miles to go

tomorrow's a big deadline vis-vis arbitration-eligible players: teams either have to offer those guys a contract or nontender them, which makes them free agents. the cards' arb-eligibles are rick ankiel (2d year of eligibility), aaron miles (2d year), yadi molina (2d year), and todd wellemeyer (1st) the prime nontender candidate on that list is aaron miles; he made a million bucks last year and will probably be due a bump to $1.2m or so via arbitration. miles doesn't show up on any lists of likely nontender candidates, but to me he's a no-brainer --- a subpar defender with a career ops+ of 73 and a shaky claim on a roster spot. when the cards signed izturis, i resisted the temptation to bash the signing because i figured it meant that miles --- a similar player with less ability and less upside --- would be shown the door at the nontender deadline. that was the silver lining i perceived in an otherwise unattractive maneuver; my theory will be put to the test tomorrow.

for such an insignificant player, miles has commanded a disproportionate share of attention in the cardinal blogsphere. he has become a symbol of two related complaints, the first being la russa's love for "heads-up" veterans who are long on character and intelligence but short on baseball-playing ability. that's a longstanding tendency that predates tony's arrival in st louis; when i lived in the east bay during the 1980s, back in bill james' ascendancy, la russa began giving steady work to mike gallego, who (sort of) could play all three infield positions but couldn't hit for average (career .239 mark) or power (.328 slugging), couldn't get on base, and couldn't run the bases. yet gallego stayed in the big leagues for 13 seasons --- thanks to la russa, who was his manager for 10 of those years (including 2 in st louis, 1996-97). gallego's career ops was comparable to miles' (.648 vs .680), and since he played in a lower-scoring era his career ops+ (81) was considerably better than miles' (73).

the other thing miles has come to symbolize is the team's backwardness vis-vis basic sabermetric principles. after 25 years of bill james and 5 years of moneyball, it has become common knowledge that a guy with a low on-base pct and low slugging pct is not a productive hitter, regardless of what his batting average says. but the cardinals' decisionmakers have seemed not be in on the secret, filling the roster with high-average, low-obp/slg hitters like miles and encarnacion and taguchi and bennett and, this year, izturis. every team has one or two of these guys at the end of their bench, but the cardinals have them throughout the starting lineup --- miles most of all. in his two years with the cards he has started 202 games and made nearly 1,000 plate appearances, a 25th-man masquerading as a quasi-regular. at that level of playing time, miles' flaws swamp his virtues (which include versatility and situational smarts); he's an asset if he only bats 175 times in a season but an albatross if he bats 300 or 400 times. these are the most rudimentary of sabermetric principles, the first day's lessons; aaron miles' continued presence on the st louis roster and his prominence in their lineup represent a kind of dunce cap.

he now sits 3d on the depth chart at ss, behind izturis and ryan. some people might argue he's #2 on that list, but ryan in half a season started nearly as many games at ss (28) as miles (40) last year. the cardinals clearly are prioritizing defense up the middle, and miles runs a definite 3d in that category as an ss. and he's an uneasy second on the depth chart at 2b, with both ryan and jarrett hoffpauir competing for that title. i think he's the #4 middle infielder on the team, behind kennedy izturis and ryan; there's probably only room on the roster for 1 middle-infield reserve. so even if he's re-signed miles would be far from assured of making the club out of spring training --- or at least, he'd be far from assured of making a non-la-russa-managed club.

the ironic thing is that miles was never in the cardinals' plans, not from the start. he was a throw-in in a minor trade (king for bigbie and miles), a player the cards didn't even ask for --- the rockies just gave him away because they needed a spot on the 40-man and st louis didn't yet have a replacement for grudzielanek. but a few days later they signed one (junior spivey), and they already had two other backup infielders (hector luna and deivi cruz) on the team; miles came to camp as the #5 or #6 middle infielder and seemed destined for triple A. but cruz and spivey had awful springs, luna's frequent defensive lapses landed him in tony's doghouse, and miles hung in there and claimed the last roster spot; he went 4 for 5 on opening day 2006 and we've been stuck w/ him ever since.

mozeliak made the correct call in jettisoning two other veteran subs, so taguchi and gary bennett, who were long on character but short on ability; i trust that he'll do the same re miles, creating an opportunity for a younger, better player and denying la russa the option of turning miles into the next mike gallego.

* * * * * * * *

one name to watch when the nontender rolls are announced is toronto's josh towers. the blue jays are rumored to be leaning toward retaining this guy, but i'm gonna throw him out there anyway because he's so ripe for non-tenderization. he sits 6th on toronto's rotation depth chart (and the jays are aggressively looking to add pitching), but as a 3d-year arb-eligible he's probably going to cost $4m to $5m --- a steep price for a #6 starter. what's to like about towers? for one thing, he's the type of pitcher dave n tony bring the best out of: a veteran (6 big-league seasons, soon to turn 31) who pitches to contact (career 4.8 k/9 rate) and gets groundballs (career gb/fb split of 43-37). but he's got some features that us sabr-statty types can love as well; despite an awful couple of years (combined record of 7-20, 6.50 in 2006-07), his peripherals remain pretty good --- k/bb of 3.45 last year, with fewer than 2 walks a game. his fip last season was 4.75 in a hitter's park in a dh league; at pitcher-friendly busch iii in a non-dh league, he might be capable of league-averageishness. i am not advocating strongly here, merely pointing out a possibility; if kris benson and josh fogg are gonna be on the radar screen, then towers (if, in fact, he's nontendered) might as well be too.
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