With the Cubs meeting the Cardinals, beginning tonight, for the first time in three months, it seemed like the right time to exchange Five Questions with Larry over at Viva El Birdos. I'm posting both sets of questions and answers here, but you can also head over there and join the discussion. Despite the rivalry between the clubs, as I have written here many times, I have a great respect for Cardinal fans and their passion for their team, and Larry runs an excellent site and has become a friend.
First, my questions for him:
BCB: What is the single most important reason that the Cardinals sit five games under .500 and 8.5 games out of first place, not long after winning the World Series?
VEB: They haven't had Carpenter. He was the only certainty in the rotation heading into this season. Because of him, the Cardinals figured they could gamble on rotation slots 2 through 5 --- as long as a couple of the gambles worked out, they'd be solid at the top of the rotation. That's usually enough in the NL Central. When Carpenter got hurt, the whole formula fell apart.
Reasons 2 and 3 would be the precipitous dropoff in Edmonds' and Rolen's performance. Both have injury histories and are on the wrong side of 30, so it's not as if their declines were unforeseeable. The Cards gambled they could milk another good year out of both, and crapped out.
There are plenty of other things wrong with the team, too --- it's old, it's unmotivated, it's top heavy. But a healthy, productive ace can redeem a lot of sins. When Zambrano got hot (literally and figuratively), it turned the Cubs' season around. The Cards are the flip side of that coin --- without Carpenter to help mask their other shortcomings, they've been completely exposed.
BCB: What has to happen for the Cardinals to start winning again, and do you really think they still have a chance at getting back in the race? They haven't won more than four in a row all year, and that was in April.
VEB: The Cards are toast; their season ended when Carpenter had to be shut down for good. Without him, they just don't have the pitching to sustain any success over a long period of time. If he were returning to the rotation this week as anticipated, he would have given them a fighting chance; I wouldn't be conceding the season. But it is what it is. With Carpenter out, I wouldn't expect the Cardinals to win the division even if they somehow managed to sweep all 7 games against the Cubs and the Brewers this week.
BCB: Who would you trade, right now, either from the major league team or from the Cardinals' farm system, for immediate (or future) major league help, and who would you be targeting for that help?
VEB: I wrote about that here. The Cardinals desperately need players who are a) young, b) patient at the plate, and c) fast. They've got hacktastic sluggers galore; no need for any more of those. They need a 25-year-old Luis Castillo type, someone to get on base ahead of Albert.
Oh yeah, and they need 2 or 3 good starting pitchers.
Unfortunately, the Cardinals don't have the organizational depth to pull off an acquisition like that. Isringhausen might bring a decent return, and David Eckstein might have some narrow appeal to the right team; I can imagine the Cubs liking Eckstein, but they and the Cardinals are certainly not going to help one another. There is said to be a trade market for Anthony Reyes, but he's no longer regarded as premium material. The Cardinals would surely trade guys like Russ Springer and Braden Looper and Juan Encarnacion, but I wouldn't expect much in return for them.
BCB: Who is the most pleasant surprise for the Cardinals this year?
VEB: Ryan Franklin --- he and Isringhausen have done as much as anyone to keep the Cardinals from falling 15 games under .500.
BCB: Who is the guy who you'd most say "I told you so" about, in terms of not meeting expectations, this season?
VEB: In terms of NOT meeting expectations, it'd be Edmonds --- back in November I expressed the unpopular opinion that they should buy out his option year and sign somebody else to play center. But then, the guy I thought the Cardinals should target as Edmonds' replacement was Dave Roberts, and that's a "told you so" in the opposite direction, because Roberts has been nearly as injury-prone and unproductive this year as Edmonds.
The biggest "told you so" story of the season has been Anthony Reyes, who is as divisive a figure as Cardinal Nation has seen in some time. About half the VEB community (including me) thought he'd be pretty good, and the other half never thought much of him; he's 0-10 with an era north of 6. Told you so . . . .
And, here are Larry's questions for me, and my responses:
VEB: For all the money the Cubs spent on free agents from other teams, the Cubs' fortunes this year ultimately have mirrored Zambrano's --- when he was doing poorly, they stunk, and when he turned it around, so did the team. With all the financial commitments they've already made, can the team afford to keep him? From a won-loss standpoint, can they possibly afford to let him go?
BCB: No, there's really no way they can let Z go, from a won-loss standpoint OR a psychological standpoint. He's so popular among Cubs fans (and without Kerry Wood, he is also the senior Cub in length of service, having been here since 2001). He means so much to the ballclub in so many ways.
Can they afford him? Sure they can. The team's going to be sold, obviously, in the next year or so. But any new owner would love to have a drawing card like Z, and even if they have to pay him $15 million plus per year, that's ... well, not quite chump change, but close, to anyone who's going to have to pay close to $1 billion for the franchise.
Z has a shot at a 20-win season this year. Only one Cub has done that in the last 15 years (Jon Lieber, 2001).
VEB: The Cubs are still not scoring all that many runs. They're 14th in the league in walks, 12th in homers, and only 8th in runs scored. Short of a big trade, is there anything they can do to goose the offense?
BCB: The home runs will come, I believe. Jacque Jones won't have two HR all year (same number as Ryan Theriot, and that won't last). Derrek Lee was just starting to hit them again when he started his suspension. That alone will help the run-scoring. 8th in runs scored -- that's a bit misleading, as there is a big bunch of teams from 3rd (Milwaukee, 472) to 9th (New York, 448). If the Cubs have a couple of big offensive days, they could climb three or four spots.
The consistency of the pitching staff, both starting and relieving, is a big reason for the winning surge of late -- and if this team is going to win anything, it's going to be with pitching.
VEB: If the Cubs do make a trade, do they have any talent they can send the other way that's sufficient to land an impact player?
BCB: Sure -- Ronny Cedeno and Felix Pie, both now tearing up Triple-A (since I wrote this, Cedeno is being recalled, effective today). Both have had their struggles at the major league level, but both are considered prospects, Pie more than Cedeno (I mean, Ronny was REALLY bad early on this year, going 3-for-31 and making more than his share of fielding and baserunning errors). But I can think of a number of teams (White Sox, for example) that could use a young shortstop.
VEB: Do you like the Jason Kendall acquisition?
BCB: Absolutely. His veteran experience, his game-calling (not his "defense" per se, as he really doesn't throw that well any more), and his enthusiasm for coming to the Cubs (he was greeted with a standing ovation in his first at-bat at Wrigley Field, which he said was "really cool") ought to make him a Damian Miller-type acquisition for the ballclub.
Miller, I am convinced, by his veteran handling of what was then a very young staff of Wood, Prior and Zambrano, helped the Cubs to win in 2003 more than any of his statistics showed. Kendall could do the same, and they really gave up almost nothing to get him.
VEB: Which pitcher do you most fear a collapse from --- Marquis, Marshall, or Hill?
BCB: Well, I think I know what you're wanting to hear here -- that I expect Jason Marquis to collapse, thus allowing all of you Cardinal fans to fulfill your prophecy about his second-half collapses, as he had several times while pitching in St. Louis.
It's true that Marquis was pretty bad for almost two months. He seemed to get it back in his last start last Friday against the Diamondbacks. I think he's got it together, and you'll see it for yourselves on Thursday night.
The weakest link is probably Marshall, who has the least experience of any of the Cub starters, but he threw well on Sunday, despite losing to Arizona. Starting pitching has been a real strength for the Cubs -- all but six games (three by Angel Guzman, three by Wade Miller) have been started by the current starting five.