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The 30: College of Cardinals

Matt Carpenter, a 13th-round afterthought, is the latest hero to come through the St. Louis education system

The Mariners are in the midst of another miserable season, likely the fourth straight year they will finish under .500 and their eighth losing campaign in the past 10 years. The homegrown prospects expected to power the next winner in Seattle have been busts, leaving behind only Felix Hernandez and a smattering of other bright spots in an otherwise forgettable 2013.

If any single player represents this kind of path, it’s Jeremy Bonderman. Once one of the top young pitchers in the game, the 30-year-old right-hander had surgery to treat thoracic outlet syndrome in 2008. The condition was thought to be so serious that there were doubts he would ever make it back to the big leagues, not to mention worries of more serious health concerns. He did make it back, making 29 starts for the Tigers in 2010. But that bout of good health didn’t last, and Bonderman would miss the entire 2011 and 2012 seasons. The thing about losing baseball teams is that they eventually run out of options. With Seattle’s top pitching prospects still developing on the farm and a stopgap needed to deal with pitching attrition on the big club, the M’s figured What the hell. Bonderman’s first major league start in three seasons, against the Twins on June 2, was a disaster, one that lasted just 4⅔ innings before Minnesota knocked him out with a seven-run barrage.

But his second start, against the Yankees on Friday, was a gem, one that yielded just a single run on three hits over six innings. The Mariners won that game, their lone victory in a four-game weekend series against the Yanks, one that shoved them to a season-worst 10 games under .500. If the season keeps going at this pace, Bonderman’s first win in three years could stand out as a highlight for this downtrodden team. Given how long it took Bonderman just to get another chance, it will certainly stand out as a highlight for his tumultuous career.

It’s Week 10 of The 30.

Many of the stats and facts below are courtesy of the indispensable ESPN Stats & Info.

1. St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals have a chance to do something no team has done in at least four decades.

ESPN Stats & Info tracks team stats with runners in scoring position going back to 1974. Granted, 99 games remain on the schedule. But so far, St. Louis has hit .339/.410/.457 with RISP. If those numbers were to hold, that would give the Cards the highest batting average and highest on-base percentage in those situations since records started being kept. The team’s .867 OPS would rank in the top 10 of all teams in RISP situations dating back to ’74.

Outliers happen in baseball. Whether it is Barry Bonds’s (albeit questionable) run in the early aughts, Mike Trout’s rookie season for the ages last year, or even wildly improbable seasons like the ones put up by Baltimore and Oakland, events that might seem wildly improbable remain possible under the right circumstances. Still, the likelihood of the Cards maintaining something even close to their current pace with runners in scoring position lies somewhere between slim chance and no chance. This is almost certainly a statistical anomaly that will regulate by season’s end.

The good news for the Cardinals is that their season isn’t some house of cards, destined to fail the minute they stop hitting in the clutch like a peak Rod Carew. For that they can thank a ludicrously productive farm system that keeps churning out talent. We’ve covered the Cardinals’ homegrown success already this season, with players like Shelby Miller, Lance Lynn, Allen Craig, and Trevor Rosenthal all emerging in the past couple of years, joining call-ups from further back like Yadier Molina and a select few imports from other clubs to give St. Louis uncommon depth up and down the roster.1 What is most amazing is that many of these players don’t come with monster pedigrees. Molina was a fourth-round pick, Craig was an eighth-round pick, while Rosenthal came in the 21st round.

The team’s most unlikely star this year has been Matt Carpenter. A 13th-round pick in the 2009 draft, Carpenter was considered a decent prospect only in utilityman terms. He never hit for much power in the minors and figured to be someone who could play multiple positions — none of them all that well — if he could one day crack the big leagues. His one true plus skill was his ability to get on base, in particular to draw walks. Carpenter parlayed that skill set into a strong rookie season in 2012, hitting .294/.365/.463 in 114 games while seeing time at five positions, mostly at corner infield and corner outfield. With those positions covered by Craig, David Freese, Matt Holliday, and Carlos Beltran coming into this season, Carpenter didn’t seem likely to play that much. But the Cardinals got creative. With no quality options at second base, they installed Carpenter there, hoping he would reach base enough to offset what would likely be shaky defense.

Carpenter has rewarded them with an MVP-caliber performance to date. The 27-year-old2 has ripped up the league, hitting .332/.412/.481. Though a sample of just 61 games can be misleading, advanced stats peg Carpenter as above average at both second and third base,3 and more subjective reports grade him as, at worst, not bad afield. He trails only Carlos Gomez and Troy Tulowitzki among National League position players in Wins Above Replacement. In the past 30 days, Carpenter stands alone as the most valuable player in either league.

