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Bird Watching

Bird Watching: “You are here.”

As a Cardinal fan, I can’t decide if I’m optimistic or discouraged by the current status of the Cardinals lineup. On one hand, we’re 2.5 games out in front of the Reds in the NL Central – alone in first place. Given how this team started the season, that’s an impressive fact. On the other hand, we just lost our starting third baseman in David Freese to a glove-hand break – and we know how the 2010 season went when Freese went down.

When faced with such a conflicting perspective on the season, I find it appropriate to take a snapshot and re-orient myself as a fan. And lo’ there was a Blog Post! Enter the “You are here” edition of Bird Watching.

1. Albert Pujols is all kinds of screwed up. In Spring Training, we heard a lot of things about Albert Pujols and his contract negotiations. Perhaps buried in all of that were three pieces of interesting information: A) Albert’s elbow is not hurting; B) Albert changed his offseason conditioning program to account for age and such; C) As a result of feeling “too strong” due to A and B, Albert switched to a heavier bat for the 2011 season (the idea being that a heavier bat would slow his “too fast” swing). I don’t know about you, but that seems like a whole lot of changes for a hitter who just finished putting together the best 10 seasons in MLB history.

Is it possible Albert is simply struggling to settle into his newly minted body while wielding a bigger stick? Pujols does not look right at the plate. The power is still there, the coordination is still there, and his plate discipline is usually still there, but most of the time, he just looks…uncomfortable. During the Fox Sports Midwest pre-game show, we saw clips of McGwire working with Albert on balance in his stance. It got me thinking…maybe comfort level is exactly the problem. Maybe Albert is just uncomfortable and having problems adjusting to a body that doesn’t hurt as much and a bat that weighs down his swing just a bit more. In short, Albert looks like the MLB version of “Freaky Friday” in the box – stuffed into someone else’s body, given unfamiliar tools, and told to engage in “on the job training.”

I don’t know what the ultimate answer is – if there is an answer other than waiting for him to snap out of it – but I do know one thing. When Albert Pujols walks to the plate with one out and the bases loaded in Busch Stadium, fans do not sit quietly in their seats. That happened last night against the Marlins. It was…surreal. Maybe it’s time for him to switch back to his old bat configuration. Maybe it’s time to move him down in the order and let him swing his way out of it. Or maybe it’s just time to give him a few days off in a row and allow him to reboot. I don’t know…but with Freese out, something must be done.

2. The Iceman cometh…and the Iceman…um…”go-eth”? David Freese was putting together exactly the kind of season we hoped to see from the sixth spot in the order. Occasional power, RBIs galore, and tough at-bats. And now it’s all gone. Sure, things could be worse (at least it’s not his ankles and at least it’s not for the rest of the season), but until Pujols starts hitting up to his baseball card, Freese was filling the gap.

Of course, it should be noted that the Cards front office positioned themselves better for this possibility this season. The signing of Punto, the development of Craig as an infielder again, the inclusion of Descalso on the 25-man, and the consideration given to Matt Carpenter as an ultimate back-up option from triple A makes this a “less than killer” injury…but it’s still bad. Craig is the best offensive option, but he is no longer a reliable third baseman on an every day basis (especially with Theriot’s errors to his left). Punto may be the best all-around option (veteran, good glove, and a switch-hitter), but he’s been slowed by tightness in legs still struggling to get up to regular season speed. Descalso has been impressive at the position but spotty at the plate (and Skip’s injury coupled with Punto’s legs requires more than a few starts at second base). And Tyler Greene just can’t get out of his own way at the plate.

So…we are left with a hole at third and in the sixth spot. Perhaps the best way to address it is by getting Albert going in the three spot. More offense from him allows for more defensive options to take over at third. But who knows when that will happen? Of course, it should be said that two months off in the middle of the season does assure us of one thing: When Freese comes back, his ankles will be well rested and this team will be positioned for a strong, late-season run at the division title…if we can stay in the mix while he’s gone, that is.

