Suck In the Middle

Well, at least we won, right? It always could be worse. 

I feel bad for Jaime, who once again got screwed out of a victory he deserved. Strasburg has been the black swan on the horizon since spring training began, and Buster Posey is the man of the minute with his Ty Cobb impression, but Garcia has been the best rookie in the National League on the whole this year, and he has absolutely zero chance of being recognised for it. Now, I'm not saying a few extra wins should make any difference, but you know perfectly well they would. Oh well. He can just go on being underappreciated as far as I'm concerned. 

By the by, the original version of the above paragraph referred to Jason Heyward as a black swan, but I thought better of it. 

Anyway, I'm not going to say much else about last night's game, as I want to get this up bright and early since I'm pretty sure today's game starts at about eight am, but I thought Mike MacDougal looked pretty decent. The pitch he got Beltran on was scary, but I was encouraged overall by the stuff he was throwing. The last two outs he got were both groundballs on 96 mph fastballs that had nice downward movement on them; if he can throw just like he did last night I think he could be plenty useful for us. Given the choice, I would probably choose to see Eduardo Sanchez get an audition or keep Salas up, but not seeing either of those guys until September also isn't the worst thing in the world. 

I don't think it's exactly news to anyone that our middle infield has been awful. And not normal awful; awful in a way that's almost hard to even properly conceptualize. The Cardinals are paying actual major league money to Skip Schumaker to be a below replacement level player; by comparison Brendan Ryan's neutrality for league minimum seems positively heavenly. 

Actually, let me correct that. I last checked WAR for Ryan and Schumaker a couple weeks back; both of them have managed to move into positive numbers, albeit ever so slightly, since. Both players are currently worth 0.1 wins above replacement, meaning our starting middle infield has contributed two-tenths of a win to the cause. Huzzah! I apologise to both players for impugning their contributions. 

I promise I'm not going to bash Aaron Miles here, either. We all know what he is, but seeing as how he's been better than either of our regulars, he gets a pass for the morning. 

Nonetheless, facts is facts, and facts is our middle infield sucks. It sucks hard. It sucks like James Dyson designed it. It sucks like its hockey player boyfriend just proposed. (I should be ashamed of myself for that joke, but I'm soooo not.) I would like to come up with another funny thing that sucks to satisfy the rule of three, but I can't think of one at the moment and as I said I'm trying to finish this quickly. (That's what- there's no time, man!) 

Perhaps this season is simply an unfortunate convergence of a couple bad seasons, and both Brendan Ryan and Skippy will rebound next year to be productive players. If you believe that, that's fine; there's certainly an argument to be made. However, I don't believe that. I believe we've seen the best of both players, and I don't expect to see it again. I think Skip's game is just fundamentally unsound in certain ways, and Brendan Ryan is, well, um, let me tell you a little story. 

When I was little, I stayed with my grandmother a lot, and had a friend named Chris who lived near her house. On her road, down by where she lived, there were mostly older people who had lived in the neighborhood for years, and things were pretty much okay. Just a couple miles up the road, though, things were much worse. Trashy houses with inhabitants to match. Chris was from one of those houses. Skinny and gingery, he looked a little like Ron Howard in his Mayberry days, a little like a hungry stray. A few too many teeth when he smiled, shoulder blades you could see. 

Chris wasn't a bad kid, necessarily; he was just one of those kids your grandmother doesn't want you hanging around with. His father cut out on the family when he was four; his mom worked at 7-11 and part-time at McDonald's. We used to throw rocks at cars and hide in the woods when the drivers stopped or sneak over to the neighbor's barn where he had posters of naked women pinned up in his workshop. Sometimes we would get bottles of Nitro cola and smash the empties together until they shattered. Normal bored unhappy kid stuff. 

Over the years, Chris got into trouble quite a few times. He broke a neighbor's windows one time after the guy shot his dog with a BB gun; another time he got caught lifting stuff out of the snack machine at school. Every time he did something bad Chris would apologise and promise to do better and say all the right things and actually would stay out of trouble for awhile; a couple months later though and he would be right back in hot water for something stupid. Chris wasn't really a bad guy; he never stole big things or hurt anyone or graduated up to felonies. He was just missing whatever it is that lets the rest of us learn from our mistakes. Last time I saw Chris we were both about eighteen and he was working at a gas station in Festus. I went in with my girlfriend at the time and we recognised each other; he told me all about how he dropped out of school because he knocked up his girl and she was being a total bitch about him needing a better car and he was thinking of dumping her. 

Anyway, Brendan Ryan reminds me of Chris. Not because Brendan looks like he could really use someone to buy him dinner (though he does), but because Brendan just seems to be missing something. Every time you think he's really arrived, that he's ready to become a consistent, productive major leaguer, something goes wrong and he backslides to future utility infielder territory. I don't know what it is about Ryan, but I don't believe in him. I just don't. 

