Buster Olney: St. Louis Cardinals

Adam WainwrightElsa/Getty ImagesAdam Wainwright admitted to giving Derek Jeter "a couple of pipe shots" during the All-Star Game.
Adam Wainwright is earnest and honest and yes, he probably revealed a little more than he intended to about that pitch that he threw to Derek Jeter. But let’s put this into context. The tradition of pitchers working to provide a moment for a hitter goes back way beyond the first time the All-Star Game was played, and Wainwright is only different because he acknowledged what everybody already knew, when viewers could react in real time on social media.
Jacoby EllsburyLeon Halip/Getty ImagesJacoby Ellsbury has a career stolen base success rate of 84 percent, the third highest of all time.
ST. LOUIS -- Mick Kelleher's first year in professional baseball was in 1969, and he says he had never seen before what he saw Monday: a crowd give a standing ovation to a catcher for throwing out a runner. But this is St. Louis and the catcher is Yadier Molina, and when he gunned down Brett Gardner in the eighth inning -- zipping a throw that Jhonny Peralta caught and dropped down on Gardner's left shoulder -- the fans all rose as one and chanted his first name.

"We've seen some pretty good catchers the last 40 to 50 years," said Kelleher, the first-base coach for the Yankees and a former Cardinal. "That was tremendous. I even get excited about something like that. Great baseball fans, great baseball city."

And an even greater catcher. Gardner was the 23rd baserunner who had attempted to steal a base against Molina this season, and the 13th to get thrown out. But when Jacoby Ellsbury drew a walk against Randy Choate to open the top of the 12th inning, with the score tied 3-3, Ellsbury figured he would try to steal at some point. The game situation dictated that he at least try, and besides, there is a difference between Ellsbury and most others who try to steal bases, including some faster than he is.

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Jose FernandezAP PhotoMiami Marlins starter Jose Fernandez may require season-ending elbow surgery.
ST. LOUIS -- The Miami Marlins' handling of Jose Fernandez was perfect, within the context of the conventional wisdom that had developed within Major League Baseball.

They limited his innings in 2013 to 172 2/3, and when he reached that limit, they shut him down with about three weeks to go, on Sept. 11.

Fernandez never threw more than 114 pitches in any outing, and in his 36 career starts, he threw more than 100 pitches just 11 times.

He was fully protected, unless you believe the Marlins should've placed him in packing noodles between innings, encapsulated in bubble wrap. And he still got hurt, just as Matt Harvey got hurt, just as Kris Medlen and Patrick Corbin and Jarrod Parker and Brandon Beachy got hurt.

Because with pitchers, there is one reality that supersedes all rules: They don't last.

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Gregory PolancoKim Klement/USA TODAY SportsOutfield prospect Gregory Polanco could be a part of turning Pittsburgh's season around.
Andrew McCutchen has never drawn more than 89 walks in a season, and right now, he's on track to increase that by a healthy margin. For the first time, opposing pitchers and catchers are making a point of pitching around McCutchen and putting the onus on the hitters who follow.

In the first quarter of the season, it's a strategy that has paid off. Pedro Alvarez has a .200 average, and entering Saturday's action, the Pittsburgh hitters who have filled the cleanup spot ranked 20th among 30 teams in OPS (.693). The batters hitting in Pittsburgh's No. 5 slot ranked 22nd in OPS.

Those numbers must improve. The Pirates, who face the St. Louis Cardinals in their first "Sunday Night Baseball" appearance since 1996 (8 ET on ESPN and WatchESPN), have good starting pitching and a good bullpen. But their start has been sluggish, with their offense ranked in the bottom third in runs, and they cannot count on McCutchen to consistently contribute; as the Pirates have seen early this season, he is getting a small handful of pitches with which he can do damage. He is being treated like their Miguel Cabrera.

Maybe Alvarez will be the hitter who will do more; maybe it will be Ike Davis, who has been productive in his first weeks with the Pirates, posting a .359 on-base percentage, although with a mere five extra-base hits in 59 at-bats. When Davis first joined the Pirates, they let him get settled in. Now, there is more work being done with him to get him back to what he did before he got hurt in the second half of last season, when he was able to keep his weight back more consistently.