3. The starting pitching staff is starting to self-correct. Previously, the bulk of the rotation – with the exception of Westbrook – was dominating. Lohse was un-hittable, Jaime un-stoppable, and McClellan un-flappable…while Carp was un-winnable and Westbrook un-…um…-missable? But recently, we’ve seen the staff begin to return to more reasonable expectations. The Cards won a Carpenter start (even if he didn’t get the win), and Westbrook looks to have figured out how to go after hitters again; however, Jaime is again struggling with efficiency (see: 2010), McClellan is showing more signs of a “bullpen pitcher turned starter”, and Lohse was touched for grand slam to give up a lead (see: 2009 and 2010).

All in all, things will be okay…but it’s a good thing our offense woke up, because this pitching staff is starting to look more and more like we expected them to look. Carp and Westbrook will, in the long run, be reliable enough to give us a chance to win nearly every start. But Jaime has to figure out his efficiency struggles and save a few arms in the ‘pen for McClellan starts. Speaking of K-Mac, if he can go 6 innings and allow 4 runs and call that his worst start…I’ll take that from a fifth starter with this offense. And Kyle Lohse will be fine. Everyone has a bad inning here and there. He just needs to throw that start away and remember to “Dodge, Dip, Dive, Duck…and Dodge!” so he can stay healthy on the mound.

4. The closer role is a conundrum. I have to say that I am a fan of having a designated closer simply because of the bullpen freedom and flexibility it gives a manager regarding the rest of the arms in the ‘pen. That said…I’m diggin’ the mix-and-match approach considering all the power arms we have on the roster. Two things to watch out for, however: A) Burying Mitchell Boggs in regards to the closer role is a bad idea. He blew one save and hasn’t appeared in the ninth since. Given his experience at this level, he could be a much better “right now” option for the ninth than a young Eduardo Sanchez. B) Giving Sanchez the ninth too often is a bad idea. I know he’s the “hot pick” by fans right now, but the kid is young…especially in terms of MLB experience. He has electric stuff, but virtually no experience getting MLB hitters out. Compared to Mitchell Boggs (both have 95 mph fastballs and nasty sliders), I like Sanchez’s ability to throw strikes when he has to much better…but Boggs seems better prepared to handle the pressure in 2011.

All things considered, it’s not really the closer role I’m most curious about given the success of the St. Louis Young Guns…it’s “what happens when Tallet and Augenstein are healthy?” Sure, Augenstein is likely to return to triple A (although, I would rather have him on the roster than Miguel Batista), but what about Tallet? Who says goodbye when he’s ready to be activated? Hmmmm…Isn’t Ryan Franklin the most unusable, ineffective pitcher in the ‘pen right now?

5. This team just plays bad baseball. It’s a good thing the offense is rolling (mostly), because it is helping to smooth over all those blatant defensive issues and fundamental play guffaws popping up in game after game. Theriot is a gamble every time the ball is hit to him. Third base is now going to be manned, at least partially, by Allen Craig. Yadier Molina is having trouble stopping balls and throwing out runners this season (pitcher’s fault or not), and base running and situational hitting mistakes abound.

During last night’s game, I found myself – again – cursing the rookies like Descalso (until he hit that homer) for boneheaded mistakes. “What are they teaching these kids in triple A?!” I yelled. And then I remembered Holliday’s at-bat earlier in the game.

Bases loaded. Sanchez is struggling to throw strikes on demand. One out. Lance Berkman on deck. And what does Holliday do? He swings at the first pitch – down and in – and pops out let the pitcher off the hook. Now, I’m not a fan who thinks you always take the first pitch…but you certainly have to in that situation, right? Holliday had the perfect opportunity to work the count, push the pitcher’s pitch count up, and pick his pitch to hit. Why didn’t he?! If he was leading off an inning with no one on base where a pitcher is going to throw a first pitch fastball or “get ahead” strike, then by all means…swing at the first pitch. But not in a situation where the pitcher is about to fall apart with the bases juiced and the hottest hitter in the NL looming large behind you.

Okay…that’s all I’ll say about that…except to say this team has got to figure out how to play good, solid, fundamental baseball again. We haven’t seen solid play in a couple years from this team, and it’s cost us. We may win 90 games this year and take the division…but if we can’t make the plays we need to make and take the at-bats we need to take in the post-season, we won’t last long.

Wrap-Up

That’ll do it for today. Here’s hoping the Cards can seize a large advantage while Cincy struggles to fill a gap left by Rolen’s injury.

GO CARDS!!!

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