An Look At The Baseball Cardinals' Offseason
I've been meaning to talk about the St. Louis Cardinals' offseason for a few weeks (also finish the 25-year roster thing), but kept putting it off. Mostly because I felt I'd have to address Oscar Taveras' death (and that of his girlfriend, Edilia Arvelo) in a car crash, and a) I wasn't sure what I could say about it, and b) it would kind of make everything else seem unimportant. I'm not sure I have any solutions, but we'll see.
It turns out Taveras was very intoxicated, which is what I was afraid of when I heard the news. Not because I knew anything about Taveras' habits, but he was a young athlete, in his offseason, and he was driving. It seemed a likely, if unfortunate, aspect. It makes it worse, because then you have to think that if he'd been sober, maybe they both make it where they were going alive. But Taveras isn't the first person in their early 20s to make a bad decision with regards to alcohol. My best friend has made similar bad decisions over the years, so have a lot of his other friends. But they were able to get away with it, and hopefully eventually learn better. Taveras and Arvelo just weren't some of the lucky ones.
As to the offseason, my personal hope had been the Cardinals would upgrade the bench. Get a catcher Matheny will be willing to start 50 times a year. Either promote someone from within, or find a free agent, or trade for somebody. Get a righthanded guy who can play first and 3rd, to platoon with Adams and to just give Carpenter the occasional day off (he played in 158 games this year). Find a competent middle infielder, one who can play at least a mediocre second and shortstop, and hit well enough Matheny will be willing to use him to give Peralta the occasional day off. Descalso isn't actually a SS (or a second baseman for that matter), and Kozma's hitting is so bad, the Cardinals won't use him if they don't absolutely have to. And I don't know that the coaching staff has any confidence in Greg Garcia.
I also hoped the team would look into trading John Lackey. I figured given how cheap his contract is - one year at 500 grand - there has to be some team out there looking to compete that would take a chance on him as a stabilizing veteran presence. Sort of a low-rent James Shields. Not as good, or signed for as long, true, but a hell of a lot cheaper. Which would open a spot in the rotation that would hopefully be filled by a Carlos Martinez who spent the entire offseason preparing to be a starter. I know the odds that El Gallo can be the next Pedro Martinez are really small, but if he can be even half of Pedro, that's someone you give every opportunity to succeed. I don't want it to be another situation like Rosenthal, where the team says they haven't ruled him out as a starter, but really, they've ruled him out as a starter.
Anyway, Mozeliak held a press conference right after the NLCS where he said several things. One was that Wainwright's elbow was structurally fine, as was Wacha's shoulder (outside of the stress reaction thing he has, which is always going to be a problem). Of course, Mozeliak said that on a Monday, and by that Friday, Wainwright was having a procedure on his elbow to remove bone spurs and "scrape" the ligament. Apparently he didn't trust the team doctors and got a second opinion. The team medical staff are, after all, paying to be the Cards' medical staff, and so the question of whose best interests they're looking out for, the player or the team's, is a valid one. No word of if Wacha's looked into a second opinion, though I'm not sure there's anything to be done on his shoulder.
Mo said Martinez and Marco Gonzales would be stretched out in spring training, but Martinez would still most likely be in the bullpen, and Gonzales in the AAA rotation. This may have changed recently. Stephen Piscotty would be in a competition with Grichuk and Taveras for the RF spot. No word on whether it would be a real competition, or a LaRussa style, bullshit, "open competition", where Matheny already has a winner in mind. This one was rendered moot, first by Taveras' death, then by other actions that we'll get to. Jon Jay was named starting centerfielder next year, which may not bode well for Bourjos, and certainly doesn't make me happy. I still think Bourjos' ceiling is much higher than Jay's, and Jay's moving into his 30s, so I expect he may begin to decline. His power has already evaporated completely.