You could keep going and going with this team. Few starting rotations boast a better top three than Adam Wainwright, Miller, and Lynn, and fewer still boast the depth to produce quality options like Michael Wacha and Tyler Lyons when three would-be members of the Opening Day rotation go down with major injuries. The bullpen has come together now that Edward Mujica and Rosenthal are locked in for the eighth and ninth, with Mitchell Boggs mercifully exiled to the minors. And if injuries happen, there’s more talent standing by, starting with Adams and Taveras.

In a weird way, Houston Astros fans should be thrilled by all the success the Cardinals’ homegrown stars are having, since the architect of several key drafts that have fueled the current St. Louis powerhouse is Jeff Luhnow, now Houston’s general manager. But in the here and now, it’s Cards fans who should be feeling good, knowing their team has contingency plan after contingency plan — including an answer to the nearly inevitable regression likely to happen in high-leverage situations.

10. Tampa Bay Rays

Two weeks into the season, the Rays sat in last place in the AL East. Assessing the team that had scored fewer runs than any other (aside from the lowly Marlins), we called Tampa Bay’s offense “the Hindenburg of the American League.” Normally you wouldn’t make a big deal out of two weeks’ worth of games. But in this case, the results seemed to fit the personnel.

Though Tampa Bay’s pitching staff figured to remain strong even with James Shields getting shipped to Kansas City, the offense looked like it had the potential to be absolutely anemic. Starting first baseman James Loney was coming off a season in which he hit just .249/.293/.336, performing so poorly that he pushed the Dodgers to pull off one of the ballsiest and most expensive trades in baseball history. Starting shortstop Yunel Escobar hit just .253/.300/.344 in 2012, and, like Loney, appeared to be a defense-first acquisition rather than a player who would help the offense. Starting second baseman Kelly Johnson hit .225/.313/.365 in Toronto before Tampa Bay got him at an unsurprisingly rock-bottom price over the winter. The Rays brought back Luke Scott to be their DH in 2013, after an injury-plagued season in which he hit just .229/.285/.439 in 96 games. And those were just the offseason additions. Desmond Jennings was ticketed for the starting center-field job after hitting just .246/.314/.388 in 2012. Evan Longoria’s health was a question mark after he missed three months with a major hamstring injury. As for starting catcher Jose Molina … boy, he sure knew how to frame pitches.

With a lineup that suspect, the Rays averaging just 2.9 runs a game through those first two weeks seemed to make perfect sense. Meanwhile, the solution seemed simple: Call up megaprospect Wil Myers from Triple-A. Given what would transpire, that looks like a silly suggestion now. Led by two unlikely mashers in Johnson and Loney, the Rays’ offense went nuts — Tampa Bay has gone 30-20 since that rough start, scoring 5.4 runs per game to improbably rank as baseball’s highest-scoring team over the past 50 games. Meanwhile, Myers struggled for a while, failing to hit for much power (at first) and maintaining an ugly strikeout rate of about 30 percent for long enough that Rays fans started to worry. Now he, too, has started raking, hitting .390/.447/.707 over his past 10 games to hike his season line to .287/.361/.513. On Saturday, ESPN’s Jim Bowden reported that the now scorching Myers would get called up by the Rays sometime in the next 10 days.

To which we say … maybe. The Tampa Bay Times‘s Marc Topkin reported that the Rays haven’t had any discussions about bringing up Myers in the near future. Moreover, they would need to figure out where Myers would play. At the start of the year, Johnson figured to be the stopgap likely to get booted from the lineup as soon as Myers was ready. But Johnson has hit .260/.322/.481, cooling off a bit lately but still tying for the team lead in homers while moving to left field and playing competent defense there. Cynics wonder if Matt Joyce’s luck will turn for the worse now that he is done pummeling pitchers in the month of May, as he seems to do every year. Still, it’d be tough to imagine Joyce on the bench after batting at or near the top of the lineup for the past several weeks, while putting up a .253/.332/.472 line for the year.

