Thursday, November 04, 2004

2004 Infield Review

I was going to review the entire starting lineup, but the rotation review ended up being so long that I decided that A, writing an article that long is a lot of work and B, it's probably too long for most people to want to read anyway. So, my next two articles will consist of the starting lineup, broken down into infield and outfield.

I'll be using statistics that you are used to evaluate the starting infielders, other than OPS+. OPS+, like ERA+, is a stat that is available at baseball-reference.com, and is basically adjusted OPS for league and park effects. With that out of the way, let's get started.

Albert Pujols
.331 Average, 1072 OPS, 175 OPS+
40 Win Shares, 21 Win Shares Above Average
2004 Salary - $7.05 million
2004 Salary - $11 million

I could use dozens of more stats to point out how awesome Pujols is, but you've likely heard most if not all of them. Something you may not have seen, however, is similarity scores from baseball-reference.com. For the 4th year in a row, the player most similar to Albert Pujols through the first 4 years of a career is Joe DiMaggio. What's more, 7 of the 10 most similar players through their 1st four years of play ended up in the hall of fame. Not bad, to say the least.

So, we know he's awesome. Most interesting of all, he should actually improve for another year or two if history is any indication. Most players don't hit their peak until 26 or 27 years old, with Pujols turning 25 in January. His 175 OPS+ was slightly lower than the 189 he put up in 2003, indicating that he may have actually been slightly "off" this year. His walk totals have increased each of his first 4 seasons, just as his K totals have decreased. And to top off the offense, we all saw how great he was with the glove this year. I assume that a gold glove or two will be in his future, especially if Todd Helton ends up in the AL at some point. It's great that the Cardinals have this guy locked up for years to come.

Scott Rolen
.314 Average, 1007 OPS, 160 OPS+
38 Win Shares, 21 WSAA
2004 Salary - $6.18 million
2005 Salary - $9.75 million

Rolen had a career year with the bat, plain and simple. He posted career highs in batting average, OBP, SLG, OPS, HR, RBI, and OPS+. His career OPS+ is 132, with his previous high being 139 back in 1998. For him to post a 160 in the 8th year of his career, at the age of 29, is pretty impressive.

As far as negatives go - I don't see much to get upset about. He played the fewest games (142), since the 2000 season, but the injury he had should not be a recurring problem in the future. It would be nice to see his doubles numbers go back up. After hitting a career high 49 in 2003, he only hit 32 this year. Additionally, his stolen base total dropped from 13 to 4.

Defensively, he was great again this year, picking up his 6th gold glove at 3rd base. Looking at defensive win shares, he deserved it as well as he just edged out Adrian Beltre in my mind.

Rolen - 5.6 Win Shares, 142 Games, 0.394/Game
Beltre - 6.1 WS, 156 Games, 0.391/Game
A-Rod - 5.8 WS, 155 Games, 0.374/Game

I realize that A-Rod is in the AL, and thus couldn't have taken the GG away from Rolen. However, he was the only other 3rd baseman in the game to have more defensive win shares than Rolen at 3rd. Not bad for a guy playing there in his first season.

Overall, it was a great year for Rolen which could in fact end up being the best one of his career. I suspect that we'll see Rolen revert a bit to his career numbers in 2005. Not that that's a bad thing, mind you - that would mean the best defensive 3rd baseman in the game posting a 900 OPS. And him putting up similar numbers to 2004 is not, of course, out of the question either.

Edgar Renteria
.287 Average, 728 OPS, 90 OPS+
17 Win Shares, -1 WSAA
2004 Salary - $7.5 million
2005 Salary - Free Agent

While Rolen was having a career year, Renteria wasn't. He posted his lowest batting average since 2001, his lowest OBP and SLG since 2000. We also saw his walk totals decline, his K totals increase, and his steals evaporate from 34 to 17 in just one year. From a defensive standpoint he also declined, with 6 players in the NL having more defensive win shares than the 2 time gold glove winner.

Some people point out that the last time Renteria had a bad season was 2001 - which also happened to be the last time his contract was running out. During that season, Renteria's production improved greatly after the trade deadline, as he was no longer worried about getting dumped. Could Renteria have been pressing this season, thus affecting his play? Absolutely.

Renteria will turn 30 during the 2005 season. At this point in his career, he's not likely to improve much over what he's done to this point. The main question is - was 2004 a fluke, or were his 2002 and 2003 seasons the ones that were out of place? The truth of the matter is, his 2004 batting average was just 2 points lower than his career average, with his SLG 1 point higher than his career average, and his OPS+ within 6 points of his career average. I'm not convinced that Renteria is worth a large contract based upon those factors.

Tony Womack
.307 Average, 735 OPS, 93 OPS+
18 Win Shares, 2 WSAA
2004 Salary - $300,000
2005 Salary - Free Agent

Womack was above and beyond anything I could have ever predicted for him this season. His best previous OPS+ for a full season was 82, and he posted that 7 years ago. Career highs in average, OBP, SLG, and on and on. Let's put it another way. Womack had more win shares, a higher OPS, and OPS+ than Edgar Renteria at 4% of the cost.

