Carlos Beltran Gets A+ in Cardinals Positional Grades at the All-Star Break

Will GrapperhausContributor IIIJuly 5, 2012

Carlos Beltran Gets A+ in Cardinals Positional Grades at the All-Star Break

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    Let's be honest with ourselves—most of us thought there was a better chance Carlos Beltran would be on the disabled list in May with a pulled toenail rather than have 20 home runs by the All-Star break.

    But such is the beauty of the game we love.

    Beltran is not the only Cardinal who had a surprising first half. Despite taking some lumps in his last few starts, Lance Lynn has been nothing short of a savior for the starting rotation. David Freese and Allen Craig have managed to stay (mostly) healthy and have been key producers.

    Despite a very uneven season so far, the Cards are still 43-39, only 2.5 games back of the Pirates, and still have the best run-differential in the National League. Certainly John Mozeliak will be working the phones hard leading up to the trade deadline.

    Speaking of trade needs, we will get to the bullpen later, as the obvious Achilles heel.

    But overall, the Cardinals did well as we hand out the mid-season grades for each position on the team.

First Base Mid-Term Grade: A -

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    Lance Berkman's Comeback Player of the Year performance in 2011 was the foundation of a ballclub that needed a happier outlook on life in order to navigate the slumps, injuries and other misfortunes of the grind that is the Major League Baseball season.

    Plus, sometimes it's necessary to bring in a clown to lighten up the ringmaster.

    Think Abbott and Costello.

    Cogsworth and Lumiere.

    Or Fat Elvis teamed with the King himself, Albert Pujols.

    Unfortunately (like the real Elvis), after Berkman's comeback special, things went south as his knee buckled taking a routine throw at first base in May.

    The fact the Cardinals have played seven different players at first is more a testament to their depth rather than a sign of desperation, but the club has truly received excellent production from that position.

    The Cards are third in first base batting average (.295) while Cincinnati leads the NL at the position at .341, mostly due to All-Star Joey Votto's bat, of course. However, the Cardinals are second in RBI with 58 while the Reds are third with 50.

    The team is getting a solid .896 OPS from first base—by comparison, the Mets are batting a league-worst .202 at first with the Marlins last in OPS with a pitiful .585.

    Matt Carpenter actually leads the club in at-bats as a first baseman, but has more than held his own after a minor injury interrupted his hot start. He carries a more than adequate OPS of .866.

    Allen Craig has provided the vast majority of the power from this position with 9 home runs and a hefty .663 slugging percentage.

    The natural left/right platoon these two provide is beneficial to both as neither have played a full season yet at the major league level.

    The Cardinals are quite comfortable at first as Lance Berkman heals from his knee injury and the club has young slugger Matt Adams biding his time in Memphis.

Second Base Mid-Term Grade: D +

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    Coming out of spring training, the Cardinals organization tabbed Tyler Greene as the starting second baseman for the first time in his young career.

    He has always shown speed, power, defense and amazing consistency at the plate—consistency meaning Greene has batted between .212 and .225 in each of his four seasons in the bigs—that .225 being a career-high so far this year.

    Still possessing those highly-desirable five tools, Greene is only 28 and may yet figure this baseball thing out. Until then, the Cards have a three-man rotation at second, which also includes defensive specialist Daniel Descalso and Skip Schumaker, the converted outfielder who has the most consistent bat of the bunch but the worst defense.

    It is not surprising, then, that the team ranks 13th in the NL with a .243 batting mark out of second base.

    Greene has always been terrible against righties and his long swing has a hole large enough for a beach ball to sail through.

    What is more disappointing so far is the regressing bat of Descalso, who batted a solid .264 last year in 326 at-bats and looked like a borderline starting infielder. He also became a mid-season cult hero with numerous game-winning RBIs while providing stellar defense.

    The defense has remained but he's been befuddled at the plate. His strikeout rate has doubled from last year and his average has dipped to .225—perhaps he's been studying Green's approach at the plate too closely.

