Monday, August 9, 2004
Rock solid house of Cards
By Peter Gammons Special to ESPN.com
They passed the ides of August with the best record in baseball. They've scored more runs than every other National League team that isn't housed in Coors Lite, their starting pitchers lead all staffs in wins (57-29), they are the most dominant defensive team in the game -- with a present, past or future Gold Glover at every position except second base -- and now they have Larry Walker.
St. Louis' power base (from left): Tony La Russa, Dave Duncan and Walt Jocketty.
Will the Cardinals win the World Series? That's too far off, with too many unpredictable and unforeseen happenstances to come. But right now, given everything that goes into the game, they are the best team in either league.
And a large part of being the best team isn't about numbers or All-Star appearances or endorsement deals. It's about how they play, with intensity and purpose. "It's a thrill to pitch for a team that shows up to play as hard as it can every day," said Chris Carpenter, whose comeback has been a significant part of the evolution of their pitching staff. "These guys don't take days off, or innings off, or at-bats. It's amazing, and it all starts with the stars. Scott Rolen and Albert Pujols never take a pitch off."
No one appreciates this better than Tony La Russa. "It doesn't matter how well we prepare in spring training or from every day or how we work lineups or do strategy," La Russa said. "The most important thing a manager can have is that the team's best players play the hardest and set the tone for the way everyone is supposed to play. A manager can only do so much. The players play.
"But one part of this team's success that should never go overlooked is what Walt Jocketty has done to get these players," La Russa said. "There may not be anyone else who has brought the types of star players to one team the way Walt has. It started in 1996 when he got Todd Stottlemyre to make us a contender, and it's gone on and on to Mark McGwire and Darryl Kile, Jim Edmonds, Rolen, Edgar Renteria ... Star players, star people."
In Jocketty's first season  as GM, he had to fire Joe Torre. But then he began retooling the franchise, hiring La Russa -- they go all the way back to Tony managing in Triple-A -- and beginning the restoration. Stottlemyre was one of the few pitchers that brought a hockey mentality to an entire team; he also brought in Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley. Then at the July 31 trading deadline in '97, Jocketty made one of the most significant trades in baseball history, sending three doodads named T.J. Matthews, Eric Ludwick and Blake Stein to Oakland for Mark McGwire, a deal that transformed the franchise. McGwire loved the city and the fans and the rest was history.
Before the '98 season, Jocketty acquired Renteria, the best shortstop in the league. He made a seven-player deal that freed Kile from Colorado and gave the Cardinals a front-end starter. Two years after that, he acquired Edmonds for Adam Kennedy and Kent Bottenfield, and before getting Rolen in 2002, picked off Woody Williams, Steve Kline, Will Clark and Chuck Finley. It should also be noted that Jocketty went to see the Triple-A playoffs in 2000 and was convinced with just one look that a kid who'd spent most of the season in A-ball -- Albert Pujols -- was ready.
It all worked out for Torre, who moved on to New York to win four World Series rings and assured himself a place in the Hall of Fame. But before Bill DeWitt bought the Cards and Jocketty became GM, St. Louis was not considered baseball's best baseball city; the brewery owner attended four innings in an entire season, and the baseball team was simply not deemed important by ownership. But that changed, and one of the biggest reason it changed is that Walt Jocketty went out and got franchise players who are franchise people, which is one of the big reasons that right now they are the best team in baseball.
News and notes
August is the energy month, when teams need a Rolen to push them through the dog days. It is here that the A's may really miss Miguel Tejada. "He is the most energetic star player in our league, and next to Gary Sheffield, he may be the best player -- period -- right now," one AL scout said. "He's pushed the Orioles into their turnaround." When the O's were playing the Blue Jays recently, it was Tejada screaming out of the dugout at Toronto's Josh Towers.
And don't think the Red Sox don't miss Trot Nixon's energy, snapdragon attitude and his ability (he was fifth in the AL in OPS last season).
Houston has tried to take back enough money to make it viable for the A's to take on Jeff Kent for the rest of the year, but for the time being Oakland ownership is not interested in adding any dollars, even if Kent would give them a far better chance to get into the playoffs and last.
After having an unpleasant experience closing, Arthur Rhodes now becomes a factor when he returns because the A's don't have a strikeout reliever in front of Octavio Dotel unless Jairo Garcia throws strikes. And he's fresh out of A-ball.
