Constructing The Cards, v. 2008
First off, that's not a typo. I meant to write 2008. And, yes, I did just write recently about the unpredictability of this year's market. So why am I now interested in what the Cards will do next offseason?
Although we as fans are concerned this offseason with the 2007 team, Walt Jocketty & Co. are responsible for both the short-term and long-term direction of the franchise. In short, what we do this offseason will significantly impact what we can do next offseason (especially with respect to the rotation and outfield). So perhaps we should look ahead to 2008 (and beyond) before deciding definitively what to do in 2007.
With the exception of the Encarnacion situation, the Cards' remaining shopping list for 2007 is quite clear: 2 starting pitchers and added outfield depth. With Schmidt now officially off the market (LAD, 3 years - $47 M), Zito out of our price range, Eaton/Lilly/Padilla/Woody/Wolf signed (or soon to be), and Meche/Pettite seemingly never on our radar, the remaining rotation options are as follows:
1) Our Own FA's (Suppan, Weaver, Mulder)
2) Miguel Batista
3) Trade (Buerhle, Duke/Gorzelanny/Maholm, Jennings, Penny, Maroth)
4) Promoting From Within
5) Other Junk FA's Yet To Be Named (e.g. "All-Star" Mark Redman)
With the exception of a rested Buehrle, a healthy Mulder, or Penny, none of those are legitimate #2 starters (what we really need). Rather, the majority are over-priced #3-5 starters. In the outfield, there isn't much left, save Luis Gonzalez, who would likely be a slight upgrade over Encarnaci-suck. So again, what does this have to do with 2008? Take a quick look at the potentially-available FA starting pitchers and outfielders for next offseason:
1) Carlos Zambrano
2) Bartolo Colon
3) Mark Buehrle
4) Freddy Garcia
5) Jake Westbrook
6) Jason Jennings
Zambrano is an undisputed ace and Colon (when healthy) is a borderline #1/2. Buehrle and Garcia are solid #2's and Westbrook/Jennings solid #3's. The bottom line ... there is better pitching available for the money next year.
1) Andruw Jones
2) Ichiro Suzuki
3) Vernon Wells
4) Jermaine Dye
5) Torii Hunter
6) Mike Cameron
Ditto on the outfielders ... there are some truly marquee names out there (and I didn't even include some solid players like Byrnes, Rowand, Wilkerson, and Bradley).
During the 2006 season, there was an article in the P-D explaining how the Cardinals are now making it a priority to commit more to their young players. This makes sense. The Cards are an "upper middle-class" team," but with the FA market exploding as it has in recent years, even the Cards can only afford 1-2 "good" free-agents each offseason (and good is relative this year). To remain competitive, retain a solid core, and fill needs year in and year out, the Cards will have to increasingly balance every Pujols and Carpenter with $350 K talent. So the question really is: would you rather spend in 2007 or 2008? I think you know my answer. Furthermore, the Cardinals need to better evaluate their current $350 K talent (and soon) to determine what they actually have. What better year than 2007 (high stadium revenue, post-WS euphoria, lots of high-ceiling youngsters)?
With Izzy ahead of schedule, the Cards could have the luxury of moving Wainwright to the rotation next year. How he will transition is anybody's guess (I would guess rather favorably), but such a move would save both money for this year and allow management to assess his MLB value as a starter vs. a closer (which is a known quantity). Transitively, it would move Kinney, Johnson, and Thompson into more prominent roles and allow the Cards to better answer the following questions:
1) Could Kinney be a bona-fide setup man or potentially even a closer (he gets both lefties and righties out despite a lack of real closer stuff)?
2) Is Johnson the nasty lefty we saw in the playoffs or just an inconsistent performer with a high ceiling?
3) Could Brad Thompson be our version of Aaron Heilman (potential coveted starter/set-up man)?
Then with Izzy a FA in 2008 it would make the bullpen situation much easier to address (and we'd still have Looper in our back pocket as a potential closer ... no I'm not happy about the prospect of Looper closing either, but I'm just putting it out there ... and, no, he won't be a starter next year ... that's just ridiculous). Also, don't forget that Worrell and Perez (potential future closers) will be one year closer to the big leagues and easier to project.