    Regardless, the Cards have always saved payroll dollars at second base and that will not change anytime soon. What cannot come too soon, however, is the arrival of second base whiz Kolten Wong, who may be in St. Louis by the end of 2013.

Third Base Mid-Term Grade: B

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    David Freese may not win the final slot on the National All-Star team via MLB's "Final Vote" promotion.

    Bryce Harper is already more popular than Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, and Joe Montana combined ever were. 

    But Freese deserves it more than any of the final candidates.

    Not since Scott Rolen was still in his prime have the Cards enjoyed major-league quality production at the hot corner. The Cubs have been known to have historically bad third basemen in between Ron Santo and Aramis Ramirez, but the Cards had their own struggles since the departure of Rolen.

    Try these names on for size—Joe Thurston. Khalil Greene. Brian Barden. Good luck finding these guys on a major league roster, although Thurston is hanging on in Houston as a utility infielder.

    Freese has answered every challenge so far in 2012. 

    In terms of health, he's appeared in 75 of 82 games. He worked through a brutal May, where he batted .211 but still managed to hit five home runs with 13 RBIs, and after bottoming out at .257 on June 3rd, he has since heated up and now carries a sturdy .285 batting mark to go with 13 home runs and 50 RBIs.

    Cardinals third basemen are batting .286 overall, which is third in the National League behind the Mets and Braves, and as long as Freese stays healthy, the club should remain in the top five all year.

Catcher Mid-Term Grade: A +

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    More than a few eyebrows were raised when the Cardinals inked Yadier Molina to a five-year $75 million extension. Sure his reputation behind the plate was well-known, but he was not an elite offensive player until last year. 

    Well, the now four-time All-Star is poised to be the greatest Cardinals catcher since Ted Simmons. 

    Who knew Molina was giving them such a bargain?

    No catcher in baseball is providing the level of defense, offense, pitcher-management and base running that Molina gives the Cardinals day in and day out.

    Yadier is already just one homer shy of his career-high of 14 last season.

    His slash line of .309/.361/.507/.869 literally allows manager Mike Matheny to bat Molina anywhere in the lineup. Though traditionally Yadier has struggled in the heart of the order, it's a boon for the Cardinals to have a .507 slugger batting sixth or seventh.

    Molina's pace has slowed since June 20th, but he has hit safely in nine of his last 12 games.

    Cardinals fans hope that Yadi will find time to relax a bit on the NL's All-Star bench in Kansas City, but we know Tony La Russa is excited to tap his shoulder and put his old backstop into the game.

Shortstop Mid-Term Grade: C +

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    I can hear Cardinals fans echoing the immortal words of Ralphie Parker from the film A Christmas Story—"C plus?!"

    Kudos to Rafael Furcal for his spectacular first two months of the season and for riding it to his first time as an All-Star starter, but Raffy has crashed equally hard back to earth with a .176 average in June.

    He has seen his average free fall from .333 on May 30 to his current mediocre mark of .274. He looked like an All-Star through May, but we knew the bill was coming due sooner or later.

    Anyone who has seen Furcal's entire body of work as the Cardinals' shortstop would say that this season has been the better year, hands down.

    True, but barely.

    Furcal earned a 0.8 WAR rating in 217 plate appearances last year. His batting average was quite low, with no pop, though he was a large defensive upgrade over Ryan Theriot. This year seemed like a different story, but he only has a 1.1 WAR in 351 PAs.

    The fact is Furcal is a quality, aging shortstop who is longer on defense than offense and is slightly above average, even at this stage in his career.

    One of Mike Matheny's challenges is to keep the aging Furcal rested and productive because the Cardinals are a dangerous team when Furcal finds his way on base.

    Overall, the Cardinals are sixth in batting average at shortstop (.274) and still lead the NL in runs scored—though this is largely in part to the fact the Cardinals shortstop is also their lead-off hitter and the team is one of the highest-scoring clubs in baseball.

    Furcal has been steadier on defense this season, perhaps better adjusted to the Cards' ground-ball factory that is their pitching staff. He has saved a few games with some spectacular individual efforts in the field.