But I digress. Plenty has been written about the abject shittiness of our middle infield this year, but I'm more concerned with what the Cards can do to improve it. (If they can do anything, that is.) 

What you would hope, of course, is that there might be help on the horizon coming out of the farm system. Unfortunately, middle infield has been one of the major areas of failure for Jeff Luhnow and company; they've had almost zero luck drafting and developing useful talent in the middle of the diamond. Jose Martinez succumbed to an almost stunning lack of plate discipline, Donovan Solano made an impression in spring training but has a .557 OPS at Triple A, Pete Kozma has been The Guy Who Isn't Rick Porcello. There are a few intriguing names at the very low levels, guys like Cesar Valera, but nothing really close. 

There is Daniel Descalso, the second baseman who had such a big season last year at Double A and personal favourite of mine. He was having a pretty good, if uninspiring, campaign at Memphis this year, but he just made his first start last night after being on the disabled list for a month. 

That leads us to the trade market, which is certainly more fertile ground but presents plenty of other issues. Looking around, there are a handful of teams with middle infielders who would present real upgrades and are also probably sellers. Dan Uggla of the Marlins is certainly a popular name around trade talk circles, but the price in talent for him will be massive, and with good reason. Uggla was worth almost 3 wins last year and is already at 3.3 WAR this season. His fielding isn't always pretty, but his value is impossible to argue with. 

Aaron Hill is another option, but the Jays would want a king's ransom for him and I wonder what kind of hit his power numbers would take leaving the Rogers Centre. He's intriguing, but I don't really see a fit. I suppose Brian Roberts has to be considered an option, but the injury history and salary aren't pluses, to say the least. 

The Indians are brutal and have a ton of middle infielders, but very few of them are guys you really want around. Asdrubal Cabrera has actually been worse than either Skip or Ryan, and he's fairly representative of what you're looking at with the Indians. So not a whole lot of help there. Mike Aviles of the Royals has come up; again, he's basically the same production level of what we already have. 

Personally, the guy I really wish the Cards could get their hands on is Reid Brignac of the Tampa Bay Rays. He's young, talented, and would be cost-controlled for quite a while. Of course, one could then ask the question, "Why would the Rays trade him?" and that would certainly be fair. He's playing second base for them currently and doing a nice job, and I personally think he's going to be very, very good down the line. However, the Rays are also staring down the potential loss of both Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena to free agency this offseason; they have Desmond Jennings who will likely step in for Crawford, but don't have as obvious a plan at first. I wonder if Allen Craig would interest them. You would likely have to include another player with Craig to overcome the positional value difference and Brignac's track record in the majors, but I do wonder if the Rays would consider moving Brignac for a cost-controlled solution at a position of greater need for them. Probably a pipe dream, or at the very least one which likely waits until the offseason. There are probably other teams with better bat prospects anyway. (Though I really believe in Craig's bat.) Oh well. 

You may notice most of the players I'm looking at are second basemen; that isn't an accident. Very quietly, Tyler Greene is looking more and more like a pretty productive major leaguer. Not productive enough to make me forget the Cards drafted him instead of Clay Bucholz, mind you, but not bad at all. Tyler Greene is the best shortstop the Cardinals have right now, and I think he needs to be the starter going forward. 

In just 75 plate appearances this season, Tyler has amassed 0.4 WAR, or double what what our 'starters' in the middle infield have combined. His OPS+ on the season is 105, putting him almost exactly league-average and very good for a shortstop. And honestly, I don't see any reason he can't continue to hit approximately as well as he currently is going forward. He's always going to have an odd looking batch of results, but this is a player with enough power to make up for below-average contact skills. Defensively there seem to be a lot of fans who think Tyler is much worse than he is; UZR has him a shade below average and +/- likes him for just a hair above both this season and last. Obviously the sample sizes are far too small to be very meaningful, but those results basically jibe with what I see from Greene: both in the minors and majors I think his glove is pretty good, with a few spectacular plays offset by the occasional blunder on something routine. I would be perfectly willing to bet he ends up a few runs above or below average over the next few seasons. Combine averagish defense with his unusually dynamic profile with the bat and I think Tyler is our best bet. 

Unfortunately, I don't think it's going to be easy for the Cards to upgrade their middle infield. If Freese comes back Felipe Lopez can slide over to second, but I personally hope we can find a way to keep him as more of a utility guy filling in at three spots than tethering him to one five days a week. Regardless, the fact is I think the Cardinals are likely stuck with what they have up the middle for the rest of this season. Finding a way to turn the middle infield from a major weakness into a strength may be the most important challenge John Mozeliak will face between now and Opening Day 2011. 

So, what do you guys think? Any pet names out there? 

The Baron's Playlist for the 29th of July, 2010 -- New!

"When Will You Come?" - Wavves

"The Suburbs" - Arcade Fire

"Summer Mood" - Best Coast

"Mansion of Misery" - Fortress

"Coquet Coquette" - Of Montreal

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