Do I think Womack is likely to repeat this season? No way. He only drew 36 walks the entire year, and has only drawn more than 50 once over his career. Unless Womack has suddenly become a .300 hitter at the age of 34, his OBP is going to plunge next season, most likely near his career average of .319. That's acceptable for a no-hit defensive whiz hitting 8th in the lineup, but not a guy that is supposed to be a table setter who is below average defensively.

Mike Matheny
.247 Average, 640 OPS, 67 OPS+
10 Win Shares, -2 WSAA
2004 Salary - $2.75 million
2005 Salary - Free Agent

Mike Matheny is a guy that I have a lot of respect for as a man. As a baseball player, however, I'm not as impressed. Let's start with offense. His OPS+ of 67 was his worst since the 2001 season, in which he posted a 51. Much was made of his career high 50 RBI this season. Of course, since RBI are a team dependant stat I don't personally give it much credence. Most discouraging of all was his walk total, which at 23 was the lowest total during his stint with the Cardinals. He's tried working out with Albert Pujols during the offense, he's tried working out with Andy Van Slyke (who tried making him a switch hitter.) Nothing has worked.

Most people will cite that Matheny is still worthy of a starting job, however, because of his defense and pitch calling abilities. Defensively - the guy was great this year. His 8.2 defensive win shares was 2nd most in the NL, right behind Brian Schnieder of the Expos who had 10.6. No one in the AL had more defensive win shares than 7.9 (Damian Miller.) Matheny may have won the gold glove due to his reputation and not playing in Montreal, but he didn't exactly steal it.

Pitching calling wise? Maybe he's good at it, maybe he isn't. I'm not certain that it's as important as some claim it is, but at the same time I don't think it can be ignored. During 2004, pitchers had a 3.88 ERA when Matheny was catching. When Molina was catching, they had a 3.64 ERA. Matheny did catch 3 times as many innings, but you still see what I'm getting at.

Summary

Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen will be the cornerstones of this team for years to come. I think that next season they will continue to be among the best players in the game, both putting up great offense and defense from the corners of the infield. Personally, I think Pujols is likely to improve a bit over this season, with Rolen likely to see a slight decline in offensive production. Overall, I think any decrease in production from Rolen will be offset by an increase from Pujols, making the changes irrelevant.

Mike Matheny is a solid catcher who, in my opinion, does not deserve to start. As great as his glove is, his bat is so weak that overall he hurts the team. What's more, the Cardinals have a great young catcher in Yadier Molina who is deserving of more playing time as far as I'm concerned. I would have no problem with the Cardinals signing Matheny to a cheap 1 or 2 year deal to serve as a backup to Molina and doubles as a bench coach. However, if he isn't willing to sign in the neighborhood of $1 million or so per year, I personally don't think he's worth it. I have a feeling, however, that the Cardinals may feel differently than me.

Tony Womack is an interesting case. He was great for the Cardinals this season, providing a solid leadoff hitter for most of the year. What's more, he had a gutsy performance in the last 2 games of the NLCS, showing a lot of heart and determination that in part helped the team go to the World Series. With that being said, I'm not sure that Womack should be a high priority to be re-signed this off-season due to his historical performance.

Then there is Edgar Renteria. After the 2003 season, it appeared as if Renteria was one of the top shortstops in MLB. After this season, however, he appears to be much more of a gamble. On one hand, he claims that he wants to play for St. Louis for the rest of his career, and I have no reason to not believe him. On the other hand, he's supposedly looking for an average salary in the area of $12 million per year. Albert Pujols is going to make an average a salary of $12.7 million per year over the next 5 years, with Scott Rolen averaging $12.4 million over that same time span. That brings to mind two questions. Is Renteria is worth approximately the same salary as those two? And if so, can the Cardinals compete over the next 5 years with more than $36 million per year already committed to just 3 players?

I see the future of Womack and Renteria somewhat intertwined. I do think that the Cardinals should try to sign Renteria and hope that he reverts to pre-2004 form, but only if the price is right. Perhaps that means an incentive based contract. Whatever the case, anything more than $8 or $9 million a year would appear to be a large risk to me, and even that much might be too steep for him at this point.

If the Cardinals do sign Renteria, then they don't need as much offense out of 2nd base (hopefully), and they will not have as much money to address that position. Since I don't think Luna is ready to start next year, or that Hart ever really will be good enough, then signing Womack for a couple of cheap years might not be a bad idea as long as we're talking about less than $2 million per season.

On the other hand, if the Cardinals cannot come to terms with Renteria then things change. One, they will have much more cash available this off-season. Two, they will need a bit more offense out of 2nd base, assuming they are not on the market for Nomar Garciaparra. If that happens, I think the Cardinals need to seriously consider looking at players like Placido Polanco, Jeff Kent, Mark Bellhorn, and Todd Walker to take over at 2nd base and in part replace the offense that they would have been counting on out of Renteria.

In my mind, the three infield free agents are the biggest questions addressing the Cardinals this off-season. It will be interesting to see what actually takes place.

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