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Friday, January 13, 2006

 

Misunderestimation

“If” Best explained by Principal Skinner to Homer in an episode of The Simpsons, the definition of the word is, “A conjunction meaning ‘in the event that’ or ‘on condition that.’” It’s not a big word with a complicated definition, but it’s a word used frequently around the baseball blog world. I read the word thousands of times each day in sentences, paragraphs, and articles on blogs and sites everywhere around the web. Encountering the word rarely raises a red flag for me. Lately, however, something has made stop and take notice of it. Articles forecasting the fate of the Cardinals and other teams have started to pop up across the web, probably an inevitable consequence of the hot stove hubbub settling down. While very informative (but perhaps a bit early), these articles, entries, etc. are filled with the word “if”. In fact, the word forms an indispensable plank of the very thesis at the heart of any such prognostic writing. The “ifs” in these articles, the actual word and the statements based on the conjunction, bother me because I think they’re being used to draw incomplete and misleading conclusions. Getting right to the “if” bothering me the most, let’s turn to the Cubs, the starting rotation in particular. While easy to write off Dusty Baker’s Cubbies, I caution any commentator away from doing so based on the assumption that the Small Bears’ starters will be injured. In fact, responsible prognosticators will offer them the benefit of the doubt and assume that Cubs’ starters will indeed be healthy. Upon granting them health in any predictions, you will quickly notice that this is a pretty gol derned good starting rotation. Let’s review. Mark Prior is arguably among the most talented pitchers in the game right now. For my money, I’d still take Prior over Oswalt. However, many think only of the injuries when thinking of the 25 year-old. Prior had to deal with injuries before the season started, and missed virtually all of June after taking a liner off his elbow at the end of May. He still managed to start 27 games. Down the stretch, he wore down and couldn’t go very deep into games. This, no doubt, resulted from poor conditioning sometimes caused by lengthy stints on the DL, and of course Dusty’s insistence that pitchers pitch till their arm falls off the body. Rather than presuppose injury for 2006, I’m going take the view that Prior comes back healthy and pitches 30 games. Just as I would expect commentators to extend Carpenter the same assumption. When Mark Prior is leading your rotation, you’re going to win some games. He’s the kind of pitcher that can steal victory from the jaws of defeat; a team of eight Neifi’s could win some with Prior on the mound. Carlos Zambrano fills the second spot, making the rotation even stronger. This head case was particularly effective versus the Cards last year, going 3-0 in 4 starts with a 1.10 ERA. To quote a famous TV star from the 1990s, “whoa.” Not to mention, Zambrano started 31 games or more and pitched over 200 innings each of the last three seasons. He might be impervious to the Dusty treatment, seriously negating the injury assumption for prognosticators. Maddux is old, but damn near invincible. Even in a 2005 that was considered an off-year, he only walked 36 batters. It’s pretty safe to say that the old man has still got much of it. The one that really makes predicting an “iffy” affair, is Kerry Wood. Wood has not been able to start a full season since 2003. (2003 must have been a really magical season for the Cubbies. Oh wait.) Assuming Wood is injured is a pretty safe bet, and the prediction is just based on established trends in his career. (Cub fans might say the same thing about Rolen.) Injury guru Will Carroll recently offered his opinion that Wood pitches no more than 140 innings. Suppose he does pitch 140 innings, and pitches effectively in most of these games. If that’s the case, throw in a replacement level starter for the 10 starts Wood can’t make and a fifth starter somewhere just north of replacement level to round it out, and you’ve got a formidable rotation of pitchers. Better than a Clemens-less Astros rotation, and arguably the best in the NL Central. My point here is not to say that the Cards cannot possibly win the division against such odds. All things considered, I’d still pick the Redbirds to claim that prize, completely biased fan perspective aside. Simply put, I want to caution my fellow Redbird fans away from writing off the competition, particularly in the face of a Cubs’ starting rotation with such potential.
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