FanPost

"All we are is dust in the wind": The case for Dave Duncan

Noticed Red Baron, through what was probably a rather innocent comment, sparked some really great discussion on Dave Duncan.  Few topics seem to be more polarizing to a Cardinal fan, it seems.  As is often the case here, both sides of the spectrum bring some sound reasoning to support their own point of view.  This is something I've put some amount of thought into myself over the past few years, and this seems like as good a forum as any to share them.  I understand this is a discussion point that has been rehashed again and again in many different fashions, so I hope people don't find all this to be a bit redundant.  I think it may be a somewhat different angle on an old topic, but I guess that is for others to ultimately decide.

One theme that is fairly common is that using the bargain bin approach to starting pitching is too hit and miss. Too many failed million dollar type signings here and there to justify for the success stories.  Too many Kip Wells and Toma Ohka's to get one Todd Wellemeyer.  I read and hear many people state that they wish we'd get more aggressive in the free agent market and go for more “sure thing” type pitchers.  My argument is that there are no sure things in pitching.  History shows that the decline of starting pitchers is unpredictable, and often swift and painful.  To illustrate it all, I'm going to look at the Cy Young voting for previous years.  Specifically who finished in the top 4 in voting from 2002-2005….


  • Barry Zito
  • Pedro Martinez
  • Derek Lowe
  • Jarrod Washburn
  • Randy Johnson
  • Curt Schilling
  • John Smoltz
  • Eric Gagne
  • Roy Halladay
  • Estaban Loaiza
  • Tim Hudson
  • Jason Schmidt
  • Mark Prior
  • Russ Ortiz
  • Johan Santana
  • Mariano Rivera
  • Roger Clemens
  • Roy Oswalt
  • Bartolo Colon
  • Cliff Lee
  • Chris Carpenter
  • Dontrelle Willis

 

 

If I were to look at this list I and classify the overall performance of the individuals for the years following, I would list some as clearly maintaining the high level of performance (Santana, Schilling, Smoltz, Halladay…), some as a mixed bag (Pedro, R. Johnson, Cliff Lee now that he’s started this year so well…), and several as undeniable busts (Zito, Washburn, Schmidt, Prior, Ortiz…).  It could certainly be argued in many cases which pitchers belong in which category.  For example, every pitcher hits a wall by the time they reach their late 30’s / early 40’s.  Putting too much expectation on a Pedro Martinez or Randy Johnson at that stage of their career is probably unfair.  I don’t really want to argue over those types of specific details. 

 

My point is centered around the more general picture this list presents.  You can look at any given year, and pick the pitchers that are considered most elite, and have little confidence that it will be maintainable for any length of time.  And the reality is that, unless they are the oldest of the group, when these guys reach Free Agency the expectation for signing won’t be just several million dollars, but several years.   Same principle applies if a Cy Young candidate is raised through your system and you want to resign to avoid free agency. 

 

As a general rule with pitchers, it isn’t the dollars that concern me near as much as the years.  Pitchers just are not as projectable as a hitter is.  Sadly, Chris Carpenter is a good recent example of this.  At one moment, Carpenter was a centerpiece of the rotation for years to come.  Five innings of work later, he is a question mark we have millions devoted to.  I love Carpenter - I don’t blame the Cardinals for offering the contract and he very well could bounce back and be worth the money in later years.  It is just a gamble that you have to take if you want to lock up a top starter. 

 

So going back to Dave Duncan and the Cardinals approach, I don’t mind a big focus on finding the salvageable retreads.  It’s not an approach you can hit 100% with, but then again, you don’t have to either.  You can find your way past the mistakes until you land the pitcher that works.  This is partly because of dollars, but mostly because these types will take one year deals.   When you find that guy that works out well, you can usually hang on to him (for a while) for a price tag that doesn’t come close to the value he provides in terms of wins. 

 

Going after the top free agents requires you to be right close to 100% also.  It may be easier to get it right for one of these versus signing a reclamation project, but not as much as most might think.  And with these types you cannot work your way past mistakes.  You are stuck with a much higher contract.  That may be problematic enough, but the real setback is that you are usually stuck with that contract for 3, 4, or even 5 years. 

 

Overall, I think Dave Duncan is a bit underappreciated, at least in his ability to coax something useful out of damaged goods.  I believe, generally speaking, taking that philosophy is superior to signing free agents pitchers to long term deals.  In my opinion, the Cardinals are one of the best at playing that particular game, and I think that is in large part to Dave Duncan.   Now clearly, the superior approach to both is to develop your own pitching in your system.  I’d give him mixed marks at that, because I can appreciate those that feel Reyes hasn’t been used properly.  Still, overall, I feel our shortcomings in that area have been primarily due to poor drafting.  The farm system has given Duncan little to work with, and given that, I think we have been very fortunate to have him here able to execute the stopgap plan effectively. 

 

Going forward, it appears the system will be giving Duncan a new test.  Soon, there should be some legitimate prospects in starting pitching that we can lean on.  The book is very much open on how Duncan will do with that, in my opinion, if he is still here at that time.  But when looking backward at what Duncan has already done, I think he gets sold a bit short. 

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