Just One Jaime Garcia Short of a Disaster

Without Jaime Garcia, I’m not sure how I’d be feeling about the Cardinals right now. As it is, I’m pessimistic. But that pessimism is tempered by the victory today. It’s always thrilling to see a CG shutout, especially one as dominant as Garcia’s performance against the Padres. He struck out nine, walked only two, and allowed four hits over 102 pitches. The game lasted just a tick over two hours.

It was a masterful, breezy performance that featured only two scary moments. The first was the sixth inning, where Garcia’s control faltered after giving up a hit to the opposing pitcher and he needed a heads-up play from should-be 2B Daniel Descalso to get out of a jam. The second scary moment was going into the ninth inning, when I thought La Russa might pull Garcia for Ryan Franklin.

I feel good about Garcia, since he was a question mark coming out of spring training. But just about everyone else has been disappointing in the first three games of the season.

Game one was marred by a few tough breaks, but many of the Cards problems were highlighted out of the gate. It was hard to ignore the sub-par defense from Skip Schumaker and Ryan Theriot up the middle. I’ve harped on that enough, though. The hitting was spotty and just like last year they just couldn’t string enough baserunners together to get runs across the plate. Miguel Batista is probably the worst pitcher on the staff and he’s apparently the late-inning set-up guy.

And then there’s Ryan Franklin, who ultimately blew the save when he gave up a game-tying home run to Cameron Maybin in the ninth inning.

I think it’s important to focus on Franklin. Franklin is not a good pitcher. He’s never been a good pitcher. He’s had some incredible luck with the Cardinals over the last couple of years and put up some impressive front page statistics that have put him in the role of “closer”. He’s had a good ERA and save conversion rate, and that would be fantastic if it actually meant anything.

The truth about Franklin is that his best pitch is a fastball that hovers around 91 mph and has just enough movement to keep it out of batting practice. He only strikes out six batters per nine innings, and walks 2-3. He’s given up a lot of HR in every year except 2009 which, unsurprisingly, was the year he had a fluke 1.92 ERA. Historically, over 40% of batted balls in play against Franklin are fly balls, so he doesn’t get double plays or even keep the ball in the infield.

At some point, the Cardinals are going to have to move Franklin out of the closer role. I don’t particularly believe in the necessity of a dominant closing pitcher. It’s probably better to leverage individual situations and use the pitcher better suited for the moment. However, I don’t see Tony La Russa–who practically invented the modern closer–moving towards that sort of idea. So whoever has the vaunted “closer” label will see a lot of one run and two run leads. Franklin, who doesn’t have great control and gives up a lot of fly balls, is not who we want out in those situations. He was never who we wanted out there. We just got away with it for a long time. We can’t expect to continue to get away with it.

In game two of the series, Cardinals pitchers managed to give up 11 runs to a lineup that featured Orlando Hudson in the third spot. Westbrook and Motte looked awful, though they didn’t have much help from Ryan Theriot, who looked even worse than expected. I was pining for Brendan Ryan even after he was thrown out on a bone-headed play in Seattle later that day.

Sunday should have been a disaster, too. The Cardinals bats were dead, flailing hopelessly against the ace pitching of Padres’ fifth starter, Dustin Moseley. He looked like Bud Norris out there, inducing weak hit after weak hit. This is the sort of pitcher the Cardinals, even without Holliday, should light up. He’s a perpetually fringe 29 year old righthander with an 89 mph fastball. He has more earned runs in his career than strikeouts. Today, he held the Cardinals to a single tally (not earned) over seven innings. We got four hits off of him, all singles, and if not for Jaime Garcia’s absolute dominance he would have led his team to a sweep.

That’s bad. Real bad. The Cardinals need to improve if they’re going to do anything but break our hearts this season. They have to hit the pitchers everyone else hits. They have to have someone better in the ninth for close games–Jaime Garcia won’t finish it every time. And damn it, they have to be able to field baseballs that are hit between third and first.

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