Mozeliak also said the team didn't plan to resign any of their free agents. Not a big deal, given who we're talking about, other than Neshek. And the impression was the Cardinals certainly would like for Neshek to return, but his excellent season would price him out of their range, which is true and a wise decision on the team's part. The last two multi-year contracts they handed to relievers were to Motte and Choate, neither of which has worked out fabulously. Mozeliak added that the team would offer arbitration to all their eligible players (Lynn, Jay, Tony Cruz, Shane Robinson, Descalso, maybe Bourjos).
The first two and Bourjos are fine, though Jay's likely to see a considerable spike, from a little over 3 million to closer to 6. But Cruz, Robinson, and Descalso are less necessary. The Cardinals need a catcher Matheny trusts enough to use to give Molina days off. My personal preference would be for Yadier to not start more than 110 games behind the plate this year. He could still play first against tough lefties in place of Adams, or DH when they play in AL stadiums, but just get him less wear and tear on his knees. The team says all the right things about trusting Cruz, but they clearly don't, or they'd get Yadi more days off. Also, they probably wouldn't have signed Pierzynski this season if they really trusted Cruz. As for Robinson, there's not really anything he does that either Jay, Bourjos, or someone from the minors (Tommy Pham?) can't do better. In a limited role (spot starter/5th outfielder/defensive sub/pinch-runner), Robinson can be a useful player, but I don't think the Cardinals need him.
As for Descalso, he's not good at any position defensively, and he's not a good enough hitter to compensate for this. Yet because Matheny seemingly has trust in him, he acts as this patch that keeps the Cardinals from bothering to upgrade their bench. They don't need a backup SS, they have Descalso. He can play there every so often, and Peralta will just play all the time, to heck with fatigue. Ditto Matt Carpenter.
So far, the team has made two moves. They signed a Dean Anna to the 40-man roster. Anna might be the middle infielder I was hoping for. He has just 25 PAs in the majors, from this season with the Yankees, and they didn't go well. But he's hit well in AAA in the past, and projects to be a slight upgrade over Descalso with the bat. More critically, he's regarded as competent at both 2nd base and SS. He's not going to supplant Wong or Peralta as starters, but he doesn't need to. He can give Wong the day off against the occasional lefty, and sub in for Peralta every so often. He's better offensively than Kozma, and better defensively than Descalso. He seems like he has the potential at least, to be a perfectly acceptable bench guy, which is what I wanted.
The other, much bigger move, happened yesterday. The Cards traded Shelby Miller and pitching prospect Tyrell Jenkins for outfielder Jason Heyward and reliever Jordan Walden of Atlanta. Heyward figures to take over rightfield, which is the other reason that Mozeliak comment about a competition is irrelevant. Heyward's power has fallen off the last two years, especially this year, when he had a slugging of just .384, and an ISO of 113. Which would still be better than most of the Cardinals (Yadi, Jay, and Matt Carp, to name 3). He still had an OBP of .351, and an OPS of 108, which isn't spectacular, but at least it would be another above-average bat in the lineup. The previous two years, his OPS+ were 117 and 114, which is in line with most of the Cards' lineup from last year.
Heyward's primary gift seems to be superb defense in right field (though he's also a fair baserunner). He might be even better in RF than Bourjos is in CF. If they played the two together, it might eliminate a lot of concerns about Holliday's worsening defense in LF. But Jay is starting supposedly, and there are questions as to whether Heyward has rendered Bourjos redundant. I'd argue no, because I don't Jay's longterm viability in center, but this hasn't been a good offseason for Cardinals' players I like, so Bourjos is probably screwed. Walden will apparently take Neshek's role as "reliever with strange delivery", and will hopefully also assume Neshek's role as "Reliever other than Maness who doesn't walk guys", though if Rosenthal wants to vie for that title, he's more than welcome.