Maybe Starling Marte -- who has been hitting in the No. 5 spot lately -- will be a help, now that he has worked through some early-season struggles at the plate. Maybe Gregory Polanco will help after he arrives, whenever that is. The Pirates probably want to be sure that Polanco is fully prepared to help when he arrives, to reduce the time required for his initial growing pains, just as the Tampa Bay Rays do with their prospects.

The good thing for the Pirates is that just about every NL Central team is grinding through issues early in the year.

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Oscar TaveresScott Cunningham/Getty ImagesOscar Taveras has continued to show why some scouts think he is a future All-Star.
CHICAGO -- Yadier Molina was part of the St. Louis Cardinals team that was repeatedly within a strike of losing the 2011 World Series, and so were Matt Holliday and Jon Jay and Daniel Descalso and Allen Craig and others. They know what a crisis is, and the early-season offensive funk for the Cardinals isn’t that.

A six-game deficit in the NL Central in the first week of May isn’t a five-alarm problem, and besides, the collective personality of the Cardinals isn’t prone to overreaction. They know how challenging their early-season schedule has been, and how cold it’s been. As some of the St. Louis hitters took their turns in batting practice, they spoke confidently about the turnaround to come, because Craig is not a .220 hitter, Jhonny Peralta isn’t going to hit under .200 all year, and they’re sure they’re better than this.

But they lost again to the Chicago Cubs on Saturday; they were shut down again, and shut out. The Cardinals rank 26th in runs, and Lance Lynn will try to salvage the final game of the series on "Sunday Night Baseball" (8 ET on ESPN and WatchESPN).

This is not a crisis, but this has gone on long enough to prompt more change. From Derrick Goold’s story Sunday:

The Cardinals won a pennant by stringing together hits last season, building an offense around an uncanny -- and likely unrepeatable -- .330-batting knack with runners in scoring position. The sentiment in the clubhouse after Saturday’s loss was, as [Jon] Jay expressed, “We know we have good hitters on the team and guys are going to hit.” They can cling to their hitting history as an indicator of future success. In the meantime, the manager and general manager have sought different ways to spur the offense.

[Mike] Matheny has used 26 different lineups in 31 games. He has called off batting practice. He has changed how hitters orbit around No. 3 hitter Holliday. He’s replaced starters.

“This is the stuff I ask every day: What are we missing here?” Matheny said. “It comes down to creating some confidence. It can be personnel. It can be how we go about playing.”


The Cardinals may well recall Kolten Wong soon, and Matheny might continue to juggle the lineup. But the big card that St. Louis has yet to play is the promotion of star outfield prospect Oscar Taveras, who is hitting .301 with power in Triple-A.

If the Cardinals make that move, it would create a whole different set of complications. Somebody would have to sit. Taveras is not regarded by rival evaluators as a strong defender, but with Craig in right field and Holliday in left field, Taveras would need to play center field. Peter Bourjos is an elite defender, but he has struggled at the plate and is on the bench; Jay is hitting .257 with a .329 on-base percentage.

First baseman Matt Adams is hitting .333, so if the goal becomes improving the offense, it probably wouldn’t make a lot of sense to shift Craig to first base to open up right field for Taveras.

Matheny told Goold the other day that Taveras has been checking off all the boxes in his preparation for the big leagues, and when asked about that Saturday, Matheny replied, “He can hit.”

This much they know, and they know they need to start hitting better and playing better.

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Starlin CastroNuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune/MCT/Getty ImagesStarlin Castro and the Cubs are not getting help from their early-season schedule.

In following Tuesday's column ranking the American League's early-season schedules, Wednesday we have the National League. The teams are ranked toughest to easiest in caliber of early-season schedule.


1. Chicago Cubs

Games vs. teams with records of .500 or better in 2013: 31 of first 40.
Home/away: 18 of their first 40 are at home.
Notables: The Cubs basically get to run an NL Central gauntlet in the first quarter of the season, with 21 of their first 40 games against the Cardinals, Reds and Pirates.

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Toughest lineup quandaries in MLB 

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Xander BogaertsRonald Martinez/Getty ImagesBoth Xander Bogaerts and Dustin Pedroia could see time leading off for the Red Sox in 2014.
When Joe Torre managed, he jotted down lineups in his time away from the park, mulling over various possibilities, internally debating certain combinations.

