Walt Jockety may be the most underappreciated GM in baseball today. While guys like Billy Beane and John Schuerholz get the headlines, Walt quietly goes about his business, churning his roster constantly. He's a master of picking up the underrated and written off, while having an incredible track record for knowing who he can squeeze that one extra quality season out of, (Larry Walker, Reggie Sanders, Woody Williams, Jeff Suppan), and who he should show to the door before the bottom falls out, (Matt Morris, Renteria, Tony Womack). This often makes St. Louis a team rife with sleeper picks, but can often be dangerous, as it's often difficult to predict the next move that could throw the best laid fantasy plans into disarray.
The 2007 season is no exception. While the offensive studs and duds may be obvious, the rotation is the latest Cardinals' version of mystery date.
The Top Tier
1B Albert Pujols - What's to say? Everyone knows Pujols is the premier hitter in baseball today. He'll post awesome average, HR and RBI numbers and score 100+ runs as well. He'll even steal a half dozen bases or so. At 27, he's entering the officially recognized peak years, so a line of .330/50/130 with 6 steals is definitely doable. Considering he hit 49 dingers while playing in only 143 games in 2006, that projection could be on the low side.
SP Chris Carpenter - The Cardinals ace is without question one of the premier pitchers in the NL. He finished second in ERA in 2006, 6th in strikeouts, and tied for 7th in wins. A line of 16 wins, 3.12-ERA, 190 strikeouts and a 1.08 WHIP make him an easy early round pick in almost any format. His upside is 20 wins and another Cy Young Award.
CL Jason Isringhausen - Izzy had a down season in 2006, notching only 33 saves, (ranking 5th in the NL), and posting an ERA above 3.00 for the first time since 2000. This kind of year happens occasionally, but the Cards are not an organization to panic. If healthy, there is no reason to expect him to lose his job or fail to return to his previous, lofty standards. A 40-save season with a 2.75 ERA and 1.14 WHIP with about 60 Ks in 60 innings. After his rough year, he'll likely be undervalued in many fantasy drafts, so he's a potential top 5-7 closer, who could stay on the board until 12-15 other guys have been selected. Of course, you'll need to pay close attention to his health status during Spring Training.
The Second Tier
OF Jim Edmonds - A fixture in center for the past 7 seasons with the Cards, Edmonds turns 37 this year, and has seen a major decline in production the past two seasons. After posting 1000+ OPS figures in both 2003 and 2004, his OPS dropped to .918 in 2005 and then .821 last season. In fairness, Edmonds played hurt, seeing only 110 games in 2006, his fewest since 1999. While age and injury are obvious concerns, after shoulder and foot surgery, the Cards re-signed Edmonds for TWO years. This tells me that St. Louis is confident that he'll bounce back in 2007. A line of .285/31/94 isn't unreasonable. In most drafts, he'll fall drastically because of age and too much attention paid to his 2006 season. If your league uses OBP, he'll be especially valuable, as he'll likely return to a .380ish level. One of the most common blunders I've seen in fantasy drafting is being too quick to dismiss an older player with one bad season, and too quick to latch onto youth after one good season. Older guys actually have a much higher incidence of bounce back seasons than most people realize. Edmonds has a shot at being this year's Frank Thomas.
OF Chris Duncan - A lot of people are going to be projecting this kid through the roof in 2007. After all, he posted a .948 OPS as a rookie, smacking 23 HRs in only 99 games, while hitting .290. Here's the problem, though. His minor league line is .262/.341/.412/.753 in 737 games. In his entire minor league career, he never hit .290, (.289 was his best at AA in 2004). After early struggles, he did improve as he climbed the ladder, posting .866 at AA and roughly .823 in 180 AAA games. I would expect the proverbial sophomore slump from Duncan, simply because he was playing so far above his previously established norms. He's got legit power, and good patience, so further development is possible, but this typically takes a few years to hone. For 2007, I'd expect a down season - perhaps: .265/25/70. Let someone else reach on him this year, while you wait to make him a steal next season.
3B Scott Rolen - It's funny how quickly people can dismiss a great player. In 2005, Rolen had his first major injury, and was absolutely dreadful on the field, posting a horrid .706 OPS in 56 games. He plummeted in the 2006 draft, as many pundits said he was done. Modern medicine has proven itself to be better than magic pixie dust at reviving baseball careers, and Rolen is just another example of this. He's only 32 this year, so he's likely got another solid 4-5 years in the tank. Among MLB 3Bs for 2006, he ranked 5th in batting average, 10th in HRs, (despite missing 20 games), 9th in RBI, 8th in SBs, and 7th in runs scored. There are lots of good 3Bs out there, and Rolen won't be challenging guys like Wright and AROD for supremacy, but he should post a solid line of something like: .300/31/103 with 6 steals.
The Third Tier
CA Yadier Molina - Perhaps the best defensive catcher in baseball today, the kid has a lot of value as a real world catcher. In fantasy baseball, however, unless caught stealing percentage is one of your categories, Yadier is worse than useless. While he should improve on his .216 BA from 2006, he's still only a .250 hitter with minimal power and no speed. Gary Bennett, (his backup), would be more valuable in fantasy terms, simply because fewer trips to the plate means his dreadful batting average won't pull down a team aggregate nearly as much. A .250/8/50 line is about what you can expect.
