how to play for next year, part I

for the 2d time in 4 days, a cardinal farm team was no-hit --- this time short-season A batavia. a perfect game, no less. the previous no-hitter, you'll recall, wasn't technically a no-hitter --- after 14 hitless innings in a scoreless tie, the GCL cardinals ended up getting a few hits and winning the game 1-0 in the 17th.

nice win yesterday, but in spite of it i've finally decided to face facts: i think the cardinals are through for 2007. i'm hardly the first person to reach this conclusion; many of you got here weeks (or even months) ago. i've been holding out hope for a late-season rally, but my wishful thinking was predicated largely on carpenter's return to the rotation for the final 2 months. that won't be happening now, and as a result i can no longer convince myself that a resurgence --- a longshot even with carp back in the rotation --- is a realistic possibility. the cards have never have been all that far off the pace, and even now a single red-hot homestand could vault them back to within striking distance. but without carpenter, i just don't believe they can close the deal. in a best-case scenario (and i wouldn't bet on it happening), carp might get back onto a major-league mound for the last month ---- but if that happens, how well can he be expected to pitch?

i'm like any fan ---- i always hope for the best. it's what we fans are really good at. but it will take more than hope for the cardinals to get out of the decline that has gripped them for the last full calendar year (october excepted). it will take smart decisions by the front office. with the trade deadline looming, the cardinals have to be ready to seize any opportunity that presents itself to start restructuring this team. the discussion is already underway in this diary; i'm gonna add to it over the next couple of days. today i'll focus on position players only; i'll look at the pitchers tomorrow.

before i dive into this, a disclaimer: this is not a "blow up the team" discussion. admittedly, the notion of blowing it all up might lower the collective blood pressure of greater st louis --- dump this bum and that bum and that piece of crap, they all SUCK!!! --- but that's useless talk. the cardinals aren't going to go this route, and they'd be stupid to. it's not constructive; ya gotta look for solutions. as i wrote in the comment thread yesterday, the process has to begin with a discussion of what type of players the cardinals need to add, not which disappointments they should punish with a pink slip. that means taking stock of the organization's assets (current and future), identifying the holes, and then evaluating which ones can be filled from within the system and which ones will have to be filled from without. regarding the latter, the question then becomes: who's available via free agency or trade to fill those holes --- and can be acquired at a reasonable cost in money and/or talent.

we might as well begin this exercise with more bad news: the cardinals have left themselves very little room to maneuver. 11 players on the current roster are owed a total of $69 million in guaranteed money next season:

pujols $13m
carpenter $10.5m
rolen $10m
edmonds $8m
encarnacion $6.5m
mulder $6.5m
looper $5.5m
kennedy $3.5m
spiezio $2.3m
franklin $2.3m
flores $1m

these figures do not include deferred money, which the club counts (illogically) as current-year payroll --- that boosts the above figure by $5m (albert has $3m deferred from next year's salary, rolen $2m). so by the team's lights, $74m of next year's payroll is already committed; if the cardinals exercise their $8m option on isringhausen (likely), that pushes the total to $82m, and the hefty raises that will be owed to three arb-eligible players (molina, maroth, and miles) push the total to nearly $90m. by the time you add in the salaries of pre-arb returnees like wainwright and duncan, next year's payroll is almost entirely spoken for --- before the cards have signed a single free agent or added a single impact player via trade. let me put this in roster-matrix form:

2008 ROSTER MATRIX
DEADLINE DUMP SPECIAL

STARTING 8 BENCH ROTATION PEN
molina c
$1m
schumaker of
$400K
carpenter rhp
$10.5m
is'hausen rhp
$8m
pujols 1b
$16m
spiezio ut
$2.3m
mulder lhp
$6.5m
franklin rhp
$2.3m
kennedy 2b
$3.5m
taguchi of
$1m
looper rhp
$5.5m
flores lhp
$1m
rolen 3b
$12m
ryan if
$400K
maroth lhp
$5m
johnson lhp
$400K
miles ss
$1.5m
VACANT c
---
wainwright rhp
$450K
thompson rhp
$600k
duncan lf
$500K
ankiel of
memphis
reyes rhp
memphis
kinney rhp
$400k
edmonds cf
$8m
ludwick of
memphis
hawksworth rhp
memphis
cate lhp
$400k
en'cion rf
$6.5m
hoffpauir if
memphis
garcia rhp
memphis
cavazos rhp
memphis
---
---
j-rod of
memphis
boggs rhp
memphis
worrell rhp
memphis
TOTAL
$49.0m
TOTAL
$4.5m
TOTAL
$28.5m
TOTAL
$13.1m
OVERALL PAYROLL: $94.5

very obviously, they need to get rid of some payroll; either that, or raise the ceiling into the $110m range or so. they can make some easy trims by nontendering some of their arb-eligible players (maroth and miles come quickly to mind) and/or by declining isringhausen's $8m option. (they also hold a $1.1m option on taguchi, which they probably will exercise if he continues to swing the bat well.) i doubt they're gonna cut izzy, and miles will always have a place here as long as mr la russa is the manager; maroth is the most likely of the three to get dumped. aside from that, clearing payroll won't be easy. the cardinals are pretty much stuck with their two overpriced ex-sluggers, edmonds and rolen, who both have negative value on the trade market; the cardinals would have to give up large amounts of cash and/or some good talent to get rid of either contract. and even if the cards could move one of them, the organization doesn't have replacements who can step in and play 3b or cf next year (unless you think ankiel is ready, which i don't).