In other words: He was like a lot of baseball fans and reporters, who like to think through different lineup quandaries, especially in the cold of winter.

Around baseball, there are interesting lineup quandaries.

For the defending champion Red Sox: Who hits leadoff?

Boston’s leadoff hitters ranked first in on-base percentage last season and third in runs scored, but the guy primarily responsible for that is gone. So now John Farrell has to decide who will replace Jacoby Ellsbury in the No. 1 spot in his batting order.

He’s got a few imperfect candidates such as Dustin Pedroia, who actually has done some of his worst work when he’s hit leadoff, or Jackie Bradley, who doesn’t have a lot of experience, or maybe Xander Bogaerts, who may ultimately be needed to hit in the middle of the Boston order.

But the Red Sox are likely to open the year with Bradley at or near the bottom of their lineup to help ease his transition into the big leagues.

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Top 10 teams in the majors 

December, 31, 2013
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Miguel CabreraMark Cunningham/MLB Photos/Getty ImagesWith Miguel Cabrera no longer out of position, the Tigers should be even better in 2014.
As 2013 becomes 2014, here's a look at the top 10 teams in MLB.

1. Detroit Tigers

Some of the teams that employ advanced metrics determined at the end of the last regular season that the Tigers were the best team in the American League -- by far. This, in spite of a bullpen that repeatedly went through changes at closer, and in spite of what was widely regarded as the worst defense in the majors. The Tigers won the AL Central for the third straight year, and again they couldn't win the World Series, losing to Boston in the ALCS. And since the end of the season, Detroit GM David Dombrowski has gone about the business of plugging the holes.

He allowed Jhonny Peralta to depart, cementing Jose Iglesias' spot at shortstop.

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Top 10 defenses in the majors 

December, 29, 2013
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Manny MachadoMitchell Layton/Getty ImagesBaltimore's Manny Machado earned the American League Platinum Glove Award last season.
There probably has been more focus on evaluating and maximizing defensive efficiency than any other part of baseball in the last five years. If we're looking for explanations about why offensive production has been declining, increased defensive production might be responsible.

In Part IV of our series, we look at the top 10 defenses in Major League Baseball.

1. Baltimore Orioles

The Orioles posted pictures of their Gold Glove winners in their spring training facility, and with good reason: Buck Showalter’s club has continued the organizational tradition -- fostered by the likes of Paul Blair, Brooks Robinson, Mark Belanger, Cal Ripken Jr. and others -- of strong defense. The best of the group is third baseman Manny Machado (“The best at his position, and it’s not close,” said one evaluator), although we don’t know what condition he'll be in during his first months back on the field since having knee surgery.

They have Gold Glove defenders at shortstop (J.J. Hardy), center field (Adam Jones) and at catcher (Matt Wieters). Right fielder Nick Markakis and first baseman Chris Davis are solid defenders, and newcomer David Lough posted one of the best UZR/150 ratings among outfielders with at least 650 innings last season.

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Mariners a free agency sleeping giant 

November, 23, 2013
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Felix HernandezOtto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesStarter Felix Hernandez, signed through 2019, has Seattle's only long-term contract.
There are more than a few rising young executives -- and older executives, for that matter -- who are outside of the Seattle Mariners' organization and looking in, and they are wistful, wishing they could grab the Mariners’ steering wheel.

First and foremost, they love the city, curled around Puget Sound, surrounded by fir trees and hemlocks; they see it as a great place to live. They love the ballpark, underrated and underappreciated. They see potential in the passion of a fan base that is dormant after more than a decade of struggles.

They see the Mariners as the great sleeping giant in baseball.

They see a possible financial powerhouse, given that the Mariners own their own television network.

They see a team saturated with prospects taken near the top of the draft.

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10 biggest holes on contenders 

November, 13, 2013
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A year ago, Marlon Byrd was coming off a season in which he had been suspended for the use of performance-enhancing drugs and was limited to just 47 games, and he eventually settled for a make-good minor league deal with the New York Mets.

Now he's 36 years old and getting a $16 million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies, which speaks to the level of desperation in play for teams wanting to get better, needing to get better.

