So just say for a second you were the General Manager of a major league baseball team, and you've got a rather substantial amount of money to spend. Say also, while we're hypotheticizing here, that you are facing a truly awful free agent class. Okay. Got it? Now, say your name is, um, Ron Fobaylock. So here you are, Mr. Fobaylock, with more money to spend than you've ever had up to this point in your tenure as a GM, and just look at the detritus you have to choose from! So, what would you do?
Such is the conundrum faced by Johnny Mo this offseason. Sure, he's got the money, but what's he going to spend it on? We've all seen the lists of free agents by now, and let's face it: what the Cardinals need, there just ain't a whole lot of out there. The Cards need a left fielder, and there are three really attractive options: Matt Holliday, Jason Bay, and Mike Cameron. Unfortunately, all three have issues. It's looking less and less likely Holliday has any interest in playing for anything less than a stupid contract. Bay will almost assuredly sign before Holliday, as Scott Boras will want Bay to help set a market for his client. Cameron would seem to be a great fit, but it's also possible he may prefer to go somewhere as a full-time center fielder. It certainly isn't a stretch to believe the Cards might come away without any of the three. And then what? Sorry, but Xavier Nady and his bionic elbow doesn't interest me, and Johnny Damon just isn't worth the draft pick.
The story is much the same at third base, the other main position of need for El Birdos. Mark DeRosa is a known quantity, but on the other hand, Mark DeRosa is a known quantity. Adrian Beltre has a nice glove, but his bat is questionable and his price tag much the same. Troy Glaus brings power and should come cheap, but with a body composed mostly of old newspapers and sadness it's tough to say how durable he'll be.
So what's a GM, whether hypothetical or real, to do? How does one improve a team when the options seem so very limited? Well, one looks elsewhere, of course. And when one looks elsewhere to improve the 2010 Cardinals over the 2009 version, another area of concern begins to whisper its weakness. I speak, of course, of the bullpen.
Unlike the other areas of need the Cardinals have, there are plenty of options to improve the relief corps. Look at the list of available free agent relievers, and you have to be impressed with the firepower. Guys like Billy Wagner and Octavio Dotel and Mike Gonzalez could all potentially make a big impact on a bullpen. So let's take a look at the most attractive options, shall we? I know we all love Ryan Franklin and believe he'll come back in 2010 snorting fire and striking hitters out left and right, but let's just say, for fun, he doesn't. Perhaps a closer might help.
The Type A's
Billy Wagner, LHP - Sure, he's old. And sure, he's had surgery in the recent past. You know what? I don't care. Billy Wagner is still a bad, bad man, even after Tommy John. In limited action following his return from TJ in 2009, Wagner did exactly what he always does: he dominated. He threw 15.2 innings between the Metropolitans and the Red Sox, and posted a 2.33 FIP. He strikeout rate was 14.94 per 9 innings. His control wasn't quite as sharp as usual, but that's certainly to be expected on the comeback trail from elbow surgery. The bottom line is Billy Wagner still kicks ass approaching 40 and with a surgically repaired arm.
The problem with signing relievers, of course, is the wildly inconsistent nature of their performance from year to year. This year's Brad Lidge can quickly become next year's Brad Lidge, and with little or no warning. Not Billy Wagner, though. Wagner has posted an ERA above 3.00 exactly once in his big league career, in 2000. His next highest ERA is 2.85. What I'm trying to say is this: if you're looking for a sure thing to improve your bullpen, Billy Wagner is probably it.
So what's the catch? Well, the catch is Wagner falls into that dastardly trap known as Type A. Yes, that's right. If the Boston Red Sox offer Wagner arbitration (and they would be fools not to), he would cost the Cardinals their first-round pick in 2010. Of course, if the Cards were to pick up some other team's first rounder, say, in return for a certain left fielder who shall remain nameless, it would certainly help take some of the sting out.
Mike Gonzalez, LHP - The upside of Gonzalez is this: he's the second-best left-handed reliever on the market, right behind the aforementioned Billy Wagner. He consistently strikes out better than a batter an inning, and has posted an ERA above 4.00 only twice in his career. The downside? He walks too many batters, though he has improved his control since his early days in Pittsburgh, he blew seven saves in only seventeen opportunities last year, he'll cost you a draft pick, and that Rain Man impression he does on the mound is wicked annoying.
