Erik's weekend main page post regarding selling echoed the opinions that have been bouncing around in my mind for quite some time. For the past ten years, the organization won enough and was in a place where buying at the trade deadline was the only option. Many of us fans have never known, or perhaps forgotten, the times when the Cardinals were sellers at the trade deadline.
Rationally, we cannot view selling as giving up or surrender. In any infinite contest, there are times that the actors have to concede defeat for the moment if it provides a stronger tactical position at future date. Anyone who has run a business or been in a relationship understands this idea. In clichés it is referred to as "losing the battle, but winning the war." This strategy comes with a couple of limitations.
First, is the perception of the fans and its impact on the revenue stream. A few weeks ago, in response to a pretty heated discussion of Elijah Dukes in which I participated, a community member posted a diary in which he/she maintained that Cardinals organization does not care what the fan thinks. I would maintain that argument is only half correct in that the Cardinals do care when it negatively impacts the amount of money that fans are spending on the Cardinals.
The Baseball Prospectus gang have researched this issue in far more detail than I could ever imagine, and their conclusion is that the strongest factor on attendance is winning. If you build a winner, they will come. Their research also indicates that fan perception of winning also affects ticket sales; if fans believe an organization is not trying to win, then they will stay away. Anecdotally, I would suggest the Brewers as an example of the second hypothesis as the Brewers have grown ticket sales over the past three years as fans believe the team is building towards something.
Any team considering selling is presented with a dilemma, sell now and potentially negatively impact ticket sales, merchandise sales, and general good will or sell and try to improve the team in the future and future revenue streams. While Busch Stadium is near capacity for the rest of the year, the organization is also concerned about getting people to attend the game as concessions are a larger contributor to the bottom line than actual ticket sales.
The second factor affecting the decision to sell is the market for the pieces the team is willing to part with. Besides the obvious factor of the perceived value of the expendable player is also the demand for the given position and the supply of players at the given position. A buying team is less likely to consider a teams demands when it has multiple potential trade partners who are selling the same piece.
The recent acquisition of Troy Percevial sparked many rumors about an impending departure of Izzy. Izzy's contract status, his recent successes, and his track record make him an ideal target for such rumors and he would probably attract some interest on the open market. Setting aside the issue of whether the Cardinals should trade Izzy, let us look at the two known factors: the demand for a closer and the supply of closers that could be moved at the trade deadline.
Teams shopping for closers will have quite a few options to choose from. The Rangers have apparently already made it know that Eric Gagne and Otsaka are available. The Nationals seem to always have Chad Cordero on the market, while the Colorado Rockies are probably going to shop Brian Fuentes. Price being equal, most teams would probably opt for Fuentes who has been extremely effective throughout his career and through this season.
Demand at this point is tougher to gauge as it is still relatively early in the season. There are a few teams that are definite contenders that could use closer improvements. For a rough measurement of a team's relative "contender" status, I am going to use Clay Davenport of BP's Monte Carlo simulation. Davenport sims out the season one million times and then generates a report on the percentage of times a team wins their division, wins the wild card or makes the playoffs. I'm going to use the last stat, percentage of times the team makes the playoffs, As we saw last year, anything can happen once you get to the dance.
Gauging the effectiveness of a closer is a far more debatable task. Without going into the great debate save, I'll just say that for a rough estimation I looked at WHIP and blown saves. My theory on this is that a bad closer puts people on base and that generates more potential for saves, and thus ball games, to be blown. Again, I'm not saying that the following guys are the worst closers or my measurement is the best, its designed to generate a list of teams that might be interested.
The Detroit Tigers (Davenport playoff expectancy 60%) are a prime candidate to add bullpen help before the trade deadline. Their closer, Todd Jones, has been at best mediocre with a 1.64 WHIP, batters are hitting .293 against him this year. His two backups, Fernando Rooney and flamethrower Joel Zumaya have both been beset by injuries. Add into the mix the fact that the Tigers have no major weaknesses at any other position and they look like serious bullpen buyers at the trade deadline.
The Cleveland Indians (70% playoff) have had problems with the closer position as well. Joe Borowski, has been mediocre in the position (batters are hitting .294 against him) but a bullpen that features a lot of young pitchers tagged with the closer in waiting tag (Betancourt, Mastny) has yet to have someone step up and take the mantle from Joe-Bo. Like the Tigers, they have few noticeable other hole, with the possible exception of another frontline starter. Betancourt has been effective with a .180 BAA and 1.11 WHIP, but I question whether a organization and city so desperate for a championship will had the closer's job to a journeyman pitcher.
Third, the Atlanta Braves are currently on the bubble as a buyer, 2.5 games behind the New York Mets. The Braves could look to add an arm to a bullpen that lost Mike Gonzalez to injury and features middle of the road Bob Wickman at closer. Wickman, who perpetually seems to be in danger of losing his job regardless of the team he plays for, has blown only three saves but sports a mediocre .253 BAA. The Braves could consider promoting set-up man Rafael Soriano (.129 BAA) to the role. (Personal Note: Schurholz could also consider recalling Joey Devine from AA. I saw Devine a couple nights ago in person and he looked very, very good, striking out the side on 12 pitches. Devine's three quarters release point is very deceptive to hitters and allows him to put good movement on the ball.)
A fourth, but definitely more speculative possible suitor is the Oakland A's (50% playoff odds). Any dealing with Oakland A's is resplendent with story lines, chief among them is that Izzy came to the Cardinals from the A's and the much maligned last trade between the A's: which involved Mark Mulder for Danny Haren and Daric Barton. Since a season injury to Huston Street a few weeks back, the A's have used Alan Embree at closer and have discussed using starter Rich Harden in the role.
The major question when considering the A's is Billy Beane. Beane is a notoriously difficult dealer and one of the first general managers to realize that hording prospects is the only way to build a successful small market team. What he will be willing to give up for a position that he believes to be overvalued is anyone's guess.
With five closers for 2.75 openings, it will be a buyer's market for closers. The availability of arms will probably drive down the price of the available talent. Any team looking to sell would probably be best served to move quickly our possess an advantage over the other sellers: short contract, low contract, or your player is a lefty (which gives the Rockies an advantage over the other sellers.) The market for Izzy might not be as strong as we believe, or the market for another player might mean his movement at the deadline.
Let us assume for a moment that the Cardinals do opt to sell Izzy. Setting aside the fan reaction/revenue stream analysis that I do not have the market data or knowledge to do, from a strictly baseball perspective they would do best to move immediately and beat the Rangers, Rockies, and Nationals to the market. That way the Cardinals would be able to set the market rate and would have their choice of suitors.