As baseball executives meet in Orlando this week for the GM meetings, these are the 10 biggest holes that have to be filled among would-be contenders:

1. Texas Rangers: middle-of-the-order bats

Josh Hamilton walked away a year ago, Nelson Cruz is prepared to walk away now, and the Rangers -- who have historically posted top-notch, productive lineups in the way Duke has had good basketball teams -- have a problem. With Cruz, they clubbed 176 homers last season, and without him, they will lack thump.

This is why Brian McCann could make sense for them, or Carlos Beltran, or both. This is why they could be the best match for the Dodgers for an outfielder trade. This is why rival executives believe that if and when Giancarlo Stanton is traded, the Rangers will be at the front of the line and sticking their elbows out.

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Where Wacha went wrong 

November, 1, 2013
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Michael WachaStan Grossfeld/The Boston Globe/Getty ImagesMichael Wacha abandoned his changeup in Game 6, and the results were disastrous.
BOSTON -- Opposing hitters tell stories about Yadier Molina's creativity in his pitch calling, how he tends to think ahead of them from pitch to pitch. Joey Votto, for example, will occasionally exchange thoughts with Molina during at-bats about the pitch just thrown, like rival poker masters reviewing the hand just played.

He is always thinking, and as Michael Wacha explained before the start of the World Series, it is great to know that Molina's experience and knowledge and pitch selection can be relied upon. He is the best defensive catcher in the game, with a brilliant baseball mind, which is why the young St. Louis pitchers defer to him.

Molina is not one to open his bank of intelligence to outsiders, but it would be interesting to know his thought process in the choices he and Wacha made during the rookie's short Game 6 start, and whether Molina had any morning-after regret.

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Strategy changes and mysteries 

October, 28, 2013
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David OrtizRonald Martinez/Getty ImagesDavid Ortiz delivered a speech in Game 4; he's been delivering hits in every game.
ST. LOUIS -- It was just after midnight Monday morning, and the only folks left on the field at Busch Stadium were the camera crews and a other few stragglers, including colleague Tim Kurkjian, producer Shawn Fitzgerald and me.

“Do you have any idea who is going to win Game 5?” I asked Tim.

“I haven’t had any idea who is going to win this whole time,” Tim replied.

Nope. Because who knew that Game 3 would end with an obstruction call, for the first time ever in the postseason, and that Game 4 would end with a pickoff, for the first time ever in the World Series?

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McCannBrett Davis/USA TODAY SportsAs a free-agent catcher who can produce at the plate, Brian McCann could fetch top dollar.
ST. LOUIS – As the Cardinals and Red Sox play on, MLB’s other 28 teams are preparing for the offseason market that will begin next week. There has been some early trade talk, officials say, some feeling out for what could be available, and teams are preparing their budgets and trying to figure out where the spending will go.

There is some consensus on that point: The free-agent market is going to be flush with cash, some highly ranked evaluators predict, but not with quality free agents. Which bodes very well for the best of the lot.

As one executive noted, there figure to be situations in which the middle class of free agents will appear so uninspiring that a bidder will make a push for the top one or two players at a given position, rather than settle for something less from the pack. “It’s like what happened with Albert Pujols,” the executive said. “That deal was driven by [the specter] of TV money, where they are looking for a name. It’s an overpay, but they dive into it because of the splash.”

With teams set to receive the significant windfall from Major League Baseball’s new television contract, some evaluators expect that the best of the free agents could see the bidding for their services climb to unexpected heights.

If this happens, here are some stars who might benefit the most:

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Crowd seemed to sway the umps 

October, 24, 2013
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BOSTON -- For years, showing instant replay of a controversial calls on the big screen in major league ballparks has been verboten, with the theory being that a wrong decision by an umpire might spur fan wrath that could spill onto the field.

Someone sitting at home watching television has had a better understanding of what had just happened than the folks who had paid premium seat prices to go to the ballpark, because of access to replay.

By rule, teams were not allowed to have television monitors in their dugouts to give them an immediate look at the instant replay, and this is why players, managers and coaches would go sprinting into their respective clubhouses to watch the television feed. When you watch NFL games, you often see coaches and players staring up at the big screen after a contested call to get a look at it, and reacting, along with the crowd. For many years, this has not been the case in Major League Baseball, because teams are told they can only show the replays in the concourses and in the private suites.

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