Here's my thought on signing Gonzalez: he's a very good pitcher, capable of shutting the door on an opponent at the end of the game. At the same time, though, he isn't as good as Wagner, would likely demand a longer contract, and will still cost you the same in draft pick compensation. For the money and the lost pick, I would take Wagner in a heartbeat over Gonzalez.
Rafael Soriano, RHP - So you want a guy just like the first two pitchers on this list, but you're afraid of lefties, you say? Well, look no further than Rafael Soriano. He's got the same electric stuff as Mike Gonzalez, but lacking the sinister overtones. Soriano struck out better than 12/9 IP in 2009, while keeping his walk rate down at a very manageable 3.21. He throws hard, has an outstanding breaking ball, and generally does a fine job of keeping the ball in the park. What more could you ask for?
Well, one could ask for a better track record of health, I suppose. Soriano has a history of arm troubles, though they're usually more of the nagging variety than the cutting variety. What is really interesting about Soriano and Gonzalez is that both play for the Braves. Now, while that may not seem all that interesting at first blush, there is the possibility Atlanta may not be willing to offer arbitration to both players. One would have to assume they will offer arb. to one or the other, but if they are at all concerned the market this winter could be as slow as last offseason, they may hesitate to possibly put themselves on the hook for two short relievers due for large pay increases. If Atlanta fails to offer either Soriano or Gonzalez arbitration, that player immediately gets a big, big bump in value. Definitely a situation worth watching.
Octavio Dotel, RHP - After a couple years of wandering in the wilderness, Dotel has resurrected his career the past two seasons with the Chicago White Sox. He's been healthy, throwing 134 total innings, and has shown flashes of the same brilliance he displayed early in his career with the Houston Astros. (And by the way, look at some of the numbers Dotel put up in Houston. It's easy to forget just how good he was for about three years, and just how hard he was ridden.) The old fire may not quite be there, as he no longer gooses his fastball up to 97 or 98, but the slider is still good and the K numbers show it. On the other hand, betting on Dotel at this point is a definite risk, as his injury history is long and detailed. Just looking at the jump his walk rate took from 2008 to 2009 is enough to give me pause.
Jose Valverde, RHP - I'll be honest with you: I can't stand Jose Valverde. I hate his delivery, I hate the little dance he does, I hate his half-assed perm, and I hate, well, pretty much everything else about the dude. He just bugs me, you know? However, personal feelings aside, Valverde is still a pretty fine pitcher. He strikes out better than a batter an inning, his walk rate is just fine, and he's only given up more than a hit per inning once in his career. (He gave up 50 hits in 49.1 innings in 2006.)
On the other hand, Valverde also happens to have name recognition that a couple of the other guys on this list don't have. He's certainly better known than either of the Atlanta pitchers, and is consistently seen on SportsCenter pumping his fist and just being all Proven Closer. Thus, his price tag will likely exceed those of the other guys listed here, I would think.
There are a couple other Type A relievers, but I don't see any of them as real options. Kevin Gregg is a Type A, but I have to think the Cards saw enough of him in a Cubs' uni to stay away. John Grabow is good, but more of a specialist type, and LaTroy Hawkins, well, um, I'm not really sure how to finish that sentence.
The Type B's
Kiko Calero, RHP - Okay, I'm going to level with you: Calero is probably the only Type B I'm really that interested in. Well, maybe not the only one, but he's certainly at the top of the list. Hell, if nothing else, signing Calero would allow us all the look at the Cardinal roster and forget, if only for a second, that the Mark Mulder deal ever happened.
The problem with Calero is that his numbers look, well, they look like a reliever's. Whereas the guys up in the A bracket have established a track record of fairly consistent performance year after year, Calero's numbers look more like a tech stock's six-month record. He was excellent for the Cards in 2003 and '04, then went to Oakland along with Daric Barton and no one else, and had two very nice seasons for them. Then came 2007, and Kiko just self-destructed. His walk rate exploded, his strike outs plummeted, and his home run rate stayed low largely because of Oakland's cavernous home stadium. 2008 brought more frustration, and Kiko landed in Florida for the 2009 season. He proceeded to put up brilliant numbers once again, with an ERA under 2.00. So which Kiko would you be buying for 2010? Therein lies the conundrum of trying to sign relievers to improve your bullpen.
