Trimming the Fat

Dilip Vishwanat

No, that is not meant to be a joke title about the Cardinals cutting loose one of their less svelte players yesterday.

Ty Wiggington and his bafflingly baffling contract have both left town. Mitchell Boggs is now a Colorado Rockies farmhand, traded for what can essentially be described as hypothetical Latin American dollars. It was, to say the least, a busy afternoon yesterday for the Cardinals.

The Mitchell Boggs deal I honestly don't find particularly compelling. I feel bad for Boggs himself, a player I enjoyed watching for most of his tenure here and a guy who seemed to take genuine joy in the life of a major leaguer, and I hope he can get himself together with a fresh start and some fresh coaching eyes somewhere else. And I am excited about the kind of package the Redbirds pulled, adding to their pool of available money for signing players. But the deal itself just isn't all that interesting; it was a simple case of a guy who had worn out his welcome here being shipped off for something of unknown value just...because.

Wiggington being released, on the other hand, now that is interesting. Not necessarily because of how things went down, or when, or why, but because of what could, and probably should, happen with that roster spot in the relatively near future.

Of course, the strangest thing about all of this is seeing the Cardinals so quickly admit they made a mistake, or perhaps a miscalculation, or some other mis- something word, in bringing Wiggington in. The consensus here at the time of the signing was almost purely negative; we all felt the Redbirds had just unnecessarily tethered themselves to a player with little to no value, and had done so for two seasons, when it seemed almost impossible to believe they couldn't have gotten him on a one-year deal. Most of us had visions of Ty Wiggington booting balls at second base, sponging up plate appearances which should have been going elsewhere, and just generally proving that even great General Managers have their blind spots, usually for veteran leadership and versatility, as if Tony La Russa had implanted some sort of hypnotic suggestion in Mr. Mo's mind before riding off into the sunset.

That Wiggington never got the chance to be the sore spot we all expected him to be is, in a strange way, less his fault than it is a commentary on just how good this team has turned out to be. We were right in hating the Wiggington signing, but that doesn't mean there was absolutely no reason for it in the first place. The lack of playing time was, amazingly enough, less a product of his poor play and more a distinct lack of opportunity. Coming into the season, Matt Carpenter was everybody's favourite positionless bat; a guy many feared was destined to end up the punchline to a joke with the setup of Skip Schumaker. Ty Wiggington could play some second base, and I think most of us thought he would. Brandon Phillips couldn't get second base playing time on this team, much less Ty Wiggington.

Before the season, Matt Adams was an unknown quantity in the big leagues; a minor league masher with some serious questions about his plate approach. Fast forward to early July, and Matt Adams is demanding, loudly, that he see more plate appearances. Those PAs off the bench we expected Wiggy to take? Bogarted, and hard.

So here's the bad news: the contract we all thought was a bad idea? Yeah, it turned out pretty poorly for all involved. The good news? It failed for all the right reasons; for the very best reasons. Ty Wiggington got no playing time, and finds himself a free agent in early July, mostly because the holes we expected him to fit into have been filled spectacularly by other players. He was a flood insurance policy made meaningless by the Corps of Engineers deciding to reroute the river six miles away.

The question now, of course, is where we go next in forging the roster into championship shape. This team has greatness within it; we've all witnessed the brilliance they're capable of over the first few months of the season. This, though, is the crucible. This team could be the 2004 club all over again (though hopefully with a slightly less heartbreaking ending), with just a bit more tempering.

The back end of the rotation is a concern. The bullpen is airtight from inning seven on (it feels weird to say that), but when you're not talking Mujica/Rosenthal/Siegrist, things can get a bit dicey. Center field has been a black hole this year. The bench feels a tad thin. I'm not sure any of those things are fatal flaws; even Jon Jay's abject awfulness has largely been mitigated by the quality of play around him. But they're all opportunities, and improving just one or two could go a long way toward making this club a sleeker, faster, more powerful machine as we head into the season's second half.

And then there's shortstop. Amazingly enough, as bad as Pete Kozma has been this season, he's been much more valuable than Jay by dint of only being horrible on one side of the ball, rather than seeing both aspects of his game go in the toilet. However, unlike the center field issue, the Cardinals actually have an option at shortstop they have yet to explore this season, and I think it's high time they do so. I understand the point of having Rob Johnson on the roster right now, and while I personally would prefer to see the club just put Yadi on the disabled list for the next two weeks to give his knee -- not to mention the rest of him -- a nice long rest, carrying three catchers seems to be the unfortunate consequence of a touchy situation. Once the break comes, though, I think Johnson heads back to Memphis. At that point, Ryan Jackson just has to get a shot. Doesn't he?

On the season, Jackson is hitting .304/.381/.402, good for a wRC+ of 109. Sure, he still has literally zero power, but an 11.3% walk rate is pretty nifty, don't you think? He plays shortstop at a high level; you aren't sacrificing defense. Why this coaching staff seems so hesitant to give Jackson a chance while continuing to run Kozma out day after day is one of life's great mysteries, to be sure, but the time has come and passed for a change to be made.

Center is harder to fix, unfortunately. The Cards don't have much in the cupboard right now to fill the spot, what with Os The Great and Powerful stuck on the disabled list and all. I wish I could believe Tommy Pham is finally turning into the guy we had hoped he would and might be close to deserving a shot in the big leagues, but I just can't quite bring myself to buy it yet. Going outside the organisation, Peter Bourjos still seems like an intriguing option, but dealing with the Angels seems troublesome for just about every team out there. Alex Rios...well, he seems like an almost ideal candidate, but I wonder what it would cost to pick him up. He's going to be a fairly hot commodity, I would imagine. For better or for worse (probably worse), upgrading on Jon Jay is going to be very tough.

Middle relief, as much as I would like to see one more experienced power arm brought into the mix, that is strictly a luxury at this point. That doesn't mean Mo shouldn't look into it, but it's entirely possible the bullpen situation will end up largely dictated by how things shake out at the back of the rotation. And as for that question, I wonder if the cost of trying to find a guy Out There somewhere to eat some innings and limit the exposure of Shelby and the Young Arms might not ultimately be too steep, particularly when the cadre of young arms is so deep as to offer a nice opportunity to diffuse that exposure anyway.

The trade deadline is three weeks away. The Cardinals have the best record in baseball. It's a good position to be in, to be sure, but there are opportunities to improve all the same. If the club stands pat, they will still have a really really good team heading into the stretch run and (hopefully), on to the playoffs. A little more trimming, shaving, and forging, though, and this could be a team to remember for a long, long time.

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