Thus, the Cards would only have 1-2 rotation spots left to fill this year depending on how the club views Narveson as a form of depth (with Wells, Reyes, and Wainwright in the rotation, you would expect a need for a 5.5-6th starter to be safe). Wainwright in the rotation in 2007 would also allow the club to either a) overpay for one guy like Suppan or b) sign a combo of Batista/Weaver or Batista/Mulder or Mulder/Weaver without significantly overpaying. However, option C (pursuing a trade) is not preferrable, at least in my opinion. A guy like Maroth, with Wells already in the rotation, is not a big improvement over Narveson. With Schmidt now signed by the Dodgers, the asking price for Penny will probably propel him out of our reachese. The Pirates pitchers would be great options, but the asking price would likely be Duncan (or more given Dave Littlefield's history ... remember the Reyes for Craig Wilson request, who was eventually had for Shawn Chacon). By trading Duncan, the Cards would open up yet another spot, and after seeing my brother's analysis of Duncan and the possibility of a Howard-lite season for the "Chewmaster" in 2007, I think it's worth at least hanging on to him to see what we've got (even though his value might plummet). I'd love to have Buehrle, but he had a down year in 2006, and I'd like to see how he bounces back next season; I want to avoid a Mulder trade redux. Plus to get him, it would probably require Reyes, and like the other youngsters, we should really see how he performs over a full season. The only trade that makes some sense is a trade with the Rockies for Jennings. He's a solid #3 on par with many of the options out there on the market and would probably be inflated in cost next offseason (could we sign him to an extension?). We will likely be outbid (by perhaps the Astros), but maybe a package of Encarnacion, Hawksworth, and Lambert (or other pitching prospect) would suffice.
There is certainly significant risk involved in putting added emphasis on Wainwright, Reyes, Duncan, Kinney, Johnson, Thompson, et al next year.
1) Wainwright not nearly as effective as a closer ... moved back to closer role in 2008 (Izzy not re-signed).
2) Reyes continues inconsistency and loses value as a trading chip ... remains in rotation in future years, but more as a #5 type fill-in.
3) Duncan's defense does not improve, he continues to struggle against lefties, and the league catches up with him, precipitating a lesser value '08 trade to an AL team for a DH role.
4) Kinney/Johnson/Thompson revert to merely league-average relievers.
5) 1-2 outfield holes, bullpen mediocrity, and the need for reliable starting pitching behind Carpenter leave many holes to fill (like last offseason).
1) Wainwright's stuff translates into a 15 win, mid-3 ERA, #2-3 type season. He remains in the rotation in 2008 as a cheap rising star.
2) Reyes finds consistency and remains healthy ... begins to perform to his #1-2 type potential and Cards' have solid 1-3 punch (in addition to whoever else is signed).
3) Duncan's defense becomes adequate and he continues to progress at the plate, becoming average against lefties and putting up Howard-lite-like numbers (.280, 35-40 HR, 90-100 RBI, .900+ OPS).
4) Kinney becomes a solid set-up man or potential closer making re-signing a healthy Izzy a bonus. Johnson maintains postseason success to become legitimate lefty weapon and Thompson excels as spot-starts/regains 2005 bullpen form, making him valuable trading commodity for next offseason.
5) Emergence of youngsters (which helps payroll) allows Cards to target 1-2 of top pitchers (Buerhle, Westbrook, and Garcia seem like the best fit) and one marquee outfielder (Dye might be the sleeper).
I think it's worth the risk. Put Wainwright in the rotation, hold on to Duncan, and either overpay for Suppan or pay reasonably for 2 of Batista/Mulder/Weaver. I'm optimistic that the majority of the aforementioned youngsters (who, yes, are all older than me ironically) will perform closer to the best-case than worst-case scenarios. I firmly believe that by not over-reacting now, the Cards will be in a better position to still contend this year and sign a solid SP/OF combo in '08. Both short-term and long-term, we'll be better off and a more legitimate WS contender on a yearly basis for years to come. But then again, I'm not the GM, and you may disagree.