Good morning, everyone. I'll be your guide to the world of Cardinal baseball on this lovely Halloween Wednesday. I'm not sure exactly how long this arrangement is going to last, but, hopefully, I'll be able to avoid disgracing the site. Thanks to the esteemed Mr. Borowski for the opportunity to contribute.
You know, I had planned to make this post a season wrapup. I was going to call it 'The Halloween Spooktacular', (I've always loved the word Spooktacular) and use the 2007 team-as-Zombies theme to create the sort of postseason wrap that George Romero would fall in love with. However, I realised two things that deep sixed that idea. One, nothing I could write could possibly be as terrifying as yesterday's horrorshow post. $100 million commited already to a ~75 win team. Stephen King should watch his back. Secondly, the idea of laying a Zombie team to rest on Halloween is really rather ill conceived. That's the sort of thing that should wait for All Saint's Day; the Zombies should get at least this last day to wander the earth and terrify people. So, no wrap up post. I would have gotten away with it, if not for those meddling kids.
Instead, I thought I would take a look at the single most pressing concern the 2008 Cardinals team has: the starting rotation. We witnessed an historically bad rotation in 07; significant improvements are going to be required if the team hopes to avoid a repeat. So where do we look for those improvements?
The challenge is to try and improve the rotation for next season, without selling off the farm, without blocking your own prospects long term, and doing it on a relatively thin budget. It's a pretty tall order, and you're going to have to be awfully creative to accomplish it. This year's free agent class is abysmal, trading for pitching likely violates the 'without selling off the farm' paradigm, and there aren't any pitchers ready to step up in the system. So how can we possibly acquire better pitching? I think I may have a way.
There has been a lot of discussion, particularly this year, but also just in general, about the Dave Duncan effect. The Cardinals have had good success bringing in affordable, just slightly above average pitchers, and plugging them into the rotation, and the system, under Dave Duncan. The Duncan approach encompasses a few key things. He works with pitchers to keep their walk rates down. Pitchers under Duncan throw strikes early in the count, enabling them to be aggressive in the strike zone. He preaches keeping the ball down, in order to try and avoid home runs, as well as trying to generate ground balls. All of this is really based around one principle: make the hitter put the ball in play. Use your defense; let them make the plays. And this is where I think we may have the cart in front of the horse.
We all know that the two biggest needs for this team, going forward, are starting pitching and middle infield help. The Cardinals middle infield in 2007 was absolutely abysmal. The offense was bad enough, but the defense was really where you could see how bad the situation was. Over the years, the Cardinals have enjoyed stellar defense on the infield; in order for the whole pitch-to-contact philosophy to work, the defense needs to be top notch. The terrific defense they fielded was a big part of the reason why the Cards were able to go out and get pretty average pitchers, like Jeff Suppan, or Jason Marquis, and get good results out of them. However, the last couple of seasons, the quality of the defense up the middle of the diamond has fallen off appreciably. Now, the poor defense hasn't been wholly responsible for the terrible pitching, but it's not unrelated, either. How many groundballs did we see last season go for hits, that would have been routine outs in years past? Between the lack of range shown by our infielders, and the weak arms possessed by both Miles and Eckstein, there were lots of balls that found a hole, or runners who beat out the throw. When you preach getting groundballs, those grounders had better be fielded.
So to me, there are really two ways you could improve the pitching for next season. You could get better pitchers, or you could field a better defense behind them. At the moment, teams are hoarding young starting pitching, particularly anything resembling top of the rotation talent, more than ever before. I think that it would be much easier to acquire a young, potentially top of the line middle infielder than it would be to acquire direct pitching help. Also, take a look at the Cardinal system right now. There are some pretty promising arms on the way. Guys like Jaime Garcia, Tyler Herron, and Clayton Mortenson look to be very promising. All three have the potential to pitch toward the front of a rotation, and all three are definite groundball pitchers. If you take a look at the middle infield picture, though, it's a very bleak prospect. Jose Martinez performed well at Double A last season, but he still has a lot to prove before he looks to be more than a fringe major leaguer. Hoffpauir looks pretty good at second, but there isn't much else to be seen, at least not within shouting distance of the big leagues. So I think that improving the middle infield may be the best thing to do this offseason.