    Considering his rather high price tag and slightly above-average performance, a C+ is a fair grade for Raffy. However, if his average continues to tank, this could end up being awful signing by the Cards.

    John Mozeliak can pat himself on the back that the heretofore injury-prone All-Star has stayed quite healthy but there's more to just getting on the field—that player must actually be productive, which Furcal has been.

    So far.

Left Field Mid-Term Grade: A

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    In case Cincinnati fans are paying attention, we have now come to the biggest All-Star snub of 2012—Matt Holliday—who is on pace for the best WAR value rating of his career, with 3.5 so far, after finishing the entire 2011 season with 3.7.

    The Cards are in the top five of virtually every left-field category and he is having (sabermetrically-speaking) the best defensive season of his career. We may get worried watching a virtual linebacker chugging after fly balls and catching them in a bucket, but Holliday gets the job done, period.

    St. Louis fans were tepid about the Holliday signing. His offensive performance in 2009, after the Cards traded for Holliday, was unsustainable (1.023 OPS) and some wondered how he would do outside Colorado.

    Just look at the slash line numbers (thanks to baseball-reference.com):

    Team Years AVG SLG OBP OPS OPS+
    COL 5 .319 .552 .386 .938 131
    STL 4 .314 .539 .394 .933 152

    Holliday's consistency has been downright Pujols-ian. 

    If you were presented just the raw numbers, I would challenge any fan to discern which stats were accumulated with the Rockies and which came with the Cards.

    Holliday was excellent in Denver, but he's been simply elite in St. Louis when you consider he is hitting in a far fairer ballpark and league-wide offense continues to fall, leading to his stellar OPS+ rating of 152.

    That's an MVP level, Cardinals fans who continue to doubt Matt the Bat. His OPS+ rating the last three years is 149 (in 2010), 150 (2011), and 149 (this year).

    The dude is a metronome. Holliday is the Cardinals' new "machine".

    It's been a while since the Cardinals have had an MVP. Holliday, who is hotter now than he's ever been with the club, could be right in the thick of the race at the end of the year.

    And it's always fun and quirky when the league MVP wasn't picked as an All-Star.

Center Field Mid-Term Grade: B -

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    When looking at the National League center fielder position we see the Pittsburgh Pirates lead the NL with a .999 OPS. The Rockies are distant second at .858. Look at that again—.999 OPS as a team in center field.

    This serves to highlight what an absolutely ridiculous season Andrew McCutchen is having for the Pirates. 

    The Cardinals, in contrast, are second to last in home runs from center fielders, yet still rank seventh in OPS at .733, due mostly to Jon Jay's ability to hit for average and get on base, which he is doing at a .390 clip this year.

    Besides his excellent defense, his own OPS is at a career-high .796. The club's overall rankings at the position have been dragged down by Jon Jay's absence while injured in May. Backup Shane Robinson has batted just .252 in 123 at-bats.

    It's likely the Cardinals would rate an A at this position if Jay had played the entire year, but the Cards have stayed afloat while Jay was out and his .322 batting mark is back in the two-hole for manager Mike Matheny.

Right Field Mid-Term Grade: A +

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    Despite leading an entire decade in runs batted in, Albert Pujols actually lead the NL in that category only once. That came in 2010 with 118, which is a somewhat modest number for that category.

    But it does lend context to the performance Carlos Beltran has given the Cardinals in his first season in St. Louis. He currently leads the NL with 63 RBIs and is showing no signs of slowing as he only recently had a nine-game RBI streak end.

    He has also led the league in home runs for a good portion of the season. He is currently resting on 20 bombs after hitting 22 all of last year with the Mets and Giants.

    The Cardinals took a large risk in terms of dollars and injury risk when they coaxed Rafael Furcal and Beltran into the nest, and both are the only Cardinals starting the All-Star game.

    His defense has been subpar the past few seasons, but at least it is not slipping. And in a league where offense is such a valuable commodity, the Cardinals have no problem with Beltran in right.

