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stay the course

remind me never to make a connection through o’hare again. stacked-up air traffic caused us to miss our flight home saturday night, resulting in an unscheduled stay at the airport hilton; got home yesterday weary, dirty, and disorganized. and it’s not as if this hasn’t happened to me before . . . . . i have nothing against the chicago baseball team(s), but the chicago airport really ticks me off. in part because of the travel troubles, the post this morning is a bit of a hash. let’s dive right in:

should the cards sell? with the cards faltering and the nonwaiver deadline just three days away, derrick goold pops the question in the p-d this morning. mo answers emphatically no, specifically w/ respect to kyle lohse --- he won’t be going anywhere. the cards’ decisionmakers think wainwright and carpenter still give them a chance to make this year’s playoffs, and they’re still within striking distance so they’re going for it. while i can see the case for selling off lohse and others to position the team for 2009 and beyond, i think there’s a defensible, rational case to try to have it both ways ---- try to compete this year and build for the future. that’s what they set out to do last off-season, and so far it seems to be working; if not for the unforeseen implosion of the bullpen, the cards would be in first place. as it is, they still have a realistic shot to get in --- not a good shot, necessarily, but probably on the order of 1 in 5. you rarely see teams in that position playing for next year, and with good reason --- every year at this time, there are about 5 big-league teams with a 1 in 5 chance to get into the playoffs, and at least one of them usually makes it. in 2007 it was the phillies, who as of this date last year were barely over .500, 4 games out in their division and 5th in the wild-card race. the rockies were substantially worse off than that; they made the playoffs, too. in 2006 it was the dodgers; in ’04 and ’05, the astros.

while the cardinals appear to be falling apart everywhere ---- not just the bullpen but also the rotation and the lineup --- the effect is exaggerated by the two late-inning collapses vs milwaukee. if they’d simply held the leads in games 2 and 4 of that series, the cards would be 12-10 this month --- hardly a team in eclipse --- and 2 games back of the cubs, a game back of the crew. they’d be 13 games over .500, close to their high-water mark for the year, with carpenter and wainwright about to come back. if those were the standings, not very many people would be asking if the cards ought to sell.

now, those aren’t the standings --- i realize that. they did blow the two games late, and the damage was done. but are those two losses sufficient to move the cards from a buy (or stand-pat) footing onto a play-for-next-year footing? i think that would be an overreaction. the cards did the same thing last year in the opposite direction: they changed from sellers to buyers after winning the last three of a four-game set vs the brewers in late july, with two of the wins coming in their last at-bat vs a terrible bullpen. those two late-game decisions altered the cards’ thinking. instead of trading veterans for prospects, as they had been thinking of doing, they decided to make a run at it ---picked up joel pineiro, miguel cairo, and russell branyan down the stretch. just as last year’s team wasn’t really as good as those two late-inning wins made it seem, this year’s team isn’t as bad as the late-inning defeats make it appear. as frustrating as this month has been, they still have the 3rd-best record in the league. they’re still viable --- not favorites, but not lost causes either. their situation doesn’t look very good at the moment, but it’s not hopeless enough to precipitate a sell-off.

i wonder how albert’s not-too-distant free agency plays into the cardinals’ thinking. he’s the consummate competitor ---- never gives up, never gives in. he’s spent the last two years playing through pain to prop up a sagging roster; he more than anyone has helped the team remain presentable. albert and his teammates have done exactly what was asked of them in 2008 --- stay close until carpenter returns, then try to make a late charge. that has been the explicit plan all along, and the players have executed it; you could argue they’ve earned the chance to see it through to the end. if the front office blows up the team instead and denies those guys the chance to finish what they started, albert won’t forget it when the time comes to start negotiating a new deal.

now let’s look at the other side of the question: should they buy? gammons hints that they’re making a serious run at brian fuentes; i’ve been down on the idea, and i would still hate it if the cards had to give up meaningful players in such a deal. but they are just about out of other options at this point; if the cards were to get him, what price could i live with?

i can imagine the rockies being interested in either / both of skip schumaker and john jay --- the gm out here loves speedy, slappy guys in the leadoff hole, and willy taveras just ain’t the answer. they’d also want at least one pitcher back --- as long as it’s not jaime garcia, i can probably wrap myself around the idea. chris perez might have to be part of the package; one wonders if luis perdomo, the flame-throwing righty the cards got back for a reyes, was acquired with an eye toward freeing up perez. (perdomo debuted w/ springfield last night, threw a scoreless inning.) so let’s say the cards have to give up jay, perez, and clay mortensen for two months of fuentes --- two #1 draft picks and a #2. i don’t know that the rox can do a whole lot better than that. if they’d give you fuentes for that package, would you take it?

as much as i hate the idea of that type of deal, i wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand. it’d give the cards a pretty good chance, and they could probably afford that price. they’d go down the stretch with a rotation of wainwright, carp, lohse, wellemeyer, and looper / pineiro; assuming fuentes restores order to the late innings, that team would have a chance to make a run. and nobody would take them for granted in the playoffs. such a trade would do damage to the farm system, but it certainly wouldn’t cripple it --- the cards’ outfield picture already is too crowded for jay, and even if they lose mortensen they still have several viable rhsp prospects in the high minors (todd, ottavino, boggs, herron, parisi) to go along with jaime garcia. plus, they still have kyle mcclellan as a rotation candidate. for that matter, mcclellan might be a candidate to close next year.

and so you ask: well hell, why not just make mcclellan the closer this year, and save all the prospects for some other trade? maybe that’s the way to go. mcclellan has hardly been perfect --- he’s been right in the middle of some of the bullpen’s worst choke jobs --- but he has been the most consistent of the cards’ relief pitchers. he pitches well out of the stretch (.599 opponent ops with runners on base, and .536 with risp), and he bounces back well on short rest. of the internal options, he appears to be the best at this point --- a far better one than wainwright, who (as houstoncardinal argued yesterday) is needed in the rotation and would be underutilized in a relief role. mcclellan would be a big gamble --- he might fail, and the cardinals might miss the playoffs for lack of a competent closer. but he’s the best fit for the cards’ self-defined model of internal development. the guy has had a successful, if short, apprenticeship; there’s a need, and he’s a candidate to fill it. the cards have had pretty good success this year giving opportunities to homegrown players, rather than dealing for or re-signing veterans; seems like they ought to just stay the course.