Pushing the Panic Down, For Now

Mar 12, 2010 at 2:18 am
I'll admit it: I thought this Cardinal team was going to be an absolute juggernaut from the very beginning. First day of spring training, I thought they would be making opposing teams cry with their overwhelming superiority. 

Thus, you can imagine my feelings of discontent when this team not only failed to make anyone cry, but actually started out with a big fat ofer in the win column. In fact, not only was I discontented, I started feeling the familiar squeezing sensation I get every year when I suddenly realise the Cardinals probably aren't going to go 162-0 and have a run differential of +600. I started to panic. 

"What is wrong with this team?" I thought to myself. "How can a team with Matt Holliday and Albert Pujols and Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright possibly be this bad?" (Ignoring, of course, the fact none of those guys have actually seen much on-field time.) 

Fortunately for me and my peace of mind, these games don't count. They literally mean absolutely nothing. In fact, you could classify these games as nothing more than practice, if you wanted. And we all know how much practice matters, right? Hell, I'll let the recently-retired legend himself, Allen Iverson, tell you all about practice. 

Thank you, Mr. Iverson. 

As AI so eloquently told us, this is practice, not even games, not even games that count. And, of course, the Cards have won three of their last four games, so I certainly have no real reason to panic, right? Right. 

However, if one were so inclined as to get that fluttery, nervous feeling in one's chest and begin breathing into a paper bag, I can think of a few reasons you just might be justified. 

Because oblique injuries suck: Look, I'm sure Matt Holliday's rib injury, or oblique injury, or rib-cage or intercostal muscle or whatever exactly it is he hurt, is going to be fine. On the other hand, obliques are just the sort of injury you see crop back up when a player tries to come back too soon. The muscle feels fine, after all, so it must be fine. The problem, of course, is that the muscle often isn't fine, and the player reinjures himself and misses more time. Obliques just stick around; it's what they do. They're the wrist injuries of the muscle world. 

Woody Williams in 2002 comes to mind; Woodrow missed several weeks with an oblique strain, came back for a couple weeks, then hurt himself again and ended up back on the disabled list for another seven weeks. We saw how long it took Chris Carpenter to recover from a similar strain just last year. Luckily he came back strong, but he still spent six weeks on the DL. 

Of course, Albert Pujols represents - as he usually does - the other side of the story. Pujols hurt his oblique in 2006 and was back on the field barely two weeks later, barely missing a beat. Of course, I'm not entirely sure Matt Holliday has the benefit of nanomachines which continuously repair his internals, but we can hope he bought some with his new contract money. 

Because the left side of the infield is still kind of a mess: David Freese has played alright so far in camp. He has. He's hit alright, he's defended alright, he's run the bases- well, okay, so his baserunning hasn't been great. He's still way, way better than Joe Thurston, but getting picked off at second base to end a game, even a practice game, just isn't good. 

However, David Freese has also made three throwing errors already in camp, and that just won't do. I'm sure you all remember the cringing we all did every time Thursty Joe had to try and make a long throw across the diamond last year; how many times did we see him pull Albert Pujols right into the path of an oncoming runner? It seemed like hundreds, maybe even thousands. I don't want to go through that again, Dave. Get your throwing together. 

And, of course, then there's shortstop. Now, there's absolutely no reason to believe Brendan Ryan won't be back when he says, or to think he won't be completely ready for the start of the season. Then again, remember when I said earlier oblique injuries are the wrist injuries of the muscle world? Well, wrist injuries are the wrist injuries of the wrist world, and that means until Brendan Ryan has played a couple months of pain-free ball hitting with authority, I'm just not ready to believe he's healthy yet. The Cardinals do have the depth to fill in if B-Ry (that's my nickname for him; it's a thing we have together), isn't ready to go at the beginning of the season, but what if both Freese and Ryan need to be filled in for? I don't know about you, but for me the thought of seeing Julio Lugo and his deathgaze playing shortstop every day does not inspire feelings of confidence. 

Because the memories of 2003 - and 2008 - are still too close: I'm not going to beat around the bush. This bullpen scares the living hell out of me. 

You can tell me Ryan Franklin was really good last year, and that he only struggled when he was tired, and that his collapse in the playoffs was really just random bad luck. Guess what? I don't believe any of that. Ryan Franklin is not a closer. He's a glorified middle reliever who got by last year because he managed not to walk anyone for half the season. Ryan Franklin is going to be closing out games for the Cardinals this year, and that means another summer of fingernail marks in all my furniture. 

Unfortunately, it doesn't really get much better after Franklin, either. Jason Motte throws really hard, but we also saw plenty of balls heading away from home plate just as hard last year. Hey, maybe he got his stuff together late in the season, and maybe he's developed a second pitch enough to be usable this year. Then again, maybe not. I've railed against Kyle McClellan before; I'll save my breath this time. Bottom line: I think K-Mac is much better in the bullpen than the rotation, but I'm not a huge fan either way. 

I love love love Mitchell Boggs' arm. Upper 90s gas with great movement and a hard slider? Sign me up. On the other hand, even in his very impressive bullpen stop at the end of the 2009 season, Boggs still walked 7 batters in 7.2 innings. So, um, yeah. It looks like Blake Hawksworth will probably be the final right-hander in the 'pen, largely due to his lack of options. The Cards can't send him down to the minors, so chances are he stays in the majors. That's fine, but I'm very nervous about the Hawk throwing a lot of high-leverage innings. He's much in the same boat as McClellan for me; he just doesn't miss enough bats for me to want to see him out there when the game is on the line. Sure, he might get that critical inning-ending double play ball. That same groundball could also end up just a couple inches beyond someone's reach, too, and two runs score. 

Above all, the Cardinals' bullpen really worries me this season. It worried me before spring training began, and it's worrying me even more now. Neither Franklin nor Boggs have looked at all good so far, and while I love the arm of Eduardo Sanchez, I'm not sure he's ready to be the first guy up just yet. 

So no, I'm not panicking. Panicking at this point would just be stupid. After all, these are practice games. Practice. We're talking about practice. Not even games, we're talking about- 

Whoa. Sorry about that. It's almost hypnotic, isn't it? Talking about practice, that is. But practice really can tell you a lot about a team, contrary to what Mr. Iverson might think, and while I still feel all kinds of good about what this team is going to accomplish in 2010, after watching a fair amount of practice, I'm also seeing a couple of holes it would just be foolish to ignore.