As many of you have probably noticed, maybe some of you didn’t, we received our annual “We will keep the powder dry if the right ‘type’ player comes along” promise. I think it is safe to say that either Mo was a very good student under Walt when it comes to these statements being used to keep Tony and the fans complacent or it’s a directive from DeWitt in order to distract from the giant lake in LF.
This year, however, it becomes slightly more imperative for the Cardinals to find an alternative power source to protect Pujols. Chris Duncan is likely to hit Super 2 status after this season, thus boosting his salary probably in the range of $5 M and limiting his value to a Cardinals roster looking for better production/cost ratio in the OF and increases his likelihood of being traded. Troy Glaus, for all his warts, is not a cleanup hitter. Rick Ankiel isn’t the prototypical cleanup hitter either and in an ideal world, would work wonderfully in the #2 spot because of his speed, power and reliance on actually seeing good pitches. Colby Rasmus, at least for the first 3 or 4 seasons of his big league career, will probably be penciled into the leadoff or second slot. A name often times thrown around with him is Grady Sizemore and I think that fits. Later on in his career, he may develop more power as he gets older and the result will be a slot further down in the lineup but for now (this season and next) he’d be best served at the top of the card.
The Cardinals are using the credit they have built up from the Walker acquisition in 2004 to make their case that they will go out and get an ‘impact’ player if one becomes available. The difference in this situation is that the Cardinals aren’t looking for a short term solution to protecting Pujols. When they got Walker, they had enough offense elsewhere for Walker to inflict some damage from in front of Pujols and use his great eye and contact ability to clog the bases in front of The Mang. In the current situation, they need a player to keep pitchers honest about putting Pujols on base.
Before we get to any possible solutions, let’s look at just what an NL cleanup hitter is. According to baseball-reference.com, the National League cleanup hitters averaged .280/.365/.492 in 2007. They hit a homerun every 20 ABs, a double every 17 ABs, and drove in an RBI every 5.7 ABs. Over 500 ABs, that works out to roughly be 25 HRs, 30 2Bs, 88 RBIs. In 2007, that player was Garrett Atkins (.301/.367/.486, 25 HR, 35 Doubles, 111 RBI in 605 ABs).
In 2006, NL cleanup hitters went .279/.375/.505. They hit a homerun every 19 ABs, a double every 16 ABs, and drove in an RBI every 5.6 ABs. Over 500 ABs, that works out to roughly be 26 HRs, 31 2Bs, 90 RBIs. In 2006, that player was Pat Burrell (.258/.388/.505, 29 HR, 24 2B, 95 RBI in 462 ABs).
Now, all this does is shows that if the Cardinals wanted the exact ‘average’ of what cleanup hitter was in each of the past two seasons, this is what it would look like. A better, more in-depth analysis could be done by taking the 2005-2007 totals, averaging them out and then with those averages in hand, sorting through David Pinto’s wonderful tool to see what player most resembles our 3 year average line during that same span. But, for this little exercise, that really isn’t needed as we aren’t debating what ‘IS’ a cleanup hitter but rather what is available if the Cardinals are really looking for one.
With that in mind, the solutions, if any? The Cardinals are pretty well locked up at 3B (no trade clause), 1B and C. They can improve at SS, 2B and any of the OF positions. The likelihood of finding a #4 hitter at a MIF position is very slim. You also have to avoid, in an exercise like this, trying to find the next Ryan Braun. The odds of such a player becoming available so young and so talented just doesn’t happen.
Barry Bonds (FA), 42 yrs, LF – This is the most obvious short term fix. It’s also not a real solution to the protection problem. Bonds would be a great fit for half the season, playing Chris Duncan-level defense while crushing 20+ HRs or clogging the bases in his own right. He carries a ton of baggage, is a less than desirable human being but is also a free agent that costs no one but Bill DeWitt. Tony campaigned for Lamar earlier, but was shot down.
So, from there, you have to look at soon to be Free Agents on teams that may be out of the pennant races:
The Orioles, Giants:
The Baltimore Orioles really have nothing to offer the Cardinals in way of protecting Pujols. What talent they do have is fairly young and years away from free agency. Equally so, the O's and Giants lack any real power threats that could improve this team going forward.
Pat Burrell, (PHI), LF, 31 – Pat Burrell is an intriguing case. His $ 50m contract expires at the end of this year. Burrell has a full no-trade clause and is currently playing for a likely contender. He has had a contentious relationship with the Philadelphia crowd and is an Arkansas native. A move to St. Louis may not be the worst thing for him personally, but what does it do professionally?
Burrell has batted 5th all season protecting another prodigious power hitting 1B. He did so for most of 2007, except for his sensational second half in which he replaced Utley batting 3rd as the Phillies stalked down the Muts. For the Cardinals, Burrell would find himself in a familiar role but in a different slot in the order. Technically, for the double-leadoff Cardinals, he would be in the same situation but things aren’t always that easy. With Burrell, the Cardinals would have a player that traditionally plays very well in the second half (which helps for 2008) but is a free agent at the end of the season (when he turns 32) which does not help the team going forward unless they plan to devote both money and prospects to acquiring Burrell.
Delwyn Young (LAD), LF/2B, 26 – Young is a bit of a mystery. Once a rising star in the Dodger farm system, Young seems to have hit both a wall (offensively) and a ceiling (playing time) the last two years. The Dodgers have a mighty full OF with FA Andrew Jones, young stars in Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier and albatross Juan Pierre. When you are 5th deep at your preferred position and 3rd deep at your backup roles (2B/3B), the odds of you having a job very long are slim.