Most Cardinals' fans I've seen online are excited about the trade. I'm less so. I still believed Shelby was going to put it together and become Wainwright's successor as staff ace (I feel Lynn is a step below Waino's level, and is already maxed out, and Wacha's shoulder makes it questionable he can handle the innings load I'd expect). And Shelby was still under team control for 4 years. Heyward is a free agent after this season, and there are at least some rumblings he was traded because he didn't want to resign with Atlanta (there are other rumblings Atlanta didn't want to cough up the cash it would take to resign him, so take your pick). Jenkins has had some shoulder issues, and has yet to consistently harness his stuff, or even make it into the high minors, so he's a lottery ticket of sorts. But if he does make it to the majors, Atlanta could have him for 7 seasons before he reaches free agency. Meanwhile, Heyward could be gone after 2015, leaving the Cardinals with a draft pick and one more season of Walden.
It feels like the J.D. Drew trade in reverse. Atlanta acquired Drew (and Eli Marrero) from the Cards with one season remaining on his contract, in exchange for Jason Marquis, Ray King, and a minor leaguer named Wainwright (who had struggled through some shoulder issues). The Cardinals didn't seem to really want to keep Drew (as he was not the sort of player Larussa was going to love), and they needed pitching, in both the rotation and bullpen. Atlanta figured they had things covered on the pitching front, but needed more hitting. They never had any intention of resigning Drew, so that was them going all in on 2004. As it turned out, while the Braves did win the NL East - again - they were knocked out in the first round, while St. Louis won 105 games and went to the World Series. Marquis and King were hardly the primary reason, but they both contributed, and did so again the next year (to a lesser extent).
So I worry the Cardinals gave up too much for what will be a one-year rental. And it seems strange to me, considering that the corner outfield was supposed to be one area the Cards' farm system was flush with prospects. Maybe they're saving those guys to take over for Holliday in a couple of years. Or they figure one more year of seasoning in the minors won't hurt. Or they plan to keep Heyward, and use those guys as trade fodder for filling in other holes down the line. Holliday is into his mid-30s, as are Molina and Peralta. Jay in around 30, and Carp is closing in. Those guys will start to decline eventually, and the team may not have replacements on hand.
At this point, the roster would look something like this:
Rotation: Wainwright, Lynn, Lackey, Wacha, Gonzales
Bullpen: Rosenthal, Walden, Choate, Maness, Freeman, Martinez, Siegrist(?)
I put Gonzales in the rotation and Martinez in the bullpen because the way Mozeliak described it initially, Gonzales sounded like he was going to be the first guy up, and Martinez would have to be stretched out again before he could start. But that was in the event of midseason injury. This may alter things, so maybe Martinez will be in the rotation, and Gonzales in AAA just in case. In which case, the pen may have Nick Greenwood, Tyler Lyons, maybe someone else. The Cardinals may be interested in reliever Andrew Miller, which is interesting. If you're going to get a free agent reliever, why not keep the one you've got? If Miller is good enough to be interesting, you'd figure that would net him a stupid, multi-year contract.
Catcher: Molina, Cruz
Until we hear something different, I assume they're rolling with Cruz as the backup. There are a whole mess of guys listed as being free agent catchers, though. Surely one would be an improvement on Cruz, and be willing to serve as a backup who gets to play about a third of the games, if the team will finally stick to their plan to reduce Molina's workload.
Infield: Adams, Wong, Peralta, Carpenter, Anna, Descalso/Kozma/Garcia/Scruggs
They could still sign someone to handle the backup duties at the corners. Scruggs is strictly a first baseman, and not much of a hitter apparently. Maybe the Cardinals eschew a corner infield guy, rely on Molina or an outfielder to sub for Adams sporadically, and focus on another infielder who can play all the other positions. Mozeliak confirmed more recently they might not offer all those guys arbitration, and noted Descalso might want more playing time than he can get here. So who the heck knows. Probably wind up finding someone during Spring Training. Two guys I'm sort of curious about are Chad Tracy and Jamey Carroll. OK, looked at both their numbers. Never mind. Better off taking their chances with Garcia.
Outfield: Holliday, Jay, Bourjos, Heyward, Grichuk
I think that's a workable outfield, though getting everyone enough playing time (especially Bourjos) might be tricky. We'll see where things go from here.