how to play for next year, part II

as promised, the companion piece to yesterday's post.

chris carpenter's uncertain health status is totally screwing up my attempt to compile a meaningful inventory of the cardinal organization's mound assets --- adds guesswork to an already guesswork-heavy exercise. but i'll bull forward anyway. the severity of carp's injury may not be known for weeks, months, or longer, so it's just another variable we fans (and the front-office guys who make the actual decisions) are gonna have to factor in.

let's start at the big-league level, where the cardinals already have more than a full starting rotation under club control heading into next season:

carpenter $10.5m
mulder $6.5m
looper $5.5m
maroth ~$5m
(arb elgble)
wainwright $500K
thompson $500K
reyes $425K
TOTAL $29m

that's a pretty high investment in the rotation. for comparison's sake, the 2004 rotation of morris woody carp marquis and suppan earned a total of $22.3 million, according to the figures at the bottom of the team page at Baseball Reference. the 2005 rotation made $17.5 million; last year's made $23.9m or so (pro-rating the jeff weaver contract), and the 5 guys in the 2007 opening-day rotation made a collective $17.8m. so we're looking at a one-year increase of about $10m, and an increase of about $8m over the rotation's four-year average (2004-07) of $20.1m.

we know they'll be expensive, by this club's recent standards; will they be any good? so far in 2007 these guys have a collective 5.02 era, 1.489 whip (including only thompson's innings as a starter). we can probably expect some improvement from reyes (in the unlikely event that he stays) and wainwright; looper / thompson / maroth are what they are, and they're fairly interchangeable. if the rotation is gonna get significantly better, it's gonna have to happen one of two ways: either a) carp and / or mulder returns and pitches well, or b) the rotation adds a pitcher who is not on this list.

given that option (a) is far from a certainty, the latter seems the prudent way to go --- either promote a pitcher from within the organization or add one from outside it. the main candidates for promotion from within would include ryan franklin, blake hawksworth, mike parisi, jaime garcia, and mitch boggs. the cards seem committed to keeping franklin in the bullpen, so he's probably out. among the minor-leaguers, the two guys at double A (garcia and boggs) are having the best seasons, but neither will be ready by next season imho --- each has only thrown half a season above class A, and while both are doing well at double A they are not exactly dominating the league. compare their double A stats to the numbers posted at that level by other cardinal farmhands who made it into the big-league rotation:

ERA WHIP K/9 K/BB HR/9
garcia 3.70 1.33 8.4 2.2 1.2
boggs 3.60 1.48 6.7 1.8 0.5
morris 3.88 1.35 6.5 2.5 0.8
ankiel 0.91 0.83 13.7 4.7 0.7
a benes 2.90 0.96 7.7 2.9 0.8
wainwright 3.37 1.14 7.7 3.5 0.5
reyes 2.91 1.01 12.3 7.8 0.4
haren 0.82 0.76 8.0 8.1 0.3
bu smith 2.32 1.10 8.5 3.8 0.4

garcia and boggs have higher era's than everybody on the list except morris, and they have the two worst whips and k/bb ratios. boggs also has the second-lowest k rate, and garcia has the worst hr rate. their overall profiles are worse than everybody on the list except for matt morris, who (it should be noted) has turned out to have the best career of the lot so far. (haren probably will end up have a better career, when it's all said and done.) that rather sizeable exception aside, these guys are not dominating double A the way future big-leaguers typically do; at least, not so far. there's still half a season to go; let's check out their lines at the end of the year.

the dissimilarity is even greater as regards the two top prospects at memphis, hawksworth and parisi; both have eras in the 5.00 range and strikeout rates below 6.0 k/9. neither has a stat line even remotely resembling the triple A lines of other guys the cardinals promoted to the bigs. again, each guy only has half a season under his belt; by this time next year, maybe one of them will have raised his game.

there are some dominant arms lower in the system --- tyler herron, pj walters, adam ottavino, eddie degerman --- and there's ample reason to hope that one or more of them will continue to overpower hitters as they rise up the chain. but that doesn't do us any good for 2008. the cardinals really can't count on much help for the rotation from within the farm system until 2009 or beyond.

that leaves us with the trade and free-agent markets. with $28.5 million already invested in the rotation, the only way the cards can spend heavily on a free-agent upgrade is by dumping both looper's and maroth's salaries. i wouldn't be opposed to that at all, but if they get rid of both those guys, they're not left with much insurance for the two post-surgical arms at the top of the rotation --- if one or both of them can't stay healthy, the rotation would be a thin stew comprising the new signee plus wainwright, reyes, thompson, and the minor leaguers. this is why the failure to let reyes develop rankles so much; the cardinals should have gotten an answer by now about whether he can or can't stick at this level. it shouldn't still be an unresolved issue. but in their wisdom, the cardinals have withheld opportunities from a significant prospect and given them instead to dead-ends like ponson and wellmeyer and wells.

they still have half a season to let reyes sort through his problems against big-league hitters; half a season to find out if he is or isn't a part of their future. if he shows sufficient improvement and earns some trust, then the cardinals might have the flexibility to cut bait this off-season on the pricey mid-rotation guys and apply the savings to a frontline pitcher. if reyes fails to improve, then the cardinals will know they have to find some other solution.

but the organization learns nothing by keeping him at triple A. if they accomplish nothing else this year, they have to find out if reyes figures into their plans for 2008.

see the first question / answer in yesterday's Postcards entry for more perspective on the pitching / payroll issue.

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