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5 Questions with Larry Borowsky of Viva El Birdos

The Brewers begin a three-game set (the first of five this season) against the Cardinals tonight.  I don't think anybody expected that we'd be in second place behind St. Louis, but that team has a lot going on that the pundits didn't anticipate. 

I enlisted the help of Larry Borowsky (lboros) to get us up to speed.  Larry runs Viva El Birdos, one of the best team-specific blogs out there.

We're two weeks into the season, and much to my surprise, the Cardinals are sitting atop the division. What's been the key to St. Louis's success so far?

Starting pitching, mostly. The rotation has a 3.42 ERA, and their peripherals are pretty solid -- 55-19 k/bb ratio (nearly 3 to 1), 3.82 FIP, .303 BABIP. Of course, as I noted at VEB on Monday, the Cardinal rotation pitched just as well in the early going last year, and it was merely a blip; they fell apart in May. The same thing might happen this year --- but the 2008 peripherals look a lot better, so maybe the crash won’t be as steep. It’s very hard to predict anything, because there are so many guys coming back from injuries that the Cardinal rotation is almost destined to be a hash all year long. Joel Pineiro returned to duty Sunday and looked awful; Mark Mulder is due back in a couple of weeks, and he’ll probably be worse than whoever he bumps aside.

The other major thing the Cardinals have done well in the early going is show some decent secondary offensive skills. They’re second in the league in walks, second in OBP, and they have some extra-base pop (first in doubles and triples, middle-of-pack in homers) ---- again, it’s too early to draw any conclusions from these figures, but the short-term returns are pleasantly surprising to Cardinal fans.

You've got an outfield full of names--Ludwick, Ankiel, Barton, Schumaker, Duncan--that many fans haven't even heard of. What kind of production are you expecting from the group, and without a true center fielder in the bunch, how well do you expect them to fare with the glove?

Ankiel has been a revelation with the glove in center. He consistently gets good jumps and has made a couple of highlight-reel catches; he’s a big upgrade over last year’s slow-motion version of Jim Edmonds. He’s been good enough that some have whispered Colby Rasmus might slide over to right field whenever he is called up.

As far as production, these no-names might surprise us. Through 13 games (a ridiculously small sample, but it’s all we’ve got) the Cardinal outfielders have an aggregate OPS of .986 --- best in the National League. I wouldn’t expect them to rank 1st all year, but I think they can finish in the top half --- high enough that they won’t put a drag on the lineup, as they did for much of last year. Duncan, Ankiel, and Ludwick are all probably capable of .800+ OPS over a full season, and Schumaker is a much-improved hitter who can probably hit at about a league-average level. Barton, a Rule 5 pick who spent most of last year in A ball, is super-fast and fun to watch; he hasn’t looked overmatched so far. At some point they’ll add Rasmus to the mix; I think they’ll be able to get sufficient production out of this group.

After 37 starts in the last two years, Anthony Reyes is now a member of the bullpen. What's going on with this guy? Is he going to have to be wearing a different uniform to be successful?

Hah. There is no more passionately debated subject at VEB than Anthony Reyes. It’s been going on for two years and shows no signs of slowing down. There’s a large contingent of fans (including me) that thinks La Russa and Duncan screwed the kid up by trying to cram their pitch-to-contact philosophy down his throat. But there’s another large contingent that thinks Reyes was overhyped as a prospect and was never as good as advertised. Here is one fact that’s beyond dispute: The Cardinals changed Reyes’ mechanics in 2006 in an attempt to get him to pitch to the lower half of the strike zone and induce more groundballs. During those two years, Reyes lost a few mph and considerable movement off his 4-seam fastball, which had been his primary weapon. Did the change in mechanics cause the loss of life on the 4-seamer? It seems obvious to me -- but some people think I’m just making excuses for the kid, or that I can’t admit I was wrong about him.

Reyes is even a hotly debated subject within the Cards’ decision-making corps. He didn’t make the starting rotation despite a very good spring, and La Russa and Duncan didn’t want him on the team at all, but the front office intervened and pretty much ordered them to keep Reyes on the club as a relief pitcher. The team’s hope is that Reyes can re-establish enough trade value to be dealt on acceptable terms --- that’s the exit strategy. He’s pitched well in relief so far ---- back to throwing the 4-seamer in the mid-90s and missing bats. There’s almost no chance he’ll start for the Cardinals as long as Tony and Dave are calling the shots on the field.

What are your early impressions of the Glaus-for-Rolen deal?

I always liked the deal from a payroll standpoint, and Rolen’s spring-training injury (admittedly a freakish one) reinforced my feelings on that score. I’m really glad we don’t have to worry about Rolen as a declining, injury-prone ex-star in his mid-30s making $15 million a year all the way through 2010. Glaus ain’t no Rolen in the field, and he still hasn’t homered and isn’t hitting for average, but he’s drawing some walks and showing a smidgen of extra-base power (5 doubles); he’ll come around. I’ve seen no evidence so far that last year’s foot injury is still haunting him. He earned lotsa points among the Cardinal fan base last weekend by plowing into J.R. Towles on a 2-out, 9th-inning play at the plate --- the ball bounced free and Glaus scored the tying run.

Many prospect-watchers don't have nice things to say about the Cardinals system, especially beyond Colby Rasmus. Aside from Rasmus, who I'd imagine we'll see long before September, is there anyone else on the farm who might make an impact in 2008?

The system’s reputation is improving ---- Baseball America ranked the St. Louis farm system 13th out of 30, and Kevin Goldstein had it 15th. Rasmus has a lot to do with that, of course. Two other guys to keep an eye on are AAA relief pitchers --- Chris Perez, a first-round supp pick in 2006 who struck out 13 guys per 9 in AA/AAA last year and was the closer on Team USA last fall; and Jason Motte, a recently converted catcher who throws 97 and struck out 12 per 9 last year (at double A). Another Memphis pitcher who will get a look at some point --- maybe this year, you never know --- is Mitchell Boggs, a starting pitcher who turned some heads in the AZ Fall League last year. And the farm system already has produced a potentially important member of this year’s bullpen, Kyle McClellan --- La Russa’s using him in late-game situations against meat-of-order hitters, and so far the kid has survived. He clearly has big-league stuff, but it’s a long season --- we’ll have to see how well he holds up.

As for everyday players, aside from Rasmus there isn’t anybody at Triple A who I would expect to make an impact this year. Joe Mather his 30 homers last year in the high minors and almost made the club out of spring training; he could see some time in St. Louis this summer, but if so he’ll be strictly a bench player.

Thanks Larry!