Buster Olney: St. Louis Cardinals

Top 10 shortstops in MLB 

November, 21, 2014
Nov 21
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Brandon Crawford, Troy Tulowitzki, and  Andrelton SimmonsGetty ImagesThe priority at shortstop has shifted squarely to defense, something all of these guys play.
The question of whether you’d prefer to have Buster Posey or Yadier Molina at catcher has lots of layers, as does the debate about whether Miguel Cabrera is the game’s top first baseman.

But with Troy Tulowitzki coming back from major surgery and facing an uncertain future, there really is no clear No. 1 among the shortstops. You could take this in a lot of different directions, depending on what you value the most -- a preference for high-end offense, or Platinum Glove-caliber defense, or mere consistency.

Through conversations with team evaluators, general managers and our own statistical analysts, we probably considered four or five different guys in the No. 1 spot at one time or another.

We settled on this ranking of MLB shortstops:


1. Andrelton Simmons, Atlanta Braves

Simmons is not the perfect player, by any means; picking the No. 1 shortstop is not the same now as it was in 2001, when you had your choice of Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Jeter, Miguel Tejada and others. Simmons had a .286 on-base percentage last season, with seven homers among just 29 extra-base hits in 540 plate appearances. It would be very reasonable here to make a case in the No. 1 spot for a better hitter, or maybe two or three others.

But a highly ranked executive put it best
OriolesJoy R. Absalon/USA TODAY SportsThe Baltimore had a sudden end to their season, getting swept by Kansas City in the ALCS.
The Kansas City Royals and San Francisco Giants are moving on, while the Baltimore Orioles and St. Louis Cardinals are left to wonder about what might have been. What if Manny Machado hadn’t gotten hurt, or Yadier Molina? What if Randy Choate’s throw to first base had been true in Game 4, or if the O’s had done something more with their sixth-inning rally in Game 1?

Each of these teams has its own set of questions going into an offseason that started sooner than it expected. Here are the three biggest ones for each team.

For Baltimore:

1. What will Manny Machado be going forward?

He’s had two significant knee injuries in two years. The Orioles have to begin to wonder whether this is going to be a chronic situation and whether Machado is a player who can be a franchise cornerstone. In fact, there’s a chance that

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Five ways a Molina absence hurts Cards 

October, 14, 2014
Oct 14
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Molinamie Squire/Getty ImagesA strained oblique has put All-Star catcher Yadier Molina's status for the rest of this series in doubt.
Yadier Molina still hasn't ruled out the possibility that he could play in Game 3, writes Derrick Goold, but there is some mystery about what Molina's role could be, writes Jayson Stark.

Cardinals manager Mike Matheny isn't saying exactly how -- or when -- he might use Molina, but he sounded more inclined to consider him as a defensive replacement than as a starter. Molina didn't swing a bat Monday to test his oblique strain, but Matheny said that wasn't a priority.

Let's say Molina is out of the starting lineup Tuesday, and that his greatest contribution is the counsel he offers to the catcher who replaces him and to the pitchers. What is the practical impact of his absence?

1. Some baserunning possibilities open up for San Francisco.

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Wainwright decision looms for Matheny 

October, 12, 2014
Oct 12
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Adam WainwrightDilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesAdam Wainwright allowed two earned runs on six hits in 4 2/3 innings Saturday night.
ST. LOUIS -- The topic was about managing in October with urgency, and San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy stood at the back rail of the batting cage before Game 1 on Saturday night and recalled, with great detail, a bullpen decision he regrets from the 1998 World Series.

But Bochy paused and said, “The toughest decisions are what to do with your horses.”

By horses, he meant pitching staff ace -- the guy who leads your staff all summer, who takes the ball every fifth day through the cold and the heat and the aches of a long year, and earns longer reins of trust. If a rookie starter struggles in the postseason, the manager’s evaluation is performance-based only, because there are no emotional strings attached.

But the staff horse is different, which is why the decisions can be wrenching, as Bochy knows, as Grady Little knows from his choice to stick with Pedro Martinez in the 2003 playoffs, and as St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny knows too well today.

The St. Louis Game 1 starter had previously worked in two games since Sept. 22, two appearances in 20 days partly because of the discomfort he was feeling in his pitching elbow, and in those two games he allowed 17 hits, four walks and nine runs in nine innings. He was taken out after 4 2/3 innings Saturday, at the end of an erratic performance in which he got little help from his defense, or his own command. If Matheny made all choices blindly, without regard to history, then he might weigh an alternative starter in Game 5 of this short series.

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10 crucial matchups in the ALCS, NLCS 

October, 8, 2014
Oct 8
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Jarrod Dyson and Caleb JosephGetty Images/USA Today SportsJarrod Dyson and his aggressive Royals are set to take on strong-armed catcher Caleb Joseph.
ST. LOUIS -- Ten key matchups in the AL and NL Championship Series that begin Friday and Saturday, respectively:

1. The Orioles vs. the Kansas City running game: This is like a steel-cage match within the main event. The Royals have run aggressively in the postseason, with 12 stolen bases in 13 attempts, including seven in their wild-card game against Oakland. Terrance Gore and Jarrod Dyson are setting new standards for brazenness.