    The club is essentially getting the same performance they received from team-MVP Lance Berkman last year, which is remarkable and unexpected. But if Beltran can stay healthy, the team has right field set for this year and next.

    Beltran is feeling frisky enough to even participate in the Home Run Derby this year.

    I hope he alternates batting right-handed then left-handed every other pitch and hits 20 homers from each side of the plate. That would be a derby first. 

    Or maybe we should simply pray he doesn't sprain that toenail.

Bullpen Mid-Term Grade: D +

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    As enlightened baseball fans, we understand the reliever's save stat is a rather stupid construction. Managers use their best reliever to get a "save" which is almost always not the most critical juncture of the contest.

    That tends to occur between the sixth and eighth innings, when the starting pitcher is in trouble and actually needs, you know—saving.

    That said, if you compare the same "stupid stat" across all National League teams, it does provide context, and the Cardinals bullpen is tied for 10th out of 16 teams in saves with 18. San Francisco leads the NL with 30 saves.

    What is weird is that the club's bullpen peripherals aren't that bad, or are at least in the middle of the pack in many cases.

    Cardinal reliever's are eighth in WHIP (1.36), seventh in batting average allowed (.253), and sixth in walks allowed (91). The Giants bullpen, by contrast, has walked the fewest batters with 77.

    What is more indicative of the bullpen's performance is, not only the lack of the simple save, but that the bullpen ranks a distant tenth in ERA at 4.45 (ninth-ranked Colorado checks in at 4.19).

    4.45 in today's pitching-dominated game is like a 6.00 ERA during the steroid era, which is ironic since the Cards actually have had three relievers achieve an ERA over 6.00 this season (Sam Freeman, Eduardo Sanchez and J.C. Romero). You can throw in four more that have an ERA over 5.00 for bad measure.

    Where the bullpen has really faltered is in home runs allowed, with 30, which is twice as many as San Francisco. Yes the Giants lead in that category, too. And the hits the bullpen has allowed have always seemed to come at the absolute worst times.

    On the bright side, Jason Motte and Mitchell Boggs, after having some early-season jitters of their own, have really settled down to become foundations to build the bullpen on.

    Maikel Cleto is slowly learning to harness his blazing fastball and Memphis call-up Barret Browning has been a revelation, albeit in a very limited sample.

    But the fact remains that Pittsburgh and Cincinnati's bullpens are ranked first and second, respectively, in bullpen ERA, and this is exactly why both lead the Cards in the NL Central standings.

Pitching Rotation Mid-Term Grade: B -

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    What pitching staff survives an entire baseball season using the same five-man rotation besides the Brewers last year?

    The Cardinals took their lights-out eighth-inning set up man out of the bullpen and foisted him into the rotation slot vacated by ace Chris Carpenter, who is now lost for the year.

    Still a rookie—but not, according to MLB rules—Lance Lynn had an incredible task handed him.

    If the Cardinals were the Red Sox, the Lance Lynn experiment would probably be a massive failure. Possibly as bad as 2 wins, 8 losses, and an ERA of 5.00+ causing Bobby Valentine's hair to turn whiter, if that's possible.

    But harnessing a newly discovered 95-mph fastball, Lynn charged out of the gate with a 10-2 record and a 2.42 ERA, earning an All-Star nod from his fellow players.

    Kyle Lohse (8-2, 2.80) and Jake Westbrook (7-6, 3.91) have shown last year's successes were not isolated incidents. 

    The biggest blow to the rotation besides the demise of Carpenter has been the slow progress of former 20-game winner Adam Wainwright (7-8, 4.56), who is still working back into form after Tommy John surgery last year.

    These are two hurlers who finished second and third in the 2009 Cy Young Award. It's like asking the Phillies to replace Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay or the Angels to find replacements for Jared Weaver and Dan Haren. That's a tall order.

    Yet the Cardinals are still a steady sixth in ERA in the NL (3.79) which, when combined with a top five scoring offense, should be enough to carry the Cards to another NL Central title.

    Provided they can turn that bullpen around.