By Acquiring a Starter, the St. Louis Cardinals Could Upgrade in Two Areas

For the fans of contending clubs, Christmas takes place at the end of July. Unlike the slow burn of winter's Hot Stove, the trade deadline's window is a comparatively short one lasting from the All-Star break's close to July's final day. The Brewers opened the trade season this year with the acquisition for branded closer K-Rod in the minutes just after the clock struck midnight on the day of the All-Star Game and so ending the commissioner's media blackout. Twitter, blogs, and media pot-stirrers then posed the question of whether John Mozeliak would "respond" to the Brewers' move. Thankfully, Mozeliak is far too shrewd an operator to overreact to Milwaukee obtaining a reliever who will throw about 25 innings from here through season's end. The Cardinal GM should be in no rush; after all, his ballclub has only just recently become collectively healthy enough to field the roster of Opening Day. 

It's an easy thing for us fans to get caught up in a seemingly season-long narrative, to play a familiar chord upon a familiar outcome, even if the players are different. Mozeliak and the Cardinals deserve praise for identifying weakness and eliminating it earlier this season by outrighting faded veterans Miguel Batista and Ryan Franklin and replacing them with arms from the farm system. This was addition by subtraction as well as an upgrade in terms of talent. Lance Lynn has been very good since being re-boarding the Memphis Shuttle and returning to St. Louis. Lynn and Jason Motte comprise a nasty duo of set-up men. Even so, it has been difficult for fans to let the Batista/Franklin meltdowns fade from memory. Ryan Franklin blowing saves in April and Miguel Batista giving up go-ahead runs in May and June have nothing to do with the current bullpen. As Azruavatar noted yesterday, sometimes you just lose a game. Nonetheless, there were voices in St. Louis openly demanding to know why the Cardinals were not in on the proven closer with the movie-script nickname of "K-Rod" and the bell continues to be rung for the acquisition of a veteran right-handed reliever. Mozeliak should not answer that bell.

If Mozeliak inquired on Rodriguez at all, I hope he had only cursory talks with the Mets about Rodriguez and that he does not overpay for another right-handed reliever. Even before the organization again shut down Eduardo Sanchez during his rehab stint due to a lighting up of his previous shoulder discomfort, the St. Louis bullpen featured a collection of righties that have put together seasons on par with that of the newest addition to the Milwaukee relief corps. Here is a comparison of the right-handed relievers' stats heading into action on Sunday, July 17, 2011:

Reliever

K/9

BB/9

ERA

FIP

xFIP

Rodriguez

9.69

3.30

3.09

2.94

3.17

Boggs

8.91

2.97

3.24

2.93

3.17

Lynn

12.00

0.75

2.25

1.63

1.43

Motte

8.75

2.50

2.50

2.55

3.36

Salas

9.07

2.17

2.56

2.94

3.32

Sanchez

10.36

5.02

1.88

3.10

4.04

 

 *I included Sanchez in the chart even though he has been ominously shutdown again due to shoulder discomfort. I am not counting on his return; however, at the time of the Rodriguez trade, Sanchez was in the high-90s with his fastball down in Springfield and looked to be on his way to rejoining the St. Louis relief corps in the near future.

For two players to be named later, the Mets shipped Omar Minaya's worst signing to the Brewers where Rodriguez will--actually, no one seems to know what his role will be in the Milwaukee 'pen, but he will be in it. There was some confusion initially, as well, regarding a vesting option in Rodriguez's contract that would be triggered after games finished and guarantee him a 2012 salary of $17.5 million--more than Matt Holliday's 2012 salary. In the wake of the bullpen reformation, the Cardinals are not in need of a high-priced right-handed reliever, whether that arm be K-Rod or Heath Bell (with his 6.63 K/9), who will only give them what they already have in production. The club currently has four righties putting together very good seasons. 

The south side of the bullpen continues to be a different story. Once-effective veteran LOOGY Trever Miller has walked far too many left-handed batters, who are hitting for a slash line of .214/.353/.310/.662 against him. The double-oh in LOOGY stands for "one out" and allowing an OBP of .353 when facing left-handed batters as a LOOGY is simply unacceptable. Brian Tallet has been relegated to the disabled list and, during a test meant to check his ribs, was diagnosed with a kidney disease. While on the active roster, his performance was one of a wounded LOOGY with lefties hitting for a .261/.370/.696/1.066 line against him. Wisely, the Cardinals summoned lefty reliever Raul Vales from Memphis to see what he offers. In extremely limited action, he has done little to lead one to think he can add much due to a wildness that has allowed the following line against him for left-handed batters (in a mere 12 PA):  .222/.417/.222/.639 and a 7.20 BB/9 overall. Here are the lefties' overall stats, which further illustrate their poor performances.

Reliever

K/9

BB/9

ERA

FIP

xFIP

LHB OPS Against

Miller

5.17

5.74

4.02

4.94

5.91

.662

Tallet

6.23

3.46

8.31

7.20

5.18

1.066

Valdes

12.60

7.20

3.60

3.16

4.10

.639

 

Meanwhile, in the starting rotation, as Chris Carpenter has surged and Jaime Garcia stabilized, Kyle Lohse, Jake Westbrook, and Kyle McClellan have scuffled of late. When compared to the starting rotation's 3.75 FIP, the Cards' starter ERA of 3.92 perhaps reflects a lackluster defense that ranks in the bottom five of baseball in terms of team UZR. One proposed way of bolstering the bullpen as well as the rotation is acquiring an upgrade over reliever-turned-starter Kyle McClellan and moving McClellan back to the bullpen; in so doing, making him a reliever-turned-starter-turned-reliever. Underwhelming peripherals as a starter and recent poor results*, when coupled with his success against left-handed batters, make this a palatable option that would address two areas of need. 

*In a surprisingly candid quote in the Post-Dispatch, Duncan said, "The only thing that would make you think that way (with McClellan) would be if his performances made you think that way. I certainly wasn't thinking that way in April and May. But here in July he hasn't been quite the same pitcher."

As the following chart demonstrates, McClellan is that rarest of pitchers, the right-handed LOOGY:

Season

LHB BAA

LHB OBPA

LHB SLGA

LHB OPSA

2008

.238

.321

.385

.706

2009

.198

.309

.245

.554

2010

.204

.287

.306

.592

2011

.208

.265

.329

.594

 

Tony La Russa is a manager with a library of binders containing statistical information on match-ups and splits. McClellan's success against opposing left-handed batters is undoubtedly known to him. (If nothing else, the manner in which La Russa deployed K-Mac as a reliever and the argument in favor of moving him to the rotation evidence this.) The flip-side of the managerial flexibility coin that led him to convert McClellan to a starter in the first place would seem to allow for an upgrade to the rotation that would allow the Cardinals to shift McClellan back to the 'pen--improving both units. It seems a most La Russan maneuver.

This may very well be Plan A for the Cardinals as the trade deadline approaches. Jon Morosi has tweeted that sources tell him the Cardinals have been "one of the most aggressive teams in baseball as far as looking for starters," a focus that seems appropriate, especially given the thin trade market right now for left-handed relievers. If the Cardinals can acquire a starting pitcher with a decent strikeout rate and with an ERA and a FIP likely to be lower than Kyle McClellan, reliever-turned-starter, over the season's final months--that is, a true No. 2 or No. 3 starter--it would serve to simultaneously improve both the rotation and the bullpen. As presently constructed (and, as always, depending on health), the Cardinals can win the National League Central. With an upgrade to the rotation, they would emerge from a convoluted divisional race as the frontrunners.

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