But the Orioles are excellent at controlling the running game, and with the layoff before the start of the ALCS on Friday, you can bet O's manager Buck Showalter and his staff are preparing for the Royals' roadrunners. They already have some great countermeasures in place, such as:

Chris Tillman: Nobody steals against him because he delivers his pitches to the plate so quickly. Opponents have tried to steal 13 times on him over the past two years and have been successful twice. To repeat, that's two steals in 13 attempts.

Caleb Joseph: The catcher has a great arm, and during the season he threw out 23 of 57 baserunners.

Wei-Yin Chen: He has allowed just nine steals (in 13 tries) over the past two years.

The Royals' best chances may come against the Baltimore bullpen, using Gore and Dyson. Teams try to run on Darren O'Day because of his unconventional delivery (10 steals in 15 attempts over the past two seasons), and there have been only six attempts over the past two years against Andrew Miller (with four steals).

No team stole more bases than the Royals did during the regular season, while only seven teams allowed fewer steals than Baltimore.

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Victor Martinez and Russell MartinGetty ImagesFree agents-to-be Victor Martinez and Russell Martin should be in demand this offseason.
Lockers are being cleaned out these days, first in Oakland, then Pittsburgh, Detroit and Anaheim. Goodbyes are being said, perhaps temporarily or maybe for longer than that.

Victor Martinez's season is over, and maybe his time with the Tigers is finished as well. Russell Martin got a standing ovation in the last inning of the wild-card game last week as the Pirates' season waned to a close, and the fans chanted his name, but nobody knows if he'll be back.

Both will be highly coveted this winter, and with multiple suitors, and while the Tigers and Pirates are expected to pursue their respective veterans, the bidding could be extraordinary.

Martinez is coming off a season in which he was arguably the best pure hitter in the majors, batting .335 with 32 homers, 103 RBIs, 70 walks and 42 strikeouts. Nobody had a greater ratio of walks to strikeouts, and it wasn't even close. Martinez will turn 36 in December and will be viewed as a DH-only player by some teams, at a time when the industry generally is veering away from full-time DHs.

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Jordan ZimmermannPatrick Smith/Getty ImagesJordan Zimmermann was dominating the Giants, but was pulled with two outs in the ninth.
LOS ANGELES -- If there’s a common denominator in the first extraordinary week of the playoffs, it is this: There is no perfect time for a manager to pull his starting pitcher.

On one day, Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly was criticized for leaving Clayton Kershaw in the game too long, and the next day, he was questioned about perhaps pulling Zack Greinke too soon.

Ned Yost called for relief for James Shields after 88 pitches and would’ve never been forgiven by the Kansas City fan base if the Royals hadn’t come back to win their wild-card game against Oakland. On Saturday, Matt Williams may have unwittingly contributed to the list of longest games in history by removing Jordan Zimmermann after just 100 pitches and a stretch in which he retired 20 of 21 batters.

Generally, there are a few things are at play here

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Josh DonaldsonBob Stanton/USA TODAY SportsIf a teardown of the A's happens, Josh Donaldson is likely to go.
PITTSBURGH -- When you hear Ralph Branca tell the story of Bobby Thomson’s historic home run, he offers a full appreciation of that moment, but the hurt is still there. Dennis Eckersley bears the same tone when speaking of Kirk Gibson’s home run, that small ache about a swing that changed lives.

This is what lies before the Oakland Athletics, whose wild-card game loss to the Kansas City Royals Tuesday night was a microcosm of their season -- the great start, the enormous lead right in the middle, the collapse, the late revival, and then a finish that will forever haunt them.

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Final-day decisions for playoff contenders 

September, 28, 2014
Sep 28
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Pittsburgh PiratesJustin K. Aller/Getty ImagesDespite a loss Saturday, the Pittsburgh Pirates remain alive for the NL Central crown.
This final day of the scheduled regular season should be something that Major League Baseball dreamed about, because even after seven weeks of spring training and 182 days of play, six teams -- 20 percent of the clubs -- don’t know where they will be Monday:

• With a St. Louis Cardinals loss and Pittsburgh Pirates win today, there would be a playoff game to decide the NL Central in St. Louis.

• With a Detroit Tigers loss and a Kansas City Royals win today, there would be a playoff in Detroit.

• With an Oakland Athletics loss and a Seattle Mariners win today, there would be a playoff game in Seattle.

The value of the second wild-card spot and the one-game wild-card game has fully manifested. The Tigers and Cardinals are desperately trying to avoid that one game play-in, and if they win today, they’ll get a few days off. The Pirates and Royals -- both long shots to win their respective divisions a week ago -- now have a real chance to avoid the one-game play-in game and are pushing to the finish line.

And the Mariners are somehow still alive, even after losing every game Sept. 20 through Sept. 24 and experiencing a near total collapse of their pitching. Somehow, Oakland still hasn’t clinched, despite needing just one more victory to avoid the greatest collapse in baseball history. The Athletics have a lot at stake, anyway, and are facing historical infamy.

But having to put everything on the line today will cost each of these teams, so even for those that succeed, the burden moving forward will be even greater

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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.

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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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McCutchen, Pirates need help 

May, 11, 2014
May 11
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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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Ranking strength of early NL schedules 

February, 26, 2014
Feb 26
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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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