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running in place

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thanks to ev'yone who jumped in on the piss-and-moan thread; some excellent posts. above all, a healthy dose of perspective, viz.: for all their off-season failures so far, the cardinals still return the foundation of their 100-win team --- the heart of the lineup, the up-the-middle d, the consistent rotation, and the closer. the holes that remain, while not insignificant, need not be crippling; and the lost opportunities in dallas don't necessarily portend a lost 2006 season.

not yet.

i think that's good perspective and i basically agree with it. but with each minor deal the cardinals make, my puzzlement grows. happened again last night, when the cards closed the ray king loop by signing ricardo rincon for two years at $1.5m per. folks, this is not progress. to begin with, rincon was as bad as king last season. here's how each man fared in his primary assignment last year, against left-handed hitters:

ab h w so hr avg obp slg
king 86 21 6 16 2 .244 .313 .360
rincon 88 22 8 20 3 .250 .316 .398
flores 75 13 7 26 2 .173 .250 .333

i included flores to illustrate the main flaw with this signing: it doesn't improve the team. it adds a player, yes, but it doesn't close a hole. the cardinals already have a guy who can do what rincon does, and do it better. and before you dismiss flores' success as a one-year fluke, consider that he sustained his performance when it really mattered --- during the playoffs --- retiring 5 of the 6 left-handed hitters he faced and holding lance berkman (batting right-handed) hitless in two at-bats. flores stranded all 5 of the postseason baserunners he inherited, which (per tangotiger's expected run matrix) saved the cardinals about 1.75 runs.

meanwhile rincon posted his worst era since 1999, and his home-run rate jumped from 0.63 per 9 innings (2002-2004) to 1.69 (2005). he is now helpless against right-handed hitters, who raked him for a .900+ ops; for that reason rincon became LOOGYer than ever last year, averaging fewer than two outs per appearance (he recorded 112 outs in 67 games). i found one piece of encouraging news about rincon: he allowed only 10 of 72 inherited runners to score, a net savings (per baseball prospectus) of about 7 runs. king by contrast was a net -2.6 in this department. but i discount the statistic because in the previous two years, when rincon had much better pitching lines, he was nothing special in the inherited-runners department, allowing 22 of 92 to score --- just a hair above the league average. so his 2005 excellence more likely reflects random chance than real ability.

to sum up, then, the return on king's $2.5m salary is:

  • a LOOGY (rincon) who's no better than the LOOGY they dumped (king) and worse than the LOOGY they already have (flores)
  • a part-time 2b (miles) who's worse than the part-time 2bs they already have (cruz and luna)
  • a part-time outfielder (bigbie) who's at best marginally better than their current part-time ofs (taguchi and rodriguez)
pointless roster churn. btf's transaction oracle posted ZIPS projections for bigbie and miles over the weekend:
ab r h hr bi w avg obp slg
bigbie 401 51 103 9 47 43 .257 .328 .384
miles 507 65 137 7 53 29 .270 .311 .365

the scary thing is, that projection for aaron miles is not as bad as i'd have feared. . . . on the other hand, here's ricardo rincon's ZIPS projection: 4.91 era.

grisly though all this may be, the cards at least have avoided a truly costly mistake; their transactions to date haven't improved the team, but they haven't really hurt either. indeed, the cards' best deals so far this winter are the ones they haven't made:

  1. they avoided overpaying grud'k. 2 years at $3m per is too much for a 35-year-old middle infielder who doesn't slug and doesn't get on base. he's a good defender, but not as good as his outstanding 2005 would suggest. at $1.5m a year he'd be a nice signing; at twice that price he's a drain on the budget.
  2. they didn't re-sign tavarez. he was never that great to begin with --- gave up two game-losing homers in the 2004 postseason, then got pounded into submission in october 2005. good riddance.
  3. they haven't pursued dead-weight free-agent starters. the only arm they aggressively pursued, burnett, was the only one that might have added a new dimension to the staff. nobody else on the market (including matt morris) represents a real upgrade, and the cards have been wise not to offer major $$$ to any of them.
  4. they didn't overpay to keep nunez or mabry. bigbie's bat replaces mabry's for 1/3d the cost; cruz is a slightly better hitter than nunez and slightly cheaper, and he didn't require a multiyear commitment.
  5. they're backing off jacque jones et al (and please god don't let this be a jinx). per this morning's p-d: "As for Jocketty's other stated goal, improving the outfield, he said he might have to satisfy that need through trade rather than the free-agent market, which features the likes of Jacque Jones, late of Minnesota, and Juan Encarnacion, who played with Florida last season. 'There are some free agents we're looking at, but I think the free agents are going to be too expensive,' Jocketty said."
by avoiding a major misstep so far, the cardinals have preserved the payroll flexibility necessary to fill their holes when the right deal comes along. the 2006 rostercaster (see the left sidebar) shows the team with just 5 roster spots open and about $14m in remaining payroll. one spot and about $1.5m is likely to go either to octavio dotel or braden looper. another slot and $300K may go to rule V draftee juan mateo (of whom more below). that would leave $12m for the remaining 3 roster spots --- one pitcher, two position players.

a shame that all the players worth spending the money on --- like giles burnett castillo etc --- are no longer available. but the trade market may still shake free a worthwhile player, and you never know who may be non-tendered (we'll find out in about a week). so while you can't like what you've seen so far, it's still too early to write off this postseason as a complete failure.

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item: matt morris to the giants for 3 yrs / ~$27m. mccovey chronicles sums up the deal like this: "Wagering on Matt Morris to be worth $9M in 2008 is like betting on Howie Long to win a Tony that same year for starring in a Broadway adaptation of Firestorm." but 2008 is three years away; for this year, mccovey believes, morris may well be worth the $$$$. i sure hope he is; best to ya matty, beat ev'yone except the cards and go 20-2.

item: bryan smith of baseball analysts likes the cards' rule V selection, juan mateo:

Talk about stealing a player from your rivals, I'm guessing the Cubs were blindsided by this choice, as I did not see Juan Mateo on a single radar. Looks like a mistake from the numbers, as not one of those peripherals is bad; Mateo looks like quite the player. He's inexperienced, of course, and probably only fits in on a Cardinal team that, of course, has been sitting on their hands for most of the winter.

Still, I have a hard time believing the Cards can keep anyone on their roster for an entire season that has yet to reach AA. Mateo is in for a big test next year, and I'm not talking about Big League camp...at Double-A. Mateo would have been a better pick from a worse team, but with the Cards, I'm ambivalent about the selection. He won't last, but he's almost worth the $50,000 just to bring to camp.

Chance of Lasting: 40%. A decent chance, given the young arm, but still far from being really helpful.