The best thing Kiko Calero has going for him is the fact he won't cost you a draft pick. He won't give you the same kind of performance the guys on the A list probably would, but he also won't screw you in June when you don't have a pick until #97 overall. Calero keeps the ball on the ground and in the park, so he would certainly fit in with the rest of the staff, but his ERA is almost certain to rise in 2010 nonetheless. He stranded better than 82% of baserunners in '09, a number that likely isn't sustainable.
Brandon Lyon, RHP - Okay, take a look at Lyon's numbers. Now, do you see why the Cardinals should stay well clear of this guy? If not, don't feel bad. There's going to be at least one General Manager this winter who doesn't see it either, and he's probably going to hand Brandon Lyon a 2.86 ERA contract.
The problem, of course, is Brandon Lyon isn't a 2.86 ERA pitcher. He did, however, look like one in 2009. Unfortunately, that doesn't cover the fact it was pretty much all smoke, all mirrors, all the time. His K/BB rate was well under two. He stranded over 80% of baserunners. His BABIP was an unsustainably low .229. In short, Brandon Lyon in 2009 is the guy the concept of regression to the mean was invented for.
Now, that's not to say Brandon Lyon is a bad pitcher, per se, but only to show what kind of an investment the Cardinals should probably avoid making. Sure, a guy like Lyon isn't going to cripple you by himself, but as Cardinal fans, we've seen all too well how a bunch of small, sorta bad contracts can turn into a big, really bad contract when you take them all together. No, for what he'll cost, Brandon Lyon is just the sort of pitcher who isn't worth it.
Rich Harden, RHP - And now we come to one of my favourite hypotheticals. There's going to be plenty of discussion this offseason about Rich Harden maybe being the sort of guy you might want to offer an incentive-heavy contract to for one year just to see. Sure, he's never ever ever, ever ever, ever ever been healthy for an extended period of time, but sweet Jesus, look at what he can do when he does get on the field.
You won't find a pitcher more talented, or an arm more intriguing, than Mr. Harden. Unfortunately, we all know the other side of the story: Harden has made 30 starts exactly once in his career, in 2005. When he's healthy, he's a joy to watch. But most of the time, you're just going to be frustrated by the pitcher who isn't there.
Whether or not Harden would be worth offering a one-year deal to as a starter, though, isn't really what I'm concerned with at the moment. What I want to know is if he could possibly be enticed into trying his hand at a relief role. Maybe he just isn't built to handle the rigors of 200 innings a season. Maybe he could come in and air it out for ten or twelve pitches at a time and keep himself on the field.
Something interesting about Harden is this: he's actually been fairly healthy the last two years. In 2008 and '09, he made 25 and 26 starts, respectively. Not quite a full healthy season, but close. What's even move interesting is for the first time in his career, Harden failed to really have much success in 2009. That coincided with his complete abandonment of both his slider and split-finger pitches, both of which had been huge weapons for him in the past. Harden essentially became a strict two-pitch pitcher in 2009, yet was still able to have a reasonable level of success over better than 140 innings.
So what we have here is a pitcher who has been relatively healthy two years running, but still seems unable to stay off the training table for a full season's worth of innings. He now throws basically just two pitches, still has the velocity on his fastball, and can still strike hitters out like nobody's business. The real Achilles' Heel for Harden in '09 was his home run rate, which was close to twice his career mark. Some of that was undoubtedly due to pitching in Wrigley Field for a full season, but I think a lot of it was the fact he simply refused to go to a third pitch to keep hitters off balance.
I have no idea if Harden would be amenable to the idea of pitching in relief or not. But I look at his numbers, and I look at his track record, and it cries out to me there's a dominant reliever just waiting to be born. So what if he can't throw 180 innings? Give me 60 or 70 innings of vintage Rich Harden, and I'll show you a winner.