From a current and projected future performance standpoint, you could argue that Scott should be the odd man out, given he has hit just .230/.339/.360 as the team’s DH. But under GM Andrew Friedman and manager Joe Maddon, the Rays have shown near pathological patience with slumping players, trusting that the reasons for investing in a player in the first place don’t become moot as soon as someone puts up a 3-for-25 … or even a 20-for-120. They might trust that Scott can shake off his litany of injuries over the past couple years, his advancing age (34), and the fact that he hasn’t been an above-average offensive player in three years to become a force at the plate. The more likely scenario is that they’re showing pathological patience with a prospect, as they’ve done again and again over the past few years, driving some observers slightly mad. Myers is a converted catcher who is nowhere near a finished product as an everyday right fielder. We’re not that far removed from him struggling mightily to make contact. And yes, the thrifty Rays will surely wait until there is not even a shadow of a doubt that the Super Two threshold has passed, which would allow Myers to get called up without fear of him becoming eligible for arbitration after the 2015 season, as opposed to post-2016.

So if you’re the betting type, that 10-day projection would probably make a good starting point as the quickest possible scenario, with the more likely outcome that we wait a bit longer for Myers to suit up at the Trop. To feel fully safe about the Super Two cutoff, you’re probably talking late June rather than mid-June. And to get Myers in the lineup as the everyday right fielder, we might need to see an injury, with any one of Joyce, Johnson, Scott, or Ben Zobrist going down and the Rays using their vaunted versatility to slide players to different positions and get Myers where they want him to be. If we simply have to wait for the Rays to stop hitting for Myers to get his chance … well, you would think that could happen any day now, but here we are.

16. Cleveland Indians

If you want a microcosm of the Indians’ recent woes, look no further than what went down on Sunday. After winning the first two games of the series, the Tigers called up Jose Alvarez to make his big league debut against Cleveland. The 24-year-old left-hander had muddled through seven mostly unremarkable minor league seasons before putting up 12 solid starts this year at Triple-A Toledo. Needing a spot starter Sunday, Detroit called up Alvarez, hoping for a few not-terrible innings to fill the void. Instead, Alvarez gave the Tigers a gem, firing six innings of one-run, three-hit ball, striking out seven as he dominated the Tribe. Immediately after the game, Alvarez was sent back to the minors. These days, even a guy getting a cup of coffee is bound to spill it all over the Indians’ helpless laps.

The Indians are the coldest team in baseball, losing seven in a row and 15 of their past 19 games. A first-place club that held a 2½-game lead on May 20, the Indians now sit two games below .500, closer to the last-place White Sox than the first-place Tigers. An aggressive offseason and sizzling starts from half the roster spawned some early dreams of pennant fever. In less than three weeks, all that optimism has turned into the usual rite of summer in Cleveland: a whole lot of “wait until next year.”

Behold the nasty cases of regression suffered by some of the Indians’ best early-season performers:

Justin Masterson
First 10 starts: 70 IP, 71 K, 26 BB, 2.83 ERA
Next four starts: 25⅓ IP, 21 K, 11 BB, 6.04 ERA

Zach McAllister
First eight starts: 51 IP, 34 K, 14 BB, 2.65 ERA
Next three starts: 14⅔ IP, 11 K, 8 BB, 6.14 ERA, now on the DL and expected to miss up to four weeks

Carlos Santana
First 38 games: .296/.403/.548
Next 19 games: .258/.359/.348

Jason Kipnis
First 35 games: .264/.329/.500
Next 18 games: .200/.278/.292

You can run this exercise for lots of other players and find similar results. On a team level and on an individual level, the Indians have been terrible for the past 19 games. This leads to the obvious question: What’s so special about those 19 games? Simple: competition.

Cleveland has faced the Tigers, Red Sox, Reds, Rays, Yankees, and the Tigers again during their current swoon. Those teams have combined to go 182-130 for the year, good for a .583 winning percentage. The Tribe did face some decent competition before this brutal stretch, with three against the Tigers, three against the Rays, three against the Red Sox, four against the Yankees, and four against the A’s. But they also played the Jays, White Sox, Astros, Royals, Phillies, Twins and Mariners, combining to go 18-8 against those clubs, all of which are under .500. That’s the thing about jumping to conclusions based on small sample sizes: You run the risk of overestimating the importance of results that might have more to do with happenstance than be a true barometer of a team’s skill.4 The Indians get three against the Rangers and three against the talented albeit underachieving Nationals this week, before starting a stretch in which they play 13 of 17 games against AL Central pushovers Kansas City, Minnesota, and Chicago.

So really, what have we learned about the Indians 10 weeks into the season? Only that they’re not nearly as good as they looked while feasting on feeble competition, and probably not as bad as they have looked while getting steamrolled by the league’s best. There is a good chance Cleveland settles in as a .500ish club — a big improvement from last year, still a notch below playoff level, and just about where most people expected them to be.

Filed Under: Jonah Keri, MLB, People, Sports, Teams

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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