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bagging wagner

the cardinals open a three-game set tonight with a ballclub that's on the verge of being dynamited. philadelphia is awash in trade talk. marlon byrd has already departed for the dc nats, placido polanco's thought bound for the dodgers, and any team can have jimmy rollins, mike lieberthal, or david bell for the asking. not that anybody's doing it . . . . they're saving all that for billy wagner, who will soon become the best relief pitcher in recent memory to hit the midseason meat market. the cardinals, if they're willing, can make an attractive offer for the guy -- and they have to consider it. he is a game-changing presence, a potential difference maker in a short (read: playoff) series -- many if not most of which pivot on a few late-inning at bats.

at baseball analysts yesterday rich lederer wrote about bullpen management in the context of win expectancy, echoing the notion (much discussed in recent years) that the most heavily fraught at-bats often come in setup-man territory -- eg, miguel cabrera at the plate with the sacks jammed and two outs in the 7th inning. lederer says managers should bring their "closers" into the game for such crucial outs, even if it means leaving the 9th to a lesser pitcher. of course, boston tried and failed miserably with that approach in 2003; nobody's going to try it again anytime soon, however much sense it may seem to make statistically. but with wags in stl red, the cards wouldn't have to; they'd have one closer for the big 7th- and 8th-inn at-bats, and another to record the so-called save in the 9th.

tavarez king and reyes are nice setup pitchers, but come on -- billy wagner they isn't. i'd liken the bullpen this year to the leftfielder-by-committee arrangement (mabry lankford anderson taguchi cedeno) of 2004, which worked out just fine the first four months of the season and seemingly would have sufficed in the playoffs. but larry walker was an impact player; he added a presence and a dimension to the lineup that the five-headed monster never could. the addition of wagner could even more profoundly upgrade the bullpen.

but what is the market for him? it's probably his last summer in uniform, and if he does come back it won't be with st louis, which can't afford him. assuming he stays in pha until late june or july, the cards can basically get three months out of the guy, plus (assuming) the playoffs -- which is where his real value would lie.

is that worth a top prospect? i wouldn't like to see jock trade anthony reyes or adam wainwright for him, and i don't think he will; the cardinals will need those guys in the rotation for a few years at min wage, freeing up bucks to patch the soon-to-open holes in the outfield. i'd have no problem including brad thompson in a package, though you wonder how high his value is; i have a hard time believing he and the cards' two top a-ball prospects (chris lambert and cory haerther) would suffice to pry wagner free, but if so i'd applaud the transaction.

failing that, i wonder if jock would consider offering jason marquis plus a prospect (say thompson) for wagner? jason can't become a free agent until after 2006; is making $3 mill this year and, given the way he's pitching, might command half again as much next season at the arbitration table. one year of an effective jason marquis at ~$4.5 million is a bargain -- but enough of one to induce the phils to part with wagner? and if the phillies were willing, would that trade benefit the cardinals?

i think it might -- roll of the dice, but an exciting one to ponder. marquis' rotation slot would go to wainwright, who as afire down in memphis this spring: an era in the 1.80 range with 6 walks, ~45 strikeouts in 47 innings. he is 23 years old (turns 24 in august) and has thrown roughly 650 innings of minor league ball, about 250 of them at AA / AAA -- seems like enough seasoning. he'd be joining a veteran rotation and pitching out of the fifth slot, backed by an awesome (with wagner) bullpen -- low responsibility, low pressure. should the cards make the playoffs, they'd still have four battle-tested veterans in the postseason rotation; marquis' turns would be taken by suppan instead, a step down -- but more than offset, i think, by wagner's presence at the back end of games. it would be risky, but i could get comfortable with that idea.

prob'ly never happen; if i were the phillies, i'd be looking for a wainwright or reyes type. but you never know. the organization's greatest surplus of talent is at starting pitcher; if it becomes possible to convert some of that surplus into a slam-the-door-on-hitters'-knuckles setup pitcher, the cards have to seriously consider the opportunity.