Before we get started, a little personal-ad-writing. My name is Dan, and I'll be writing–should the current schedule hold up–the Monday, Tuesday, and Friday entries starting next week. I've been writing about the Cardinals for going on five years at Get Up, Baby!, often lauded as America's most punctuated baseball blog, and I'm very excited to continue my occasional analysis and playwriting at VEB. As for the personal ad, I'm a senior at the University of Missouri, majoring in English. Were it not for Ray Lankford's count-working exploits making me a baseball fan I would be making this introduction at PinballBlogNation, Viva El Jack Benny, or Gatsby Up, Baby.
What I like about Tony La Russa–in addition to his obvious talents as a Major League manager–is the sense of continuity you get, as a fan. When your team hires a new manager you have to learn their foibles. You have to figure out whether they're going to be combative, like Ozzie Guillen, or an up-and-comer, like Joe Maddon, or ready to strangle Jose Guillen, like Trey Hillman.
But with La Russa we know what we're getting. There's a comfort to this unchanging narrative, and I mean this completely sincerely. If I'm going to complain about something a manager does–and I am–I'd like to at least know what I'm in for, and that's where La Russa excels. It seems like only last week we were complaining about Dan Haren's role on the team, and now here we are complaining about Chris Perez's role on the team. Concrete roles, young players who are better than he seems to think they are–it just feels like home.
The end result is that the Cards are, tentatively, on the market for some relief pitchers, with closing credentials, to push the Chrisper (if not to subsume his role entirely.) The top free agent in the non K-Rod division–i.e., who won't cost the Cardinals $75 million–appears to be Brian Fuentes, who's gone from closer to has-been to closer so fast that if you look at the back of his baseball card it's difficult to tell which year he spent in a Turnbow-y limbo.
What's clear after the fact is that 2008 was his best season since the Rockies installed him in the closer role. His strikeout rate picked back up–11.7 K/9, sixth in baseball among relievers–and he only gave up three home runs. With B.J. Ryan still recovering from the effects of TJ surgery and Billy Wags due to undergo it he is almost certainly the best lefty reliever in the game. This would all be bad enough, for the Cardinals, but it gets worse: he picked up 30 saves again in 2008. It's not just a free agent deal, now–it's a closer deal.
We have a model for this deal in our NL Central backyard: Coco Cordero, currently keeping leads safe for the fifth place Reds. Cordero and Fuentes have had uncannily similar careers, so far. They were each a great closer for a few years; they each lost and regained the closer's role the year before they reached free agency (at the age of 31); and they each had a return-to-form contract year. Coco received a four year, $46 million contract for his troubles.
(You can see, now, where I'm going with this: Kyle Lohse needs to close for this team, and he needs to do it now.)
The market seems pretty certain about it: closers at their peak who manage to make it onto the free agent market–it's a tough role to succeed in all the way past one's arbitration years, as Chad Cordero is learning, and the good ones tend to start late or peak early–are worth around $10 million a year. B.J. Ryan will be making it through 2010; Brad Lidge and Joe Nathan, a cut above, are set up with $12 million deals.
These are the guys who have consistency to offer; the ones who are doing something, succeeding year after year, that we can't be sure Perez and Motte do. And that thing is valued at $10 million. You get down to $5 million, and you're talking to Kyle Farnsworth and Flash Gordon. You're talking to Jason Isringhausen. . . not that there's anything wrong with that.
So the Cardinals need to ask themselves something, heading into spring training, and it's not "Is Chris Perez ready to close?" It's this: "Is Chris Perez $10 million worth of not ready to close?"
This can be free agent shortstop money, or it can be free agent starter money, or it can be Chris-Perez-might-not-be-a-relief-ace-quite-yet money. Brian Fuentes would be hedging the wrong bet.