OF Juan Encarnacion - Juan is the poster boy for #4 OF types in MLB. He hits just enough to hold onto his job without actually contributing anything more than average stats anywhere. In fantasy terms, he's just good enough to hurt your team. He'll post a .270/19/79 line and steal 6 bases, but in fantasy terms this doesn't even make him a decent bench guy. For your bench, you'd like to have some specialists, guys who can help boost you in either HRs, average or SBs when it your team slips too far in a category. Encarnacion does not fit this bill. He ranked 23rd in OPS among the 29 qualifying NL OFs and 45th of 58 overall. Unless you're in a 16-team league, this is not a guy who is likely to help.
SS David Eckstein - I like Eckstein. I think the Cardinals got a steal when they picked him up, and I believe he was a significant reason they were a successful team in 2005 and won the series in 2006. However, Homie don't play defense in fantasy sports, and Eckstein don't play offense in real life. Okay, that's a little severe. In truth, Eckstein has one useful ability: hitting for average. He posted .294 and .292 averages with the Cards, and at 32, it's about time for him to have a career year and put up a .301. But my Grandma could hit more dingers, (he had 2 in 500 at bats during 2006), and the Cardinals aren't a fan of the SB, (he was 7/13 in 2006). Even as a lead-off hitter, he's sub-par, failing to even score 100 runs, even in 2005, when he played 158 games. At best, he's a backup SS, who can help out in batting average a little.
2B Adam Kennedy - The Cards re-unite the middle infield combo from the Angels 2002 championship season by bringing in Kennedy, who in fantasy terms is practically a clone of Eckstein. Kennedy stole 16 bases (in 26 attempts) during 2006, which ranked him 6th among all ML 2Bs. But, as noted above, the Cards are not fond of the running game, so it's likely the attempts will drop. Kennedy has a pattern of getting better over a 3-year span, and then slumping to start the next 3-year cycle. This year would be year two of said cycle, so I'm thinking he'll improve slightly in average and HRs, while losing ground on the basepath. Let's project him at .285/7/51 with 11 stolen bases.
SP Anthony Reyes - After Carpenter, the entire Cardinals rotation is full of questions. Reyes was wild as a rookie, walking 34 in 85 innings. But his big problem was the gopher ball, where major league hitters managed to smack 17 out of the park. Reyes' minor league stats show a kid who had very solid control and very nasty stuff, averaging more than a K per inning at AA and AAA, while walking less than 2 per 9 innings. Like many youngsters, he's still learning to pitch, but St. Louis is one of the better organizations for getting the most out of raw talent, (look what they managed to do with Jason Marquis in his first two seasons with them). With young guns, it's always a crap shoot as to how they'll develop. Despite all the projection systems out there, development is almost impossible to predict on an individual level. It's anything but linear. Consider all the people who projected Prior to be halfway to the Hall of Fame by now, and all those who drafted King Felix in the first round in 2006. Winning the opening game of the World Series can only help the kid's confidence, and he's got a solid defense behind him. I'd project him at a fairly conservative: 12 wins, 3.74 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, with 157 Ks in 180 innings. He's got upside to be dominant, if he can fix the gopher hole in his repertoire, but also has downside to remain wildly ineffective.
SP Adam Wainwright - Here's another kid who did a fantastic job, stepping in to close when Izzy got put on the shelf. He had some early control issues while coming up through the Braves farm system, before moving to St. Louis as part of the J.D. Drew deal. But, the Cardinals seem to have fixed that problem, (his 3.96 BB/9 in his first year at AAA dropped to 2.52 during his second season with Memphis). He doesn't give up the long ball, and he's consistently fanned about 8 guys per game. The Twins have had wonderful success bringing up young guns by allowing them to pitch in relief initially, where they can learn without the pressure of starting. Wainwright got the same basic treatment with the Cards in 2006. While he doesn't have the over-powering stuff of a Johan Santana or Liriano, I'm a fan of the method, and since Wainwright has four minor league seasons where he's thrown 160+ innings already, I don't see fatigue as being an issue. He's much stingier with the longball than Reyes, so I'd project a line of something like: 14 wins, 3.51 ERA, with 176 Ks in 201 innings. Definitely a sleeper pick. The complicating factor here is if Izzy doesn't return well from his hip surgery, Wainwright likely inherits the closer roll, where he could have even more fantasy value.
SP Mark Mulder - Though expected to miss the first half of the season while recovering from rotator cuff surgery, Mulder was re-signed by the Cardinals to a two-year deal. For leagues with injured lists, Mulder could be a second half gem.
SP Kip Wells -- .This is a guy who has been a hard luck hurler his entire career. He had a couple of wonderful seasons with the Pirates in 2002 and 2003, (3.59 and 3.28 ERAs with 134 and 147 Ks respectively). Since then, the injury bug has continued to eat away at what was once a promising career. He only turns 30 this year, but already has 8 years of major league experience. In the mold of Jason Marquis, Wells has less than stellar control, and only average strikeout numbers. But, the Cards' defense is typically top notch, and Dave Duncan has a knack for fixing borderline pitchers. Duncan specifically requested Wells, which tells me that he's seen something in the kid that he believes he can fix. This makes Wells a definite guy to keep an eye on as a late round or $2 pickup. A line of 14 wins, 4.13 ERA and 1.34 WHIP could make him a decent back of the rotation guy in lots of leagues.