hasn't shown his ability to do that yet and until he does, he's risky business.
Finally, I'll conclude my discussion of the Baby Backs with Chris Young. Superficially, one would say he looks pretty consistent. Last year he hit .237 with 32 HR, 27 SB, 147 K. This year he is on pace for .227 with 40 HR , 24 SB, and 168 K. Great numbers, but the average and strikeouts aren't what you'd look for from a leadoff man. There is a difference though, Young has raised his OBP to a very respectable .348, more than fifty points higher than last season, by drawing more walks. Young is probably never going to hit .300, but a .350 OBP with 40/40 potential and top-tier centerfield defense is damn admirable.