there probably is a trade market for encarnacion, albeit a weak one, and probably a better one for isringhausen --- but the cards might need to strike quickly to exploit it. there also is said to be interest in anthony reyes, who is the type of player (ie young and cheap) who the cardinals probably should not be trading --- but under the circumstances, i think they'd be well advised to convert him into some other form of talent. the only other guy who they might realistically move is braden looper, but i kinda doubt the market for him is all that great either; the innings are catching up to him, witness his recent trip to the disabled list and his record since may 1 (3 wins, 6 losses, 6.21 era). if they're lucky they might be able to get a platoon player or class A prospect for him, and that might be worth it, just for payroll savings. . . . .

but wait ---- as i said above, this is the wrong way to begin the discussion. while it's true that the cardinals will have to move some payroll off the books, the focus still needs to be on the talent coming in, not the talent going out. so --- again, looking only at the position-player side --- these are the organization's biggest needs, according to me:

  1. youth.
    2008 assets: albert pujols (28 years old in 2008), chris duncan (27), yadi molina (25) on the big-league roster; rick ankiel (28), skip schumaker (28), brendan ryan (26), nick stavinoha (26), jarrett hoffpaiur (25), and joe mather (25) at triple A.
    beyond 2008: colby rasmus (21), bryan anderson (21), mark shorey (23), cody haerther (24), john jay (23), mark hamilton (23).
    players under the age of 30 have taken only a third of the the cardinals' non-pitcher at-bats this season, and a big chunk of that total has come from replacement-type players (ryan ludwick, skip schumaker, brendan ryan) whose major-league future, if any, probably lies in utility duty; they're not likely solutions to the cardinals' lineup problems. the crop of position-player prospects currently at triple A --- ankiel, ryan, stavinoha, mather, and hoffpauir --- might produce one big-league regular, if the cardinals are lucky; the double A crop is far more promising, but it's not likely to help in 2008. moreover, the best prospects are outfielders and first basemen; the cardinals need to get younger all over the diamond. the cardinals already have youth at first base, behind the plate, and at one outfield position, and rasmus will probably be ready by 2009 (maybe sooner) to add youth in center. a youngish middle infielder would really help.
  2. speed.
    2008 assets: none to speak of, really. the only players who could be described as fast are schumaker, taguchi, and ryan; ankiel reportedly runs pretty well when he's healthy, and both rolen and pujols are excellent baserunners despite a lack of great footspeed.
    beyond 2008: rasmus, jay, daryl jones.
    old and slow usually go together; kind of like beans and cornbread (or like dumb and dumber). the cardinals are dead last in the big leagues in stolen bases this season, and dead last in triples; nothing more to say about that.
  3. on-base ability.
    2008 assets: pujols (.412 obp this year), duncan (.385), spiezio (.364), and rolen (.341 in an off year) on the big-league roster; john rodriguez (.378 career big-league obp) and hoffpaiur (.360something career minor-league obp) at triple A.
    beyond 2008: rasmus (.359 current-year obp), anderson (.372).
    the cards rank 15th in the league in walks and 7th in on-base percentage. they never have been an extremely patient hitting team --- even in their offensive heyday they never ranked higher than 5th in the league in walks --- but they haven't finished this low in obp since 1999, when they ranked 10th in the league in scoring. one of their key on-base players, edmonds, can't stay on the field, and another (rolen) appears to be in decline. the cardinals' leadoff hitters have a collective .309 on-base percentage this year, which is 14th in the nl (houston and washington are worse). while the cardinals' farm system is definitely improving, plate discipline remains in alarmingly short supply throughout the ranks; the cardinals need to address that in their future drafts, and/or they need to work with their minor-league hitters to be more patient.
  4. middle infielders.
    2008 assets: kennedy, miles, ryan, hoffpaiur.
    beyond 2008: tyler greene, the former #1 who's currently playing ss at double A, probably won't stay at short. the cardinals drafted two shortstops in the first 10 rounds of this year's draft, pete kozma and oliver marmol; the latter won't be ready for 3 years at the earliest (assuming he signs), and marmol is off to a slow start in short-season A (.173 average, although he does have some speed and a good batting eye).
there are other weaknesses at the big-league level, no doubt --- extra-base power being one, outfield defense being another. but the cards have both of those bases covered within the organization, imho. there's ample power within the organization, beginning with pujols and duncan on the big league roster; the cards' triple A and high A teams both feature league-leading home-run hitters, and their double A and low-A teams used to have league leaders before those players were promoted to the next level. as for outfield defense, schumaker is a solid (if not spectacular) defender, ludwick is very good, ankiel and rasmus are both said to be above average. they'll need plus defenders in center and right to compensate for duncan, but that objective would seem to lie within reach.

so --- to wrap this up --- if the cardinals can swing one trade at the deadline to start restructuring this team, the ideal acquisition would be a 20something shortstop who can bat leadoff, draw a walk, and steal a base. somebody like rafael furcal, in whom the cards showed no interest when he was a free agent 2 off-seasons ago . . . . .

anybody know of such a player who might be available from a contending team that needs jason isringhausen for the stretch run? or maybe one on a rebuilding team that could find a place for a young starting pitcher like reyes? the comments are open.

i'll look at the pitching side of things tomorrow.

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