Young has some power. In the minors, Young had a .512 SLG with 102 HRs in 2706 Abs (1 HR: 26 ABs) but much more impressively, in his 3rd season at AAA, the 25 year old Young connected on 54 doubles. What Young provides, quite frankly, is a younger switch-hitting version of Rick Ankiel. He bested Rick last season in SLG % in the PCL. Young’s doubles were tops in the PCL and he was Top 5 in BA. These are to be somewhat expected for an above average prospect in his 3rd year at a level. But does Young provide that protection factor for Pujols? Probably not although, his MLB Equivalency last year would have been a .492 SLG, ranking him 2nd on the 2007 Cardinals in that category.
Don’t get me wrong, Young is a nice player to have. He’s an everyday player who can be a super-sub, of sorts playing all 3 OF positions and 3 IF positions while batting from both sides. Not only couldn't Tony keep him on the bench due to his versatility but why would Tony want to? He could literally have him change positions every inning and TLR could burn through the entire bench and bullpen in one game if he got a wild streak. The problem is, the Dodgers don’t really HAVE to move him. He is blocked, for sure, but makes league minimum until 2010. He’s got plenty of options left and the Dodgers have made no talk about wanting to deal him.
Jack Cust, (OAK), OF, 29 - Ok, now we are starting to scrape the barrel here. Does Cust really offer an improvement over Duncan? No, he doesn’t. He’s as much a defensive liability in the OF and he carries the baggage of the Mitchell Report with him.
Carl Crawford, (TB), LF, 26 – Crawford is such a pipe dream that I almost feel guilty even typing this. Crawford is where Rasmus hopefully ends up one day. A speedy, leadoff type OF who grows into his body and is moved down in the order to create more runs. Crawford, however, hasn’t moved down THAT far. He has spent time the last few years batting 3rd but for the most part is seen as the Rays #2 hitter. Crawford has yet to hit 20 HRs in a season. He’s yet to drive in over 100 runs in a season. He possesses power but speed is still his game.
Crawford would be a great player to have, but he’d have to increase his HR production to be considered a real threat. Even a player like Bonds, who was of a similar mold as Crawford at age 26, was crushing 25-30 HRs a season. Crawford hits a great deal of doubles and triples, which will score Pujols as good as a HR would but the Cardinals would have to bank on Crawford’s power developing rather quickly. The other caveat for the Cardinals is that the Rays hold two option years on Crawford, 2009 and 2010. They have already picked up his 2009 option. This works well if we acquire him but it also makes it less likely they are willing to deal him.
One thing that works in the Cardinals favor is that Crawford is owed $20 M over the next 2 years, during the same time that Pena is owed $18 M. Those two would account for 50% of the Rays current operating cost during that time span (if the intend to keep their payroll at that high level). Unfortunately, for the Cardinals, the Rays have declined Rocco Baldelli’s option for 2009, thus it looks more likely the Rays intend on holding on to Crawford.
Which leads us to another candidate:
Rocco Baldelli (TB) CF, 26 – Baldelli can’t stay healthy. It’s that simple. If he could, he’s got legit power and above average speed. He has hit down in the order (#3 and #4) and could provide production from a corner OF spot, thus saving him some wear and tear not playing CF anymore. He will become a FA at the end of this season (with his option being declined) and the Rays may be willing to get anything they can for him. He has an odd metabolic deficiency that doesn’t allow his muscles to work properly. Thus, the high injury rate.
Baldelli would be a big risk for the club to count on for any kind of protection for Pujols, however he does offer them a big ceiling should he figure out the metabolism thing and stay healthy.
And this brings me to the final (that I can really think of) and most likely candidate:
Jay Ray Bay (PIT) LF, 29 - If you think Cardinals wish they could bring back the 2004-2006 seasons, so does Jason Raymond Bay. After being called up in May 2004 by the Pirates, Bay had a.929 OPS in 79 games on his way to NL Rookie of the Year. He followed in 2005 with his career best, posting a .961 OPS while hitting 32 HRs, 44 doubles and driving 101 runs. In November of that year he signed a 4 year/$18.5 M deal.
While Bay was pretty good again in 2006 (.928 OPS/35 HR/109 RBIs), he had an awful 2007 season. Many attributed it to some weakness in his shoulder, some questioned his work ethic. He has been known to have lapses in LF defensively often times on sheer focus. In September of this year, Bay will be turning 30 years old. If 2007 was an aberration, then he should still be in his peak offensive years for 3 or 4 more seasons. If 2007 was the beginning of a steady decline, then signing him does very little.
Bay has almost identical splits batting 3rd and 4th in the lineup. Let me rephrase that, he has HIT better batting 4th but has appeared in the two spots almost the same amount of plate appearances. For a player like Jason Bay, he seems like the type that can thrive in a setting in which he doesn’t have to be ‘the man’. One major flaw for Bay is his high number of strikeouts. Would he be nothing more than adding another Troy Glaus? Hard to say. The Pirates will be in a position at mid-season where they will be looking to deal players like Bay (w/one year, 7.5M left on his contract) and Xavier Nady to help restock a pretty shabby farm system. The Pirates have begun to use advanced metrics in evaluating talent and aren’t the same leadership that dealt Aramis Ramirez for a hardy handshake. Tread lightly when dealing with them now.
Pretty depressing, eh? I think this illustrates that what Mozeliak means when he says ‘the right player’ he means ‘when an absolute gift’ falls into our laps. Most teams in the league aren’t looking to deal there big power threats and if they are, those guys are usually ancient. The Blue Jays just locked up Rios long term, the Tigers extended Miguel Cabrera.
Good luck, John.