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Monday, August 17, 2009

Run, River, Run

The St. Louis Cardinals are 15-6 (.714) since the acquisition of Matt Holliday, who, by the way, is hitting .453 with 22 RBI and a 1257 OPS in the National League. You know who else has been pretty good? Julio Lugo. Manny Ramirez's former sidekick is hitting .354 with a 987 OPS. He's made one error in his first ten games. And Mark DeRosa. He's hit eight homers and driven in fifteen runs since the All-Star Break. The team has won every one of Joel Pineiro last eight starts, during which time he has a 2.91 ERA.

What do all these players have in common? They were all acquired via trade by the Cardinal's relatively new GM, John Mozeliak.

Sure, the Cards also still have some guys from that Championship team in 2006: the Ace, Chris Carpenter, his protege, Adam Wainwright, the immovable backstop, Yadier Molina, and, of course, the Machine, Mr. Pujols. You get the picture. Mozeliak didn't exactly start with an empty canvas. But he has, with the rather extraordinary help of Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan, turned what was likely a borderline playoff team into a legitimate contender.

For the past two seasons he, LaRuss, Duncan, and Marty Mason have assembled a piecemeal bullpen from career minor leaguers and other team's castoffs. Currently, the St. Louis 'pen is home to seven guys who make less than six million dollars combined. Or, to put that in perspective, they make $2.5 Million less than K-Rod does by himself. That 36-year-old desperation closer, Ryan Franklin, who Mozeliak signed to an inexpensive three-year contract before last season, has saved 29 games, blown just one, and has a ridiculous 1.17 ERA. The bullpen has a respectable 3.96 ERA on the season and has been even better since the All-Star break.

Sure, Mozeliak has had a few clunkers - Khalil Greene and Troy Glaus come to mind - but he has been aggressive, his mistakes have been relatively rare and, more importantly, cheap, and he has regained the trust of St. Louis fans who felt burned by the firing of Walt Jocketty, the organizations disputes with LaRussa, and the departure of popular veterans like Scott Rolen, Jim Edmonds, and Jason Isringhausen. I would argue that, with the possible exception of Rolen, who left in a trade for Glaus, Mozeliak made a difficult but nonetheless wise baseball decisions. Isringhausen's aging arm has not felt any better in Tampa Bay. Rolen has had a resurgent season, but his back has kept him out of the lineup regularly and sapped his power. Edmonds was perhaps preemptively retired, having proved a useful platoon player for the Cubs in 2008, but he no longer had the legs to be an everyday centerfielder.

The Cardinals, with quite a bit of help from a milktoast Cubs team, could run away with the NL Central if this current hot streak persists through their West Coast roadtrip. When they return home, the will have fifteen straight games against teams with records under .500. There is a lot to be said for the Phillies and Dodgers, and even for the Giants and Rockies, but in a playoff series against any of those teams, the Cardinals will have the two best hitters on the diamond. Also, both of the starters at the front of their rotation have World Series rings, something none of those teams can boast. And their manager has more wins than anybody in the integrated era, which may or may not give him the edge on Joe Torre.

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