The Padres got so frustrated with their lack of offense from their outfield that they brought up speedster Freddy Guzman and stuck him in center field Tuesday. What happened? Brian Giles went 3-for-3 and hit his 17th homer. But as Kevin Towers pointed out before the game, "every one of our outfielders is having a career-worst season," and their combined outfield home run total was 25 -- that's fewer than 11 individual outfielders and tied with Steve Finley.
With the ownership change in Arizona, it will be interesting to see if they sign first-round pick Stephen Drew. They were close to a deal that apparently satisfied Scott Boras before the coup, but there are indications that the Florida State shortstop may have to try to do what brother J.D. did and sit out until the opening of the Northern League season to try to get enough leverage to get what he thinks he deserves. Then when the Angels gave Villa Park, Calif. third baseman Mark Trumbo -- their 18th pick -- $1.425 million this week, it led to speculation that Jered Weaver will also go unsigned through the winter and try to create leverage next May before the next draft. Eventually, Drew and Weaver will be punished for losing a year of big league service time.
Trumbo got the largest bonus ever given to a player after the 11th round, although that may be topped by Georgia LHP Mike Rozier when his deal with the Red Sox is finalized.
As Boston sorts through its middle infield situation this offseason, they will wrestle with the question of how close 20-year-old shortstop Hanley Ramirez is from Boston. Ramirez was hitting close to .300 in his first 15 games with Double-A Portland after hitting .310 in Sarasota. "What we are beginning to think is that Hanley needs crowds to push him," one Boston official said. "He played very well in Lowell, where all the games were sold out. Then he didn't play as well in Augusta and Sarasota, where there were very few people in the stands. Now he's back in front of packed houses in Portland and playing better than ever."
The Red Sox are keeping a close eye on Byung-Hyun Kim at Pawtucket, as they need a right-handed reliever who can get out the good opposing right-handed hitters in situations. The Sox feel that even if Kim is throwing 87-88 mph, he can still get out right-handed hitters as a situational reliever.
As the Braves make their remarkable run to a 13th consecutive first-place finish, two of the featured pitchers are Paul Byrd and Jaret Wright. "I feel I'm throwing the ball as well as I have at any point in my career," Byrd said. "After my first couple of starts, I've been 89 to 92, which is harder than I ever threw." In Wright's case, he can still throw his cross-seamer up to 96 mph, but it's his two-seamer that has made him. "I was always taught that what counts is velocity," says Wright. "I finally learned that pitching is all about command."
The Rangers are very intrigued by 6-foot-10 Princetonian Chris Young, who is 2-0 with a 1.54 ERA in Triple-A after going 6-5 in Double-A. Young, who was an outstanding basketball player at Princeton, was acquired from Montreal in the Einar Diaz deal, a potential coup for John Hart.
From one scout: "One of my favorite pitchers to watch is Zack Greinke. He is Greg Maddux. He commands his fastball in every quadrant of the strike zone, has two different curveballs and pitches to whatever the situation. He is really good."
Tampa Bay may be getting better, but Lou Piniella is not happy that they traded his best pitcher (Victor Zambrano) for a prospect. Speaking of the Rays, they would love for someone to take Jose Cruz Jr.
It was the Phillies who were awarded the Carlos Beltran claim, but there was no deal to be made and the Astros pulled him back. Speaking of the Phillies, there are increased rumblings that Larry Bowa will survive, but there will be major offseason changes on the coaching staff.
The Blue Jays did not put Carlos Delgado on waivers in August. Delgado had indicated that he did not want to be traded, and, second, the Players Association maintains that players with full no-trades should not be placed on waivers. In Larry Walker's case, he had told the Rockies he was willing to move, although he turned down deals to both Texas and Florida. In Kent's case, he has indicated he wouldn't mind moving, and noted that Doug Mientkiewicz played second base on Aug. 16. However, the Red Sox expect to get Mark Bellhorn and Pokey Reese back by the end of the month.
In the first 15 games after the Boston/Cubs/Twins/Expos trade, the batting average on balls put in play against the Cubs rose from .330 to .357, while the same average against the Red Sox declined from .336 to .308.
How tough is Adam Dunn? He crashed into the wall, tore a gash in his leg and told the medical staff to stitch it up, he'd keep playing.
Tony La Russa has dedicated much of his off-field life to the Animal Rescue Foundation. He is tying his 2,000th win to his fundraising efforts with "Tony's 2000 Wins Team" memberships offering a host of fascinating memorabilia as well as trips and on-field experiences. Check it out at www.arf.net, or call 888-LA-RUSSA.