This is a pictorial representation of the downside of Lance Berkman's contract.
So the Cardinals made two moves this week that we've already discussed heavily: (1) trading Blake Hawksworth for Ryan Theriot and (2) signing Lance Berkman to a 1 year deal for $8M. The consensus at VEB, as near as I can tell, is that these were both good moves. I agree with that. I also think that reasonable people are justified in their concern with the downside of both deals. And I, personally, find these moves to be confusing and discouraging in terms of the direction of the organization.
First, let's start with evaluating these moves in isolation. The Cardinals middle infield was terrible last year. Many of us, including myself, have pointed out that both Brendan Ryan and Skip Schumaker had statistical profiles that indicated they were very unlucky last year on offense. Brendan Ryan looks more like a 2.5 WAR player if you adjust for park and batted ball profile and Skip Schumaker a 1.5 WAR player. Still, the backup for the infield consisted of the likes of Aaron Miles and Pedro Feliz.
Ryan Theriot is a great piece to compliment the middle infielder. He can hit a little, he's right handed to spell Schumaker and he's capable of playing shortstop, if not particularly well. Theriot looks like a player a little better than replacement level and in his second arbitration year, we'll be paying him something approaching market value. That's a fine deal for a team.
The more impressive part of this acquisition was that the Cardinals got something of value for Blake Hawksworth. With all due apologies to Danup and his penchant for not very good prospects, Hawksworth had settled into that dreaded not very good, quasi-trusted, veteran role that can be so hard for the Cardinals to dislodge mediocre players from (see Miles, Aaron). Hawksworth extra fastball mileage in the pen hasn't made him more than a replacement level pitcher. The Cardinals have better relief arms ready to graduate from the minors in Fernando Salas and Eduardo Sanchez. Thankfully, it looks like both those players now get the chance to solidify a role in the major league pen.
So the Cardinals managed to trade a replacement level player, for whom they already have an able internal replacement, for a slightly above replacement middle infielder at a spot that they don't have an internal candidate for. That is good trade.
The Lance Berkman deal is a short term move for a player who has significant upside on a relatively cheap contract. This kind of deal is never a crippling one to a team and can pay significant dividends. A simple Marcel projection for Berkman is going to give him something in the range of a .375-.385 wOBA. Even the more pessimistic end of that scale would put him 25 runs better than an average offensive player over 600 PAs. Assuming -15 defense (i.e. we'll say things like "Chris Duncan would have caught that"), he's still a 2 WAR player. The Cardinals are paying him $8M, which has been right around the going rate for a 2 WAR player.
Berkman also has upside. There's some reports that he was hurt all last year. He's already approaching a point where we'll get the "best shape of my career" quote having lost 13 pounds since the post-season. There's a chance he's not totally immobile in the outfield and that his ability to hit lefties rebounds some. So the Cardinals are paying for 2 WAR but hoping to reap something like 3-4 WAR. (Over/Under betting on "best shape of my career" quote begins at Feb 15th.)
Having said all that, I'm not surprised that there's some apprehension or concern over these two deals. Ryan Theriot has been declining consistently and his .286 wOBA last year was actually 13 points worse than Skip Schumaker. Theriot is going to turn 31 on Tuesday, Dec. 7th which is well into the decline phase of the aging curve for middle infielders. As someone who places their trust in objective projections of players, I think it's too early to write off 2011 Ryan Theriot as 2010 Ryan Theriot but I also think there's ample cause to believe that his offensive collapse thus far has been real. If it is real, I don't expect the Cardinals to be able to cut bait.
The other qualm with Theriot acquisition has to be in subsequent quotes regarding his usage. The idea that he should be the starting shortstop is not one that's validated by any statistical argument that I've seen. Replacing a player (e.g. Brendan Ryan) with superior defense at short behind a groundball heavy pitching staff with someone (e.g. Ryan Theriot) who might be an average defender is a questionable tactic. Especially when you have Skip Schumaker at second who is a terrible defender and an ideal platoon partner. I don't want to get too attached to quotes about position made in early December but if this plays out as it's been discussed so far than it's decision making based on personalities off the field and not on the field talent. That's unfortunate.
With Berkman, the concerns are much the same. He's got knee problems; he's 35 years old; he couldn't hit LHP last year and saw an overall statistical decline. If he turns into a pumpkin, the Cardinals have to be willing to bench their new, high profile acquisition in favor of Jon Jay or Allen Craig. Raise your hand if you see that happening prior to August. I don't. To emphasize, I tend to fall in line with the projections I've made above but it's unreasonable to me to not acknowledge the potential for Berkman to also be in true talent decline. While that's a statement you can make about many players, the probability that it applies to Berkman is undeniably higher.
So the moves themselves look good to me. They're not earth shattering but they're solid, thoughtful moves meant to support a core offense of Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday and Colby Rasmus. The front office should be commended for making solid acquisitions like this. We still have to see how the execution will play out but that's a discussion we'll likely have many times over the next season.
This brings me to my final, highly speculative argument. I do not get the feeling that the front office has a comprehensive vision for how to build a winning team. These moves strike me as a group divided against itself that is trying to cope with an internal power swing (yet again) and is grasping desperately for answers. The Cardinals are discussing replacing Brendan Ryan with Ryan Theriot and, Wheel of Fortune puzzles aside, that is odd. The Cardinals traded Ryan Ludwick for Jake Westbrook last year because they said they needed more pitching. I thought that trade was defensible but now they've decided they need offense again in the outfield. Perplexing. In their latest move, they'll be moving Allen Craig from outfield back to third base in Spring Training.
The Brendan Ryan (possible) replacement is something personality driven. It's been a while since I've had to argue that clubhouse chemistry doesn't matter but I've got the opportunity to do it again. Clubhouse chemistry doesn't matter. Additionally, Ryan is the kind of player that is championed by advanced defensive metrics. Theriot's profile is more appealing to traditional baseball folks.
The Ryan Ludwick trade looks like a lack of foresight as does the incredibly frustrating Allen Craig move. The coaching staff didn't like their farm system options for 5th starter but they did like Jon Jay as an outfielder so they traded Ludwick for Westbrook. Now, La Russa campaigns publicly on radio for Lance Berkman. The Cardinals moved Allen Craig off 3rd because of David Freese. (I never agreed with the move of Craig and you'll have to forgive me if I feel partially vindicated.) Now, with no real backup plan at third, they move him back.
These moves feel disjointed when looked at together. It isn't as simple as a old/new mindset split within the organization but if you think Tony hasn't had a heavy hand in offseason decisions you're naive. Part of it is an inability to forecast development by the farm system. The farm hasn't produced a reliable outfield product since Colby Rasmus and is struggling to develop starters right now. This criticism may seem odd coming from me but I think it's warranted. Conversely, the farm system has done some things right and the coaching staff has refused to accept it (see Aaron Miles and Mike MacDougal and Matt Pagnozzi). Neither side trusts each other and it shows, symptomatically, in the organizational decision making.
Even if the Theriot and Berkman moves play out to perfection in 2011, what do they do for the Cardinals long term? They're a stopgap measure at best and this organization can't seem to decide whether to trust it's player development system or not. It also can't seem to decide whether the manager is in charge of roster decisions or not. The result is a disjointed, aimless big picture even if the current short term moves appear positive. The Cardinals are better on paper in 2011 but I can't tell where they're headed beyond that.
(The lack of a playlist is the only thing that may distinguish the verbosity of today's author from a typical Wednesday post.)