In the end, I think the Cardinals could probably do pretty well for themselves if they chose to invest a bit of coin in the bullpen this offseason. Ordinarily, I'm not at all of the mind that throwing money at relievers is a good way to improve your team, but this year might just be the exception. I think the Cards will miss out on both of the top left fielders, Holliday due to the enormous salary he'll get and Bay due to timing, and I honestly don't see a third baseman on the market I think would be worth the money for the improvement over David Freese. Maybe Chone Figgins, but I get the feeling the Angels are going to resign him. I could be wrong, of course.
So maybe in order to improve the team, Johnny Mo and Co. improve a semi-sore spot instead of the glaring holes. Maybe they take all that money they were going to hand to Holliday and they go give some of it to Billy Wagner. Maybe then they call up Rich Harden and say, "Hey, Rich. We couldn't help but notice you're awesome and all, but you sure do seem to get hurt a lot. Our manager and pitching coach built a pretty sizable portion of their legacy on turning a starter into a reliever about twenty years ago; how would you like to be the next Eckersley?"
There are, of course, others who might be interesting, guys who don't show up on the arbitration lists, but few of them warrant a whole lot of consideration over what the Cards already have, in my ever so humble opinion. Guillermo Mota is out there, and might be okay, but he's also getting up in years and I don't really like him. Duaner Sanchez might be worth a spring training invite to see if he looks healthy or not. Justin Speier, subject of a fair amount of speculation here back about mid-season, is capable of getting right-handed hitters out quite effectively. Fernando Rodney would certainly be worth kicking the tires on if the Tigers don't bring him back. There will be plenty of non-tenders as well, possibly a record amount, and a large percentage of those players will likely be relievers. Still, lest this become even more unwieldy than it already is, I'm not going to speculate further on who might be cut loose. For now, these are the guys I think bear watching.
Now, what would you do with guys like Kyle McClellan, you ask? Well, to be honest, I don't really have an answer, because I don't care. I want a bullpen that can overwhelm the other team, and K-Mac, despite his awesome nickname, just isn't terrifying anyone with his 1.50 K/BB ratio in 2009. Give me Motte and give me Boggs, maybe make a spot for Eddie Sanchez midseason. But don't give me Brad Thompson and McClellan and the like.
Of course, the question must be asked: is someone like Billy Wagner and what he would bring to the team worth giving up a first-round draft pick for? And the answer is an unequivocal maybe. See, ordinarily, I'm of the mind you don't give up those draft picks for pretty much anything. Period. But the fact is, I think the Cardinals are going to have a pretty fair haul of extra picks early in the draft this year, and that changes the equation a bit. If Holliday and DeRosa both leave, the Cards have two extra supplemental picks and a possible first-rounder coming. (It could also be a second rounder, which is just fucking idiotic. The draft compensation rules have got to be fixed in the next CBA. It's just ridiculous the way this whole thing works.) Jo-El is on his way out as well, I'm sure, so that's a third supplemental pick. I sort of doubt the Cards offer Troy Glaus arbitration, but if they do and he leaves, that's four. Most likely, the Cardinals will have three supplemental picks, all in the 30-50 range, and an extra second-round pick. (I think Holliday ends up with the Mets. It would be nice if the Giants or Angels signed him, though.)
With so many extra picks in the first two rounds, I honestly would be okay with the Cards forfeiting their first-round choice to sign a Billy Wagner. I can't imagine he would want more than about a one- or two-year deal at his age, so you aren't locking yourself into anything that could cripple you long-term. You give up your first rounder, yes, but you still have something like five picks in the first 80 or so. I can live with that.
So what do you guys think? I say when (okay, if), Holliday walks, and Bay has already re-upped with Boston, and Cameron signs with Kansas City because they'll let him be the center fielder, we focus on the 'pen. Give me Wagner to destroy all in his path, Harden as a grand experiment, and keep the rest of the powder dry.
Maybe we lose 90 games 2-1. Or maybe not. Hey, it's November. What else have we got to talk about?
The Baron's Playlist for the 11th of November, 2009
"Oviedo" - Blind Pilot
"Gotta Get Up" - Harry Nilsson
"The Old Revolution" - Leonard Cohen
"The Handshake" - MGMT
"Let's Build a Fire" - +/-