I started looking for targets, and a few look to be extremely promising. Particularly considering all the talk suddenly of ARod possible joining Torre out in LA with the Dodgers, Chin Lung Hu, the subject of much speculation here earlier in the year, suddenly looks as if he could be a very realistic trade candidate. From what I've heard, if Rodriguez were to go to LA, there's a good chance it would be to play SS, not 3b. If that were the case, Furcal would immediately become available, but, more importantly, so would Hu. If he were on the market, I think he would be the best target for the Cards to go after. His defense is stellar, he looks to be a pretty good hitter for average, (not much pop, though) and he runs pretty well. Most importantly, he represents the kind of keystone for the middle of the diamond that you could build around for years to come. I don't know exactly what it would take to get him; too much of that depends on what the situation ultimately ends up being in LA.
My second target would be Brent Lillibridge, in the Braves system. He's ridiculously athletic, able to make some really unbelievable plays at short. He had a little bit of a down year at the plate this season, but he still projects to be a solid, top of the lineup hitter down the road. He profiles pretty similarly to Hu, really. There's a good chance Lillibridge will be available. The Braves just moved Edgar Renteria to make room for Yunel Escobar, as well as the salary relief. In addition, they have Elvis Andrus coming up fast behind Lillibridge in the system. Lillibridge could very well end up being caught in a numbers crunch, and the Cards could end up the benefactor. I know the Braves have expressed interest in Anthony Reyes before; perhaps a package of Reyes and a random minor league relief arm would be enough. If so, this could end up being a great pickup to make.
Lastly, and also in the vein of ARod chain reactions, is actually a couple of players from the Anaheim Angels. I've heard that the Angels are one of the most likely destinations for Mr. Rodriguez's services; if so, they have a couple of guys who will probably be available. Chief among them will likely be Brandon Wood. They've had Wood playing third this season in order to ease the middle infield crunch in their system, but he's a very competent shortstop from what I understand, and his power potential is undeniable. If the Angels brought in ARod, he would probably end up at third, meaning that Wood again has no where to go in their organisation. He still wouldn't come cheap; I still think you would have to part with Duncan plus a good young pitching prospect, (Mitch Boggs or the like) to get him. The Angels need left handed power, and their outfield has been very unhealthy and unreliable the last two years. Wood would present both a solid defender and a middle of the order run producer for the Cardinals for a long time to come.
Lastly, from the Angels also, is Chone Figgins. He doesn't fit quite the profile of the other players I've looked at here; i.e. players just ready to make the transition to the majors. However, there's a very good chance Figgins could once again find himself on the outside looking in, despite his performance. I believe he can play shortstop, if he can't, I know he plays an excellent second base. He offers tremendous speed and good on base skills, the Cards wouldn't have to look for a leadoff hitter for awhile. I'm not sure what Figgins's exact contract status is, but considering he would cost more monetarily, he might actually be cheaper in talent. If you were to install him at second, you could put B. Ryan at short next season, use Kennedy as a backup, and shop him during the year to a team with an injury need or who just has a giant, gaping hole at second base that they would like to fill with a slightly smaller, gaping hole.
Perhaps instead of attempting to build a rotation with pitchers for 2008, they should pay attention to the other half of the formula. Build the stellar infield to support the pitchers first. Move Franklin into the rotation, put Mulder/Thompson/Wellemeyer/whoever into the 5th spot in the rotation. Would that rotation make them a serious contender in 08? No. Would it ensure another playoff berth? Quite likely not. But I think it would get them back to respectability, and, personally, I'm okay with that. I could put up with a season of .500 or slightly better baseball, if I knew that it were leading to something better. This way, you could avoid blocking any of the young pitchers that should be pushing for consideration in 2009. There really aren't any middle infield prospects to block, so that's not a concern. Best of all, you don't get locked in to any foolish contracts that prevent improving the team in the much better free agent market next year.
I know this probably seems a little counterintuitive, refusing to improve the area of the team that needs it the most. I just think that the rotation may be so difficult to upgrade this year, though, that building the support for your future pitchers before those pitchers are actually here may be the most productive use of the resources they have.
I hope this first post wasn't too very bad. I avoided tables, and a whole lot of stats, on purpose. I just wanted to get this one done and out of the way before I started doing anything really involved. I'll try something a little more complicated when I'm more comfortable with the whole process. (Also, to be honest, I just flat out didn't start this as early as I wanted to, and I didn't want to make it too very late when it was posted. Thus, the research level suffered.) Thanks again to Larry for letting me give this a shot, and I hope I'll be able to contribute to the cause, at least a little bit. Everyone have a very nice Hallowe'en, and, in honour of the holiday,
Pretty scary, huh?